6 May 2009

Kindle 2 review: followup

As the promised followup to my review of the Kindle 2, I’m going to go through some of the common objections to the Kindle that I see reposted every time it gets mentioned. I have no financial stake in Amazon’s success; it just annoys me to see the same misconceptions crop up time and time again.

Kindle is expensive.

Yes, it is. So were CD players, DVD players, MP3 players and digital cameras when they were introduced. In fact, I remember DVD players being twice the price of a Kindle.

Like every other piece of technology, you can expect e-book readers to get cheaper as time goes on. Right now, we’re still very much in the “luxury/early adopter” stage. In under a decade an e-book reader will be $50, just like you can now pick up CD players for $30.

It’s even possible that newspapers and magazines might sell e-readers bundled with a subscription as a way to save money.

Another possibility is that if reading e-books takes off, companies will launch readers with cheaper or better display technology. Pixel Qi claim that they will be launching an LCD-like display later this year that’s readable in sunlight and has high speed refresh, based on an improved version of the display found in the OLPC XO-1.

In the mean time, if the price puts you off, that’s fine. Just remember that it’s a problem that will go away in time.

I could buy a netbook for less than a Kindle.

Undoubtedly. However, a netbook doesn’t have an e-ink screen that looks like paper. It doesn’t have a battery that will last for over a week of ordinary use. It doesn’t have a portrait-format screen for reading books on. It doesn’t have handy “next page” and “previous page” buttons situated with ergonomic reading in mind. And it doesn’t have free wireless networking across the entire USA.

Also, a netbook will require that you mess with an operating system. One of the nice things about the Kindle is precisely the fact that it isn’t a computer. You flip the switch and there’s your book, just where you left it.

But hey, if you want to, you can get a netbook, load up some e-book reader software, and read books that way. Feel free to give it a try. Me, I’d rather read on a Kindle.

I already have a smartphone.

So do I. However, I’ve always found that there’s a fairly basic incompatibility between phones, and reading and/or writing. For reading books or writing text, I want a display that’s at least the size of a paperback book. For a phone, I want something that will fit in the pocket of my jeans. These two requirements are incompatible.

I tried reading e-books on my Nokia N800. Even though it has a screen bigger than any phone on the market, I still found it much less enjoyable for reading than the Kindle.

If you don’t have the same pickiness as me, then as with the netbook option you can download some e-book reader software for your phone and go ahead and read books on it. Again, I’ll stick with the Kindle, thanks.

The Kindle needs batteries.

Indeed it does, and I do wish that the battery was user-replaceable. I don’t like this trend of non-replaceable rechargeable batteries. (As an aside, does anyone know of any good Bluetooth headsets with replaceable batteries?)

In practice, I’ve found that the battery life while reading books with the wireless inactive is so long that I don’t even think about it. I just charge every week or so. The charger is tiny, and you can also charge from any USB port that’s handy.

You can’t bend it like paper and stick it in a pocket.

It’d be nice to have a foldable or roll-up e-book reader. People are working on it. But let’s be realistic here: you can’t fold up paperback books either, let alone hardbacks. Yes, you can just about stuff a paperback in a pocket, but it tends to do horrible things to the book. I don’t think this is a very valid objection.

Screens make my eyes hurt.

Not this screen. It doesn’t flicker. It really does look like paper. The resolution is double that of your laptop screen.

The e-ink screen is too slow.

It refreshes in the blink of an eye. Almost literally, in fact; you’ll find yourself clicking the button so that the page flips while you blink and move your gaze back to the top of the page. I’m generally not even conscious of the page flips, and I certainly never find myself waiting for the page to refresh.

I don’t want to be tied into Amazon.

You’re not. The only thing you need Amazon for is the “whispernet” wireless file transfer.

If you don’t want to use that, you can plug the Kindle in to a computer via USB. The Kindle’s internal storage mounts like a USB flash drive. You can copy e-book files into the documents folder via drag and drop. When you eject the Kindle, it reindexes the files and they appear in its content list. No software needed, works with Windows, Mac OS X or Linux.

But it uses a proprietary file format!

The secret proprietary format is a minor variation on Mobipocket format. Regular Mobi format is also fully supported. Mobi format is HTML, compressed, and wrapped inside a Palm OS .pdb database file.

The HTML supports some of the extensions defined in the Open eBook format. The Palm PDB container format is well known. There are open source tools to take HTML files and compress and wrap them in PDB to create Mobipocket files.

But Kindle has DRM!

Kindle supports DRM, yes, just like the iPod supports DRM, and Windows and Mac OS X support DRM.

Like an iPod, it’s entirely possible to use a Kindle without ever purchasing DRM-encumbered content. You can buy DRM-free e-books from Fictionwise, try Baen’s library of SF, and load up with Project Gutenberg and other free e-books in Kindle format from ManyBooks. Try the 20th Century books to read before you die list for starters.

There are also DRM-free e-books available from Amazon, including O’Reilly’s catalogue.

I suspect that the publishing industry will eventually learn the same lessons as the music industry, and that within a few years DRM on e-books will die. In the mean time, there are a lot of books that I only read once anyway, so I’m prepared to risk having them disappear if Amazon goes bust.

But Amazon may brick the Kindle remotely!

Yes, and Apple may brick your Mac with an OS update, and your mobile phone company may brick your phone. Realistically, though, why would they deliberately do that?

It’s true that if you get banned from Amazon, you can no longer buy DRM-encumbered e-books, or load your Kindle wirelessly. But it’ll still work, and you’ll still be able to read books on it.

But the format will be obsolete soon.

I doubt that HTML is going to become unreadable in my lifetime. Everything after that is someone else’s problem.

DRMed books may become unreadable, but as already noted, the solution to that is simple: if it worries you, don’t buy them.

It’s big and heavy.

It’s about as heavy as two trade paperbacks, and about the size of one trade paperback. It’s smaller and lighter than a hardback, and people read those all the time.

It doesn’t have an SD card slot.

The SD card slot on the original Kindle was a nice feature, but it was dropped because SD cards require quite a lot of power, and it was a drain on battery life. The Kindle 2 has 2GB of space, which is a lot when you consider that a novel is about 300-400KB. Do you really need to carry 5,000 novels around with you?

Don’t forget that you can shunt files on and off of the device using USB, giving you effectively infinite capacity.

It doesn’t have a color screen.

True, and this is one reason why it’s not great for reading most magazines. There are companies working on color e-ink, and other display technologies like Electrofluidic Display (EFD). In the mean time, you’ll have to resort to paper or a laptop for looking at pretty pictures.

It’s not as good as the Sony reader.

Get a Sony Reader then. I would have done, but the Sony Reader devices all require Microsoft Windows, so they were a non-starter for me. I talked to a guy from Sony who said they were working on multi-platform support, but that was back in 2007 and I got tired of waiting.

It doesn’t have a touchscreen.

There are several good reasons for that. The first is that a touchscreen interface would require that you keep touching the screen and leaving fingermarks all over it. To make that tolerable, you’d have to make the screen smooth glass, like an iPhone, so you could wipe it clean with your shirt or whatever else came to hand. That would make the screen less readable, because of reflections.

The second reason is that touch sensitivity would require a capacitive layer, which would again reduce the readability. Sony have a touchscreen reader, and it’s very noticeable how much less readable the screen is. Go into your nearest Sony Store if you don’t believe me.

It doesn’t use ePub format.

Yeah, and nor does anyone else. I like open standards as much as the next Linux user, but Open eBook format is hardly setting the industry alight right now. That said, Amazon recently purchased Lexcycle, so it’s entirely possible that they plan OEB support for a future version of the Kindle firmware.

It doesn’t support PDF.

Well, I kinda sorta does; you can send PDF files to Amazon, and they convert the text and send the result to your Kindle. I’ve tried it, and the results are pretty poor. It looks as if they’re using pdf2edit on the back end, as I get pretty much the same output running that software and doing the job myself.

PDF is problematic because it’s really not a good format for e-books that are going to be displayed on diverse devices. A PDF file is basically a PostScript program which, when run, draws each page at its specified size. Unlike HTML, there’s no concept of paragraphs, headings, and so on. Hence, there’s no easy way to reflow the text to fit a different display size. Simply scaling the page images down to fit the Kindle screen wouldn’t result in anything you’d enjoy reading.

The real answer for PDF support is a bigger screen. This summer you should be able to get the Kindle DX with PDF support and a screen that can deal with PDF documents formatted for ordinary size paper. Of course, it’s bigger and heavier than the regular Kindle, and even more expensive.

What if I break my Kindle?

What if you set fire to your house and all your books burn? At least with Kindle you can buy a new device and re-load all your books from backup.

Seriously, though, if you’re the sort of person who drops and breaks electronic devices a lot, you probably shouldn’t buy a Kindle, as it’s certainly possible to break one. You probably shouldn’t buy a laptop either.

I can’t scribble on e-books.

I never scribble on books; who raised you, wolves?

In my review I talk about the annotation and highlighting functions of the Kindle. I find those much more convenient than jotting things down with a pen, at least when reading study material.

It’s true, though, the Kindle isn’t a useful tool for proofreading.

I like the smell of paper and the feel of books in my hand.

A lot of people liked the cover art of vinyl LPs, and look where we are now.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of musty book smell or yellowing paper. If you are, then do by all means continue to buy paper books. I suspect that they’ll continue to be available for decades yet.

Look, the Kindle just isn’t a book, and I like books.

I like books too. I have 500 of them in my office (I’ve cataloged them), and that’s just the ones I’ve kept because I expect to read them again. I’ve probably read and discarded, resold or given away several thousand books, and then there are all the library books I’ve read. Oh, and my wife’s books…

Our shelves are full to capacity, I’m short of space for more books, and I like being able to go sit in a café or get on a plane and know that I’ll have a good selection of reading material available. There are some things I’ll probably continue to buy on paper, but for most reading I find Kindle does the job and has real convenience benefits. It gets me reading more books, and ultimately that has to be a good thing, right?

If you’re still not convinced, then that’s fine. Enjoy your books.

© mathew 2017