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Issue 9.2


Amazon Kindle (hardware)

Issue: 9.2 (January/February 2011)
Author: Marc Zeedar
Article Description: No description available.
Article Length (in bytes): 16,474
Starting Page Number: 13
Article Number: 9203
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Lately, there's been a lot of talk about Apple's iPad killing Amazon's Kindle ereader. After all, an iPad is virtually a Kindle and can do so much more. Who would bother with a Kindle?

The answer? Readers.

If you love to read books, the Kindle's a great device. Apple usually wins at making tech simple, but ironically it's the Kindle that's simpler than the iPad and that helps it win in the ereader category. It's not that iPad isn't a good ereader. It's a great ereader. But it's not only an ereader. If you primarily do other things—email, web browsing, music, movies, games, etc., or you read mostly magazines or technical material—it's not even a contest as the iPad's really a lightweight laptop and a different class of device.

For just curling up and reading, without interruption of email and news notifications, or distractions such as Angry Birds, the Kindle wins. The Kindle can't do anything else, so you're stuck reading (it has a web browser, but the small grayscale screen and arrow-key navigation makes using it so tedious you'll never bother). With the iPad, there's a world of hundreds of thousands of apps and millions of websites to explore. You can even do real work on an iPad. There's so much to do with an iPad that reading falls way down the list of priorities. The iPad is also bigger and heavier, so it feels as intimidating as a thick tomb while the new Kindle is so tiny and light it makes even a thousand-page novel seem approachable. And while the battery life is long enough on the iPad for that to not be an issue, it is nice to be able to use a Kindle for weeks without having to bother charging it.

Of course, if you want to do more than read, an iPad is your baby. But for some, it's overkill. That's especially true when you compare prices. For the cost of one iPad you could buy three or four Kindles. That's a huge difference. While buying iPads for everyone in the family might be too expensive, you might consider an iPad and two Kindles instead. An elderly relative that you think might like an iPad might be just as well off with a Kindle, especially if he or she just wants to read books and isn't likely to actually use email or browse the web. My point is that you need to know what you want to do and buy the device that's appropriate for that task.

It is important to remember that when you talk Kindle, there really are two Kindle products: the hardware and the ecosystem. The beauty of the ecosystem is that when you buy Kindle books, Amazon stores them for you in the cloud and you can easily share them between all your devices: Macs, PCs, smartphones, iPad, etc. Amazon will even keep your pages in sync so you can switch devices in mid-read and never lose your place.

But this review is about the Kindle hardware. There are really only three aspects of it that are important: overall design, design flaws, and unique features.

The overall design is great. It's super-thin, lighter than any real book, the screen is extremely clear and readable (previous generations didn't have enough contrast for me and looked like gray-on-gray), and it works wonderfully as a reader. I was shocked to find I vastly prefer the Kindle to a real paperback as the screen is flat, not curved, and is much easier to read. With a long battery life and built-in wireless you'll rarely need to even bother connecting to a computer or a power outlet. It's about as simple a device as you can imagine. If you have 3G or Wi-Fi, you don't actually even need a computer to use it!

On the negative side, the built-in hardware keyboard is awful, grayscale pictures are a poor substitute for color, there is no rotation-sensor, and the arrow-based navigation system is tedious (especially compared to a touch screen interface). But both of these are rarely used functions and work well enough that you won't stress over it. Ninety percent of the time when you read books (particularly novels), you're just turning pages linearly. Unless you're really into annotating passages, or you like to jump around from book to book, you'll hardly ever bother with the keyboard and you only need to fuss with the Kindle's menus between books. (I wouldn't recommend the Kindle for research projects, as navigating around a book is awkward. It works best for linear works, like novels, where you just read straight through the book.)

Prior to using a Kindle I'd been leery of the slowness of its E-Ink screen. But in practice, it's not an issue. There's a minor black flash of the entire screen each time you change pages. It takes less than a second and while disorienting the first few times you see it, after a few minutes of reading you'll stop noticing it completely. The only other time the refresh is slow is when you're navigating with the arrow keys: the highlight of the current cursor point always lags a hair behind your movement, and if you press keys rapidly, it gets way behind and you might end up selecting the wrong menu option. You're better off to be deliberate and certain and don't try to do things too quickly. The technology is definitely a drawback to the Kindle—a touchscreen interface would make things so much easier—but ultimately, for an ereader, it's a minor drawback and I am surprised at how well it works.

Those aspects of the Kindle design were mostly what I expected from reading reviews. What surprised me is that the Kindle hardware has some unique advantages to the Kindle software on other platforms. Here are some things I didn't know until I used the Kindle myself.

  • Books stay on the Kindle when you de-link it from Amazon.

On an iPad or iPhone (and presumably other platforms), when you unlink your device from your Amazon account, all your content vanishes. It returns when you re-link it. Why is this significant? Because it gives you a workaround to Amazon's DRM (copy protection). Normally you cannot share Kindle books: they are tied to your Amazon account. This means you can't buy a book on your account and "lend" it to your mom. However, with the Kindle hardware, you can temporarily link your mom's Kindle to your account, install the book, and then unlink it. The book will stay on her Kindle until she deletes it!

Linking a Kindle to your account is easy: just type in your Amazon login and password (you can also do it from your computer while logged into Amazon's website and Amazon will wirelessly activate the Kindle).

This is a more flexible approach to DRM similar to how you could burn DRM music from Apple's iTunes onto a CD and then rip the disc to remove the DRM. It's enough of a hassle that no pirate's going to bother, but it allows us reasonable people to get around some silly limitations. This workaround is not going to work for widespread sharing as you definitely don't want to spread your Amazon account info around (use it only with people you trust) and most books on Amazon do have a six-device limit, so you can't "share" a book this way with too many devices. But it's a significant advantage that Amazon supports this with their hardware device (there's no reason they couldn't do it with their software readers, but I suspect they don't want to promote the feature as it might worry paranoid publishers).

  • Kindle supports folders.

My number one complaint about Kindle on iPad is that there is no way to group my books into folders—all I get is one long list of books. As someone who reads multiple books at once (usually in different genres) and also likes to have reference books on tap, a mere list is inconvenient. But on the Kindle hardware there's a feature to group books into "Collections." The interface to do this isn't ideal (but about as easy as can be with arrow-key controls) but it works great. For this reason alone I'm more likely to reach for my Kindle than my iPad for reading.

  • Use Clippings to excerpt text.

An annoying limitation to the Kindle reading system is that there is no way to copy text from a book. If you find a quotation you'd like to share or want to quote part of a book in a blog review, you have to retype the text. But on the Kindle hardware when you highlight any text, it is automatically saved to a "Clippings" text file on the Kindle. If you plug the Kindle into your computer via the USB cable, you can open this text file and get access to the quotes. I wish there was wireless access to the file, but any access is better than none. One other drawback to this feature: highlighting text on other platforms does not add it to the Clippings file (though the highlights do show up in the book).

  • You can add non-Kindle books to the hardware reader (but not the software ones).

I sort of knew that one could put text and other files on the Kindle, but I never realized the significance of not being able to do that on the Kindle Reader on my iPhone and iPad. With this feature I can move free Project Gutenberg ebooks onto my Kindle—but not on my iPad (there are other ways to read them, but it's nice to have all your books in one place). Kindle supports a variety of formats, too, including PDF and Mobi. (I wish it supported EPUB, which is what iBooks uses. iBooks books are copy protected so they would never work, but Apple's presence is causing more places to support DRM-free EPUB.)

  • You can email files to your Kindle.

Speaking of files on your Kindle, Amazon provides Kindle owners with a free email address that's tied to your device. Just send an attachment to that email and it will show up on your Kindle automatically! (Within seconds, too. It's very fast.) If you put "convert" in the subject line, it will convert several document formats to make them Kindle compatible. Imagine being able to email books, articles, or even a message to Grandma's Kindle! (I always thought that Amazon charged for this service, but they only charge if you send the files via 3G. If you have a Wi-Fi Kindle or set a preference in your account that you don't want to be charged, Amazon will only send the files when you're connected via Wi-Fi, which is free.)

  • Shopping Amazon on Kindle is scary convenient.

I'd heard you could buy books directly from your Kindle , and although I hadn't expected to bother with that, it is surprisingly efficient. This is mainly because all it shows are Kindle books (unlike the regular website where you have to make sure you're looking within the Kindle section) so if you see it on the store you can be reading the book within seconds. The only thing I don't like is that there is no way to reorganize the list to show books by price (handy for finding free books).

Because your Kindle is linked to your Amazon account, you don't even have to type in a password the way you do to buy an app on an iPhone: just select a book and bang, it's downloading. (If you downloaded a book you didn't mean to buy—that happened to me—there's an "unbuy" button you can choose to reverse the transaction. I suspect that option is only available for a limited time after you purchase. Once you choose it, the book disappears off your Kindle and your credit card is not charged.)

  • Kindle "screensaver" is cool.

When your Kindle sleeps, it displays a random picture on the screen (usually a famous author). Because E-Ink only uses power to change the display, the screen can stay "on" without using any power. It's surprisingly nice—much better than a boring blank screen.

  • Magazine and newspaper subscriptions are only available on Kindle hardware.

I'm not that interested in reading periodicals on a Kindle's limited screen, but the auto-delivery feature of these is nice. I'm not sure why Amazon limits them to their hardware.

  • Kindle plays audiobooks and MP3s.

Yeah, not that great in the age of iPods and it kills your battery life, but interesting. There's also a robotic "read aloud" feature which is more of a gimmick, but it could be useful in certain situations and for some kinds of books.

The Bottom Line

There is no question that digital books have arrived. The advantages are tremendous for publishers, authors, distributors, and readers, though the transition is going to take many years and print is never going to disappear completely (it may just cost more). The question now, if you wish to take advantage of ebooks, is what reading device will you use?

iPad's big advantage is that is supports all the platforms (iBooks, Kindle, Nook, Google's new ebook venture, and many others). Kindle won't support as much, but Amazon has built a tremendous ebook platform. If you're worried about being locked in to a particular company, it's a valid concern. Each of the main vendors has their own proprietary DRM and if you buy books from one place, they can't be used by any of the others. Until one standard "wins," that's the unfortunate reality.

But since all we really want is for our content (ebooks) to be readable on whatever device we want and all the ebook vendors seem to be committed to supporting multiple platforms, is a "lock in" such a big deal? I was worried at first, but as long as my books are accessible on all my devices, I'm fine. Also, all of the main ebook vendors are huge companies and are unlikely to disappear and leave you without access to your purchases.

It really comes down to what you want an ereader to do (just books or something more), and what type of reading material you prefer. Having both an iPad and a Kindle, I read novels on my Kindle and magazines and technical books (PDFs) on my iPad, since those have complex layouts and color graphics. Those are also shorter attention-span materials (with my limited brain power I can't handle tech books for an extended period of time), which fits in with the distracting nature of the iPad. Such content also works better with a more flexible interface, since I'm likely to be browsing or doing research that requires me to be moving around within a book or magazine. The Kindle's non-touch screen is fine for linear reading, and is the ideal choice for fiction.

End of article.