Will book apps replace the ebook?


More and more people are reading ebooks instead of physical books nowadays. It’s a platform that continues to be popular and it’s definitely a lot easier to carry dozens of books on a tablet than to carry even a few actual books with you on vacation. As ebooks continue to grow in popularity, there’s a new type of platform entering the market, and it’s called the book app.

What is a book app?

A book app presents a book in app form rather than ebook form, and it allows for much more interactivity. Sure, an ebook can have video and sound in it now, but a book app can do so much more. It can add interactive video, games, and new ways to get involved with the story; it’s an entirely new and different experience.

Book apps have actually been around for quite a while, mostly being prevalent in children’s books. When the iPad first came out, Disney released a free Toy Story book app, and it’s still one of the best apps in the app store. It includes the book, along with a coloring book and games mixed into the story to engage children as they read it. After this book was released, Disney continued to release more and more interactive book apps, and they still do to this day. Other content creators have since jumped in.

Book apps are gaining steam

However, while it’s not a brand new category by any means, book apps are expanding to include more than just children’s books. Just these past couple of months has seen the release of two fantastic book apps. First,  The Animator’s Survival Kit. This is an app based on the book of the same name, which is a book that teaches animation. Instead of creating an ebook edition (one still might be on the way, but it’s not available as of this writing), the book was converted into a full-blown app, adding many fantastic features you wouldn’t get otherwise. The app is packed with all kinds of videos, including interactive videos that let the reader see the animation steps in a way not possible in an ebook. It’s fantastic, and it’s the same retail price as the actual book, so you’re getting a lot more bang for your buck.

ebooks are still sticking around

That was just one example of a recent book app, but does this mean the end of the ebook is near? I don’t think so. Certain books only work as text, and it’s what most people still want. However, I do see interactive book apps becoming more and more popular as time goes on. Can you just imagine a Stephen King book as an interactive app? That would be pretty amazing.

Get back into comics with comiXology

Growing up, I was never a big comic book fan, partly due to limited options. The small towns I lived in didn’t have comic book stores, so I would only occasionally get a copy of X-Men or Batman at one of the local gas stations when they happened to have them.

The writing and stories paled in comparison to the books I was reading at the time (Lord of the Rings, Dragonriders of Pern, etc.), so comics just didn’t interest me that much. Some of the artwork was neat, but the relentless exposition and corny dialog turned me off. It’s the same reason I’m still not a very big anime/manga fan. For such a visual medium, it seems like comic writers hadn’t heard of the concept, “show, don’t tell”.

Don’t worry, bub. I’ll cut through this cage with my claws, made of adamantium, the strongest metal in the world!” – Wolverine, in literally every issue of X-Men. In case we forgot… I guess.

Wolverine - Marvel doesn't have a good press kit and is pretty litigious. Image Credit : NPS
Wolverine – Marvel doesn’t have a good press kit and is pretty litigious. Image Credit : NPS

Recently, I decided to give comics another try – partly because of reading Alan Moore’s Watchmen and partly because Merlin Mann won’t stop talking about how awesome Saga is on the Back to Work podcast (turns out, Saga is amazing). Enabled by technology, I’ve found some great comics that have made me revise my previous feelings.

Digital comics, for the win

So goooooooood. Image Credit: Saga - Image Comics
So goooooooood. Image Credit: Saga – Image Comics

Although I still prefer physical books to ebooks, comics are another matter. I never built nostalgia around physical comic books, so the migration to digital is easier for me than it might be for a long time comic book fan.

After reading digital comics on the high-definition retina screen of an iPad and comparing it to the few graphic novels I own, digital is definitely my preferred format. The lines are crisper, colors pop more, and the text is generally more readable.

Outside of that, the benefits and drawbacks are the same as ebooks: anywhere purchasing, a whole library in your backpack, and, unfortunately, DRM.

It’s all about the ecosystem

If you’ve decided to take the plunge and try digital comics, you’re faced with a similar choice as ebook readers: Which ecosystem do you want to plug into? Luckily, the situation is simpler than Barnes & Noble vs. Amazon. For the most part, digital comic book stores are device agnostic. So that’s one less factor to worry about.

It really comes down to how many apps you want to install.

The “Big Two” comic publishers, DC and Marvel, signed on to the digital media revolution pretty early on. Both have had apps available for the past couple of years and both apps work well. However, if you want your pick from both catalogs, you’re stuck with installing both apps. It’s obviously not a big problem, but it is a little inconvenient.

The better choice is ComiXology, an app that actually provides the marketplace platform and app engine for both DC and Marvel. Using the ComiXology gives you access to both catalogs as well as many smaller, independent publishers.

The ComiXology Store
The ComiXology Store

Aside from selection, ComiXology also does a better job with bundling and curation. Curated collections benefit from the more diverse selection and I’ve been able to discover some really great comics through the feature. They also have a larger selection of free comics that’s better implemented than the DC or Marvel stores, using free first issues to try new series (or more cynically, to get them hooked.).

Room for improvement

I may have a slight addiction.
I may have a slight addiction.

One feature I’d love to see added to ComiXology, or any comic store really, is the ability to buy the remainder of a volume or collection after purchasing a few individual issues – something along the lines of iTunes “Complete This Album”. This is as much an organization issue as a cost saving one.

The other biggie, and a problem that still plagues ebooks, is that of DRM. At this point, it should be obvious that copy protection doesn’t prevent piracy. It only serves as a false reassurance to rights holders and an inconvenience to customers. ComiXology does away with a lot of the inconvenience of DRM by making your purchases available on most major platforms, but there’s still the issue of “what if the DRM servers go down?” When I buy content it’s with the expectation that I own it, not that I’ve purchased the option of viewing it.

Dive in

If you’re interested in starting with comics or getting back into them, it seems like now is a really great time to be a comics fan. There are some truly terrific stories being told: literary, pulpy, and everything in between. The art is also diversifying and maturing – I’ve found panels that I’d happily put up on a wall in my house (and my wife wouldn’t even mind).

The ComiXology notifications on my iPad have become the rare pop-ups that I don’t mind. Today one popped up that said “A new issue of Saga is available in the ComiXology store.” and my first thought was “Shut up and take my money.” Coming from a person who was very recently almost completely apathetic about comics, it’s a big change.

Too Busy To Read It Now? Save It For Later with Instapaper

As a writer, I do my best to stay current by reading every website on the Internet. Yes, I set my goals high. But thanks to my existing social life and personal endeavors, I am not always at home with my computer and Internet connection readily available to me. Believe it.


That is why I am an avid user of Instapaper, which the website describes perfectly as “a simple tool to save web pages for reading later.” And that is exactly what it does! If you come across an article online, but don’t have the time to read it at that exact moment, you can use the bookmark “Read Later” to save it for later. The truly great feature is that once you sync your account online, all of the content is available offline to read on your Android, iOS devices and even your laptop.

It is incredibly easy to set up and use. Just navigate to the Official Instapaper website and sign up for a free account. After signing up, you are given a “Read Later” bookmarklet that you can click and drag into your bookmarks bar.

Read Later Bookmark

Then whenever you want to save a particularly juicy article for later, you just click “Read Later” and a small notification pops up to tell you that it was “Saved!”. It even provides helpful screenshots of the process, borrowed by yours truly.


There is also the option of emailing site links and too long email messages to a user-specific email address that will then automatically add them to your Instapaper account so you can read them later.

Smartphone Apps

If you are an iOS user, then lucky you, because Instapaper has an official app for you called “Instapaper”. The official app gives you access to your Instapaper account in a very straight-forward and useful way. It has options for font sizes and types as well as color options. You can favorite articles and look at the top articles in the Instapaper community. Unfortunately, it is $4.99. But trust me, it’s worth it.

For Android users, there is an equally useful and free app called “iPaper” that is essentially the same as the Instapaper app for iOS. It showcases a streamlined list of all articles saved to your Instapaper account, which is essentially all you need it to do.

Windows Phone 7 users can pick up the free “InstaFetch” for all your Instapaper needs. The app does the same thing as the others, giving you a portal to your Instapaper account from your smartphone.

As far as I know, there is unfortunately no app for WebOS users.

Track and Share Your Favorite Books Online with Goodreads

goodreads_logo_high_res2I had long sought a good place to keep a list of all the books I’ve read or listened to. I originally used a service called Visual Bookshelf (now known as LivingSocial: Books) through Facebook, but I was looking for something cleaner and with better performance. Although LivingSocial: Books had basically every feature I wanted, the overall presentation was clunky and I frequently found myself waiting for pages to load.

After finishing up the weighty tome Atlas Shrugged last week, I decided to put a little more effort into locating a better service. I discovered Goodreads after a little looking, and immediately set to work building my virtual library.

Getting Started with Goodreads

Goodreads was founded in 2006, so it isn’t one of the typical fresh-from-the-box startups we see so often nowadays. Goodreads is also privately owned, which makes me feel a little better about storing my information on the site (the previous service I used was notably involved in many unrelated ventures).

Since I had already established my reading history on a different service, I exported my library from that site as a .csv file and imported it to Goodreads with their simple import/export tool. Goodreads did a good job of importing my previous titles and soon my library was brimming with the books I had conquered.
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Goodreads also allows you to import books from Amazon wish lists, and if all else fails you can search their massive library of 78,000,000 books.
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Your Library

After locating a book you’ve read (or plan to read), click the Add to My Books button next to its listing to add it to your personal library. When you click this button, you’ll have the option to select whether you have already read the book, are currently reading it, or plan to read it in the future.
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If you’ve linked any social networks to your Goodreads account, you can publish status updates to them with the book title, your rating, and your personal review of the book. You can also include your update in the Goodreads update feed, which any of your friends on the service will see on their home page (like the Facebook News Feed).
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From the My Books page, you can see the entire list of books you’ve read. Here you can add ratings, add or remove titles, and categorize your collections.
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By default, Goodreads has three categories which are known as “bookshelves”: read, currently-reading, and to-read. If you want to be more specific with your categorization, click the Add Shelf link below these categories to create your own. You can create bookshelves for specific authors, genres, or even for specific people you think would enjoy the book as a recommendation.
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Share with your Friends

Adding your friends on Goodreads will give you a better experience by letting you read and share reviews. I used the built-in Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter search tools to quickly add a few of my social networking friends.

When browsing book listings, your friends ratings and reviews will show up right below the book’s description.

Like Malcolm Gladwell? Check out his TED presentation about spaghetti sauce. It will blow your mind-grapes.

If your friends have elected to share their updates with you, you can post snarky comments to your heart’s delight.

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When Kevin isn't studying theoretical physics, he enjoys playing video games and painting abstract art.

One of my favorite features about Goodreads’ friend system is the ability to compare books. When viewing a friend’s profile, click the Compare Books link to see list of books you’ve both read, your respective ratings, and how much you have in common with that person’s reading habits.

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Not bad!

Following your Favorite Authors

Besides following your friends, you can also become a fan of your favorite authors to receive updates and see what books they are reading. Many popular authors have accounts on Goodreads, and even the ones that don’t have personal accounts still have author pages where you can become a fan to publicly display your allegiance.

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If you're looking for a good (newer) Neil Gaiman book, check out 'The Graveyard Book'.

After becoming a fan of an author, a special Favorite Authors field will be displayed on your profile with a brief list of your selections.
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Additional Features

If you have a personal website or blog, Goodreads offers some attractive widgets to show off your various collections to your viewers. You can even add Amazon referral links to the book links to earn money through Amazon’s affiliate program. This was a huge surprise to me as I’ve become accustomed to sites making money off of me, not for me.

You can check out one of the widgets in action on the sidebar of my Tumblr blog.
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For a little entertainment, check out the Never-Ending Book Quiz. As its name implies, this game offers a non-stop supply of trivia questions regarding popular books. Your results are stored online so you can compare (and compete) with friends.

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Yet another reason it pays to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman movies.

Goodreads has a lot of features that I didn’t cover in this guide, so take some time to play around with the site. After adding my friends to the site, I was excited to see that reading is still alive and well, and I’m looking forward to discovering new and interesting books through their recommendations.

So You Got a New Kindle for Christmas, Now What?

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Like many of you lucky people out there, I got a new Kindle as a present this Christmas (thanks, Mom!).  I’m an avid reader so I know I’ll make good use of it, but I’ve come up with a few simple tips that can help you get the most out of your new toy.

Oh, and did I mention you can get many popular books on your Kindle for free?

Link your Kindle to your Amazon.com account

The Kindle Store in the Kindle is useful, but if you register your device (linking it with your Amazon.com account), you can instantly send books to your Kindle directly from a web browser.  To register your device, open up the Menu, select Settings, and locate the Registration field.  Click Register to link your Kindle to your Amazon account.

If you purchased your Kindle using your Amazon.com account, it’s allegedly supposed to be pre-registered, but mine was not.

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Download free Kindle books

So you have your new Kindle, but what good is it without any books?  Dozens of literary classics are available for free on the Kindle because they are available in the public domain.  Books like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Pride and Prejudice, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – all free.  I’m reading Sherlock Holmes at the moment, which was converted to Kindle by a community of enthusiasts for our enjoyment.

To find more free Kindle books, check out Amazon’s Top 100 Free Kindle Books (updated hourly).  You can also check out user-created lists of free books (including much more than public domain books).

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Read the manual (RTFM)

I’m not usually a person that reads instructions, nor do I tell other smart people to read them.  But check this out, smart people: You should read the included digital documentation to get the most out of your Kindle.  The Kindle is straightforward enough, but because of its simple design, you can remain completely oblivious to many useful features.  Here are a few tips I picked up from the manual:

  • Press ALT + Enter to post selected text to Twitter or Facebook
  • Press the Left directional key on a selected item in your library to permanently delete it from your Kindle
  • Press ALT + Q to insert the number 1, ALT + W to insert the number 2, etc (they’re all available with the SYM key, but this is much faster if you’re just using numbers)

The Kindle User’s Guide is included with every Kindle and is right on your home screen when you turn it on.  It’s a bit lengthy, but definitely worth the time.

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Browse the internet

It might not be the fastest, but the Kindle includes a surprisingly nice web browser.  Don’t expect it to render websites perfectly, but if you want to do some surfing between reading sessions and you’re away from a computer, this will do just fine.

The Kindle browser is available under the Menu –> Experimental –> Web Browser.

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Irony, thy name is Kindle.

Turn off popular highlights

The Kindle lets you digitally highlight text in books by navigating to the selection with the directional pad and pressing the center button to start highlighting. Amazon then stores this information online, and uses it to identify which selections are the most popular among all Kindle users.

If you’re reading a book, you’ll notice that some paragraphs will be underlined and may say how many “highlighters” it has.  This is a feature Amazon enables by default to help you identify popular selections, but in my opinion, it’s distracting.

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To turn off popular highlights, press Menu from the home screen, select Settings, and navigate to page 2 of 3.  Locate the Popular Highlights option and disable it.

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Link your social networks

As I mentioned earlier, you can post excerpts you’ve enjoyed to Facebook and Twitter.  To add social networks, press Menu from the home screen, select Settings, and navigate to page 3 of 3.  Open the Social Networks option to link your accounts using the included web browser.


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Use the built-in dictionary

When you think about the advantages the Kindle has over printed books, don’t forget one of the most significant features: you can look up word definitions instantly without digging for a dictionary or using Google’s define: search.  Whenever you encounter a word you want to look up, simply move the cursor in front of it and a brief definition will appear on the screen.

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For a more detailed explanation, simply press the enter key and you’ll be taken to the full dictionary app.  While reading Sherlock Holmes, I had no idea how many different words were used to describe a horse carriage.

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Listen to Audiobooks

I have a 15-minute commute to the office every morning, so I make the most of that time by listening to audiobooks from Audible.com.  I started listening to audiobooks about 3 years ago to pass the time on long trips, and have been completely hooked ever since.

The Kindle can play (and download) Audible audiobooks as well as MP3s, so if you’re torn between carrying your Kindle or iPod, you can bring just one device.  Audible audiobooks you have purchased will appear under Archived Items on your home screen, and you can play MP3s under Menu –> Experimental –> MP3 Player.

Read with multiple devices, never lose your place

The Kindle will automatically store the last page you’ve read online so you’ll never lose your spot in a book.  Because you can read Kindle books on your PC, iPhone, iPad, and Android device, you will be automatically prompted to begin reading where you left off when you use another device.


There are many more great features on the Kindle, so take some time to play with your new device.  And if you find something I haven’t covered in this guide, how about posting it in the comments below?

Happy reading!

Review: Nook Color from Barnes & Noble

The market for small tablets and digital book readers can be fierce in its own ways.  The Nook Color from Barnes & Noble is a combination of these two devices – being an eReader and an Android tablet – but it doesn’t quite excel at either.

I am not a big book reader. I do, however, love magazines and web browsing. The Nook Color is a great multi-function device for both web and reading. The lack of an app store is a shame, but I hope to see one soon from Barnes & Noble.

The Nook Color is a good fit for me because I enjoy magazines (especially color images in magazines), which of course can’t be done on the black-and-white Amazon Kindle. To be fair, the Kindle can also handle magazines, just not in full color.

Is the Nook Color an Apple iPad killer? No! Is it a Kindle killer? That will depend on what you want to use it for.


The device feels very solid and is built of high quality materials. The Nook Color is much heavier than the original Nook, but the heft is easily made up for with its ability to do more than just read.  The screen is glass and the back has a soft rubber texture that is both pleasing to hold and lends to good grip.


The Nook Color’s touchscreen measures 7 inches diagonally and has a 1024×600 resolution (similar to a standard netbook). The touch is responsive at times and slow at others. The sensitivity issues seem to come from when my hands or the Nook is cold. At times it can seem unresponsive, which may be caused by the operating system slowing down under load.

Multi-touch is typically available in magazines and on the home screen for resizing the icons. Where it falls short is in the web browser. We have all become so accustomed to pinch-zooming in touch screen browsers, but the Nook browser uses a tap-to-zoom system that is not precise.


The built-in speaker is good, but not great. I personally have not heard the Galaxy Tab (Android Tablet) or an iPad to compare it to, but I have heard many Android phones and iPod Touches. The Nook Color has much better speakers than the iPod Touch, but not as good as the phones I have heard.

The headphone jack doesn’t seem to hold very well and I had trouble with my headphones becoming partially unplugged, causing the sound to switch back to its external speaker. I don’t think most people will listen to music on the Nook, even though it has a music player app and Pandora.


Battery life seems good so far. Barnes & Noble claims it will last 8 hours, and after my first weekend with it I’d say it can do that and longer. I charged my Nook on Tuesday night and was playing with it enough to consider it heavy use (with WiFi off and with the brightness at a reasonable level) and I did not have to charge until Friday afternoon.


The Nook Color has 8 GB of internal storage, but you only have access to 5 GB of it. The option to add a micro SD card is a nice touch for adding files and pictures of your own. From the library feature you can manage files put onto the device.

The Nook Color can read Microsoft documents and PDF files. I have not discovered if one can edit the documents yet. It’s a nice feature that may or may not serve your use.

Software & Operating System

Nook Color runs on an Android platform that is highly customized by Barnes & Noble. The Nook Color runs Android 2.1 VS 1.5 which also came with the original Nook. The Nook Color is speculated to be receiving Android 2.2 this January. As with all custom operating systems, it is tightly controlled by the creators.

The web browser is nice for both full and mobile sites. However, the pinch-to-zoom feature that many have grown used to over the years is not available in the Nook. The keyboard is good in portrait mode, but is too wide in landscape to use with thumbs.  The music player is not as intuitive as the native Android music player and will run simultaneously with Pandora.

Having an app for Pandora is very cool, but it is the only third-party software available on the Nook Color so far. Some free games such as chess, Sudoku, and crossword puzzles come pre-installed with the Nook Color. Nook also has the ability to link with your Facebook, Twitter, and Google contacts for social reading and the LendMe feature.


The Barnes & Noble store on the Nook Color is smooth, fast, and easy to use. You can easily search for books, magazines, and newspapers. From the store you can read a review, see recommendations, and download samples. Some books are also capable of being loaned to and from friends for 15 days. Nook, along with other ePub readers, are capable of checking books out from libraries for a short time.

Your book collection can be managed from bn.com where you can buy and send books to the device from the computer. Books can also be deleted and returned from the internet.


The (obvious) primary function of the Nook is the ability to read books. With such a bright display, pictures, magazines, and children’s books are stunningly bright and wonderful to read. Books look great and the text is sharp and clear.

The display brightness can be changed to best fit the reading environment like at night when bright lights can be strenuous to the eyes. Reading in sunlight may be an issue, though, with its high-gloss screen which is definitely where the Kindle and original Nook do better.

Check out more pictures of the Barnes & Noble Nook Color below.

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A Quick Look At Author Neal Stephenson’s Latest Project: The Mongoliad

Any self-respecting geek has heard of the author Neal Stephenson, and many have read at least one of his works. Author of books such as Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and most recently Anathem, Stephenson is known for not holding back when it comes to technological descriptions.Cryptonomicon, for example, contains a multi-page explanation on the intricacies of Van Eck phreaking. It definitely isn’t light reading.

Stephenson recently unveiled his latest project, the online subscription-based serial novel The Mongoliad. The Mongoliad is much more than just an online book, however. Along with weekly chapters, you can also find illustrations, maps, a user editable wiki, and a collection of forums to discuss the novel with other subscribers.

In order to manage such a larger undertaking, Stephenson has teamed up with other writers and artists, forming the Subutai Corporation. The writing talent behind The Mongoliad includes Stephenson himself, Greg Bear, and Mark Teppo among others, forming the literary equivalent of a supergroup.

The Mongoliad takes place in the thirteenth century, in a world much like our own. Genghis Khan’s armies are sweeping across Asia and Europe, conquering everything in sight. A small group of warriors, members of a millennium old order, have plans to stop him, however.

Is it worth subscribing to this new form of literary content delivery? For $9.99, or roughly the cost of a standard paperback novel, you gain access to a year’s worth of DRM free Mongoliad content, which will supposedly cover the release of the entire novel. If you choose not to renew your subscription when it expires, you retain access to everything that was released while you were an active subscriber. If for some reason you aren’t happy with your subscription, you can get a full refund within 45 days. Sounds like quite a bargain to me!

An iOS application with access to The Mongoliad is currently going through Apple’s approval process, and an Android application is supposedly in the works as well. If you’re at all interested, a small bit of content, including a prologue chapter, is available to anyone who takes the time to look.

Image Credit: AMagill

Amazon Releases Kindle for Android App

In another big step towards expanding their grip on the E-Book market, Amazon recently released a version of their Kindle software for Android.  The Kindle was originally a hardware device for reading digital books, and Amazon has since made the software available on other devices like the iPhone and iPad.

The Kindle software is free and gives you access to Amazon’s library of 600,000+ digital books, which typically cost $9.99 each.

The Kindle for Android app is my first experience with E-Books; even though I read a lot, I just haven’t been able to give up my printed-on-paper books yet.  Since the Kindle software has been expanding to other devices, though, I’ve been much more eager to check it out, and I like the idea of having my entire library available digitally on a single device.

I’m impressed with Kindle for Android, which I’m told is almost identical to the Kindle app for iPhone/iPad.  I was extremely leery about using it on a small screen (I use the app on a Motorola Droid with a 3.7″ screen), but I was pleasantly surprised to find a good balance between readable text size and keeping as much text as possible on the screen at once.

Upcoming Android devices like the Motorola Droid X will offer much larger screens (the Droid X has a 4.3″ screen), which will dramatically improve your reading experience.

Kindle books can be downloaded pseudo-directly from the application.  A mobile version of the Kindle book store opens in your browser where you can view the Kindle library and purchase books.  Those books are then instantly sent to your device, and I was very impressed with how seamless the process was.

If you already have purchased Kindle books, you can view your personal library directly from the application.

You can also check out a free sample of Kindle books before making a purchase, which is great to see how the book translates to a small screen.

Now like I said, I’m pretty new to the whole E-Book thing.  If you’re a little more serious, you should check out what Kevin has to say about why the Kindle sucks (regarding the copy protection Amazon uses on their books) and his review of the Aldiko E-Book reader for Android, which gives access to a huge library of DRM-free books.

To download Kindle for Android, search the Android Market for “Kindle” or scan the QR code on the right with the Barcode Scanner app.