Review: The Amazon Kindle – A library in your hand?

I consider myself a reader. I like to read. Blogs, newspapers, books, whatever. Mind you, if you ask my wife, she will say I read junk. And it is true that in my library you will find very few classics like Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, or any sort of Greek tragedy (for quality literature, please see my wife’s library). But you will find around 100 Star Trek novels, a smattering of Doctor Who programme guides, and most of the James Bond books. This is not to say that I don’t read literature or quality non-fiction – I do, in fact I consider P.G Wodehouse and A.C. Doyle to be amongst my favorite writers,and I adore David McCullough – but that my day-to-day reading tends to fall in the media tie-in arena.

Since moving to France though, feeding my Star Trek novel addiction has proven more difficult. The bookstores in Grenoble have only a very limited Engilsh-language selection, if they have one at all. I am therefore forced to rely on Amazon.com, with shipping taking three to four weeks. In order to expedite this, I began purchasing ebooks through Amazon, and reading them with the Kindle app on my iPhone and iPad. While the reading app is excellent, the experience of reading on the iPhone or iPad is somewhat un-optimal. The iPhone, while having an excellent quality screen, is quite small. The iPad, on the other hand, is larger, but the screen quality is lower, and the weight of the device much higher.

My birthday was last week, but my wife, knowing of my love of both reading and gadgets, and unable to contain the surprise any longer,  gifted me an Amazon Kindle Wifi+3G in graphite three weeks ago upon her return from America, along with $100 in Amazon cash for books. What my wife discovered shortly thereafter is that I got her a Kindle (in white!) as well! I’ve spent the past three weeks using the Kindle, and I thought I’d share my thoughts on the device in this review. I’ll also give my thoughts on the Amazon Kindle Leather Case, which my wife got me to complement the device! Just click below to read my thoughts!

Appearance

Front side of the graphite Kindle, with excellent Star Trek novel on the screen.

The first generation Kindle, released by Amazon in 2007, was a bit… ungainly. Heck, it was rather clunky looking, something of an ugly duckling to be sure. Fortunatly, three years of refinement has resulted in the current Kindle, a device that is far more attractive than its predecessors. I have the graphite-colored Kindle, and I think it is a rather handsome looking gadget. The front face of the Kindle is composed of a textured plastic, neither too rough or too smooth. The slight texturing ensures that there is no major glare or reflections on the surface of the device to distract from reading. A nice plus is the quality of the text printing of the Amazon logo at the top, as well as the letters and symbols on the buttons. The text itself it printed with a thickness that can be felt with the finger, which helps add to that indefinable feel of “quality.” The front of the devices is home to the screen, keyboard, control switch, and page buttons, all of which I will discuss further on.

The back side of the Kindle. Note the fingerprints picked up by the textured back.

Turning the Kindle over reveals the back face. The plastic on this side is slightly rubberized, providing an easily grippable surface. The textured front, combined with the rubberized back, allows the kindle to be securely held. I have never felt the kindle slip through my hands, nor have I had to grip it too tightly to maintain a hold on the device. One drawback to the rubberized surface is its tendency to show the fingerprints of the user, and is somewhat hard to clean.  The back also has two speakers, allowing for audiobooks or mp3s to be played. Though clearly not made as an audio device, I found the audio quality surprisingly good, though I can’t see myself using the mp3 playback ability very often. Finally, the back is embossed with the Kindle logo, along with the standard serial numbers, technology logos, and copyright information. Amazon did choose to print this in black on the gray surface, rendering it discreetly invisible, something that my minimalist aesthetic sensibilities approves of.

The bottom of the Kindle.

The bottom of the device is home to (from right to left) the power switch, the USB connector, a headphone jack, and the volume controls. The power switch is a spring loaded slider. Push it to the right to turn on or turn off the device, and it snaps back to the left when you release it. The power switch also has a light that glows green for a few seconds when the device is switched on, and glows orange when the device is charging. Again, Amazon designed this light to provide appropriate feedback to acknowledge the use of the power switch without making the feedback a distraction from the use of the Kindle.

Finally, the left side of the device features two connectors which can be used to attach a cover to the Kindle, a feature we will examine later.

My wife's Kindle in pearly white, on which she is reading "literature!"

A quick additional note. I have the graphite Kindle, and my wife has the white Kindle. In terms of functionality and layout the two Kindles are identical, and the choice of Kindle comes down to personal preference. I have only noted three physical differences (aside from color). First, the ink on the white Kindle doesn’t have quite the same raised texture as the ink on the graphite device. Second, the back of the white Kindle feels smoother and less “grippy” than the graphite. FInally, the power switch on her Kindle feels stiffer, and requires a bit more force to activate. Wether this is a difference between the white and graphite devices in general, or simply between our two specific examples, I don’t know. I will say that though I prefer the graphite Kindle, the white Kindle is quite attractive.

Feel

Having established what the Kindle looks like, the next question is, how does it feel? The answer, not bad at all. The kindle is, as mentioned earlier, easy to hold in one hand. The most comfortable position to hold it results in your thumb resting on the “next page” button. Fortunately, the page turn buttons are replicated on both the left and right sides of the device, making it equally easy to hold and use with either hand. The Kindle only weighs 8.7 oz, far less than an iPad, so it is not too heavy to hold for long periods of time. Speaking of the page turn buttons, they require just the right amount of force to press, making them easy to press when intended, and unlikely to press accidentally.

Using the Kindle

We will talk about the software, buying books, and more, but first lets get to the heart of the matter: How is the experience of reading on the Kindle? I have never enjoyed reading on computer screen: When I need to read a scienific paper or edit a document, I usually print it out and read it on paper. Reading on the Kindle, because of its e-ink Pearl display, is suprisingly close to reading on paper. Pages are turned by pressing the forward or back buttons on the sides of the bezel. Pressing the button causes the screen to flash to black for half a second. While somewhat distracting, it takes no more time than the action of turning a page on a physical book, and shouldn’t detract from the reading experience much. The contrast, while not strictly as good as black ink on white paper, is far better than a computer screen with its eye strain. The viewing angle is basically a full 180°, unlike most LCD displays. The Kindle offers a variety of fonts and font sizes to allow you to select the most comfortable one for you. It also allows you to choose the line spacing and words per line. I have mine set on the “Regular” typeface, with the fourth smallest font, large line spacing, and “fewer” words per line. I find this t be comfortable to read, striking the right balance between clarity and words per page. The Kindle also offers a choice of portrait and landscape orientations, though I prefer the standard portrait orientation myself. Combine all these options with the high resolution screen, and you get a very good reading experience. I have read for a couple hours at a time on, the kindle and have found myself focused entirely on the content of the book, and not the device, which is the way that the device should behave.

Sadly, that “invisibility” does not extend into the software and user interface. The software. The menus for the device are all fairly self-explanatory. The problem comes more from the speed of navigation, much of which is determined by the refresh rate of the display. The four-direction button used to navigate, coupled with the slow refreshing display, makes it feel like there is a delay between the press and the response. If you were dealing with this slow respose constantly, it would likely be a huge issue. However, since the point of the device is reading, you fortunately rarely have to deal with the menus and interface for long amounts of time. just to be clear: It isn’t badly designed (not great either, as often the book titles are longer than the display space…), but it is slow due to limitations in technology, and the decision to have a control button rather than a touch screen that allows for direct manipulation of the menus. A similar problem arises when using the keyboard to add notes or search the Kindle store. Key presses are registered slowly, frustrating your attempts to quickly jot down a note. Another problem related to text input is the symbols menu, putting most punctuation and all numbers on a secondary menu that requires use of the direction buttons to select and add symbols and numbers. Painfully slow process to type a simple number!

Related to this is the process of purchasing books. Books can be purchased through the Kindle store on the Kindle, a very simple process. Simply select the book and click “Buy Now.” The book is then downloaded to the Kindle within a minute. However, the process is greatly slowed by the data input through the keyboard. Personally, I tend to purchase books using the Amazon website. The website is a much faster method of searching an browsing. Purchasing there is just a s simple. Click “Buy Now” and select your Kindle from the menu, and the books is sent to the Kindle immediately. Both of these methods work particularly well with the 3G version of the Kindle, which provides for wireless downloads practically worldwide.

Speaking of software, I will mention the experimental web browser. The best I can say is that it does indeed work, but very slowly, and with poor resolution. Also, selecting a hyperlink with the directional buttons is an excercize in frustration. However, Amazon emphasizes the expermental nature of the browser, so you can think of it as an interesting bonus rather than a horrible feature.

One thing that I feel I must touch upon is the fact that the Kindle is linked to the Amazon store. This means that all the e-books you buy generally need to come directly from Amazon. In general, I don’t love DRM. However, Amazon’s ebook selection is the largest I have found, and their prices are equivalent with Barnes and Noble, their biggest competitor in the ebook arena.  While the Kindle does not support the industry “standard” epub format, there are free software solutions that can convert any non-DRMed epub file into an acceptable file for the Kindle, and indeed I have used this to load free ebooks from Project Gutenburg onto the device.

Cover

My wife's Kindle in the green case with the elastic strap in place.

My wife got me the simplest cover available for the Kindle, the official Amazon Leather Cover in black (and I got my wife the same in green), a simple cover that appeals to my minimalist design sensibilities. The outside of the cover is leather in your desired color, and the inside (regardless of exterior color) is a gray felt, which helps keep the Kindle scratch-free. The cover is well made, clearly designed to fit the Kindle, which it does well. I particularly like the elastic strap that wraps around the case to keep it closed. The case definitely keeps the kindle protected, but it does make it somewhat awkward to use single-handedly, especially with your left hand, as reaching the page-turn buttons while holding the cover is not always convenient. Still, I suspect any cover for the Kindle that provides a good level of protection will suffer from a similar problem.

Conclusion

The Kindle is not perfect. Shopping in the store from the Kindle is slow compared to shopping from a computer. Text entry, especially the symbol entry, can feel slow and tedious. And the Kindle can’t display standard epub files without conversion. And yet none of these problems significantly detract from the experience of reading, the true intent of the device.The reading experience is excellent, highlighted by the quality screen combined with the font and text options.  The Kindle is light and easy to hold. I love slipping the Kindle in the pocket of my cargo shorts and reading on the bus, or the train. The selection of books available through Amazon is quite large, providing a wealth of reading options. Though I am sure Amazon is even now readying a new version of the Kindle for release, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Kindle to anyone looking for a good e-reader.

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