The Final Word on Kindle

Posted on January 28, 2009

With all the buzz about the Amazon Kindle (and it’s upcoming successor), I’ve received quite a few questions about its current features, the way I use it, and how much money I spend buying books for it, among other things. Rather than answer a bunch of ad-hoc questions like an embattled politician at a press conference, I figured I would write a more comprehensive profile about this electronic book reader and how it’s changed (or hasn’t) my reading habits.

I’ll start by saying that I absolutely love this device. It almost perfectly reproduces the experience of reading an ink-and-paper book, but there are quite a few “gotchas” that you should seriously think about before buying one for yourself.

What I Like

The Size – Though Kindle is far from the sexiest piece of electronica I’ve stuffed in my bag, consider how its size makes it immensely useful. A picture tells a thousand words, so I’ll let my Nikon do the talking:

The Kindle is a little wider and taller than a mass market paperback, but much less thick:

King Arthur vs. The Kindle

King Arthur vs. The Kindle

It’s much bigger than my iPhone, so it’s not exactly going to fit in my pocket:

kindle-2

Not exactly a pocket device...

But (and this is the important part), a Kindle full of e-books weighs much less than their print equivalents:

kindle

Which do you think is easier on your back?

Including a Thomas Pynchon book was a bit of an exaggeration, but still…

The Screen – Kindle’s screen is the closest an electronic device has come to reading an actual paper book. There’s no glare in direct sunlight, and no backlight to irritate your eyes. Of course, this means that you need proper lighting to read it, as if you were reading an ink-and-paper book. Time to bust out the old-fashioned book lights!

Wireless Kindle Store – This is a very big draw. You can browse the Amazon store on your Kindle and buy books directly from the device; they are sent over Sprint’s EV-DO wireless network. This means if you can get a cellular signal, you can browse the Kindle store. You can also buy books on your computer, and they will still be sent wirelessly. You don’t even need a computer to use it! Can you download a novel to keep you busy on your Passage to India? Yup! Can you start Wizard and Glass after traversing The Waste Lands? You bet.

Third-Party-Compatibility – Thankfully, Amazon included the ability to read books from sources other than its store. If you have a Palm Reader, Mobipocket, or .txt file, you can plug in your Kindle via USB and drop the files onto it like a flash drive. If your book is an unencrypted PDF, HTML, or Microsoft Word document, there’s a little more work involved. You can either e-mail it to your Kindle (via a special address) for conversion (at $.10 a pop), or you could e-mail it to a “free” conversion address, which will send you back a Kindle-compatible file you can manually copy.

This generally works well, though it tends to screw up funky PDF layouts. It’s also the single best reason to own the device.

If you’re familiar with Gutenberg.org, you’ll know that it has many classic (in the public domain) books available for free download. Imagine being able to take these classics with you, anywhere, for free! Think Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Charles Dickens….I’ve probably read more Gutenberg books than I have Amazon Kindle Books. Generous authors like Cory Doctorow also release their books via Creative Commons licenses that allow free download. A good deal in this sucky economy.

The Dictionary – This might seem a minor feature, but anytime you’re reading on the Kindle, you can pull up the built-in dictionary to look up a word. Just like your mother told you when you were little. Believe me, when navigating James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, this came in handy many times (apparently a last name of “Brady” is no guarantee of Irishness).

The Battery Life – My biggest beef with most mobile devices is the battery life. My iPhone lasts only a day under moderate usage. My laptop can barely push 2 hours. The Kindle can push 2 days, with the wireless radio on, or a week with it off. This is significantly less than the advertised time, but still pretty darned good. This is partly because the Kindle’s screen only draws power when it’s being refreshed.

What I Don’t Like

The Interface – Try not to laugh when you first use the design. The interface was obviously designed by engineers – that’s not a compliment. It consists of a two-way clickable scroll wheel to move the cursor around the screen, pull up menus, and make selections. It’s like something I would have designed to get a C on my Senior Thesis. I’m not asking for an expensive touch screen or voice recognition, but have they even used a Blackberry?

It’s fully functional once you figure it out, it’s just…extremely inelegant. To an Apple-loving yuppie like myself, that’s a grave oversight.

Device Price – This thing cost me more than my Playstation 3, my Wii, both my iPhones, my monitor…I do think they could have created a non-wireless version at a steep discount, since I’m always near the computer, but what can I say? I’m a a sucker for new technology.

Content Price – Kindle books are released around the same time as their hardcover cousins, and usually cost $9.99 for the most popular ones. Classics are around $2, though as I said before, you can get them from Gutenberg.org for free. I understand the publishers need to make money, but seriously? $10? Does it cost that much to upload a file to my computer? The only real reason to pay this much for books is so that you don’t clutter up your house. See the above photo again.

The Screen – It’s easy to read, but it’s monochrome, and the resolution’s not that high. It’s perfect for reading text, but pictures tend to get butchered in the Kindle e-books. It was for this reason that I decided to buy a print edition of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book – how could I miss Dave McKean’s exciting illustrations?

Refresh Speed – It takes about a second for the Kindle to advance in the book. Depending on how large you set the text, you might advance the book several times before moving on to the next “page”. It’s fine for leisurely reading, but absolutely sucks for flipping through a book at lightning speed. The Kindle e-books support hyperlinks, and there’s a system-wide search feature, but this is a serious shortcoming.

Fixed Layout – The iPhone browser rocked the world by rendering a full website, and letting you zoom into your favorite parts. Not so here. All the content is formatted for the Kindle’s fixed width layout (about the dimensions of a paperback book), making it entirely unsuitable for reading books where preserving the printed layout is important (like graphic novels and highly illustrated textbooks).

What I Use It For

Pulp Novels – Books that I only intend to read once, that haven’t really earned a spot on my (severely limited) shelf.

Travel Reading – When you have to go streaking through Airport Security, it’s easier to pack a single Kindle instead of a couple of books. Not to mention if you get bored, you can always download more from the Kindle store.

Guilty Pleasures – Books like the Kama Sutra and Tropic of Cancer have serious literary and culture merit, but try telling that to nosy co-workers. Not to mention that the Kindle is what allowed me to read the Twilight series incognito. Ah, the power of technology!

That leaves me buying print books only if it’s a collectible (any Tolkien book), heavily illustrated, or something I want to flip through again and again. The Amazon Kindle is a huge step in the right direction for electronic publishing, and I can’t wait to see what Amazon will do for the next version.

» Filed Under Books, Everything and Nothing

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