2 Sep 2010
The reason I gave in and bought a third-generation Kindle was simple: price. With the wifi + 3G version now only $189, it finally falls into that price bracket of 'worth a try'. If I decide in the end that it's not working out, I won't have blown too much money — assuming that I haven't invested a great deal in books (but more of that later).
The improvements with the third-generation Kindle (or Kindle 3 as it's inevitably, but unofficially being called) don't end with the price drop. Amazon has reduced the size and weight and adopted the latest screen technology — the Pearl e-ink display.
And then there's the small matter of not having any other e-reader. At WebVivant Press we're publishing e-books, but my only experience so far of reading them has been on the laptop. That's just not right. I wanted to find out what the e-reader experience is like.
I could have bought a Nook, or a Sony e-reader. But, frankly, of the dedicated e-readers on the market, the Kindle strikes me as the only long-term prospect. Besides which, we publish on the Kindle through Amazon DTP, so it seemed like the right move.
The other option was the Apple iPad, but there were two very good reasons for not going that route: 1) it starts at 499 euros; and 2) it's still version 1 and I never buy v.1 of anything, especially when it's from Apple (and I'm a fan of their products).
I opened the box (entirely made of recyclable card, BTW), lifted out the Kindle, peeled off a couple of transparent plastic protective sheets and was about to peel off a sticker covering the whole screen when I realised there was no sticker. What appeared to be a printed sheet was, in fact, the display itself. That's a good first impression.
E-ink displays are the opposite of laptop screens — the brighter the ambient light the easier they are to read. Sitting in the garden on a dazzling sunny August day, the Kindle's screen was a joy to use — very easy on the eyes. As light levels drop, that's when you start squinting. Now, you could say the same is true for those archaic, last-century reading devices … what are they called? … oh yes, books. And that's true except that, even with the latest Pearl screen, the Kindle still doesn't achieve the contrast (and therefore readability) of the printed page. It's not far off, mind, but there's enough of a difference that, as the sunlight fades, you'll be hunting for the light switch sooner with a Kindle than you would with a book.
The Kindle comes with a pre-loaded manual, but I've been a tech journalist for nearly 30 years and I'm damned if I'm going to start reading manuals now. Fortunately, navigation is reasonably intuitive. I showed the Kindle to a bunch of friends at a writer's group meeting. None of the group members is what you'd call in the first flush of youth, and among the people I know these are the least likely to be impressed by a gimmick or 'cool' bit of technology. But all were, in fact, impressed. One person (who, admittedly, is at least reasonably tech-savvy and certainly far above average intelligence) was quickly moving between books, checking out the text-to-speech feature and generally finding her way around with no prompting from me.
Where the Kindle scores above many other e-readers is the tight integration with Amazon. That sounds obvious, but an important part of the Kindle experience is not having to switch to a computer to find and download books. Immediate access to the Amazon store from the Kindle itself makes it a competely stand-alone product.
For example, during lunch, the subject of conversation alighted on Jack London and I had to admit I'd never read White Fang. A few moments later I had a free copy of the book on the Kindle (even with a slow Edge connection — no 3G around here). One of our group, a 70 year-old with, as far as I know, no special love of technological toys, was soon buried in the book, having adjusted the font size to compensate for not having his reading glasses with him. He said he found he was changing pages without any conscious action, just as one might flip the pages of a printed book.
Indeed, what I've found with the Kindle is that one can easily ignore it. When I read an e-book on the screen of my laptop, I'm always aware of the machine somehow. I have to try to see through it. It's an effort. With the Kindle, just as with a book, I soon lose any awareness of the physical object and am quickly inside the world of the story. I think the e-ink technology has a lot to do with this — its easiness on the eye erases the barrier between you and the text.
The Kindle also copes well with my pathological compulsion to make notes. Highlighting sections of text is easy, and you can add your own notes. Or you can simply mark a page with a bookmark. You don’t need to do this to remember where you are — the Kindle automatically keeps your place, even as you flip back and forth between books. And there’s an option to synchronise your place between the Kindle and the Kindle apps on your computer, smartphone or iPad.
When reading magazines or newspapers, there's an option to 'clip' the article you're reading. This adds the text of the article to a file (just one file for all your clippings) which you can download on to a computer. No doubt this will prove a huge boon for students who need to plagiarise when writing papers.
The search facilities are not bad, too. The search results pages show chunks of text with your keywords highlighted, so it's easy to see the context and know which results are relevant.
The Amazon store access is provided by dedicated software. But you can also browse the web on this machine. The web browser is surprisingly good, though slow. It wouldn't be my first choice of platform for mobile web use, but it'll do in a pinch.
Amazon still classifies the browser as one of the Kindle's 'experimental' features. Another is the text-to-speech feature, which is mostly ghastly. The voice pauses in all the wrong places. It's like being read to by Stephen Hawkins' idiot brother. I can't think of a single use for it. If you're sight-impaired, go for real audiobooks instead. It's bad enough being blind without having to put up with this.
As someone who doesn't text (in fact, I don't even have a mobile phone anymore), using the keyboard with its tiny buttons is a challenge. Given that you can increase the size of the display font, I was going to recommend the Kindle to a friend with eyesight issues. But this barely visible keyboard ruled that out.
I've invested quite a lot of time working out how to hold the damn thing. The new Kindle is lighter and smaller than its predecessors. In fact, as far as weight goes, it's not dissimilar to a lot of paperback books. It's just that I've found it tricky to hold comfortably without hitting the back/forth paging buttons or the keyboard. I'm starting to think that a leather case would actually make it easier and more comfortable to hold.
So far, finding books for the Kindle has been slightly frustrating. Bestselling novels are generally not hard to find. But my tastes tend to run a little more eclectic, and so far I've found that only about one in three is available in Kindle format.
And in spite of Amazon's much publicised battles with publishers to get them to bring down prices, some Kindle editions can run rather more expensive than I'd like.
Against that is the availability of so many classic texts as free editions. These editions have largely been created by enthusiasts and volunteers (like Project Gutenberg) so the quality is variable. You get rogue carriage returns. There are rarely clickable tables of contents. But it's surprising how little any of that matters when the price is so right. Within minutes of starting to use the Kindle I had works by Austen, Dickens, Kipling, Swift, Chekhov, Wharton and Dostoyevsky, plus On the Origin of Species.
And in spite of my complaint above, there are inexpensive editions. I spent something like $3.75 for a good version of the King James Version of the Bible, with clickable contents and navigation links. (As an atheist, I've filed this under 'classic fiction'.)
A few reservations
The Kindle is not perfect. In fact, I still have a few reservations about the entire concept. I'm very conscious of the fact that any books I buy will be available to me only so long as I have a Kindle reading device. Now, that could include, say, an iPad with the Kindle app. Indeed, around 20% of the people buying and reading Kindle editions are doing so on something other than a Kindle. But all the same, the relative lock-in to the Kindle ecosystem does give me pause. I will probably limit my Kindle purchases to free books, and those I am likely to read only once or twice.
It also annoys the crap out of me that I can't load our ePub e-books on to this machine. (I tried, just in case Amazon had made the Kindle ePub compatible without telling anyone. They hadn't.)
You can get books on to the Kindle other than by buying them from the store. You can plug the Kindle into your computer, which will view it as an external disk drive. You then just copy readable files (plain text and PDF, for example) to the device.
Amazon also gives you a special email account: <YourUserName>@kindle.com. You can email various types of file (eg, Word documents) to this email address at which point Amazon converts the file to Kindle format and downloads it to your device. There's a small charge for this — $0.15/MB — presumably to cover the wireless costs. Alternatively, you can email the file to <YourUserName>@free.kindle.com. Amazon then converts the file and makes it available for you to download, via the web browser on your computer. You can then copy it across to the Kindle.
In spite of the browser and a few other gimmicks, the Kindle is still a one-trick pony. But it does that trick — being an e-book reader — superbly well. It offers an excellent reading experience.
We all know that the predominant trend in technology is convergence. The Apple iPad scores so much better in this regard. It's a multi-purpose machine. It's capable of far more than reading books, and it’s larger size and colour screen make it superior for magazines. As an e-book reader it’s let down by being an LCD screen, which is immeasurably less crisp that e-ink and far more tiring on the eyes. When display technology improves, the Kindle's one advantage — ease of reading text — will diminish, perhaps even vanish. But I think we're still a few years from that point. And who knows? Maybe Amazon will expand the capabilities of future versions of the Kindle, making it more into a fully-fledged tablet device.
For the time being, though, for long-form reading, nothing beats the Kindle. And in the end, that's why I decided to buy one. The Kindle concept, as currently conceived, has no future. But that's fine, because I'm using it to read books now, and enjoying the experience immensely.