Amazon Kindle: Reviewing The Tech Community’s Whipping Boy

Posted on Sat 08 December 2007 in Dispatches • 7 min read

If you are a reader of tech blogs, you will have no doubt noticed the thorough savaging that the Amazon Kindle has been receiving at the hands of many prominent technology pundits like Michael Arrington and Robert Scoble, as well as podcasts, including the crew at TWiT and Buzz Out Loud.

There’s a small minority of tech folks who seem really into the device, for example you can read Andy Inahtko’s gushing review for the Chicago Sun-Times, and Cali Lewis, who appeared on the TWiT episode linked above, also seems to like the device. With them is a slowly growing cult of Kindle users who breathlessly defend every detail of the product’s design, in part because they like the device and partially in backlash to the initial negative reviews (often without having first-hand experience with the device) that surrounded the launch.

I was one of those people who ordered the device the day it was released, not because I’m usually an early adopter of hardware (this might be one of the first times I’ve bought a first generation device), but because of its link to Amazon, it has such potential to be a game changer. If I intended to provide any kind of commentary on the Kindle, I would need to live with one for a few weeks.

Kindle BoxOpening the Kindle

Kindle unboxing

Doubtless you have heard the basics of Kindle functionality, that it utilizes an e-ink screen for crisp readable text, an expandable memory slot, free EVDO access to the Kindle book store as well as the internet, audiobook support (via Audible, and a USB 2.0 interface (you don’t need a computer to use it, but you can plug it in and access it like a mass storage device). Some of those features, like the audiobook/mp3 support seem a little tacked on and better suited to a dedicated music player than an eBook reader, but the main thing that differentiates the Kindle from other eBook readers on the market is the free EVDO access to one of the largest (if not the largest) retailer online. That’s huge, because it means that any book in Amazon’s eBook library (currently 90,000 titles and growing) is available in less than a minute. This becomes a great vehicle for book discovery, as Amazon allows you to download a free sample chapter of any eBook, which has already resulted in my buying enjoyable books that I may not have tried out otherwise.

Now, I love books. I have bookshelves in every room full of them. I’m actually out of space and have to prioritize what goes on the bookshelves and what I box up for storage at any given time of the year. However, I have noticed that with my Kindle, while I still read the books on my shelves, I’m actually reading more in general because it is so easy and comfortable to get new content quickly. Also, whereas I usually have two or three books with bookmarks stacked on my bedside table, I now have some books, but also my Kindle with multiple books loaded that I can take with me anywhere. This allows me to read whichever book I feel like at the moment when I actually get some free time to do so. Because I have a tendency to carry it around most of the time, it’s important that the battery lasts, which it does. With wireless off the majority of the time I can go about a week before the battery starts getting low.

The experience of reading on the Kindle is actually pretty good. All e-ink screens have a slight delay and flash when turning a page, but honestly, after the first few pages I find I don’t notice it much. I’m probably just adapting my timing of page turns to sync with my eye movement to the top of the screen, but I’m not that aware of it. When holding the Kindle in its cover, it is very comfortable to read sitting up, although when laying down I tend to take it out of the cover and use the keyboard as a handle. The buttons on the side of the device control the page turns, and they are a bit oversensitive. This is the biggest issue when you are handling the Kindle outside of the cover, and it will be something that needs to be addressed in further iterations of this product.

Kindle in cover

My Kindle in its leather cover

As to the display, the text is very crisp and it is reminiscent to ink on paper. Illustrations are displayed well on the device although photos look about as well as you would expect with only 600x800 resolution with 167 ppi and gray scale. This is definitely a text-based device, so obviously the Kindle’s experimental web browser also performs best when pointed to text-based sites.

File formats and DRM are a big issue surrounding the Kindle. Currently it supports the aforementioned audio file types, Amazon’s proprietary AZW eBook format, unprotected mobi files and text. According to Neil Gaiman, the Kindle also originally supported PDF documents , “although not terribly well – it was one of the things I told them about, many of which they fixed – so they may have pulled it until they get the bugs out.” While it’s relatively simple to perform conversions, either via the Kindle service (for free via your email, or for $0.10 via wireless delivery) or by using free Mobipocket desktop software, it seems silly not to natively support more formats, or at least provide a conversion utility in the Kindle firmware itself. This is especially true for Apple users, who must use the Kindle service because the Mobipocket creator program is only designed for Windows. Linux users can run the command-line tool mobigen.exe via Wine, which works very well for me with the Project Gutenberg html eBooks. Apple users running OSX might have similar luck, but I haven’t seen any attempts as of yet. Regardless, this is an issue that needs to be rectified as soon as possible in the next firmware update, which from the looks of the device will be done over the EVDO connection.

DRM is a touchy issue with all digital media and in general I’m against it, as it primarily serves to inconvenience the end user, while at the same time failing in its advertised purpose of combating piracy. I’m certainly not as incensed as some are about it, and I think eventually DRM will go the way of the dodo, as customers get frustrated and publishers get over their terror of the digital marketplace. Honestly, as the Kindle is my only eBook reader, the DRM doesn’t really get in my way, although I’d prefer a more open model based around trust in your users.

How could I possibly review the Kindle without commenting on its price? The $399 on the tag is certainly steep for a device, especially for the average consumer (if there is such a thing). If Amazon wants the Kindle to take off they are going to need to lower that initial cost as soon as they can afford it. Once they get a handle of how much incidental EVDO use is going to cost and get a chance to recoup some R&D expenses, this needs to be brought down to at most a flat $300. Ideally, I’d like to see this device end up somewhere in the $200 range, which is justified considering the wireless capabilities.

My Kindle wishlist also contains feature requests for the Kindle Store. I’d love to see the ability to buy eBooks as gifts for friends who have Kindles, and maybe a way for my Kindle to communicate with another Kindle, such as sending the sample chapter of a book I own to a friend as a recommendation tool. Okay, I stole that last idea from DHP, but it is a wonderful notion. I’d also love to see the option to do bundle purchases, for example buying a physical book and getting the eBook for a nominal fee.

Here’s the deal: I like my Kindle. It has a simple and intuitive user interface, it is very easy to learn to use, and performs its designed task very well. I really enjoy reading on it, and I love the portability. The display is excellent for reading, especially when compared with other species of mobile devices. (If you think I’ll ever regularly read books on a tiny backlit cell phone screen you are very wrong.) That being said, this product is definitely first generation and has its flaws. Hopefully, Amazon will recognize them and correct issues through firmware updates and future iterations of the hardware. On the whole though, I find it to be a very satisfying device, and honestly, I find that some of aspects of the device that the tech community takes issue with are laughable. I predict, someday in the future, the cure for cancer will be released, and the tech community will be up in arms because the cure will lack a touchscreen and will not have a built-in social network. ;-)

That being said, the device is pricey, so consider the features and what they mean to you. Perhaps right now, the Kindle isn’t a good fit for you, and that’s your call as an informed consumer, you don’t have to buy one. However, I selfishly hope you will because the coolest thing about the Kindle is that when you use it , you can see where the future of eBooks is, and exactly how to get there from here, so I’m hoping that it becomes a success.

Here’s to the future of eBooks, wherever it takes us.