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I’ve had a few days to explore the Kindle and overall I’m very impressed.

Like any toy, the first thing you appreciate when you open the box is the device itself. This is a beautiful piece of hardware. A massive improvement over the awkward, angular look of the original Kindle. White plastic front with a brushed metallic backside. Sound familiar? It should. I have no doubt that the people who designed this thing wanted it to evoke the iPod. Call it an homage or a rip off, either way it works. Looking at it makes your brain say “this is an iPod for books”. And essentially, it is.

Unlike the iPod, Kindle is designed to be a standalone device. The idea being that you need not own or know how to work a computer in order to use Kindle. You can buy books directly on the device and they are magically delivered via Kindle’s built in cellular transceiver in minutes. The average Kindle book seems to cost about $10. That’s significantly less than buying the actual book, so the device will pay for itself rather quickly. Then there’s the instant gratification factor. You get your book in minutes, not days.

The Kindle is very readable. I have never been a fan of reading things on a computer screen. I’ve always preferred the tactile experience of thumbing through a traditional tome. And I still do. Even Kindle cannot replace or live up to the experience of reading an actual book, but it comes a lot closer than anything else ever has. It has no backlight and its E-ink display is truly incredible. Much easier on the eyes than reading a computer screen.

Kindle is good for the planet too. Not only do digital books save a small forest from the pulp mill, but because it’s delivered digitally, there’s no truck spewing exhaust into the air in order to deliver a stack of dead trees to your house. Kindle shrinks your carbon footprint.

Most users may never feel the need to tether their Kindle to a computer at all. If you do plug Kindle into the USB port on your computer, it mounts as a removable storage device. The Kindle does not come with any software for your computer. That is to say that Amazon does not provide an iTunes equivalent piece of management software for the Kindle. Another nod to their intention that this is meant to be an autonomous device. With the Kindle mounted on your computer, you can back up it’s files or copy new ones to the device, but not much more. If you have more than a handful of eBooks to keep track of, the lack of management software quickly becomes unacceptable. More about that in a minute.

When you purchase a Kindle book from Amazon, it is delivered in Amazon’s proprietary AZW format with a DRM wrapper that prevents you from reading it on unauthorized devices. iTunes and the music industry have proven that DRM does not work and is largely a mechanism for placating people who do not yet understand the digital world. Hopefully Amazon and the publishing industry will learn the same lessons Apple and the music companies have and the DRM will go away. For edification sake, there are a number of tools out there for removing the DRM from AZW files. Of course I provide that link for educational purposes only and do not in any way endorse or recommend breaking the DRM on any digital media.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to buy a book from Amazon in order to read it on the Kindle. In addition to AZW, Kindle can display content in a number of other popular formats. There are tons of sources around the net for eBooks, some free and some not, and with a little work and the right conversion tools, almost any of them can be made to work with Kindle.

If you have a sizable collection of eBooks in a variety of formats, you’re going to need some management software to keep track of it all. Thankfully, there are a number of third-party solutions out there. My favorite thus far is Calibre. It’s open source; works with a long list of different devices, including the Kindle; and has some amazing features. The interface is a bit awkward, but once you get past that, Calibre makes managing your eBook collection and your Kindle a lot easier.

First of all, Calibre can convert eBooks acquired from non-Amazon sources into formats that will work with the Kindle. And the process is very customizable. If you feel like getting your hands dirty, you can adjust almost every aspect of the conversion process to meet your needs. So if you downloaded an ePub file from Google Books and you want to read it on your Kindle, Calibre solves the problem with one click.

But that’s just the beginning. You can use your Kindle to subscribe to blogs, but who wants to give Amazon money just to be able to read content that you can get for free on your computer? Calibre solves that problem too with its built in news engine. In its simplest form, the news engine takes an RSS feed and converts it into an eBook format that can be read on the Kindle. But there’s so much more. Calibre can also generate eBooks from just about any content you can find on the web. Using what Calibre refers to as a “recipe”, you can combine RSS feeds with other XML dialects and scrapes of web sites to generate an eBook. Calibre comes with several built in recipes for sites like Time and Newsweek, but you can write your own too.

As an example, I want an eBook of recent AppleInsider stories for my Kindle. Problem, AppleInsider’s RSS feed does not contain the full text of the articles, only a short intro paragraph. The solution is to scrape the front page of AppleInsider looking for links to full articles then scrape those individual articles, extract the full text, and use that to build my eBook. With Calibre’s news engine and some basic knowledge of Python, this can be done with just a few lines of code. The possibilities are endless.

Kindle on its own is an impressive device. Paired with the right third-party tools, it becomes indispensable. A completely new way to consume content from a variety of sources.