A Bibliophile’s Review of the Amazon Kindle

When it comes to books I’m really old school. Starting from the pleasure of discovering a book you’ve been dying to find, nestled between two otherwise forgettable books in the store, to the crinkling goodness of a new book, the reflexive care to not damage the spine unduly, inscriptions from decades past in second-hand books, the smell, the texture, everything. And don’t even get me started on the religious experience of visiting your favourite libraries. Stated another way, e-books are just fundamentally incompatible with my reading experience.

That is, until I had to move houses last year. It is not a pleasant experience to have to cart around a few hundred books, even within the same city. This, and the fact that some Dan McGirt books that I’ve wanted to read are only really available to me in e-book form finally pushed me to actually buy the Amazon Kindle.

My black Kindle 3G (3rd rev.)

My precioussss

About 3 months ago, I got a black Kindle 3G (the 3rd revision). Technical reviews abound, so I’m not going to talk about the technology much. I didn’t see any articles that really spoke about using it, which is far more relevant to potential buyers (I’m sure they’re there, I didn’t find any good ones is all). So this is my attempt at describing the bits of the Kindle experience that are relevant to others of my ilk (the ones who nodded along to the first paragraph, especially :D).

The Device

We’ll I’m a geek, I can’t avoid talking about the technology completely, but I’ll try to keep it to a minimum (also, it runs Linux, woohoo! :D ed: and GStreamer too, as Sebastian Dröge points out!).

I bought the Kindle with the 6″ display and free wireless access throughout the world (<insert caveat about coverage maps here>). The device itself is really slick, the build quality is good. They keys on the keyboard feel hard to press, but this is presumably intentional, because you don’t want to randomly press keys while handling the device.

At first glance, the e-ink display on the new device is brilliant, the contrast in daylight is really good (more about this later). It’s light, and fairly easy to use (but I have a really high threshold for complex devices, so don’t take my word for it). The 3G coverage falls back to 2G mode in India. I’ve tried it around a bit in India, and the connectivity is pretty hit-or-miss. Maybe things will change for the better with the impending 3G rollout.

The battery life is either disappointing or awesome, depending on whether you’ve got wireless enabled or not. This is a bit of a nag, but you quickly get used to just switching off the wireless when you’re done shopping or browsing.

Reading

Obviously the meat and drink of this device is the reading experience. It is not the same as reading a book. There are a lot of small, niggling differences that will keep reminding you that you’re not reading a book, and this is something you’re just going to have to accept if you’re getting the device.

Firstly the way you hold the device is going to be different from holding a book. I generally hold a book along the spine with one hand, either at the top or bottom (depending on whether I’m sitting, lying down, etc.). You basically cannot hold the Kindle from above — there isn’t enough room. I alternate between holding the device on my palm (but it’s not small enough to hold comfortably like that, your mileage will vary depending on the size of your hand), grasping it between my fingers around the bottom left or right edge (this is where the hard keys on the keyboard help — you won’t press a key by mistake in this position), or I just rest the Kindle on a handy surface (table or lap while sitting, tummy while supine :) ).

Secondly, the light response of the device is very different from books. Paper is generally not too picky about the type of lighting (whiteness, diffused or direct, etc.) In daylight, the Kindle looks like a piece of white paper with crisp printing, which is nice. However, at night, it depends entirely on the kind of lighting you have. My house has mostly yellow-ish fluorescent lamps, so the display gets dull unless the room is very well lit. I also find that the contrast drops dramatically if the light source is not behind you (diffuse lighting might not be so great, in other words). There are some angles at which the display reflects lighting that’s behind/above you, but it’s not too bad.

The fonts and spacing on the Kindle are adjustable and this is one area in which it is hard to find fault with the device. Whatever your preference is in print (small fonts, large fonts, wide spacing, crammed text), you can get the same effect across all your books.

Flipping pages looks annoying when you see videos of the Kindle (since flipping requires a refresh of the whole screen), but in real life it’s fast enough to not annoy.

The Store

I’ve only used the Kindle Store from India, and in a word, it sucks. The number of books available is rubbish. I don’t care if they have almost(?) a million books, but if they don’t have Good Omens, Cryptonomicon, or most of Asimov’s Robot series, they’re fighting a losing battle as far as I’m concerned (these are all books that I’ve actually wanted to read/re-read since I got the Kindle).

When I do find a book I want, the pricing is inevitably ridiculous. I do not see what the publishers are smoking, but could someone please tell them that charging more than 2 times the price of a paperback for an e-book is just plain stupid? Have they learned nothing from the iTunes story? Speaking of which, the fact that the books I buy are locked by DRM to Kindle devices is very annoying.

While the reading experience is something I can get used to, this is the biggest problem I currently have. From my perspective, books have been the last bastion of purity where piracy is not the only available solution to work around the inability of various industry middlemen to find a reasonable way to deal with the Internet and it’s impact on creative content. I am really hoping that Amazon will get enough muscle soon to pull an Apple on the book industry and get the pricing to reasonable levels. And possibly go one step further and break down country-wise barriers. Otherwise, we’re just going to have to deal with another round of rampant piracy and broken systems to try to curb it.

(Editor’s note: This bit clearly bothers me a lot and deserves a blog post of its own, but let’s save that for another day)

The Ecosystem

A lot of my family and friends love reading books, and a large number of the books I buy go through many hands before finding their final resting place on my shelf. This is not just a matter of cost — there is a whole ecosystem of sharing your favourite books with like-minded people, discussing, and so on.

The Kindle device itself isn’t conducive to sharing (if I’m reading a book on the device, nobody else can use the device, obviously). Interestingly Amazon has recently introduced the idea of sharing books from the Kindle (something Barnes and Noble has had for a while). You can share books you’ve bought off the Kindle Store with someone else with a Kindle account, once, for a period of 2 weeks. This in itself is a really lame restriction, but even something more relaxed would be useless to me. Almost nobody I know has a device that supports the Kindle software (phones and laptops/desktops do not count as far as I am concerned).

So in my opinion, the complete break from the reading ecosystem is a huge negative for the Kindle experience. When I know I’m going to want to lend a book to someone, I immediately eliminate the possibility of buying it off the Kindle Store. This is true of all e-books, of course, and might become less of an issue in decades to come, but it is a real problem today.

Other Fluff

The Kindle comes with support for MP3s, browsing the Internet and some games (some noises about an app store have also been made). These are just fluff — I don’t care if my reading device has any of these things. Display technology is still quite far from getting to a point where convergence is possible without compromising the reading experience (yes, I’m including the Pixel Qi display in this assertion, but my opinion is only based on the several videos of devices using these displays).

The Verdict

Honestly, it’s not clear to me whether the Kindle is a keeper or not. It’s definitely a very nice device, technically. I think it’s possible for Amazon to improve the reading experience — I’m sure the display technology will get better with regards to response to different kinds of lighting. Some experimentation with design to make it work with standard reading postures would be nice too. The Kindle Store is a disaster for me, and I really hope Amazon and the publishing industry get their act together.

Maybe this article will be helpful to potential converts out there. If you’ve got questions about the Kindle or anything to add that I’ve missed, feel free to drop a comment.

5 Comments

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  1. Thanks for the detailed review, it was very useful in my decision of when to get an ebook reader, and when I do, which one. Personally, I’ll be waiting for a few more years so that the screens on these devices get better, cheaper, and for the book industry to decide how it wants to handle them.

  2. I got a Kindle a few weeks back, too. So far I’m mainly buying books that are cheaper in Kindle form than paper, although I’ve given in and bought a few that are the same price. No way I’m paying a premium for what is cheaper to the publisher (no costs for printing, distribution, or prime shelf space at bookstores).

    How it’s working out in practice is that I buy fiction on the Kindle and most nonfiction in paper.

  3. I read your review on the Kindle; and I disagree with most of it b/c I actually own one. I just bought it this year for my birthday and I am also a bibliophile. I bought it b/c fiction reading is better on the Kindle and not building up in my house; nonfiction books are for keeps. I have the 3G and I did find that the battery discharged faster if I left it on wireless, so the simple solution was TURN OFF THE WIRELESS. I have some glare with the screen but not so much; I love the fact that I can read it while I am at dinner and I don’t have to weight the book down or break the spine to keep my page in place. When I read, I forget that I am holding the Kindle to begin with. I never have to worry about losing my place and frankly I have had absolutely no problem with either the 3G service in SE Pa nor have I ever had a problem with Amazon’s service,either in delivery, or refunds. And I bought more than books from them. There are a lot of books to choose from, 1 million is a lot by any standards. Already in my area, one Borders closed down. The ebooks are cheaper. They deserve it for charging too much for a book to begin with. What you may not know is that if your Isaac Asimov Robot series is available in the free ebooks sites, you can still put it on your Kindle by downloading on your PC and then to your device. Don’t tell me that it is HARD to plug in a USB cord and press a key to get the books you love. Also I can access the web and just for fun(yes, fun!), I sent an email to a friend from my Kindle the first day I owned it. It has capability to play music, in the background if you wish and there are 2 text to speech voices to choose from, male or female, if you want to hear your book (where the author allows, not all do). For the future there is a microphone on the bottom edge. And all the newspapers available, that saves again more paper building up in my house for no good reason. If you had great grandparents who couldn’t part with any newspaper and saw the stacks in a cellar, then you know what I mean. There is only one thing I wish the Kindle would have and that is color. But that is not a big deal to me; my reading is not done that way for the most part and when the Kindle comes out in color, I will probably buy one if the price isn’t ridiculous. All in all, I find the Kindle to be a keeper and very convenient to own. You can carry a small library around w/o having to be a weightlifter to do it. No I don’t work for Amazon, I just really like the device.

  4. Hi Arun Thanks for your review. I wonder how many of the things you don’t like about the Kindle have very little to do with the device and more to do with your environment?

    I also consider myself a bibliophile, but most of my reading time is on the daily work commute, and when on holidays. These situations present two problems: the amount of luggage space books can take up (particularly when I can easily get through four or five novels in a two week trip – more if it starts with a long plane flight); and the damage books can incur when packed in briefcases and suitcases. An e-reader solves both of these problems, and so I recently bought a Kindle WiFi + 3G as a gift for my wife’s birthday a while ago, and have just gone and bought one for myself as well.

    The range of ebooks available to me here in Australia must be much better than it is for you in India. There’s plenty in the Amazon Kindle store already, and it’s growing all the time. That said, I was looking at getting an ereader a year or so ago and decided not to, due to the limited amount of content, but that situation has now improved and is no longer an issue. Sure, some new releases are priced close to paperback price, but if you can wait a couple of months then the price will come down. And my attitude is that if I’m prepared to pay $20 for a paperback I really want, I’ll pay the same for an ebook.

    3G coverage is widespread and reliable in Australia, and there is free WiFi in a number of public places like libraries, coffee shops and some city parks, etc. In terms of sharing, as well as downloading content via WiFi or 3G you can also download to PC first, and then copy to more than one Kindle via USB. As you say, Kindle now does the sharing thing that the Nook has been doing for a while. My only issues here are: the Kindle doesn’t support as many file formats as other devices; and doesn’t currently give you free public library ebook access, like the Nook, but hopefully that will come in the future.

    I have found the reading experience great. My wife used to complain that you couldn’t read at night because it wasn’t backlit, but after pointing out that books aren’t backlit either she conceded that it’s not a problem. The lighting in our house is mostly energy saving compact fluorescent bulbs which produce quite a white light (after they have “warmed up” for a couple of minutes) so reading on the couch, in bed, etc. at night is fine.

    All in all I find the Kindle great, and I will probably buy one for my daugther for Christmas as well. She’s an avid reader and will get a lot of use out of it.

  5. Hi there,

    Many thanks for this review, I think it was very helpful for two reasons. Firstly holding the book. Now I love books and for me the operative verb is not ‘reading’ a book, it is ‘curling up with a book’, which requires a certain way of holding the book in the first place. . . so perhaps the kindle isn’t for me.

    However that pales in comparison to the fact that the books come with DRM on them. This will lock you into only buying kindles in the future. Now if you don’t re-read books or if you only buy a few books then that’s no problem, however my “re-read” library (books I keep to specifically re-read, rather than those I can stand to lose) is currently around 500 books, which I guess would be c. £5,000 to replace. Therefore if in the future the only kindles you can buy are super colour ones that cost a bomb, you’re locked into buying it when your current device breaks (or repurchase your whole library). Therefore I’m waiting. I agree with Andrew that the advantages for travelling are huge and it may sway me if the price comes down, but as a long term depository, speaking as someone who fell for the Sony Sonic stage system and lost his whole music library, I’m waiting for non DRM books.

    Overall though, great review.

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