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How to Read any Type of Document on the Kindle (Almost)

There are a few options for readers who want to convert PDFs or other non-supported files to the Kindle’s AZW format. Amazon’s recommended method is to email the file to your personal Kindle email address. It’s also possible for users to convert PDFs and other document types themselves using Mobipocket Creator or Stanza.

All of the above methods have the same flaw: AZW does not support the kind of advanced layout available in formats like PDF, and non-Latin fonts aren’t easy to convert. What if you need to review a complex legal form, or read a graphic novel, or one in Chinese? A hidden feature can help.

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The Kindle has an undocumented picture-viewing mode that was first uncovered by Igor Skochinsky. Although the black and white E Ink screen is not especially good at displaying actual photographs, it is quite good at rendering line art and text.

Here’s how to do it, using PDF as an example. Note that unofficial features may be buggy and could damage your Kindle; proceed at your own risk.

  1. Convert the PDF to a series of images. Commercial versions of Acrobat should be able to do this in batch, but users of free readers may have to convert a page at a time. The Kindle can read JPEG, PNG and GIF; the latter two will work best. Because the picture-viewing application doesn’t support a table of contents, you’ll need to name the image files in ascending alphabetical or numeric order (e.g. “0001.jpg,” “0002.jpg,” etc.) For best results, resize the image to 600 x 800, the resolution of the Kindle screen.
  2. Connect the Kindle to your computer using the USB cable. Once connected, browse to the Kindle’s drive. If you have an SD card installed that will appear on your computer as well. The following procedure works on either the Kindle or the SD card. I prefer to do everything on the SD card — it feels safer.
  3. Create a folder called “pictures,” and a folder inside of that with the name of your “document.” Put the images in the document folder. Disconnect the Kindle from the PC. When you go to the Kindle’s home screen, nothing will have changed. This is where the secret feature comes in:
  4. Press Alt-Z from the home screen. Your book title should appear in the list.
  5. Click on the book title. It will open the first image. Use the normal Kindle next/previous buttons to page through the “book.” The picture viewer has menu options of its own to control the size of the image and how it’s rendered.

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Credit: octopus pie

Of course because the “PDF” is really an image it’s not possible to search the document or rescale the fonts. Text-heavy PDFs should be converted in one of the recommended ways.

This same technique can be used to load image-based documents directly, such as comics. (Peeking inside the “pictures” folder after it’s been read by the Kindle reveals a file with the extension manga, suggesting that the picture viewer was intended to be used for this purpose).

It’s also possible to convert documents in Russian, Chinese or other non-Latin scripts this way. The Kindle does have support for embedded non-Latin fonts as part of its “Topaz” file format, but there are no tools for end-users that output Topaz.

(Screenshots courtesy the undocumented Alt-Shift-G feature, which saves to the root of the SD card.)

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  • http://lafeuille.homo-numericus.net Hubert Guillaud

    Does it work for the iPhone too ? ;-)

    sIt’s difficult to bring contents into digitals formats.

  • http://www.wheatmark.com/blog/index.cfm Kat Meyer

    Cool post Liza! I am going to try this out today. I’ve become more and more of a fan of the Kindle largely due to learning and applying the tricks and hacks such as yours. The more that actual book design (which to me is – or at least should be – a huge part of the reading experience) can be incorporated into Kindle books, the more likely it will be successful. Just the other day a designer colleague and I were admiring the great design of the Kindle packaging – complete with it’s clever use of a myriad of fonts — fonts that are presently incompatible with the current model of the actual Kindle.

    I love learning new ways to optimize the Kindle via the generosity of you and others, but I wonder if perhaps Mr. Bezos’ genius is in releasing an expensive and less-than-stellar product to all the early adopters who in return are providing innovative features that he can then incorporate into future generations of his device — all with little or no R&D costs coming from Amazon’s pockets.

  • http://www.threepress.org/ Liza Daly

    Hubert: It’s a shame there isn’t an easy way to get PDFs onto the iPhone. The only build-a-book system I know of is Stanza, but that won’t work with books that have advanced formatting.

    Kat: I was really surprised by how nice the Kindle packaging is (although it’s huge!). It’s a more elegant design than the actual device, and I like the emphasis on typography (which, as you mention, the Kindle doesn’t actually have).

    Amazon typically hires good people, so I doubt we’re coming up with any ideas they haven’t thought of. :)

    I would like to see future versions come with tools to allow users to make their own books. I’ve been surprised at how many people are interested in creating their own archives of blog posts, or internet fan-fiction, or other forms of non-book content that they’d like to read using these specialty tools.

  • http://www.wheatmark.com/blog/index.cfm Kat Meyer

    Hey Liza – I guess you’re right about Amazon not needing us for ideas though I prefer my conspiracy angle for the drama of it. Tools to create our own “pretty” and functional e-books would win me over enough to buy an actual Kindle of my own (right now we have an office Kindle and it took me awhile to appreciate it). I’m still curious to find out what the world will come up with for iPhone reading. It’s so intriguing an idea to have books, music, magazines, newspapers, Internet and phone all in one.
    ~ K

  • http://kfahlgren.com/blog Keith Fahlgren

    For #1:
    “Convert the PDF to a series of .. PNG and GIF.. image files in ascending alphabetical or numeric order..to 600 x 800″

    Depending on your setup, you should be able to get ImageMagic’s convert tool to do all of these things at once. Something like:

    convert -resize '600x800>' old.pdf new.png

    (gives you new-0.png new-1.png new-2.png new-3.png new-4.png)

  • http://gonze.com Lucas Gonze

    Here is a shell script to automate this in the simplest case:

    http://gonze.com/blog/2009/10/30/image-kindleizer/

  • Liza Daly

    Excellent, thanks for the pointer!

  • Bob Searle

    HELP HELP HELP ! ! ! !

    Can someone please email ( TO- pastar@aol.com) the specific URL address at which I can download “how to use” documents (Kindle beginners level) for the Kindle 6″ from Amazon.

    Thank you for your much needed assistance.

    BOB

  • lilycan

    here is my method on how to read pdf document, but i have no idea to read other documetns such like UPUB, so thank s Kindle.
    http://www.rasteredge.com/how-to/csharp-imaging/pdf-reading/