3 May 2009

Kindle 2 review

I bought an Amazon Kindle 2 earlier this year. I’ve now read several novels and a bunch of short stories on it, as well as two magazines and a newspaper. I feel I know the device well enough to be able to review it.

Mobile phones are all about bling. Fancy cases, custom screensavers, custom ringtones, and so on. The iPhone has upped the ante as far as bright candy-colored animated buttons, slick animations, and throwaway gimmick applications. Reading a book, however, is all about forgetting the object, forgetting the real world, and being drawn into the text. So ultimately, the ideal e-book reader would be one you barely noticed.

The Kindle is a pretty good design. It basically works as a book, which means you shouldn’t expect any “wow” moments. In fact, it’s easy to examine it and think “So what?” Many people have done just that. But I’m going to leave the naysaying for another article. First, I want to talk about what it’s like to live with and use a Kindle.

The device itself is about the size of a trade paperback. Here are a couple of pictures of it sitting with a paperback copy of Philip K. Dick’s masterpiece “VALIS”:

Kindle vs VALIS

Kindle thickness compared to book

As you can see, it’s about the same size and thickness, and that’s including the protective case. To compare the Kindle to another familiar object, it’s about the same size as a regular DVD case, plus an extra centimeter or two of height.

On the other hand, the Kindle is a bit less than twice the weight of the trade paperback. The metal back probably doesn’t help, but it does mean that the device feels solid and substantial, and not like a piece of cheap flimsy plastic.

Putting it all together, with the extra weight and familiar size, it still feels like a book. Sitting and reading with it therefore feels immediately somewhat familiar and comfortable.

Of course, that’s a comparison with a single trade paperback of typical size. Here’s a different comparison:

Kindle vs doorstops

That’s the complete Hitchhiker’s Guide in hardback, and a copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in paperback. I’ve also got Infinite Jest on the Kindle; guess which is more comfortable to curl up in bed with?

The main attraction of the Kindle is the screen. It uses e-ink, which means that the screen basically looks like laser printer output. To be more precise, the Kindle screen has about half the resolution of a low end laser printer, but uses shades of gray to antialias the text and make it smoother. There is no glow or flicker at all. The background is gray, and the print is dark gray; overall, it has slightly less contrast than a well printed paper book, but still looks very good.

Here’s a photo of a yellowing Harlan Ellison paperback, next to the Kindle screen. I’m not sure exactly why, but the Kindle doesn’t seem to look good in photos. In real life, the two are about comparable in readability. The paper has slightly better contrast, but the cheap printing tends to mean the letterforms are a bit irregular.

Kindle screen readability

You’ll notice I’ve put a dark vinyl skin on my Kindle. The pure white of the casing is one of the few design errors Amazon have made. Because of the way our eyes work, it makes the e-ink screen look darker and less readable than it really is. That’s why if you see a Sony e-book in your local Borders, you might think its screen looks superior. (The bright lighting in the store also helps.)

Some have questioned why the bezel around the Kindle screen is so large. It turns out that there’s a good design reason: it makes the device more comfortable to hold. The space at the sides of the screen is almost exactly the width of my thumb. I can hold the device in one hand, gripping with my thumb, without touching the screen. To flip to the next page, I simply need to roll my thumb slightly, thus clicking the next page button. This means that it’s actually easier to flip to the next page on the Kindle than it is with a paper book. In addition, there’s no risk of accidentally flipping two pages at once.

A related issue that worries people about the Kindle is that the screen refresh is slow compared to an LCD. Also, the entire screen blinks while it refreshes. Well, I’m glad to say that after a very few hours, it becomes a non-issue; you simply don’t notice it any more.

The first reason is that the “blink” isn’t like an LCD flashing; there’s no light emitted. Secondly, the refresh happens significantly faster than I can reliably turn a page in a paper book. And thirdly, you subconsciously learn to time your button click so that the refresh happens while your eyes are moving from the bottom of the screen back to the top. Honestly, I’ve been jolted out of the flow of reading more often with problems turning pages in paper books.

Of course, it’s not good enough to be able to do the things that a paper book does. Technology needs to offer some advantages, so let me outline a few.

First of all, you can change the text size. The picture above shows the second smallest size, which is about the same as a paperback. If you have poor eyesight, you can flip to double size without needing to buy a special large print version of your books. That’s probably one of the reasons why Kindle ownership seems to skew towards older readers.

I don’t need large text, but a feature I do find myself using is the built-in dictionary. If I hit a word I don’t know, I can highlight it with the cursor to get a brief description, without leaving the page. (The definition appears in a bubble at the bottom of the screen.) Clicking enter gives me the full Concise Oxford American Dictionary entry, if I want it. When I’m done, I can hit Back to go back to where I was.

Now, obviously I have a paper dictionary sitting on my bookshelves. I could go look up words from paper books–but I hardly ever did. I never wanted to break my reading session, go find the dictionary, and leaf through it to find the right definition. As for the idea of carrying the dictionary around with me when reading–no, that wasn’t going to happen. So Kindle will probably lead to my actually learning some new words.

Another feature I use a lot is highlighting. You can use the cursor joystick to swipe across some text. That text automatically appears in a text file you can read on your computer, complete with the title of the book you read it in, the author name, and the place in the book. If you view your highlighted text from the Kindle, you can jump back to the actual page.

Annotations work much the same way: Move the cursor to the spot and start typing, and you get a footnote marker in the text which will lead you to your note. The note itself appears in a computer-readable text file, again with the author and title and location.

These features absolutely rock my world for book club reading and personal study. I’m currently working through a book on US history, annotating and highlighting as I go. When I’m done I’ll pull the text into an outliner, and use it as an instant first draft of some revision notes. Similarly, when reading last month’s book for the book club I’m in, I swiped bits I particularly liked, and jotted down notes here and there, then e-mailed the file to my BlackBerry to act as discussion crib notes. So again, there’s a real convenience gain over jotting in a notebook or on an envelope used as a bookmark.

Ah yes, bookmarks. Say goodbye to those. When you want to stop reading with Kindle, you can just put it down and forget about it. It’ll power off automatically after a few minutes of no page turns, flipping the screen to a picture of a famous author or illuminated manuscript. When you pick it up and push the switch to turn it on, you’re right back where you left off.

You can even close the book you’re reading and go back to the menu and read something else, and next time you open the same book, you go back to wherever you were last reading.

What if you page back to an earlier point in the book to revisit something earlier? Push the menu button, and there’s an option to jump you straight to the furthest point you’ve read to.

If you still really, really want a way to drop multiple bookmarks, then the annotation feature will do the job. However, Kindle is primarily aimed at the kind of text you read from start to finish in a linear fashion. If that’s what you’re reading, you never have to think about bookmarks, never have to deal with lost bookmarks. The right thing happens automatically.

Having said that Kindle is aimed at linear reading, it does nevertheless have a search feature. I haven’t used it, other than to verify that it works. I imagine I might find a use for it when I’m done with my history book and want to go back and see if I missed noting any good stuff about Thomas Jefferson.

Books can also have a table of contents, allowing you to click an entry with the joystick and skip to the appropriate part of the book. There can be cover art too, though the grayscale screen isn’t going to wow you with that.

You might be wondering about battery life. The e-ink screen uses no power to maintain its display, so the only time battery is used is when you push a button. I go over a week between charges, even with heavy weekend reading.

One thing that does eat battery is the wireless networking. For that reason, I don’t tend to use the Kindle for web browsing, and turn off the wireless unless I’m expecting to receive something. Even with wireless on, though, a battery charge will last you for days. The charger is barely larger than an AC wall plug. It’s USB, so you can also charge from a computer, or a universal USB charger. The cable for the Kindle is a standard micro-USB cable. Ah, if only Apple were as good about using non-proprietary chargers and cables…

Buying books is easy. You go to Amazon, log in, find something interesting, and hit the 1-click button to buy it. In less than a minute, it appears on your Kindle. You can also order stuff from the Kindle itself, but I’ve generally found that the experience is better with the full Amazon web site rather than the cut-down pages served up on the device itself.

Another killer feature is the free previews. When I see any moderately interesting book that has a Kindle edition, I hit the free preview button. Amazon sends me a chunk of the first chapter. If I read that and decide I want to read the rest of the book, I can order the book straight from the Kindle. The full book replaces the preview, and inside a minute I’m back to reading.

According to rumors, Amazon is getting 10% of its book sales as Kindle editions. Amazon say that Kindle owners buy 2.6x as many books at Amazon as non-Kindle-owners. I don’t doubt this, as I’ve found that the Kindle has gotten me reading more. The conveniences I’ve described may seem slight, but when you add them together, it seems to me that the Kindle is better than paper. I find myself increasingly reluctant to buy paper books–especially when they’re hardbacks, lengthy works, or (worst of all) both.

The Kindle does have some downsides. Yes, the initial cost is pretty high, as it’s still very much at the early adopter phase right now. You have to read a lot of books to make up the money in savings, so don’t look at it from a cost-saving point of view; it’s all about convenience.

There’s not much snob value either. If you’re the kind of New York hipster who has to be seen reading the right books, the Kindle won’t appeal to you.

A related issue is that the selection of e-books available isn’t fantastic. It annoys me that there’s nothing by Lem, very little by J.G. Ballard, not enough Harlan Ellison, no Jeff Noon, only one book by Michael Marshall Smith, and so on. It’s rather like the early days of CD or DVD; and as was the case with those new technologies, the selection is getting better all the time.

But that said, there are already more wonderful books than I’ll ever have time to read–so perhaps it’s time I get back to my comfy chair. In a while, I’ll be writing a second article, dealing with common objections to the Kindle, and whether they stand up.

© mathew 2017