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ISBS Review: The Amazon Kindle

By Brian | December 27, 2009 | Share on Facebook

I realize that this probably would have been more useful before Christmas, but I’ve been using the Amazon Kindle for about a month now, and I’ve finally found the time to write up a review. So, if you didn’t get one for Christmas and you’ve got stuff to return at Amazon, maybe this will help you out.

One sentence: The Amazon Kindle is surprisingly good at what it does, but surprisingly stubborn in its desire to only do that one thing.

More than one sentence: When I read a book on the Amazon Kindle, I quite often forget that I’m not reading a real book, sometimes to the point where I reach for the upper-right corner of the page to turn it, rather than pushing the “Next Page” button. Reasons for this include screen resolution, form factor and simple design.

The text on the Kindle’s screen is not back-lit like a computer monitor or a PDA. Instead, it’s actual lines drawn on the screen each time a page is rendered – kind of like the old Etch-a-Sketch toys we played with as kids, only much clearer and immune to shaking. How clear is the image? When I first took the Amazon Kindle out of the box, the screen had an Amazon logo on it and a message that said “Welcome to Kindle.” I immediately began picking at one of the corners of the device, trying to peel off what I assumed was a clear, plastic overlay with a logo printed on it. Luckily, before I damaged my new toy, I realized that the logo was on the screen itself. With that kind of resolution, you could read War and Peace on this thing and never have your eyes go tired (well, not from the Kindle, anyway…)

The device’s form factor also pleasantly surprised me, although I think it might be because I got my Kindle with a leather cover, which opens just like a book. So now, when I read, I hold the cover just like I would a real book, except that instead of pages in between, it’s just the one electronic device. I would highly recommend the extra $30 for this cover, especially for those who are concerned that the Kindle would take away that “curl up with a good book on a peaceful Sunday morning” feeling. Without it, I think it would feel more like a Star-Trek style tablet computer, which would definitely lessen the experience.

And finally, there’s the extremely simple design. More than half of the device’s surface is covered by the screen. The six buttons – Next Page (one on each side), Previous Page (unfortunately, only on the left side), Home, Menu and Back (right side only) are thin, recessed into the device so that they don’t stick up from the surface at all, and even have white-on-white coloring to make them blend in as much as possible. Even the keyboard and the small joystick at the bottom of the device are small and white-on-white to encourage blending. What does this all mean? It means that when you read, you can lose yourself in the story you’re reading, rather than being distracted by all the gadgets surrounding the words.

Kindle strives to be as much like a book as possible. And in this area, it succeeds surprisingly well.

But this is a sleek-looking, $260 gadget that exists in an iPhone-enabled world, so I’d be lying to you if I didn’t admit that I went looking for other functions almost immediately. Here, I was, however unfairly, disappointed. There’s the ability to play music (MP3 files) while you read, but the controls are so clunky and the features so minimal that it wouldn’t even dream of being an iPod killer. There’s a very, very basic web browser, but it’s really only for browsing the Kindle store. Yes, you can go to any other website, but anything but the most basic page is going to be poorly rendered (the browser doesn’t support CSS, for example) and/or hard to navigate (since there’s no mouse, you have to move link by link down the page using the joystick).

Predictably, the book-related features are a little more interesting, but still clunky. There’s text-to-speech (enabled only for those authors who allow it, which so far has been all of them for me, but I’ve read that some do not). Readers with poor eyesight can increase the size of the text. Also, you can use the joystick to navigate (line-by-line and word-by-word) to a word you don’t recognize, and a dictionary definition will appear at the bottom of the screen. Click on the “more” link from there, and it will open a dictionary (included as a free book) to the word’s entry for more information. You can also set bookmarks and make annotations, although navigating back through your bookmarks (like all joystick-based navigation) is difficult, and the small keyboard, while fine for searching the Kindle store for new books, makes it difficult at best to write anything more than the shortest of notes.

The only impressive “tech” feature of the Kindle is its connectivity, both wireless and when plugged into a computer. Over the years, I’ve had a few eReader applications on various portable devices (anyone remember the Palm Pilot?), and so I’ve collected about two dozen eBooks, ranging in file formats from .prc (a common eBook standard) to .txt (plain text file) to .doc (Microsoft Word document) to .pdf (the commonly used Adobe format). When I plugged my Kindle into my computer, it functioned like an external hard drive. I was able to drag & drop all of these files onto the Kindle and they were immediately available to me for reading. No software to install, no training required. Given how long ago (and from how many sources) I collected these books, I was greatly impressed by the fluidity of this transaction.

Amazon even provides a conversion feature for formats it doesn’t support, although you need to be careful to avoid accidentally spending money. Here’s how it works: you establish an e-mail address on your Kindle (something@kindle.com), and authorize one or more e-mail addresses to send files to it. Then, you can e-mail a file to that address, and Amazon will convert it to its proprietary Kindle format (.azw) and automatically upload it to your Kindle. Or, if you like, you can send files to a similar e-mail address (something@free.kindle.com), and Amazon will convert it to the .azw format and then e-mail you back a link to the file, which you can then download to your computer and drag & drop to the Kindle as described above. The difference is, the former service costs money, and the latter is free of charge. Not only that, but I have yet to find the web-page where Amazon explains how much money they charge for this service and, not having bothered to try it, I can’t be of any help either.

But the real connectivity story is the wireless one. An anecdote provides the most colorful illustration: I’m sitting on my commuter train, reading one of my eBooks, when I see someone in another seat reading a book that looks interesting. Right there in my seat, I click over to the Kindle Store, and type in the book title. One click later, followed by about a ten second wait, and I’m reading a free sample of the book I just saw (usually the first chapter or so). If I like what I’ve read and want to purchase the entire book, I can click “buy now” (Amazon will use the credit card you have on file for its “one-click” shopping service) and in less than a minute, I’m reading the entire text. All without leaving my seat, and all because I happened to glance at the cover of someone else’s book. Holy impulse-buy-enabler, Batman! What’s more, to achieve this amazing flexibility, Amazon has equipped the Kindle with 3G Internet connectivity (like most cell phones have), so you don’t have to worry about finding a Wifi hotspot, logging into some network, or otherwise fiddling with the device. The Kindle Store is always there, and always ready to sell you a book or provide a free sample.

The first time I tried it, I was truly amazed by how short the time interval was between “hmmm…that book looks interesting” and “I’m now reading the first chapter.” This is obviously something that you can’t do with the “dead-tree” variety book. Then again, while I was reading my free sample, my Kindle suddenly popped up a message that said, “Battery out of power – you must plug your Kindle into a power outlet before reading anything else,” leaving me sitting on the train with nothing to read. And, of course, it occurred to me (for the second time in thirty seconds) that this is also something that doesn’t happen with a dead-tree variety book.

The moral of the story: if you’re an avid reader, and you find yourself wishing you had any number of books with you when you travel, commute, etc., then you’re going to be very pleased with the Kindle. It looks and feels like a real book, and quite literally puts a bookstore in the palm of your hands. Just don’t try to use it to browse the web, check your e-mail, or manage your music collection. And make sure to charge the battery before you leave the house…

Topics: ISBS Reviews, Tech Talk | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “ISBS Review: The Amazon Kindle”

  1. New Gadgets | ISBS Review: The Amazon Kindle says at December 27th, 2009 at 7:50 am :
    [...] Original post by FamilyGreenberg.Com [...]

  2. FamilyGreenberg.Com - Allright already, here’s my iPad post says at January 30th, 2010 at 4:40 am :
    [...] ISBS Review: The Amazon Kindle [...]

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