Once in a while I’ll talk about gadgets here, and I recently acquired a Kindle, to take on a few days’ holiday rather than a brace of paperbacks.
Two days later Amazon announced the new Kindle models. Thanks guys. The model I got is being kept on, in the UK at least, as the ‘Kindle keyboard wifi’ (I didn’t pay the extra for 3G), alongside the new, cheaper, keyboardless model. I gather the screen’s the same in the new one, perhaps slightly improved, page turns are a bit faster but storage capacity and battery life are less. So if you want a similar experience for cheaper it might be worth a look.
The Kindle is probably the leading dedicated e-book reader at the moment. It’s Amazon’s best-selling product [now outstripped by the Kindle Fire colour tablet in the USA], and a key part of the company’s strategy, enabling book sales in e-book format, which has now outstripped sales of physical books.
So, what’s it like for convenience and readability?
The convenience experience
Physically, “slate” seems the best way to describe it, because of the colour and flatness. In cross-section it’s about the size of a small paperback or DVD case, and it’s about as thick as a magazine. It slips into a bag very easily. (Protective cases seem to start around £30 in shops, which was too rich for me. I got a neoprene pouch for £5 on Amazon.)
That’s certainly welcome when trying to pack a few days’ stuff into a rucksack. Books take a lot of space. Amazon claims you can fit up to 3500 of ’em on one of these. That sounds a bit academic to me! Let’s call it “as many as you’d ever want to carry around”.
Apparently a full charge will last two months – if you keep the wifi off and hardly do any reading. I used it for two 4-hour train journeys plus odd bits and used a quarter to a third of the battery. You can charge via a USB port or from a mains socket with the supplied adaptor.
When you open the box you need to put the new device on to charge, tell it how to get on to your wifi network and associate it to an Amazon account. This is all very painless. Then you’ve got access to the Kindle store. Search for a book you fancy, click to buy, and wait for the server to download it to the Kindle and charge your card. This involves using the keyboard, which is pretty awful but does the job for the few occasions you need it. Because (most) books are just text they download very quickly. You can also grab some newspapers and magazines, and subscribe to blogs.
What takes a bit of getting used to is the control/navigation side. The Menu button opens a list of options, and you use the 4-directions-plus-select controller to move between them. There are buttons for Back and Home – the latter takes you to the list of books you’ve loaded. You can set up categories to organise them.
Overall I rate it highly for convenience. I like the ability to fit as many books as I like into a small object, and to grab others as fancy strikes. And it’s an attractive object.
The reading experience
That’s one side of the equation, but the Kindle lives or dies by what its screen is like. Much is made of the ‘e-ink’ technology, and indeed it is quite different from the glowy LCD I’m used to. It’s entirely reflective, presenting a black-on-white image that aims to work well in ambient light.
I was a bit cautious about it, as I have some minor vision issues and am very aware of any eyestrain. In fact, when I first turned it on I thought I wasn’t going to be able to use it because the background seemed very grey, with not enough contrast. Turned out some of that was due to reading in the evening under indirect artificial light, but also the contrast improved markedly as it charged up. Phew!
After trying it out in a range of conditions, it is pleasant to read but very dependent on the brightness and angle of lighting. In bright summer sunshine outdoors it is actually at its best, where LCDs would be a struggle. In natural light generally it works well. In artificial light I needed to get close to the lamp with the screen at the right angle to be comfortable reading for any duration – you can’t sit in any old corner. The screen is also prone to reflective glare, so you have to angle it to get rid of that.
I should also say that it handles graphics rather well. When you power off, it sends an image to the screen and leaves it there rather than going blank. These are a rotating gallery of pictures of authors and book-related scenes that do a good job of showing the screen off. If you look right up close you can see pixels, hash patterns, etc, but from normal viewing distance the anti-aliasing and range of greys present the eye with a finely detail picture.
You move between pages (screenfuls of text) using buttons on the side of the device. There are forward and back buttons on both sides of the screen, so you can hold either side and navigate with your thumb. Unfortunately there’s a black flash effect each time it changes the screen, but you learn to ignore that. I found I was often flipping back again to make sure I’d jumped to the right place. I think that’s partly getting comfortable with a new way of reading, and the fact that sentences break wherever the text hits the bottom, which can sometimes be awkward.
There’s a pop-up menu where you can choose between 8 text sizes, three typefaces, and options for line and word spacing. This is great. My preference is for text just slightly larger than normal, and that’s easy to do. A partially sighted person could blow the text right up: although a few words per screen isn’t a great reading experience, it’d beat no reading at all, and this might be quite a help to someone in that position. You can also set the screen to display in landscape or upside-down, though that didn’t seem very useful.
Overall I’d rate the reading experience good but variable, being very subject to lighting conditions. Other things being equal I’d still prefer a paper book. And in some conditions I’d probably prefer the illuminated screen of an iPad. (I don’t have one, sadly, but I can see the effect on my iPod – I wouldn’t use that for long because of the size, but it works pretty well.)
In the menu options is ‘Experimental’. This shows you some add-on functionality. I think the idea is to look at user feedback and decide whether to develop this stuff further. The first is a web browser. When you’ve got an internet connection this gives you rudimentary web. It’s good enough to check email, but has trouble with formatting even as fancy as the BBC news site. You can zoom in on bits of the screen to see more clearly, but it works by positioning a box and clicking, which is not a patch on the intuitive zooming on my iPod Touch. But if this is the only device to hand it’s nice to have the option.
I don’t think I expected the Kindle to play music. There are speakers in the two top corners. The volume and sound quality are surprisingly good. There’s a headphone socket and volume control on the bottom edge. You can load mp3s to it from your computer, dragging the files as if it were a USB drive. You have very little control over playing though. It starts with the first track and plays through, and all you can do is start, stop and skip forward using combinations of keystrokes. The feature is described as offering background music while you read. I wonder whether they’ll ever update the software to a player with track select etc? It may be intended more for audio books, which I haven’t tried, though obviously those would eat up space.
You can read PDFs on the Kindle as well as e-books. Cunningly, you get an individual email address, and PDF attachments that you send to this turn up on your Kindle’s home screen shortly afterwards. I tried it with a couple of my roleplaying game books with simple layouts, and it renders them really well. You can actually read at whole page to screen, though you wouldn’t want to for more than quick reference. To zoom in you use the text settings menu to set a zoom size, which overlays a box on the page. You can click into that and scroll around the page, then jump back out again. It works OK, and you probably could read a book this way, but I suspect it would become too much like hard work after a couple of pages. It’s certainly handy, though, for carrying round PDF products that you might want to show to people. Navigating around pages within a PDF is something I need to read up on. There’s not a lot obvious beyond jumping through the pages sequentially.
There are also features for highlighting text in e-books, leaving notes, and seeing what passages other users have highlighted. Not something I’ve had a use for yet. It involves clicking through text with the selector and using the keyboard, so you’d need to be somewhat motivated, but perhaps that’s a skill you’d develop quickly.
Well, proof of the pudding is that I’m glad I bought it. It’s a clever thing. It aims to do one job and succeeds pretty well, though there are still some elements of clunkiness in the interface. If you already have a tablet and are happy reading books on that, you probably don’t need one of these as well. On the other hand, it’s a quarter of the price if it gets broken or lost, and it’ll let you read comfortably in daylight.
Here we are six months after I wrote the above review, with the markets in ebooks and tech having moved on, and the benefit of extra perspective.
I’m thinking that although e-ink devices are good at what they do, they’re probably an evolutionary dead end.
People like convenience, so they don’t really want to carry one device for reading and another for all their other whizzy things. Also, once you’ve experienced the intuitive interaction of a good touch screen, it’s really hard to go back. On this Kindle model, while reflowable text works well, navigating a fixed page layout like a PDF is too much like hard work. (I haven’t tried the new Touch model to see how it handles this.) As colour touch screens get better, the rationale for this device gets weaker. I’m happy to have mine, but I don’t think I’d buy it now.