Sunday, September 5, 2010

Review Amazon Kindle

On Saturday I received the latest generation Amazon Kindle. Until now I had refused to get an e-reader due to the high prices they commanded. But with the announcement of a Wi-Fi-only Kindle for just $139, I decided to take the plunge.
Unlike with a lot of Amazon deliveries where the size and quality of the packaging you receive seems quite random, in the case of the Kindle the shipping box has been designed especially. A thick cardboard exterior keeps the Kindle safe, while inside is a plastic shell holding all the accessories and documentation, as well as the device itself, in place.

When you open the case the Kindle is the first thing you see. On the back and front of the device is a clear plastic sheet to ensure you receive it in perfect condition. What you see on the screen of the Kindle looks to be a sheet of paper telling you what to do first. This turns out to be the actual display showing just how good E Ink screens are at looking like a piece of paper.

Lifting out the Kindle reveals a quick start guide. Rather than a booklet, it’s a 6-page fold-out sheet giving you information on getting started, connecting your Kindle to a Wi-Fi network, and of course how to buy and read books.

Underneath the quick start guide is a combination USB cable and plug. Amazon has cut down on your need to carry around two cables by doing this. The Kindle is charged over USB when plugged into a computer, but the inclusion of a plug end means it can also be charged when away from your PC. Very useful.

Now lets look at what the Kindle has to offer in terms of connectivity and the overall look and feel.

The unit itself is tiny. If you have a standard DVD case to hand pick it up and you are holding something that’s almost the same width and height (check out the top image in this post), but double the thickness of the Kindle. In the hand it is very light, and you appreciate the additional case length where the keyboard is located so it can be easily held without your thumbs infringing on the screen.
There are no ports on the Kindle case except for along the bottom edge. Here you have a mini-USB port for both data and power, a headphone socket, volume control, and power switch. The power switch is a slider allowing you to sleep, wake-up, shutdown, and power-up the unit. Putting the Kindle to sleep, waking it up, and turning it on are all achieved with a quick swipe, but powering down requires holding it for 7 seconds. You can also reset the unit with a 15 second hold if you run into problems.

The front of the case is dominated by the 6-inch display. Either side of the screen are two navigation buttons for going forward and backward between pages. Amazon has made the forward navigation button much larger as this is predominantly what you’ll be using when reading a book.
Below the screen is a QWERTY keyboard as well as a 5-way navigation pad, Menu, Home, and Back buttons. It’s the 5-way you’ll be using the most to navigate menus, books, the web, etc.

On the back of the Kindle there’s the logo and two speakers located at the top of the device. The plastic case on the back also has a softer, more grippy finish to it. From extended use I can see why Amazon chose to do this. Not only does it make the Kindle feel more secure in your hands, but it also stops your fingers sweating as can happen on a typical standard shiny-plastic casing.

Now on to the most important aspect of the Kindle–the screen. I have always been a bit suspicious of the claim reading on an E Ink display is very close to paper. While it’s easy to tell the difference between the two, after extended use I can’t fault the Kindle’s display for readability. It’s viewable in all light conditions without the problems commonly associated with a typical LCD display. What’s also surprising is the detail possible in this latest generation.
When you sleep the Kindle it brings up a random image of well-known people or objects. I’ve included one such example below:

My camera really doesn’t do the screen justice. Rest assured black and white images are crisp and the Kindle can produce very deep blacks. The same is true of text which really helps the reading experience.
As for the reading and interface experience, Amazon has a great system in place. On boot up you see the main menu screen with your last seven books listed, as well as access to archived items, dictionaries, the user guide, and of course a link to the Kindle Store. As your list of books grows you can not only archive them, but form collections to allow easy grouping of related works. How they are related is entirely up to the reader.
As well as collections there’s the ability to save Clippings such as articles from a newspaper. Additionally you can create notes and add bookmarks making it easy to navigate to a specific point and add information around what you are reading.

There’s a wide range of options when viewing a book. Decide on portrait or landscape screen rotation, text size, typeface, line spacing, and words per line. This is enough to make any reader, with any quality of eyesight, happy. You also have the option of text-to-speech with a robotic male or female voice, but this is limited based on whether the publisher of a particular book has allowed it to be included.

These options are reduced when viewing PDFs, and only allow for different size screen magnification, five contrast settings, and screen orientation. On the PDF I was viewing, typeface, line spacing, words per line, and text-to-speech were all disabled.
Text-to-speech is actually one of three experimental features the new Kindle has. The other two are MP3 playback and a web browser. MP3 playback is on a par with a cellphone in terms of quality through the two speakers on the back of the Kindle. Plug headphones in and you get a better audio experience. There doesn’t seem to be any control over music playback, though. It starts and you listen to the tracks in the order they were added to your Kindle (by date).

Although your Kindle could double as an MP3 player, the limited internal memory (4GB, not expandable) and control over your music makes it an option most people won’t consider. However, if you want to concentrate while you read then uploading an album full of tracks means you can read while listening and shut the world out. Definitely a nice option to have.
Finally there is the experimental web browser which I have only used a few times. Although capable, this would not be my first choice for surfing the web. If you need to look up some textual information quickly then the rendering of pages is surprisingly fast (as has already been proven), but if you want to do anything other than read a website then your options are very limited. Images will be rendered, but video is out of the question due to the limitations of the screen.

Much like the MP3 player, web browsing is a nice option to have for very light use. It does bode well for the future though, and if Kindle gets a color version, and the ability to playback video, then it could be a key new feature. The fact Amazon is experimenting with it in a production unit means we can expect more from this feature in the future.
Overall, as someone who opened the Kindle box with a large amount of suspicion as to how useful this device would be, I am now convinced e-reader devices do have a place on everyone’s list of gadgets. Discussions as to how tablet devices threaten the e-reader market are right to be had, but this is a very different device to a tablet. It’s tiny, does not need charging very often, and is very easy on the eyes when reading.
This is a very focused device. It is meant for reading books and nothing else. Other features, experimental or not, are secondary. In that area it excels and does replace the paperback novel. In a lot of cases it’s as light or lighter than a book, the reading experience is on a par, but you can have hundreds of books stored in this single device.
As someone who reads a lot of technical books I was worried how it would handle page layouts. If the book supports Kindle-friendly formats then you have no issue. For PDFs the default view may make the text too small, but the page and contrast options make even the most difficult layouts easy to cope with. Add in the fact you can use the free Calibre application to convert most book formats to Kindle, and there really is little content that won’t read well on this device.
I think the price is still a little high, but not so high that the mass market won’t consider it. Drop the price down to $100 and I’d be a lot happier, and the paperback market would be in serious trouble. If you are considering an e-reader then I don’t think there is a better option at the moment.

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