Eating My Words: A Kindle Review

Kindle: Amazon’s New Wireless Reading Device, $359.00

Almost 6 months ago I wrote a post here called “5 Reasons I Don’t Have a Kindle“. I got a surprisingly large number of comments on this post, mainly due to it getting a bit of popularity on Digg.com. However, as I pointed out over and over again in response to the comments, that article was not a review of the Kindle. It was, instead, a post about why I hadn’t bought one. I had five specific complaints, and at the time, I stated that until and unless a new model came out that addressed at least some of my complaints, I wouldn’t be buying one.

Well, I lied.

Or rather: what a difference a few months makes. Stuck in Las Vegas a month ago, I had a week to kill and had not brought enough books with me to fill the time. I was going to search out a bookstore (not exactly common in Las Vegas), when I noticed an article on Engadget stating that, for the first time since its introduction, Amazon actually had Kindles in stock for immediate shipment. No more waiting list. Right then and there, having a Kindle to wirelessly purchase some books and magazines seemed like the absolutely perfect thing to me. And, I figured, if I hated it, I could just return it.

So I ordered it from my laptop in the hotel room for next day shipping. And the next day it arrived, right at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center Business Office. And that night I stayed up until 2am, using the Kindle. I think I bought six things on that first evening: a newspaper, three magazines, and two books. I didn’t hate it. And I didn’t return it.

Now that I’ve had a Kindle for a little over a month, I figure it’s time to sum up my thoughts. The Kindle is a lot better than I thought it would be. In fact, if you tried to take it away from me now, you’d have to pry it out of my hands.

What no one else was able to clearly communicate to me – and what Amazon itself does not adequately communicate, in my opinion – is that the Kindle is really a platform for reading. The device itself has a number of problems, no question about that. Some of those problems are maddening if you focus on them. But the overall software, the environment, the platform that is The Kindle – that’s what matters. That is what makes the experience of using a Kindle so damn good. If you’re a “Reader” – if you regularly read books and magazines – you will love a Kindle.

Wireless Purchase, Instant Delivery. This is the heart of the Kindle platform, right here. The Kindle gives readers instant gratification. Interested in a particular book? Go to Menu, select Kindle Store, find your book, and you’ve got it in under a minute. From anywhere. At anytime. Basically, if you’re in an area that a cell phone will work, you’ve got immediate, constant, instant wireless access to the Kindle store. No charge, no wireless subscription, nothing. It’s free and built into the device.

When I read about the Kindle, this seemed like a gimmick. Who cares, I thought. I could not have been more wrong. I was waiting in the airport, and wanted to read a newspaper. But, you know, you bring a newspaper on a plane, you’ve got to open it, unfold it, shove your elbows in your seat-mate’s face, parse through the sections… it’s a mess. With the Kindle, I bought that day’s New York Times. And had it on screen in about 30 seconds. I also bought Newsweek, The Atlantic, Forbes, and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. All downloaded nearly instantly, right while I was sitting there.

And reading through the New York Times, I read a review of a book… and bought the book immediately, right then and there, while I was still reading the review. So, when I finished the review, I was ready to start reading the book.

Clear, Easy To Read Screen. Although I had seen e-Ink technology demonstrated, and had played with a Sony Reader in a store, the Kindle is the first time I’ve used it day in, day out. It’s amazing. There is no real “off” state. Whatever the screen is at the moment, that’s what it is. It draws no power to keep text on the screen – it uses power only when the screen refreshes with the next page of text. And the screen is the closest I’ve ever seen to the printed page. I mean, it looks almost like a laser-printed piece of paper. There are no “jaggies”, no reflections – it does not look like a computer screen at all. In fact, the first time I showed it to someone else, they stared at it for a second, and then said, “Holy shit… is that the actual screen?” It turned out that they thought it was a printed cover of some kind that I was using to protect the actual screen.

The Screen Should Be Bigger. Although you can adjust the font size to be as large or as small as you want, to my taste there simply isn’t enough physical space to put as much text on the “page” as I expect. Even at the smallest text size, it’s still not the same amount of text as you would get on the printed version of the same book. This is the Number One thing I want Amazon to change in a future version of the Kindle. There are other book readers out there that are already using the latest 8″ and 9″ e-Ink screens, like the iRex Iliad. These readers are able to do a page-for-page match to the printed version. Amazon should follow suit as fast as possible. I would pay… well…. a good chunk of change for a Kindle with a 9″ screen, that’s for sure.

Magazines and Newspapers. As of this writing, there are 19 newspapers and 16 magazines available on the Kindle. Magazines are available either via subscription, or by purchasing just the current issue. I cannot emphasize enough how very, very cool this is. You can read Newsweek, Time, Fortune, Forbes, The Atlantic, and several others instantly, right away. Without the advertisements. Without the subscription cards falling out. And when you’re done, you just delete it – no paper to through away.

Not Enough Magazines. In fact, the only problem I have with the Magazines feature is that there are not enough. I want The Economist, Entertainment Weekly, Wired, Rolling Stone. I want specialty academic journals. I want every magazine that has text articles to have a Kindle version. Since I got my Kindle, they’ve added a couple of additional newspapers, and tons of new books come out every week – but so far, not a single magazine has been added to the list. To me, this is one of the greatest features of the Kindle. For example, on my Kindle I’ve subscribed to both Slate and Salon. And every day, a new issue is waiting for me. I would subscribe to dozens more if they were available. I would cancel my print subscriptions and switch to Kindle versions for almost every magazine I read.

Blogs Don’t Work Very Well. In addition to Newspapers and Magazines, the Kindle also offers subscriptions to a wide variety of current blogs – 341 as of this writing. However, for the most part, this isn’t worth it. I tried a number of blogs, such as Ars Technica, Pharngula, Boing Boing, and Daily Kos. The main problem is that they aren’t complete. Ars Technica doesn’t contain the Articles section of the web site, which is where (in my opinion) the best stuff can be found. Daily Kos doesn’t include all the Diaries, which, once again, are the best stuff. You can’t see any of the comments sections in any blog. And Pharyngula actually crashed my Kindle for the one and only time, requiring me to open up the back and press the Reset button. After an initial spate of subscribing to a dozen blogs – it’s so nice to read things on that great e-Ink screen – I ended up canceling all of them. I was missing too much. In their current form, the Kindle version of Blogs just does not match up to the web version of the same blog.

Highlighting. Ever want to remember a particular quote from a book? I sure do (especially when I’m writing reviews). The Highlight feature allows you to move the scroll cursor to the first line, select Highlight, move to the last line, click, and the selected “Highlight” text is then placed in quote format in a Kindle book called “My Clippings”. With a full reference to whatever it’s from. This was another feature that I thought was “so what” when I read about it – but the first time I used it, I immediately understood its value.

Dictionary Lookup. Every run across a word in a book that you don’t know? Or one that you think you sort of know the meaning of, but you’re not completely sure? The Kindle has a built-in dictionary. Scroll the cursor to any line on the screen, and select “Lookup”. A popup window opens with the words in the sentence you’ve selected, with a mini-definition for each word in the sentence. Select the actual word you’re interested in, and you get the full definition. And then a single click of the scroll cursor, and the definition vanishes, and you haven’t left your book at all. I absolutely love this feature. It is simple and elegant. This is one thing that does not need to be improved on at all – it is just enough, and it works perfectly.

Other Sources of Books. I didn’t realize that there are lots of sources for free books for the Kindle. Most books that are in the public domain (that means the vast majority of literary classics and books from more than 75 years ago) are available for free from a wide variety of sources. My favorite is feedbooks.com, which has a single document that you can download directly to your Kindle. This document, in turn, contains a catalog of all their books that are already formatted for the Kindle. Just select the book you want – The Great Gatsby or Gone With The Wind, for example – and that book is instantly downloaded to your Kindle, just as if you’d purchased it directly from the Amazon Kindle store. Only it was completely free.

This is an area that I hope gets expanded on a lot. It would be great if, for example, companies started providing their product manuals in Kindle format (they can use the openly available Mobipocket format, which works transparently on the Kindle). Or all kinds of documents. It is so much easier to read things on the Kindle than it is on even the best computer monitor. Amazon should evangelize this capability and encourage anyone and everyone to make all their documents available in Kindle format. I can tell you right now that one of my “side projects” at work is going to be converting some of our product documentation into Kindle format. Maybe I can start a quiet little movement in this regard…

You’ll Need Light. One drawback to the screen is that it has no light source of any kind. Since the e-Ink display is not backlit , and since it does not draw power at all while you’re reading a screen of text, it is no brighter than a sheet of paper is. Which means you need a light to read by. For future versions, I sure wish they would design some sort of socket to attach a little reading light to. I use an Itty Bitty Book Light, and clip it on to the leather case that the Kindle fits into. This works mostly OK, but it does feel rather jury-rigged. And it adds a messy cable to the whole situation.

This drawback became very apparent when I was flying back from Houston a few weeks ago, and the reading light for my seat was out (thanks, Southwest). The only thing I had with me was my Kindle. And with no light, you can’t see the screen any more than you can see a book without light. So I had to sit in the dark, unable to read anything. Admittedly, physically printed books and magazines have exactly the same problem – but I expect an electronic device that costs almost $400 to be able to provide me enough light to read by as part of the bargain!

Turned Off During Takeoff and Landing. Here’s another drawback. On the same trip (but going out, when I had a light) I was annoyed by the fact that the flight attendants demanded I turn off the Kindle until we reached 10,000 feet – and again a full 20 minutes before we landed. Since the only thing I had with me was the Kindle, I had nothing else to read. If you’re in the middle of a good book or magazine, it’s very annoying to sit there for up to half an hour waiting for the OK to turn it back on. I can understand (sort of) the need to turn off devices that have some sort of communication capability… but you can easily turn off the wireless function on the Kindle with a simple switch, without affecting any other feature. Although it’s worth noting that because the wireless on/off button is on the back, you have to remove the Kindle from its leather cover in order to do that. The switch really should be on the top of the device, not on the back.

Why do the airlines require you to turn off these kinds of devices? I realize this is not Amazon’s problem, but maybe they can help lobby the airline industry. I love the way they say “FAA regulations state…” when they state no such thing. Each airline could choose whether or not to allow these sorts of devices – there are no regulations at all. But they choose to take a One Size Fits All approach, because they don’t want laptops flying through the air while a plane is landing. However, a 10-ounce Kindle that draws no more power than a watch is simply not in that category.

Previous and Next Buttons Are Awful. This takes a day or two to get used to. This is the one area where I really don’t know what the designers were thinking. The “Next Page” button runs down almost the entire right side of the device – and it’s angled in addition to that! So there is literally no way you can hold it on the right side without hitting the “Next Page” button by mistake. Your only option is to either hold it by the screen itself, or to finesse your fingers around the blank spots in the keyboard area. On the left side, the “Previous Page” button is almost but not quite as bad… at least it doesn’t run the entire length of the device.

To me, this is the single biggest design flaw of the device. When I turn the page of a book or magazine, I reach up and turn the top corner. So why didn’t they just put the Next and Previous buttons up at the top of the device, and leave the rest of it as a margin to hold on to – just like a real book? Instead, the entire margin area is eaten up by a giant Next button. This feature needs to be fixed right away. Even before going to a larger screen, Amazon needs to do a “1.1” quick fix redesign to change these buttons. It would be a trivial change, and yet would make a huge difference in ease of use. My guess is they expect people to rely on using the leather cover as the way to hold the device. Which leads me to my next point…

Leather Cover Is Poor. The leather cover – which thanks to the poor positioning of the Next and Previous buttons is an absolute requirement for reading – simply doesn’t attach very well. In fact, it doesn’t “attach” at all – it just sort of hangs on by use of a tab in the back that fits into a depression on the back of the Kindle. I found that by folding up a piece of paper and wedging it into the “clip” part of the leather cover, I could get the Kindle to stay attached to the cover most of the time. Unless you make a sudden movement, or try to read at an angle. This is another area where it seems strange that it doesn’t work better. How about a simple piece of velcro, or a sliding notch? I remember I had an old Palm Tungsten device that had a leather cover that slid into a slot along its left side. An approach like that would work perfectly for the Kindle.

Zoom For Illustrations Would Be Nice. For books with illustrations, it sure would be nice to have some sort of Zoom or Enlarge option. I was reading Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin, which has quite a number of illustrations, including some detailed biology specimen sketches. Unfortunately, they were just too small to be able to make out the writing. I am aware that text is the primary function of the Kindle, but it would be relatively simple to add some sort of enlargement function to handle this special case.

It Plays Music But I Don’t Care. The Kindle is also able to play music – or so it appears. I’ve never tried it, and doubt I ever will. This seems pointless to me, and putting volume knobs and a headphone jack onto a book reading device strikes me as a waste of space and circuitry. It’s never going to be an iPod, which is what all my music comes from these days anyway. I say pull out the audio stuff and free up the space and power for more reading.

DRM is Tolerable. One of my primary objections to getting a Kindle was its use of DRM (Digital Rights Management) “anti-piracy” protection on all books. I put that in quotes because I consider DRM in all forms to be an insult to every paying consumer. I’ve paid for the book (or song or movie), so why are you treating me like I tried to steal it? However, I’m somewhat mollified by accepting the fact that anything on the Kindle is not really purchased – instead, you’re basically renting the book or magazine. If you want a permanent copy, go buy the physical book. I still think the DRM approach is wrong-headed, insulting, and detrimental to the long-term survival of these kinds of devices, but I’m willing to live with it for convenience’s sake at the moment.

In Conclusion…

Amazon… I’m hooked. You got me. I love it and I can’t live without it. But if you’d just put out a 2.0 version with a bigger screen, better Previous and Next buttons, and a decent cover attachment, I’d pay double what I paid for this one.

If you read for enjoyment with any regularity, you want the Kindle. Despite some of the criticisms I talk about here, this is a fantastic, wonderful machine. In fact, the only reason I’ve gone into such details about its mistakes is that the rest of the device is so damn good, the places where it falls down are that much more apparent. And let me reiterate again – focus on the entire experience, not just on the device itself. I hate to add to the hype… but the Kindle really does put a whole new spin on what “reading a book” can be.

Go get yourself a Kindle. They just dropped the price to $359, and they are in stock now. Happy Kindling!

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