Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Test-Run at Univ of Washington with Kindle DX's

Seattle's KOMO Newsroom reports on the test run of the Kindle DX being done by the University of Washington, with 40 graduate students participating in using the Kindle DX in place of both textbooks and classroom reading materials this semester.

They need to see how well that might work.  Seven universities are taking part, and the University of Washington students will be among the first to actually get the Kindles.

  This is the fundamental question posed:
"How would you have to change a device that was designed as a personal pleasure device to turn it into a learning device?"

  Professor Dan Grossman says, "We want to be able to annotate and highlight and flip back and forth and have that physical experience," he said.
  But on the other side, he says, "We want to be able to search and look up and have massive amounts of information on one lightweight device." - a strength of the Kindle.

PILOT PROGRAM BLOG reports on the University's blog of results so far as noted on the UW Kindle Pilot blog by the Computer Science & Engineering Dept.

If you follow the link, you'll see they want to annotate PDFs, but since this can't be done under the current licensing with Adobe, the University is converting the PDFs to the Kindle's own format instead, in order to be able to annotate the text, but since the textbooks include engineering materials, there is multi-column material as well as equations, the layouts for which tend to be lost or mangled when converted to the normal text-oriented formats.'s article interpreted the blog comments as reports that the PDFs themselves were not being shown correctly, with multi-column format changed to single column format only and the math "messed up."

However, it's actually the converted files (in Amazon format rather than PDF) which are not showing correctly.  A number of us have written about this since May, before the DX was released when we saw in the early User's Guide for the DX that they were not offering PDF annotation features (which normally requires a fuller Adobe license for support).  I wrote a comment at to try to explain that the DX can read and display PDFs accurately but that the problem involves converted files in another format that don't interpret the PDF layout correctly.

In the meantime, the school's Kindle Pilot blog details a workaround they're trying, using a PDF to WORD converter such as Nuance's and then using Word to reformat the document to single column (this will often not be appropriate) and then sending the single-column'd WORD doc to Amazon's converter to put it into the Amazon format.

The school is of course asking Amazon "if these things can be improved."

I imagine they are!  While I think the tech team has done a really good job with these units and the study tools for the regular books, the Kindles are early consumer-priced versions versus the expensive iRex models (already here but $800+) and Plastic Logic model due in early Spring with good PDF annotation features and more file formats supported but which will cost quite a bit more while not offering web access for reference and research.

I think the DX screen at 9.7" is the smallest students could use for PDFs meant to display on a full letter page, and the landscape mode usually does help quite a bit in enlarging the fonts.  But for university use, I don't understand how students could enjoy not being able to highlight and add notes to their PDFs.  I'm puzzled why Amazon hasn't moved on this aspect of PDF use in academic settings for the coming Fall session as so many of us asked them to in May.  I'm hoping they find a way since they've chosen to run the college studies.

As a consumer-category customer not having to make notes for courses, I really enjoy reading on my DX (I find the screen beautiful to read from) and even highlighting and notating normal books, but if there is no other change coming, the one change they should make is to get the Adobe PDF annotations feature for the DX (and add the ePub format for all Kindles). Below are ways to Share this post if you'd like others to see it.
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  1. Unless this has been addressed, students should be aware that Amazon puts undisclosed limits on on the amount of text that can be highlighted, clipped, and annotated. For any serious scholar, these limits--which are severe as well as being undisclosed--are a complete non-starter. Not only are there limits, but the Kindle does not alert you once you've reached them. Your highlights will simply not show up in the file where you expect to find them. I have written Amazon about this issue twice and never received any response. For this reason, the Kindle is only useful to the casual reader, who reads for pleasure, and not to scholar or professional.

  2. Still waiting for Kovid & Co. of Calibre fame, or the MobiPocket Creator developers, to figure out how to tell the file converter to 'flow' text in the presence of multiple columns on a single page. It seems like there may be no code present at the text level to indicate column end? This fact was pretty maddening when I was using my Kindle 2 for a grad school course last spring. I was seriously categorizing my readings, first by topic, then by 'multiple columns, scanned page image, or 'single columns'. A student just shouldn't have to live like that. I think it makes one stupider by sucking life-force that could be used for learning the material. Even so, it was better than printing everything, or reading everything on my laptop or iPod Touch; but this should be improved -- and quickly.

  3. Anonymous,
    The workaround they're using (PDF to Doc file) will work better as a working copy BUT they could treat the original pdf as reference copy -- just use it for reading and to study the graphs, illustrations, equations -- and for now use the MOBI converted copy for the highlighting and notes that the student wants to add.

    People don't turn in a marked-up PDF but they would write a separate piece about what they'd read.

    I don't know how you did it on the Kindle 2 without a reference PDF you could rely on regularly (as on our Kindles) but you were probably checking the actual PDF on your laptop maybe?

  4. On the other hand, sometimes it is easier to just convert it to WORD which will KEEP the multi-format layout too as long as it fits on the margins for vertical layout on the e-reader (which is easy enough to do in Word.

    I did that for a very complex travel brochure which looked great in PDF on the Kindle DX but which had been originally done cramming paragraphs in small print on the original layout - hard to read even on a big computer screen.

    I decided to highlight and copy sections I wanted to WORD, make the basic font larger, and that worked well for keeping multiple columns.

  5. rearp, sorry, I didn't see this one earlier and just released the note.

    The limits on highlighting and adding notes applies only to the "My Clippings" pure-text file, and the percentage of the book we're allowed to copy annotations to the separate non-book-affiliated file is determined by the publisher, I read.

    Some publishers put no limits.

    Nevertheless, the other, associated book-file that is keyed to the book (and is a binary file) has notes and highlights without the limit and all of these annotations can be viewed on one's personal webpage if you've not withheld permission for Amazon to back up the notes you make to books.

    When at that page, you can go to the bottom of page one and click to have all notes for the book shown on one scrolling page.

    As far as the pure-text "My Clippings" file that you can move to your computer and edit or print -- while there are limits to some files for doing this (I've done 70-75 long highlights for two of my books w/o reaching the max yet), you do get a a notification that you can't put any more highlights into your "My clippings" file.

    - Andrys

  6. Andrys--

    Thank you for your astute response. The availability of ALL clippings at the webpage solves my problem and has changed my view completely on the issue. Though I'd like my "My Clippings" file to be complete, the webpage more than makes up for the omissions, as the clippings are even easier to access online than on the .txt file, so long as the user has an internet connection.

    Bravo on the advice! Anyone who runs into a clipping limit should simply log in to and choose the title they wish to access for a complete rendering of all their highlights and annotations.

    Rob Earp (rearp)

  7. Rob,
    Yes, that webpage of our notes was very welcome news, especially after they made it possible to see all notes for a book on one page, which was an update shortly after introducing it.

    It's an extremely useful feature they don't mention in their marketing. I imagine there were a few meetings with publishers about it.

    Their listing of books is sortable by title or author also.

    Glad that works for you too !

    - A

  8. Hi Andrys,

    I have to echo Professor Grossman’s comment about the desire (I would say need) to have a device that replicates the ability to *quickly* “flip” though pages and annotate passages in order to make the *in-class* use of Kindle (or other e-readers) more feasible. For study purposes, the ability to carry multiple volumes, refer to catalogued notes easily, share study notes paperlessly, etc., makes Kindle very useful already. However, in order to optimize the classroom experience, I believe Amazon and/or the other device makers will need to make a classroom-specific version (perhaps “Kindle EDU”). Such a version, in my vision, would include a stylus and handwriting recognition software, touch or multi-touch screen interface, on-screen page tabbing capability, and color e-ink (to address the oft-cited issues with textbook charts and graphs), for starters. Obviously, the cost of such a device could be significantly above the current price structure of the Kindle 2, or perhaps even the DX. However, as someone who uses the Kindle as a “casual” reader, but would like to be able to incorporate it into my professional life more, I think the current framework is insufficient to cover both worlds, and would be willing to pay some premium for the increased functionality. A differentiated market-segmentation plan could address this situation quite well, in my opinion, and who knows - with the color e-ink portion of my “wish list” at least a couple of years away, perhaps one or more of the manufacturers already has such a product on the drawing board(?). Just some random musings from the peanut gallery ;-) . Take care.

  9. Hi, Batman -
    I don't know that an e-reader can 'quickly flip' through the next few pages so that our eyes can take it in the same we would with a multipage flip with a paper book. I use a 'Search' to find something specific I'm looking for ahead.

    I would like to get back the alt-NextPage to go ahead 5% though.

    Annotations are a 100% must for classroom purposes. I wonder what they are telling the University people asking for improvement on this for the PDFs. It's crucial.

    While I'd like a Plus model for coursework, the additions requested already *exist* in other e-readers now, because they have full licenses from Adobe. So it's either because they don't feel they can justify that cost or there is something in the firmware that makes it impossible and I don't see how that can be.

    So what I'm saying is I think it's important they upgrade the firmware.

    But you've a good point in that they can have a Plus model but I think it's a pipedream re a GOOD color e-ink for awhile.
    However, the Asus color LCD dual-screen model which will be $160 for a low-end model might work as a secondary device where color is necessary.

    Is a stylus that important? I've always preferred typing notes. I wonder how the software interprets bad handwriting for notes and what would happen on our annotation webpage records. Also, the processor in these things cannot handle all that's asked, like handwriting recognition.

    The b&w iRex that can show PDFs in proper size does most of what you want (though not color) but it's $860 or so while not having the wireless for web info.

    Me, I'd opt for a working LCD for color use that I use infrequently. For pure reading I'd still use the b&w e-ink.

    The differentiated market-segmentation plan would be good but what you describe implies a super high cost for a student where the DX is already a problem at $490.

    That would be one reason Plastic Logic is targeting (openly) the Business users and won't be going low-end in cost, they said.

    My money's on an inexpensive secondary device like the Asus -- giving up e-ink for color charts etc.

    The Flepia is $1100 or so? and its color and display time is awful.

    But we can't be walking around with a bunch of devices. The vapor Apple iPad might work except where battery power is involved and of course the usual high cost.

    Right now I mainly think they have to do the more-quickly possible things like allowing annotations of pdfs.
    It's a real dilemma the idea of a super-featured model, for a target group that finds the DX price difficult to justify. Anyway, I do think something will have to be done before Xmas. That's just my own pipedream :-)


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