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Amazon Kindle review

I’ve been using a kindle for most of my reading for the last 4 months, and since the kindle is still kind of early-adopterish in Germany, thought it might be of interest to do a full review.

The kindle device

Form factor
With the third version, the kindle finally doesn’t look goofy anymore, and became small enough to fit into a jacket pocket. Build quality is solid, and the dark gray plastic looks good. it feels very thin, and is easily light enough to comfortably hold in one hand for long periods of time. The screen is large enough, but I wish they would get rid of the qwerty keyboard in favor of a slightly taller screen. The keyboard works pretty well, but I just don’t need it. I use it maybe once a week to search for a word inside a book. Amazon seems strangely reluctant to kill the keyboard, though – maybe they think people will buy more books if they can impulse shop right on the kindle itself?

The kindle's size compared to a magazine

The kindle's size compared to a magazine

The screen quality is good, text is dark and very sharp (though the background is still a light gray rather than real white). It has sufficient grayscales that images look good, too. You never really miss color when reading a book. Page turns are plenty fast enough for turning a page while reading – though flipping through lots of pages to search for a chapter is still slow. The screen is perfectly usable in sunlight, though it does reflect a little, about as much as a glossy magazine. Overall, reading on the kindle screen is much, much better than on an LCD, and about 90% as enjoyable as on paper.
The screen can update small regions pretty fast, so e.g. moving the cursor through a menu works almost as fast as on an LCD screen.

The kindle's screen, with some glare when shining a table lamp directly on it

The kindle's screen, with some glare when shining a table lamp directly on it

User interface
To generalize: easy to use if you’re computer-literate. But not quite mom-friendly yet. Overall quite simple and straightforward, but there are some non-intuitive things. Like the fact that while reading, moving the cursor by going up and down on the D-pad is quite frequently used for notes, highlights and dictionary access, but if you press the D-pad to the left or right, it will suddenly and unexpectedly make you jump by a whole chapter. Or the back-button, whose action is sometimes predictable, and sometimes not. Or the fact that the list of books does not scroll, but is advanced by turning the page – which fits the book metaphor well, but throws me for a second every time. But most of the time, the user interface doesn’t matter much, because it really is a book-reading device – once you’ve opened a book, all you do is flip pages, and the computer part drops out of the way.


Free 3G browsing anywhere in the world? Sounds great! Except you won’t use it, because the browser is pretty much unusable. Website rendering is quite good, but the slow screen refresh rate, akward zooming (no touchscreen means no two-finger pinching), and akward scrolling/selecting links (no mouse means navigating purely with the D-pad) make web browsing on the kindle definitely less than enjoyable. Tried it once, never used it again.

Can play MP3 files you drop into the music folder of the kindle, but has no folders, playlists or fixed order of songs. Nice to have, though, if only to drown out other peoples’ chatter while reading on the subway.

Not necessary, get the cheaper Wifi version instead. The two advantages of 3G are that you can buy books on your kindle anytime, and it automatically syncs which page you were on for every book to other devices. But I prefer to use a PC to buy books anyway, and don’t really use kindle apps on other devices. And having wireless (either 3G or Wifi) enabled kills battery life – with the wireless on, you recharge every day; whereas with the wireless off you never have to worry about battery life and recharge once every couple of weeks.


PDF support
There are two ways to read PDFs on the kindle: Drop them in the books folder as-is, or have them converted by amazon to the kindle format. For A4/letter-sized PDFs, reading them in the original size is clunky enough that you probably won’t do it – the screen is way too small to read the whole page, and zooming and scrolling is pretty annoying. Conversion to kindle format works pretty well for PDFs that are mostly text. In short, if you were hoping to read your pdf-formatted technical books on it, forget it (or get the larger kindle DX).

A PDF file converted from letter-size

A PDF file converted from letter-size

Anything you highlight in a book gets extracted and stored in a file spanning all books you read, so you can build up a file with your favorite quotes from your library. Sweet. You can also have kindle show you which passages got highlighted by other people, although I found that quite distracting and turned it off.

This is definitely a killer feature for me, since it’s so well integrated: Move the cursor to any word, and the kindle will pop up the definition from the dictionary. Insanely great for people whose first language is not english – for example, my girlfriend was reading Aravind Adiga’s The white tiger as a paperback, but found it hard to get through all the Indian English slang. So I got it for her on kindle, where she could easily look those up in the dictionary, and she enjoyed reading it this way a lot more.

Even better: you can also buy dictionaries for other languages (or roll your own, more on that in a later post). I don’t use the dictionary much for English, but when reading a French or Spanish novel, where I am proficient enough to read the original, but not proficient enough to get by without frequently looking up words, the fast dictionary lookup is a real killer feature.

Enough that you will never worry about it. Having my whole library of books that I currently plan to read always with me in a single small and lightweight package is maybe the greatest advantage of an ebook reader over books on paper.

The kindle store

Since the kindle handles no DRM system except Amazon’s own, the kindle store had better be good. Luckily, it is good. Or at least as good as publishers allow an ebook store to be for now. The catalog is huge; large enough that you will find almost anything. But it’s not as complete as Amazon’s paper book catalog. Out of 10 books on my (rather eclectic) wish list, I bought 6 on the kindle, 2 were available as a paper book, but not available for kindle,  and 2 were available as both paper and ebook, but happened to be cheaper as a paperback.

Which brings us to pricing. Prices are higher in Europe than in the U.S. – a novel priced at 10 USD in the US will cost German customers 13 or 14 dollars. Ultimately prices come to about the same as a paperback, most are a little cheaper. Compared to hardcover books, kindle prices are a steal, but not all books are 10-15 bucks – expensive professional books are expensive on kindle as well.

Production value of some percentage of books is rather disappointing. While the “print quality” is obviously not an issue, and the fonts are customizable, extras like the cover, the table of contents, or scanned images often look quite shoddy, almost like the publisher deliberately tried to make the ebook version uglier than the paper book.
One great thing about the kindle store is that you can get a free sample (typically the first chapter)  of almost anything. 

Collections allow you to organize your books into tag buckets
Ebooks vs. paper books

For music, the transition from physical media to digital files, from CDs to an MP3 player, was quite natural. You could convert music both ways, ripping CDs to MP3s, or burning MP3s on CDs. Digital files had the added advantage that, unlike with CDs, you could now buy single tracks instead of having to buy whole albums.

None of these advantages exist with ebooks. Unlike physical books, ebooks cannot be traded secondhand, cannot be rented from a library, and cannot be easily printed out. Besides, paper books have infinite battery life, great resolution and contrast, are immune to being dropped, and are cheap to replace if you should lose them.

So why would someone buy ebooks? For me, the one killer advantage of ebooks is that I take along one single “book”, i.e. the kindle reader, and have everything I am currently planning to read with me. I can read anything, anytime, and don’t have to carry anything havier than a single paperback.Price is less of an advantage than you’d think. If you take into account that amazon sells paperbacks really cheaply, but prices kindle books higher for non-U.S. customers, the price advantage of kindle books comes down to about 20% on average.

In handling and usage, the kindle is much closer to a book than to a computer. Which is good, since compared to e.g. an iPad, learning curve and distractions are kept to a minimum. But it also means it sticks surprisingly, and unnecessarily, close to the mental model of a paper book.There are some innovations that go beyond what is possible with a paper book – the dictionary, the notes file etc. I also like the idea of “Kindle singles” that was recently announced – publishing documents of a length between blog post and paper book – perfect for those cases where an idea that would make a wonderful 20-page essay previously needed to be blown up into a 250-page book just to have something substantial to sell on the shelf of a bookstore.
But we are currently just scratching the surface of what is possible with ebooks. The whole market still feels a lot like digital music before Apple – the needlessly restrictive DRM, publishers’ reluctance to publish their content, innovation killed by the media companies…

The verdict

So should you buy a kindle today?
If you want to get an e-reader anyway: get one – it’s definitely the best device in its class.
If you’ve been holding out, waiting for e-readers to mature: get one, it’s a marked improvement over the previous generations, and the first one that’s worth buying as a non-early adopter
If you want to save money, hate DRM, need a complete catalogs of books to buy, or see no reason to buy another gadget: stick to paper books, and wait for publishers to change. Also, the display technology and usability  is pretty good today, but likely to improve further.

Amazon almost learns from Apple

— inspired by my new favorite blog, littlebigdetails.com —

In a lot of ways, Amazon’d kindle feels like an Apple product: thin, lightweight, easy to use. And yet in a lot of others, its early adopter / geek toy nature still shines through.

Case in point: The changes to the status line in the latest kindle software update.

Previously, the very bottom of the display would show your progress through the book using a thin line, with dots for chapters. Above it, you would see the current percentage read, the current “location” (kindle’s page number substitute), and the total number of locations in the book.

kindle statusbar, old firmware version

With the new software update, amazon introduced real page numbers.

Besides the kindle-esque location, they now show you the real page number, i.e. the page you would be on if this was the physical book, and the total number of pages (see image below).

kindle status bar, new firmware, with menu activated

But now, somebody started thinking about usability. Doesn’t the bottom of the screen look a little busy now? Do we really need all this information? After all, the kindle is supposed to be about reading, not showing metadata.

So the image above is actually only shown if you press the menu button, and have the kindle’s system menu on screen. Which is great – you can see the information when you want it, but it stays out of your way otherwise. And pressing the menu button is already established on the kindle as a means of calling up additional data, since the title bar with book title, battery indicator and time is also only shown when the menu is on screen. Pretty sweet.

So what do you have on screen when the menu is NOT activated?

Well, they got rid of the page numbers, and the location numbers, thereby freeing up more space for actual book text, while the shaded bar still gives you an indication of where about in the book you are.

Unfortunately, the kindle UI team managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Because there actually is no space freed up, since while the pages and locations are gone, the percentage is still there (see below). Which is utterly pointless, since the shaded bar at the very bottom contains the same information (About where in the book am I?). Granted, the percentage is a little more exact – but not exact enough to find your place again – for that you would need the location number…

kindle statusbar, latest firmware version

To add insult to injury, now that the percentage is the only text left in the status bar, it’s stands out even more, and is probably more distracting than the combined information shown before.

So the good news is amazon thinks about usability, and strives for clean, distractionless design. The bad news is, they are not yet quite as good at it as Apple.

Sorry to nitpick like this, the kindle is a great product in general (full review to come), I just found it a neat little example of making UI decisions.