Kindle DX: 7 Months with the Amazon Giant

Kindle DX Wireless Reading Device. 9.7" display, global wireless, $489.00.

Ever since I got my Kindle DX back in June 2009, I've been meaning to write up a review of it. But I never got around to it – mainly because every time I touch that little slab of glass and plastic, I immediately start reading something. An hour goes by, and I hear a voice nagging at the back of my head... didn't I pick this thing up for some other reason? But whatever I'm reading is always more entertaining than listening to the voices in my head, so I ignore it and go back to my book.

In and of itself, that's already a pretty good review, when you think about it.

Two days from now, Apple will be formally announcing their tablet or slate or giant iPod or whatever it's going to be, and I wanted to be sure that I got my Kindle thoughts down clearly before I am forced to re-think the paradigm based on whatever it is that Apple comes up with. The media has been reporting all over that Apple has been in talks with publishers, and is going to make reading a big part of this new gizmo. These media reports claim, therefore, that this new iPad or iSlate or MacTablet will be a "Kindle killer", and only a fool would thus buy a machine that "only" functions as an electronic reader.

Now, far be it from me to second guess Apple (says the man who is typing this post on a MacBook Air), but I don't think so. The MSM (main stream media) doesn't seem to think that there are "people who read" out there anymore. And while it is quite true that Constant Readers number far less than Movie Watchers or TV Freaks or Gamers, it's still a large number. Speaking as one of those Constant Readers, a dedicated device for reading – and only for reading – is quite clearly the way to go. It's entirely possible that I may buy whatever it is that Apple debuts on Wednesday... but I find it very unlikely that I'll be reading a novel on it.

As I mentioned in my review last year of the Kindle 2, I ordered the Kindle DX the same day it was announced. I love the Kindle 2 (now just called the Kindle, since Amazon has long since stopped selling the old original model). Honestly, except for the screen being too small, I felt the Kindle 2 was just about as perfect a piece of hardware as I've ever used. But as I said, with a mere 6" diagonal screen, I felt that the reading area was just too small. When reading a fast-paced novel, I found myself pressing the "Next Page" button so quickly that I was afraid it might break from such heavy use (it never did). The Kindle DX, marketed as an exact duplicate of the Kindle 2 except for a larger, 9.7" diagonal screen, sounded like it would be the be-all end-all e-Reader.

I felt so strongly about that, in fact, that I sold my Kindle 2 the same week my Kindle DX arrived.

I wish I hadn't done that.

Because as it turns out, the Kindle DX is not a sized-up duplicate of the Kindle 2. Amazon made three very obvious changes to the hardware, and I hate all three changes.

First off, and by far the worst... there are no buttons on the left side of the Kindle DX. None at all. On the Kindle, the "Next Page" button is on both the right and the left. The "Previous Page" button is also on the left side of the Kindle. Having the "Next Page" button on both sides means that you can hold the Kindle in either hand, or use either hand to turn the page. This helps to mimic the movement of using an actual printed book very closely. Sadly, and for absolutely no reason that I can see, the Kindle DX jettisons this nearly perfect design (so perfect, in fact, that it was copied almost exactly on the Barnes and Noble nook) and simply has an expanse of blank white plastic on its left side. I cannot fathom why Amazon did this, and I must repeat that this is the single most glaring design fault of the Kindle DX in comparison to its smaller cousin.

Second, the keyboard on the Kindle DX is different from that of the Kindle... again, for absolutely no reason that I can figure out. The Kindle has very nice, functional round keys that mimic a normal QWERTY keyboard. The Kindle DX instead uses rectangular keys that are much harder to use, since each key is wider than it is tall. This makes it almost impossible to "thumb type" on the Kindle DX keyboard, an operation that is quite easy on the Kindle. And still worse – and again for no reason – the top row of number keys is gone. To type a number, you have to hold down "Alt" and then press one of the top rows – ALT+Q for 1, ALT+W for 2, and so on. Maddening. Especially when there is plenty of room for another row of keys, even in the horrible rectangular style.

Third, the Kindle DX adds an accelerometer for "auto rotation" of the screen to landscape mode. For the first month, I hated this feature so much that I almost returned the device. Every time I would lean to one side, the book I was reading would rotate itself in the other direction. This would result in a comedic chase, as I kept trying to rotate the Kindle DX in the opposite direction to compensate. When I called Amazon to complain, the support person pointed out that I could turn off this feature using the "Font Size" key (how obvious!). Unfortunately, every time I turn off the Kindle or when it gets a software update, it resets itself back to "auto rotate".

Since the Kindle DX came out, Amazon has updated the regular Kindle to include the rotation feature as well. But in the regular Kindle, it's a maual option that must be selected by the user. It doesn't try to "automatically" rotate itself based on whatever angle the device itself is at. This is a perfect illustration of a feature that is very handy in a mobile device (the iPhone has an excellent auto rotation feature, for example), but is useless and in fact very annoying when put into a dedicated reading device. Why in the world would I ever want the text I am currently reading to rotate itself in another direction just based on which way I happen to be leaning at the time?

Now, the larger screen? Oh, it's quite nice. Especially when reading a book with illustrations or technical diagrams (I am re-reading Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish currently, and the diagrams are almost as clear as the printed version). I still wish the screen had better contrast – whiter whites, blacker blacks – but eInk displays don't seem to be able to do that yet. The larger screen means that I can finally have a page in an eBook that has the same amount of text as a printed page.

But as the months have gone by, I've become increasingly disappointed in the Kindle DX. Because, as it turns out, the extra-large screen is really its only feature. Gone are the easy buttons from the Kindle. Gone is the nice keyboard. Silly auto-rotation added. And... well... the Kindle DX is heavy. Holding it with one hand gets tiring quickly, and when reading in bed, I always have to prop it on a pillow. (Keep in mind that when I say "heavy", I mean as compared to the Kindle. The Kindle DX is still much lighter than most hardcover books). The Kindle weighs just a hair over 10 ounces. The Kindle DX weighs 1 pound, 3 ounces. Thus the Kindle DX feels about twice as heavy as the Kindle. A shame.

At $489, the Kindle DX costs almost twice as much as the $259 Kindle. When I originally ordered it, I felt that price was fair because of the much larger screen size. I still feel it's a fair price – but I did not expect to have so much of what I liked about the Kindle taken away from me at the same time.

And... that nice big screen? Well, after 7 months... I've decided that it's actually too big. I still feel that the Kindle's 6" diagonal screen is too small. But the Kindle DX's 9.7" screen goes too far in the other direction. Right in the middle, an 8" diagonal screen, that would be truly perfect. But it seems like the world has settled on the 6" and 9.7" / 10" size as standards, so I'm stuck. Having to choose between them... well... I guess I'd go with the smaller screen.

In summary, I prefer the Kindle to the Kindle DX. I wish I hadn't sold my Kindle. If I had not, I would have probably returned the Kindle DX before the 30 day return window had expired. So, you may logically ask: Why don't I sell the Kindle DX and buy a regular Kindle again? Well, see, the Kindle 2 came out almost exactly a year ago. So, I figure, Amazon should be coming out with what would be the "Kindle 3" sometime this year. I'll just wait for that.

The Kindle DX was developed by Amazon primarily as a text book reader for college students. For that use, it would probably be great. The heavier weight of the Kindle DX is still pounds and pounds lighter than the lightest college text book I ever had, that's for sure. And as I said, for books with illustrations, that big honking screen is wonderful.

But for reading books? Stick with the regular Kindle, which really is a bargain at $259. No matter what magic thing Apple comes out with on January 27th, the Kindle is still the best game around for reading books.


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