Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Amazon Kindle Review

UPDATE February 24, 2009: I've received my new Kindle 2 today and posted a detailed review of the new Kindle 2 on this blog.

Being a gadget aficionado, I placed my order for the Kindle yesterday when it was announced and promptly received the new device today. I've now spent about 3-4 hours with the Kindle, including reading a book at the hair dresser, having my hair stylist and friend recommend Anne McCaffrey's Talents series to me, and using the Kindle right then and there to promptly buy Pegasus in Flight and have it download to my Kindle wirelessly within a minute.

But before I begin with this review, let's put a few things straight: (a) I love books - my parents have always had tons of them, my wife and I have thousands of them, and I will never give up paper books; (b) this review is not being paid for by anyone (however, if you click on a link to Amazon.com from this site and then purchase something, I will earn a small percentage under he Amazon Associates program); (c) I've started using the original Sony Reader over a year ago and just upgraded to the newest Sony Reader about 2 months ago - the reason is that I travel a lot and I like to read when I'm traveling, but I don't like to either lug around 5-6 books with me or run out of reading materials during a trip.

To make things interesting, I purchased a few books and a couple of magazine subscriptions for the Kindle through the Kindle Store yesterday after placing my order for the device. Amazon promised that these would "magically" be delivered to my device once I unpacked it.

So when the package arrived today and I unpacked it this evening after coming home from work, I was immediately surprised by the lightweight nature of the Kindle. I had expected it to be heavier based on the leaked photos, but it is actually quite light - it appears to even be lighter than the Sony Reader. The package is a bit of an homage to the Apple iPod (as is the white color of the Kindle, the power supply, the cables, etc). Luckily the book cover that you can attach the device to is still black!

Kindle The actual Kindle is not even half as ugly as the previously leaked photos seemed to imply. The alphabetic keyboard at the bottom takes a bit of getting used to, but the page-turning buttons are cleverly located where they ought to be (the lack of those was a big flaw in the original Sony Reader, that was, however, fixed in the newer version this year). Once you put the Kindle into its book cover, it has the right touch and feel of a book, and is very comfortable in the hand.

The first time starting it up took a little while, but after it had booted I was very pleasantly surprised to find the following on the home page (after going through a few basic introductory help-file pages of how the device works): (a) a letter from Jeff Bezos that started with "Dear Alexander"; (b) all the books and magazines that I had purchased online the previous day; (c) all the blogs that I had previously subscribed to via the Amazon.com Kindle Store. Furthermore the device was pre-configured to be linked to my Amazon.com account so that all shopping from the device was linked to my account and credit card right away without any setup. The promise that is works right out of the box without any kind of setup is actually quite true.

I then proceeded to read a few articles in the Wall Street Journal and it was nice to see that the scroll wheel and cursor sidebar actually worked quite well. I was able to follow links to web pages (courtesy of the built-in web browser). Navigating was very easy with the page-turn buttons in combination with that scroll wheel.

But I couldn't really play nearly enough, since I had a hair dresser appointment and so I took the Kindle with me. As I mentioned above, it was an immediate hit at the hair salon and I ended up purchasing a book wirelessly right there.

After returning home I continued to read a few blogs - including Robert Scoble's review of the Kindle - and then proceeded to test some more functions that the Sony Reader is lacking:

  • I have always been a fan of search (since I can never remember where I've read about stuff before), and so I searched for the most elusive stuff out there - "dark matter" - and promptly found 7 references in the Amber Spyglass (part of Pullman's His Dark Materials series), one entry in the built-in Dictionary, a link to look up "dark matter" on the Wikipedia, and a link to search for it via Google.
  • Where the Sony Reader can only bookmark pages with a very simple bookmark function, the Kindle shines with its ability to either highlight certain paragraphs in a book (by placing a rectangle around the paragraph), to add annotations at any place (via the keyboard), or to store parts of a page or a whole page as a clipping in a separate clipping file that you can access later.
  • The built-in dictionary lookup lets you position the cursor on any line of text and look up all the words on that line simultaneously in the dictionary.
  • I wanted to continue reviewing a recent trade show report that I had received, so I forwarded an e-mail with a Word attachment to the private e-mail address of my Kindle, and was able to read that document in the comfort of my living room without having to balance my laptop on my knees.

All of these features - combined with the ability to go online and buy new eBooks wirelessly from anywhere - easily is worth the $100 extra that the Kindle costs more than the Sony Reader.

And both devices use the same screen technology from eInk, so they both have excellent daylight readability as well as working in dim lighting conditions. Btw, if you have never seen this kind of screen, be ready to be wowed: the text is crystal clear and the resolution is so fine that you can hardly make out the edges of the pixels that are used to render the text. Since it is a grayscale device, it will also render pictures reasonably well (in black&white). However, one thing that requires some getting used to is that the page blinks briefly when you turn it - this is inherent to the screen technology and not a flaw in either device.

There has been much talk about whether the iPhone isn't a better eBook reader than the Kindle. Trust me, it is not. I love my iPhone and carry it with me all the time, and it is great for reading a few web pages here and there and maybe some blogs on Google Reader. But the screen doesn't even come close to having sufficiently high resolution that you would ever want to read an entire book on it, nor is it big enough - you'd go crazy flipping pages every 2.5 seconds. The iPhone is fantastic for what it was designed to do, but reading books isn't part of that scope.

One thing that is presently being criticized by many is that Amazon actually charges for blog subscriptions - what these people don't realize is that the wireless service that is offered with the Kindle is free. There are no monthly fees, no yearly contract, no hassle. However, if you want content delivered over the wireless network, Amazon charges a small fee for the use of the wireless network, and actually splits the revenues with those bloggers - that's only fair.

In addition to all the official features, the Kindle also has a section of functions that are termed "Experimental", which include a Web Browser. So you can easily venture beyond the blogs that are presently offered through the Kindle shop and access any web content out there. However, reading the fine print in the terms & conditions reveals that Amazon reserves the right to charge for such web usage, since you are, of course, using the wireless network for that purpose.

Another fact that might be of interest to international travelers: currently the Kindle doesn't offer roaming outside of the US. You can, however, still get new content onto your Kindle if you are abroad: all you need to do is connect the Kindle to your laptop via USB, download the files from Amazon.com manually and place them on the Kindle via the USB interface (the Kindle appears as a storage medium to the laptop, like a USB stick or iPod). I might be testing this, when we go skiing in Austria this winter...

Overall, I am definitely rather impressed with this device from Amazon and look forward to reading a few books on it on my upcoming travels. There is, of course, plenty of room for feature enhancements and improvements, but it is a great first version and definitely beats the Sony Reader in just about every aspect, so it will be in my briefcase on all future trips.

UPDATE December 5, 2007: I've now owned the Kindle for two weeks and I continue to be impressed by it. So far I've added about 12 more books to my library already, and after "borrowing" my Kindle a few times, my lovely wife has also bought one and we are both looking forward to reading a lot during our upcoming skiing vacation in Austria.

I've also found a few more things over the past two weeks that I wish Amazon had done differenly or simply a few additional feature requests for the next version, and I provided the following feedback to Amazon already via e-mail - repeated here for your enjoyment:

  • The search function doesn’t seem to index all books on my Kindle. I bought the CIA World Factbook 2007 and it is not getting indexed. Unfortunately this totally defeats the purpose of me buying the book. For example, searching for “Linz” does not find the entry for Austria in the CIA World Factbook.

  • I’ve bought plenty of books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers (and I’m using an SD card) and the home-page on the device is getting a bit unwieldy (4 pages already). It would be nice, if I could create folders/directories on the home page to group my books into categories. And it would be necessary to be able to sort different folders by different criteria. For example, I would like to be able to group them into:

    • Periodicals/Subscriptions (blogs, newspapers, magazines) – the content of this folder I would want to sort by Most Recent First

    • Technical Books (sorted by title)

    • Reference Books (dictionaries, CIA factbook, etc)

    • Economcis Books (sorted by title)

    • SciFi Books (sorted by author)

    • Others

  • It is great that I can send PDF and Word docs to my Kindle via my personalized kindle.com e-mail address. But that is not enough. When I place annotations, notes, and highlights in such documents on my Kindle, I now want to be able to e-mail them back to my office e-mail address and I want to see those comments, annotations, notes, and highlights back in the Word or PDF doc so that I can send it to others in the company. This would allow me to use the Kindle for actually reviewing business documents – it would be fantastic!!!

  • How can I get additional blogs on the Kindle? I am happy to pay extra, but I want to be able to enter any RSS feeder URL into my Amazon account and create a Kindle blog feed for it.

  • It would be nice, if Amazon could integrate some Social Networking aspects into the Kindle. How many of my friends are reading books on it? What are they reading? How can I post comments about a book to my blog? How can I tell my friends about comments I have on a book?


Anonymous said...

how well does it work browsing blogs? Have you tried the mp3 player?

Natalie said...

Sounds very cool! But, if you are not living in the United States, then this is not worth the purchase right?

A.Falk said...

Anonymous: I'm still a bit on the fence on the browsing blogs question. I have subscribed to three blogs on the Kindle (Scobleizer, TechCrunch, GigaOM), and have read them on the Kindle with the morning papers (Wall Street Journal and Frankfurter Allgemeine) and that has worked well. But I am normally following about 70 blogs or so in my Google Reader, and I like to share my finds - and the Kindle doesn't even come close to the capabilities of Google Reader. So in the end, I'll probably contine to use Google Reader (on the laptop and on my iPhone) for blogs and will use the Kindle for its primary purpose: to read books while I'm traveling.
And no, I haven't tried the MP3 player - I have my iPhone and several iPods for that... :)

Natalie: you are correct, there is no point in buying it overseas right now, because the wireless connection won't work. I would rather recommend the Sony Reader there, which was my favorite eBook reader until last week - or to wait until the Kindle is available in Europe as well.

Richard said...

Nice article. A couple of questions:

1. is the screen as good as the new Sony Reader (505) or the old one (500) ?

2. Any pictures regarding the text cliping and saving ? Or comments. I wanted to use it as a study tool.

Many thanks.

Anonymous said...

I saw the Kindle on the American Amazon.com site but there's nothing about it on Amazon.ca....if i bought it do you think it would work in Canada?

Anonymous said...

Regarding overseas: the problem is not so much that the wireless connection does not work, because you could download to your PC and use USB to the Kindle. However, customers living outside the US (as determined by billing adress on credit card) can not purchase the Kindle books.
So if you have an american adress, you can use the kindle outside of US (though not the wireless funtions), but if you have no US adress then there is no point in buying one.

A.Falk said...

Re 1) I must say, I have owned both the 500 Sony Reader and the 505 and haven't noticed a huge difference in screens between them. I put the Kindle next to my new 505 Sony Reader that I had bought 2 months ago, and they both look excellent - can't tell the difference. They are both made by eInk, but I don't know the exact model# used.
Re 2) The text clipping is quite nice. It takes a page from any source and appends it to the Clipping file, which you can then either read on the Kindle or load back to your PC via USB. Sorry, don't have any photos of it. And I can't say how well it works for studying - I'm purely using it for reading books and newspaper while traveling...

Anonymous 1:
I would not want to venture a guess on whether it would work in Canada - probably not. I would wait for the roll-out there through Amazon.ca.

Anonymous 2:
Good point about needing to have a US address. Yes, that is certainly necessary.

Todd in Atlanta said...

Sounds a bit biased, since you did admit you're receiving a commission from Amazon. Have you been able to find most of the titles you are looking for?

A.Falk said...

Hi Todd:
actually, when I wrote this review in November I was not yet a member of the Amazon Associates program.
However, once my review ended up getting liste rather high on Google and I started getting tons of traffic, I could not resist signing up for Amazon Associates. But I did not rewrite the review at that time and I stand by the conclusions I wrote back then. I'm currently on vacation in Austria for 2 weeks, and by now I have about 60 books on my Kindle and I greatly enjoy reading them on the plane, in the hotel, in a coffee shop, etc.

A.Falk said...

I should answer your question in a more precise way: I was able to find most of the books I wanted to get on my Kindle. The ones that I could not find so far were: "Watching Baseball Smarter", "Inkheart", "Inkspell".

Anonymous said...

how well can you read the screen while outside?

A.Falk said...

Outside reading actually works really well. We just got back from a trip to the Caribbean (St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands) and I used the Kindle there to read on the porch, and also on the beach.
As an added bonus - because the USVIs have US cell phone coverage - I was able to purchase and download a new book while being on the beach. Pretty nifty!

jacksmith said...

Very well said, but you can try it once and see how user friendly it is, it helps us in many ways, to say you cannot read a book in dim light or when you have to keep the bedroom lights off for everyone to sleep, while kindle reader you can carry anywhere, read it anytime whether it is dim or dark, you can ask for your any book converted to kindle, kindle conversion.

Anonymous said...

wait until the Kindle is available in Europe as well.

Anonymous said...

I just bought mine today, after reading this other Kindle 2 review on first ebook reader blog.

Anonymous said...

Just so you know - if you purchase a book from Amazon and Amazon regrets the purchase, your book will be automatically deleted from your kindle. Kinda like someone breaking into your home to take a book back, leaving a couple of dollars on the night stand.