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Amazon's new Kindle electronic book reader has some truly compelling features, several issues and a few surprises. It may change the way I read books.
I heard you got a Kindle. What do you think of it?
That's actually a made-up question, but I expect people, particularly some of my more techie friends, to be asking me very soon. Hence, this article to answer it for everyone.
The other day my wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I told her to wait until Monday and I might have an answer. After Amazon's announcement I spent some time reviewing the device's specifications and decided.
Kindle was the answer.
Reading other reviews it appears that people tend to fall very strongly on one side or the other when it comes to Kindle. They either love it or they absolutely hate it.
I'm closer to love than hate, but there are most definitely some areas where Amazon has at a minimum missed some extremely compelling opportunities. On the other hand, some aspects are incredibly exciting, not only for what they are today, but for the promises of things to come.
Kindle, the Book
Electronic books are actually nothing that new with the advent of so-called "electronic paper" in recent years. The Sony Reader has been out for some time and competes with the Kindle in this space.
The electronic paper display is, to me, quite readable. There's been some complaint about e-paper in general not being "white enough", but it just doesn't seem a problem to me. Some folks are annoyed with the page flash that happens when you change from one page to another. Again, I just don't see this as an issue and overlook it easily.
One thing you should note is that e-paper is not backlit. Unlike a computer screen or PDA, you'll need ambient light in order to read it. Much like, dare I say it, a paper book.
For its basic function, reading, after purchasing a book I found using it to be a very pleasant and comfortable experience. It's compact, lightweight, and easy to use at a moment's notice. I put it in a large pocket and took it to the airport with me where I read while awaiting a friend's arrival.
Many readers will appreciate the ability to easily and quickly change the font size. I happened to make it a notch smaller than the default, but it has a wide range.
There are flaws. As many people have reported, it's extremely easy to accidentally push the "next page" bar, which runs nearly the length of the right side of the device. I also find myself accidentally hitting the Previous and Next page bars on the left as well. I think the intentions of the button placement are good - making it easy to navigate from page to page - but perhaps they made it too easy. I find myself training myself to hold it in particular ways to avoid the issue. Ideally I shouldn't have to do that.
The user interface takes a little getting used to. The roller button (to the right of the Amazon/Kindle logo) is used for most all non-page turning actions, controlling a dynamic cursor in the bar immediately above it. The roller and cursor are quick and easy, the issue is simply the menu structure itself: I find items aren't quite always where I might expect and the structure takes some getting used to.
Kindle, the Store
Buying books is easy. In fact, in a stroke of marketing genius, buying books is almost too easy. To be fair, Amazon does a good job of not only presenting detailed information prior to purchase, but you can download the first chapter of most books for free. This is a great way to quickly and easily either get hooked on a book or decide it's not for you.
Buying books is fast. Amazon calls it a "Wireless Reading Device", and that "wireless" is mostly about its connection to the Amazon store via a ubiquitous cellular network. Searching and browsing are performed online and are quick and easy. Once purchased books appear on your Kindle in mere seconds.
Amazon is smart: my Kindle came pre-programmed with my name and for my Amazon account. In other words when it arrived I needed to do nothing to configure or "log in" to the device or the Amazon store. It was ready to go. Some might also argue that's a bit of a security risk, as anyone who can lay hands on your Kindle can start spending your money. The good news here is that your Kindle's relationship to your Amazon account can be managed via the web without the device. In other words, if you lose your Kindle, you can disassociate it from your account quickly.
Kindle offers subscriptions to major magazines and newspapers. I tend to avoid subscription payments in general, so I've avoided these so far. For people who are religious readers of publications like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others, this could be a very lucrative way of having the latest issues with you automatically and at all times.
Subscriptions to many popular blogs are also available for a fee, but not only do I sort of balk at paying for something I can get on my computer for free, there's another approach I'll get to in a moment.
Let's see ... wireless access, and doesn't that store kind of look like a web page? Doesn't that make you think of something else?
Kindle, the Browser?
Tucked away in a menu labeled "Experimental" lay some of Kindle's greatest teases and greatest promises, in my opinion.
Kindle has a web browser.
In default mode (shown here), much of the HTML formatting is disabled, but as you can see here in this Ask Leo! example, it works. In fact, for sites consisting primarily of text-based information, it works quite well.
Remember, there's no monthly fee. Once you have a Kindle, you have a basic web browser that you can use for free. While at the airport, I even looked up my friend's arrival status from the airline website - on my Kindle.
My biggest fear is that "Experimental" means that Amazon may take it away some day. My second biggest fear is that they'll start charging a subscription fee for access. With a v2 browser, though, it might well be worth it.
Kindle has an mp3 player. Sort of.
Also part of the "experimental" portion of Kindle, the mp3 player is a promise unfulfilled, and the reason is simple: it has no user interface. As far as I can tell, once you put mp3's on your Kindle, all you can do is press play. Kindle will choose the mp3 to play. From what I can tell if you have multiple mp3 files, each successive "play" will play a different mp3, but that's about it. There's hope here, since a UI should only be a software update.
But I'm guessing that the lack of UI is Amazon's reason for positioning it only as a way to play background music while you read.
Me? I want to listen to podcasts.
Kindle apparently competes with Ask Leo! with the Ask Kindle NowNow experimental feature. Using the wireless network your question (about anything, not just tech) is sent to "real people" who will send an answer back to your Kindle in about 15 minutes.
Nope, I haven't tried it yet.
Kindle, the Miscellaneous
USB: if all you ever do is download and read books you can completely ignore the USB connection. However when connect Kindle to your PC it's "just a drive". No drivers or other software required. Just copy other documents, mp3s or whatever to the device.
Clippings: these are kind of a quick clipboard where you can easy to capture snippets of page text as you read. They're readily available as simple text files when you're connected via USB.
SD memory expansion: Kindle's memory is expandable with SD memory cards. I believe these show up as a separate drive when connected via USB to your computer.
PDF's are not supported. Hopefully they will be some day.
The SD card is accessible only by removing the back of the device.
Platforms and DRM restrictions: your Kindle books can be read only on your Kindle. Perhaps using the iTunes model, a PC-based version of its software would allow your purchases to be usable in more than one place.
Things I haven't spent much time with yet:
Content search: the one function that an electronic version has that no paper version ever could.
Document conversion: There's a conversion function where you can email a document to an email address specific to your device and have it delivered automatically in a Kindle-compatible format.
Kindle, the Summary
You must remember that Kindle is a electronic book device. It requires ambient light. Even though it might have long life, when the battery runs out you can't read until you find power. When you purchase a book it's only on your Kindle, making it difficult to share, as so many people do with paper books.
Kindle's a version one product, and while I don't often do or recommend v1 products, Kindle impresses me. It does so as much with its promise of things to come as with the feature set it delivers today. There are problems, but for me at least most are things that I can live with. My greatest disappointment is actually with the opportunities that haven't yet been fulfilled; things like web browsing and mp3 playback. I'm looking forward to a firmware update to address some of those (I hope they can do that transparently and over-the air), and to Kindle's version 2.
At nearly $400 Kindle's not for everyone, and it's certainly not for every book. Some obviously need to be on paper, and in color, to be enjoyed properly.
But all that aside, I think Kindle might end up changing the way I read books.
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