Monday, August 24, 2009
After reading about the Great, Failed Modbook experiment, a kind reader offered to lend me their Kindle DX so I could form some opinions based on firsthand use. After using the Kindle for several days, I have some observations to make - some good, some not so good.
Like the eFlyBook that was released about three years ago, the Kindle's electronic paper display is excellent. The print might be a bit small for aging eyes without reading glasses when viewing an entire approach chart on the display, but the contrast and readability in bright light is unquestionably very, very good. The Kindle's size and weight are also excellent, as is the battery life and the quality of construction. The weight is less than most kneeboards and the Kindle can easily fit into a flight bag or rest under your seat when you don't need it. The cost of acquiring a Kindle is just outside what I'd call reasonable, but it's not prohibitively expensive like some other vendor's solutions and with time the price could come down. Lastly, the Kindle has an uncluttered interface and it is capable of storing a lot of data - enough for a ton of terminal procedures and Airport/Facility Directories.
Yet if the Kindle hardware is willing, the software is weak. I had read of the Kindle's PFD handling being crippled by the lack of bookmark/hyperlink support, but actually using the Kindle drove home the point. Without bookmark/hyperlink support or some other way to organize and access information, the Kindle is just an electronic book reader best suited for paging through text one page at a time. That's just not going to cut it for an Electronic Flight Bag where the name of the game is to 1) provide a way to carry a lot of data and 2) provide a way to quickly sift through all that data to locate the chart or data that is needed in flight.
A former NASA researcher friend of mine fiercely (and I think correctly) maintains that devices for cockpit use should be designed so that it takes no more than three or four steps to perform a task. Here is a series of photos showing how long and how many steps it took me to turn on the Kindle, locate the appropriate terminal procedures volume, and display the airport diagram for the Oakland Airport.
You turn on the Kindle by pressing and releasing a switch on the top edge of the unit. When the Kindle I was using was at rest, it randomly displayed one of several illustrations of a famous writer. The illustrations have an odd, almost menacing feel, especially the one of Edgar Allen Poe. The intent seems to be to give the Kindle a bookish, academic feel - probably to make it more appealing to people who are bookish, academic types. I'm told the screen saver can be disabled by a hack. I'll be generous and not count turning on the unit as one of the steps.
PDFs can be downloaded to the Kindle DX using a USB connection to a desktop computer and I'll assume you've already downloaded a PFD file of the terminal procedures or Airport/Facility directory you want to use from Nacomatic or PDFPlates. Now the first step is to locate the appropriate file and this is where the irritating levels of user interface indirection starts. If you're not on the Home screen, you press the HOME button to get there.
I was using a file from PDFPlates and the Oakland Airport diagram is found in a file named SW-2 0909, which stands for the ninth edition of the Southwest Volume 2 for 2009. I think my first ease-of-use suggestion would be to rename this file to something more intelligible because a good user interface never forces a user to maintain context in their head and never assumes that you will always be opening the same volumes and use the same charts. Using the little joystick button called a 5-way, I moved the dark highlighting line down until it was under SW-2 0909 and then pressed down on the 5-way to select that file.
Now if you're using a file from PDFPlates, the first page of the file is an index. If you're using NACOmatic files, the index is on the third page, though it's important that I point out I didn't actually test the NACOmatic version. The index page is where the fun starts. Since the Kindle DX software does not support PDF links, you must locate the three letter identifier of the airport you're interested in, find the associated page number, press the MENU button, cursor with the 5-way to the Go To Page ... item, press down on the 5-way, and prepare to enter the page number. You'll invest many seconds to initiate this procedure, we're up to about seven steps so far, and woe unto him or her who mistakenly enters the wrong page number because it will take several button pushes and more head-down time to start over.
To enter the page number, you use the teeny-tiny keyboard on the bottom edge of the Kindle. To enter numbers, you must hold down the ALT key as you press the numbers and presupposes you can read the labels on the teeny-tiny keys. Your head is really going to be down since you're looking at the lower edge of a unit sitting on your lap or strapped to your leg. With practice, one might be able to do this accurately and repeatably with one hand, but it's probably a two-handed operation.
After you've entered the page number, press the return key and wait for the Kindle to find that page. At this point I'm about halfway through the process and it's been 60 seconds and at least eight steps so far since I started the process of just trying to locate the airport diagram.
Finally I saw the COMO ONE arrival displayed and this is where I needed to page through the section of procedures for Oakland using the NEXT PAGE button to find the airport diagram (which is about mid-way in the stack). If the amount of brain power and mental cross-indexing weren't enough, the Kindle takes anywhere from a second to several seconds to change to next page. It appears the Kindle might do some caching of a page once it has been displayed because paging back seems to go a bit faster. After 2 minutes (I lost count of the button pushes), I've finally located the airport diagram I wanted to display.
What about using the Search This Document feature? Well it all depends on how much time you have or how long you're willing to wait. I found the search to be glacially slow and not even worth the trouble. The procedure for using the A/FD is similar and presupposes you already know quite a bit about the airport you're trying to look up (either it's location within the A/FD or it's three-character identifier).
One way around some of this hassle is that you can create bookmarks to frequently used procedures, but the worst case scenario for usability is having to quickly locate a chart because you need to divert. For this type of use, the Kindle is really not at all usable. This isn't the fault of PDFplates or NACOmatic, by the way: It's the crippled nature of the Kindle software.
Unlike a tablet computer, you can't use the Kindle to take notes, but what about displaying a IFR low-altitude en route chart? I connected the Kindle to my MacBook using the USB cable and copied a NACO L1 PDF. Opening that PDF took over 2 minutes, the resulting image was too small to read, and I couldn't for the life of me get the thing to zoom so using the Kindle to display charts seems like a bust.
Like the Illiad/eFlyBook, I really wanted to like the Kindle. Really, I did, but the bottom line for me is that in its current state, the Kindle misses the (book)mark and is not yet the missing (hyper)link. It may be fine for displaying charts in onesy-twosey fashion, but when it comes to the rapid-fire world of real IFR, it' just ain't ready.