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I got my Kindle

February 26, 2009

I enjoy reading, a lot. Everywhere I go, I’ve got a book with me, and sometimes I’ve got more than one book in progress at any given time, because I’ll have one in the car that I read when I’m out, and one I read at home. When I go on a long trip, I will literally fill a backpack with books, so that if I finish — or become bored with — one, I have another, and I can be sure I will have something to read at all times. Quite frankly, I overpack when it comes to my literary sundries.

Even on long trips, it’s rare that I finish an entire book, let alone two. But once in my childhood I went on a trip to Arizona armed only with a single MAD magazine, which I finished after about half an hour. The trip was agony. So I’d rather have too much reading material, than too little.

Still, lugging that kind of weight around can really do a number on you — or at least on me — so I’ve always been down with the idea of eBooks, which have been around for the better part of a decade but lacked a sufficiently sophisticated device to make them portable. There had been eReaders in the past, but they all felt like throw-away technologies in a way. An electronics company would build a cheap, basic device and sell it at a high price because the demand was so low.

So when Amazon brought out the original Kindle…well, I wasn’t sold, but I was excited. Here was a company whose business was not electronics. Their business was — and still primarily is — books. They were focused on making a single good product, rather than one electronics product among many. And they know and appreciate the experience of reading.

On top of that, they were in the enviable position of not just being able to fill a niche, but being able to create a niche. They have a relationship with publishers and authors that no electronics company has ever had, they could use their supply to create the demand. They could make an iPod for books, and they basically already had the “music store” in place.

Kindle 1.0 wasn’t quite there, which is why I didn’t get one. Despite the potential for greatness with the world’s biggest bookseller not only backing but producing an eReader, the fact was there still wasn’t very much content. It would be like buying an iPod before there were MP3s — great idea, but what do you PUT on it?

And then there was the design. The thing was bulky, and the sides of the device — where you’d want to hold it while reading — were taken up with the buttons that turned the pages.1 I could see just by looking at it that there was no way to hold it comfortably without the constant risk of an accidental page turn.

So I liked the concept of Kindle, but the limitations of Kindle 1 made it not worthwhile for me, and I put it out of my mind. It was not a technology I was tracking very closely — nor, indeed, at all. The Kindle 2 announcement caught me quite by surprise.2

I don’t remember why I went to Amazon a couple weeks ago — not that I don’t browse the site occasionally, but I had a reason to check it that day. When I did, the announcement of the Kindle 2’s forthcoming release was splashed across the front page, and in some way referenced on nearly every other. The pictures answered two of my three major concerns: the page-turn buttons had been reduced in size significantly, and the device was much, much slimmer and sleeker. It was a modern cell phone to Kindle 1’s 1980s Brickphone. The old Kindle looked way too much like a wacky new electronics device that was cobbled together haphazardly, still trying to figure itself out. Kindle 2 looks like it’s getting it.

So the cosmetics and ergonomics had been revised for the better. To my third objection — the availability of content — Amazon has been working their asses off in the last couple years, looks like. Similar to just about every new technology — be it iTunes AAC, DVD, or Blu-Ray — it looks like most new releases are and will come out in the Kindle format, as well as in print, while pre-Kindle books are being ported in a more or less arbitrary order, depending on perceived demand and the publisher’s willingness to bother, among other things.

Even given that, I would say a good 95% of the books I searched for off the top of my head had Kindle editions. They claim 240,000 books available, and that seems plausible. And they’re cheaper via Kindle than buying them in a store, and you get free and immediate wireless delivery to the Kindle.

Well, that was it. I placed my order. And last night I got my Kindle.

My first impression on removing the device from the package was that it was both bigger and smaller than I expected:

Bigger in terms of screen size — I don’t know how it compares to the original Kindle, it’s probably about the same. But I was expecting a screen about the size of an iPhone, and the Kindle screen is 20-30% bigger — about the size of a mass market paperback book page, which is appropriate.

Smaller in terms of form factor: the Kindle is about the size of a trade paperback, and whereas I thought it would be slightly thicker than my iPhone, it is slightly thinner. The clean, white, smooth design makes it feel very much like an Apple product.

Amazon has really been pushing this whole “electronic paper” thing, and now that I’ve seen it I understand why. When I took the Kindle out, there was a set of idiot-proof  instructions on the screen telling me how to charge the Kindle and start using it. It looked like a demo sticker on the screen, then I realized it was actually being displayed on the Kindle screen itself. It isn’t backlit, so it doesn’t strain your eyes, and doesn’t become difficult to see in bright light like sunlight. Aside from having a little bit of reflectivity, it  genuinely looks like a printed page.

There are a lot of ways to explain what’s going on in the Kindle. In concept it’s essentially an LCD screen, with little “pixel” sites embedded in it that are switched on and off electronically (and they have 16 levels of “on” intensity, which helps create a greyscale image). But instead of light emitters, the pixel sites are little pockets of charged ink. It’s actually ink in there, just microscopic particles of it; but if you break the screen, it will leak. In this sense it’s a lot like a laser printer, which works in much the same fashion to draw the electrically charged toner onto the sheet of paper.

The text on the Kindle is very sharp, without visible stairstepping unless you get your eye unnecessarily close to the thing; and even then it’s minor. Unlike an LCD, though, it takes no energy to maintain the display of the image. In other words, once the Kindle puts up the image, once it tells the individual inksites how “on” they ought to be, they remain in that state until told otherwise. That’s why Kindle’s battery life can last so long — the only time it uses any power is when I turn the page, when it has to re-set the ink to display the next page.

Think of it like a really sophisticated Etch-a-Sketch. It requires energy to make a picture, but once the picture is made, it requires no energy to keep the picture displayed. It will sit there happily until you apply more energy by shaking it.

This takes some getting used to, in a sense. When you put the Kindle to sleep, instead of going blank, it displays a nicely-rendered portrait of a famous author on the screen, picking one of several pre-loaded images at random each time. My first impulse was to worry about battery life — imagine if your iPhone showed a picture the whole time it was asleep; it’d drain the battery in a couple of hours. But the Kindle expends no energy to maintain the picture, only to render it. It’s the reason the Kindle battery can last several weeks on a single charge — most of the time spent reading, it’s not using any power. So they have it put an image up in sleep mode just for the hell of it. It’s a nice touch.

The “page turns,” by the way, are quite fast. I heard the first Kindle was relatively slow to respond, and this Kindle is — so I’m told — about 4 times faster. It takes about the same amount of time as it would to turn the page in a real book. I can see why it taking four times that long would be frustrating, but here it’s fast enough to feel pretty seamless.

This “Kindle does nothing until you tell it to” system also apparently applies to purchasing eBooks. Amazon touts their Whispernet as delivering your purchased books to you in under 60 seconds. You can purchase from a computer, or straight from the Kindle. When you purchase, it tells you that the book will appear “automatically” on your home screen once it is finished downloading. This is apparently not to be confused with “Your purchase will download automatically.” I purchased a book (The Alienist by Caleb Carr, which my dad has been trying to get me to read for years) and waited…and waited…and I checked my Amazon account and sure enough the purchase was noted and listed as “successfully sent.”

I found this frustrating. Amazon gives the option to download the book and load it via USB to your Kindle device3, but the point is that the thing is supposed to be wireless if I want it to be.

Then I found the home menu item “Sync & Check for Items.” A click of that command, and then I had the book on my Kindle in a matter of seconds. So a 1-Click purchase becomes a 4-Click procedure. (1. Buy; 2. Home; 3. Menu; 4. Sync)

Meh. I can live with that. It’s still more convenient than getting in the car, driving to the bookstore, and paying twice as much for the printed copy, as well as ordering off the store and waiting for my copy to come in the mail. I save money, I save time, and when I want to read something I can read it right then, instead of running the risk of forgetting to pick that book up. I can also get sample chapters of the books first, so I can decide whether or not it’s worth the buy.

(UPDATE: I have found downloads I’ve done today — there’s a lot of free content available for some reason — would, in fact, download and sync automatically upon purchase. I must have just had bad 3G reception in my room last night when testing it.)

So overall, I’m happy with my purchase, but there’s definitely still room for improvement in Kindle 3. The Kindle looks so much like an Apple product now, I keep trying to navigate by touching the screen. The navigation controls are solid enough, but these days a nubby little joystick feels like a major step backwards.

If not a touch-screen per se, I would accept — and possibly even prefer — a Palm-like, stylus-based system of use. This ties into the fact that I would really like to be able to make notes and annotations directly on the page. The Kindle does have an option for contextual notes, which you can type in, but I’d like to be able to scrawl right onto the screen, so I could make notes on, say, a script or manuscript.

Which brings me to the next improvement: PDF support, goddammit. If I could load screenplays onto my Kindle, and read and scrawl notes on them, it would be the perfect device. I can carry my whole library and a hundred scripts with me everywhere I went. Make it so that you can not only load PDF documents, but also export them with your annotations intact for printing or e-mailing, and everyone in Hollywood — seriously, everyone — would get one. Producers, script supervisors, screenwriters, directors — it would become a standard, must-have piece of industry technology.

Amazon, seriously. You’re sitting on a gold mine.

Amazon does offer a document conversion service for several formats, PDF among them, by which you can send them a document and they will convert it to the Kindle-friendly format AZW. It’s free, but slow, to just have them send it back to you via email to load up over a USB connection, and $.10 per document, but faster, to have them send it straight to your Kindle via Whispernet.

The caveat is that “special formatting” may be lost — and the formatting of scripts, as we all know, is quite particular. I haven’t tried a Kindle conversion on a script yet, I will do so later tonight or tomorrow; but my guess in advance is that the formatting once returned to me will be asplode.

No doubt a future version of the Kindle will also have a color screen. Black and white doesn’t kill me — it’s the way most books are, after all. But take for example The Art and Science of Digital Compositing. It is available on Kindle, which is tempting, although the price tag is a bit steep considering I already have the book in print.4 I’d be able to benefit by having such fantastic reference on hand all the time without lugging the appropriately massive print version around, but I would lose the color illustrations which were, in large part, the point of the second edition. A color Kindle would be much more valuable in that situation; it would also mean that more visually-oriented periodicals, such as National Geographic, would be worthwhile ports to Kindle subscriptions, instead of only text-based ones.

At the same time, there are some proposed features that I personally find distasteful. Kindle’s built-in (and free!) 3G connectivity would seem to make it a no-brainer to add web-browsing (they already have an “experimental” basic browser) and, inevitably, e-mail functionality to the device.

Listen, Amazon. When I pick up a copy of Huckleberry Finn at the library, I don’t expect it to help me check my goddamn email. I don’t want it to check my goddamn email. I check my goddamn email too goddamn much. I want the Kindle to be a book. An uberbook containing a thousand books within it; one which I can add to dynamically, anytime, anywhere; but still, a book. When I read it, I want to avoid all the other distractions vying for my attention. Please don’t make them part of the Kindle experience. I won’t be strong enough to resist them if you do.

Kindle also has the ability to subscribe to newspapers, magazines, and — amusingly — certain high-traffic blogs (i.e. not mine, and not yours). So if you positively must remain up-to-date with Boing Boing no matter where you go, Kindle’s got your back — for $2 a month.5

So if you’re an avid and varied reader,  the Kindle isn’t perfect but it’s still pretty awesome, and probably worth the buy. It’s on the more expensive side, but if you buy a lot of books and periodicals, the savings will probably balance out fast.

If you’re not sure if the Kindle is the right gadget for you, it quite probably isn’t. But if it sounds like it is, and you can accept its limitations and quirks, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

As for me, my only real issue, so far, has been resisting the urge to blow my whole paycheck on eBooks.

  1. Also, inexplicably, while the large button on the right side of the device took you to the next page, the large button on the left also took you to the next page. The button for the previous page was a smaller button on the upper left side. Though the buttons are now smaller, rather than comprising the entire side of the device, they still have the odd quirk of having the two largest buttons on either side both as “next page,”and only one, smaller button on the left for “previous.”
  2. Though, interestingly, both John August and John Rogers posted blog articles re: Kindle within a week before the new rev’s announcement, putting it back on my radar.
  3. For those lamenting that using eReaders means no more sharing books — ta-da! It just means your friend has to have a Kindle, too.
  4. Perhaps publishers will begin to do as the studios have, and provide a “digital copy” of the book — or at least a discount on same — with every purchase of the print version.
  5. Though you could read them all, mine included, for free on the browser; so you’re basically paying for RSS syncing.

From → reviews, technology

  1. Excellent work. Best Kindle review I’ve seen.

  2. I’ve been waiting for your review and my anticipation was rewarded. This is going to be a difficult decision for me. Packing books for travel is a challenge for me as well (I remember angrily lugging a suitcase with all of my clothes and at least fifteen books in it–some for summer school–up a staircase in Rome… Oh–who am I kidding–I remember watching Jason do that). But I also love the feel and smell of real books. So I couldn’t do Kindle for everything. So then I would come up with a series of asinine rules to determine whether I get the ebook version or the regular version and then drive myself nuts over following them…

    And the annotation thing. Ugh. I just don’t know.

    But your review was great and fed into my current not-committing-to-getting-a-kindle-but-still-reading-everything-I-can-about-it obsession.

  3. Partner was the same way: Limitations of the first Kindle put him off, but the second one intrigued him enough to get it. Of course, leave it to me to see how well it can pronounce profanity as my first experience with it. 🙂 (I’m such a friggin’ child.) I couldn’t help but laugh at “BEAR-ak a-BAM-a”. 😛 I like the whole “experimental” features concept, but I worry that the features may get pulled if there are not enough people to give the feedback on those, but (again) I like the idea that more features could show up there.

  4. I’m now looking seriously at this thing, thanks to your review.

    I’ve tried to load books onto my iPhone, but have been put off by the eyestrain and battery consumption. The electronic ink sounds fantastic.

    I’m not so sure about the keyboard ‘feature’ – if I’m buying a book I sort of want it to be a book. I can understand it from an academic context, but it seems to be adding unnecessary clutter to me.

    They also don’t seem to have released this in the UK. I can live without 3G connectivity and syncing via USB, but having to add the extra steps of shopping for purchases and exchange rates… I think I’ll be waiting to see what happens next.

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