Review of the Amazon Kindle

My Amazon Kindle is here, unpacked, charged, and sporting a couple books.

First off, let's address my most scathing comments: the "thing is hideous" and "horrid in appearance." After face time with the device, I still find it unattractive, although its not as 1980s as it looks in photos. The biggest issue is the keys; they consume nearly a third of the device, when ideally the screen should occupy 95% of the face. Nor is the white color appealing. It worked for the iPod, which was small, but not for the Kindle—white is not a flattering color for those of size. It is also going to get very dirty.

The goal, I suspect, was usability over elegance. For all its ugliness, the device fits comfortably in your hands. The color helps it blend in, ensuring that the focus is on the text and not the contraption. The shape mimics a book and common book operations—such as turning the page—are natural. The tradeoff was intentional.

Even given this design decision, the keyboard is still a problem. Large and obtrusive, the keyboard steals precious real-estate that should go to the screen. Worse, the device's common use case is not even typing. For most of your interactions with the Kindle, you never touch the keyboard. That is a poor compromise. For the next revision, Amazon needs to ditch the keyboard altogether, increasing the screen size (or shrinking the device) to match. I don't see any technical reason why you could not couple E Ink technology with a touchscreen—anything but this monstrosity. Adding salt to the wound, the keyboard is not even very good: with an unusual layout and angle, typing is weird, although I can type with two hands. Odder still, due to the E Ink there is a discomforting lag between your keystrokes and the resulting letters showing up on the screen. The delay is in the sub-second range, minimal and not a real burden, but unnatural compared to modern machines.

Amazon Kindle

I bought two books, one directly from the device, one from my laptop. In both cases, the book was automatically sent to the device within a minute. Buying over the EVDO connection is fast and easy. The marketplace is intuitive to navigate and the system uses Amazon's patented 1-Click technology to make the purchase literally a single click (Kindles are linked to your account at time of purchase). Its very cool to click a button and seemingly instantaneously have a copy of a book on the device, sans wires.

The device is clearly optimized for the bookworm (as opposed to the aesthete or the geek). The previous/next page buttons are well-placed and, although E Ink has perceptible page transitions, page flips are faster than turning paper pages. The inline dictionary lookup is useful, although I could not find the advertised Wikipedia lookup. The text is quite readable and is eerily similar to ink on paper. I have seen Sony's Reader (but not the just-released version) and, although the screen should be the same, the Kindle looks better. I am not going to dwell on what E Ink offers—persistent display, low power draw, no flicker, no need for backlight—except to say that the Kindle seems as good an exemplar of electrophoretic display technology as anything else. Given the readable text and usable interface, I am cautiously optimistic that the Kindle can replace physical books.

I am less sure of newspapers. I speculated that the newspaper and magazine subscription service was the Kindle's killer feature. A device that is automatically pushed the day's paper every morning is the future, right up there with flying cars and an insolvent social security. So I subscribed to The Journal. To be sure, its neat having a copy of the day's paper always on hand, and the $9.99/month price is fair. But, while the Kindle successfully captures the book metaphor, it is not so good with newspapers. Although basic book navigation is a pleasure, more complex interactions are less fun. The Kindle's unique scrollbar and scroll/clickwheel are nice, but moving through menus and other hierarchies require too much scrolling and clicking. Unfortunately, that is largely what a newspaper is—a series of sections and subsections, each containing a bunch of articles. Navigating articles is time consuming and it is hard to get a grasp on what is left to read. I also cannot glean sufficient information from the headlines to decide whether to read the article; thus the headline list is nearly worthless and I have to jump into and start reading every piece. I do this with the dead tree version of The Journal as well, of course, but the physical form makes that sort of article skimming easy.

Amazon Kindle

So whereas my initial reaction to the Kindle vis-á-vis books is positive, my first-pass experience with newspapers suggests I might not renew the Journal subscription. Alternatively, you can buy individual dailies for $0.75, which sounds incredibly useful right before a flight. Stocked up on a couple newspapers, I am one happy flyer.

The system—Linux 2.6.10 and firmware 1.0 (build 121380292)—boots quick, from off to on and usable in under ten seconds. But the runtime power management seems good enough that you do not need to regularly turn the device off. Instead, I would just disable the wireless, for which there is a convenient switch right next to the power. But even that may be unnecessary, as the device appears capable of turning the wireless off when not in use, although I presume it turns it back on at regular intervals to check for pending pushes. Folks who use the subscription functionality to push a newspaper to their device every morning will need to get into the habit of keeping the Kindle plugged in overnight; everyone else can be fairly relaxed. I do not yet have any longer term battery measurements, but I played with my device all of yesterday and again this morning after a single quick charge and the battery level is still 100%.

The Kindle has a couple of experimental features, including a web browser, which does not seem to have any restrictions on what you can access. Obviously text content renders best, but even complex HTML and images came out okay. In fact, given the large screen and fast EVDO interface, the experience was pretty good. I suspect this functionality won't be enabled forever, or at least won't be free, given the freeriding potential.

Amazon Kindle

Another experimental feature is Ask Kindle NowNow, which is a free crowdsourcing Q&A market implemented using Amazon's Mechanical Turk. I asked, "what is the rarest variant of cheetah?" A couple of minutes later, my Kindle had a new entry in its content list, containing three answers: two votes for the rare King Cheetah—a decidedly rare mutant—and one reply going with the albino cheetah. Given my unscientific use of "variant," I don't know what the right answer is, but I was expecting the King. As with web browsing, I suspect this functionality will not remain free indefinitely.

One of the most significant trends the Kindle could fuel is downward pressure on book prices. With hardcovers clocking in at $20 or $25, Kindle's $9.99 is a huge change that will substitute physical for virtual book purchases. The question is, to what degree? The current rigamarole that publishers dance through does not help prices; deciding how many books to print in each run and managing the publisher-bookseller relationship is a real mess. A distribution mechanism with less risk and no supply chain hassle is a big win.

I have not mentioned the Kindle's restrictive terms of use or the inability to easily modify the device. Why? Because I am placing pragmatism before ideology. More importantly, consumers don't care. The book market is not the same as cellular, the Kindle is not the same as Android—there is no unabashed rent seeking, no inefficient industry, no lack of innovation despite so many possibilities. (The EVDO connection on the Kindle is actually a great example of the sort of innovation I hope Android to spur. Why aren't all of our devices on the network?) Longer-term, we need open standards and open devices to ensure price competition and foster innovation, but let's be practical and take an iterative approach. The Kindle is, after all, just a damn screen for reading text and I buy all my books from Amazon anyhow.

What we do have, however, is a specific want: Get lots of books on a small, lightweight device that is enjoyable to read in varied environments. The Kindle satisfies that want. As Jeff wrote, "our top design objective was for the Kindle to disappear in your hands—to get out of your way—so you can enjoy your reading." And the Kindle meets that objective. For specific users—the heavy reader, the frequent flyer, the geek—the Kindle is a home run. But you will have to wait, as the device is already on backorder.

See also: My initial thoughts and my discovery and analysis of the device's use of Linux.

Update: Miguel asks if I confirmed my suspicion that the device lacks PDF support. Indeed, the Kindle cannot read PDF. You are not even able to use the conversion mechanism to rejigger them into AZW files. Given that so many PDFs are images (from scans) and not text, it is easy to overestimate the utility of this feature, but its absence is still lame.