Amazon Kindle

May 18, 2008

Yes, I realize that this piece is a bit "late," but I wasn't able to get my hands on a Kindle until just a couple of months ago.1

The five-second, 192-char review (inspired by Twitter)

I love the Kindle, and totally see myself using and enjoying it (and its progeny) for many years to come. I'm reading more because of it, and seriously doubt I'll ever read a paper book again.

Why I bought one

My explanation (justification?) is likely going to sound either abstruse or semi-reasonable, depending on both how well you know me and where on the luddite↔technophile continuum you fall, but hear me out.

I've always been a rather voracious reader (I'm that guy who has to read the side of the cereal box, etc.), but since becoming so completely caught-up in this web thing many, many years ago, almost all of my reading has moved to the computer. So, while I no doubt read much more than the average person each day, the bulk source of the words has shifted from books to Internet-based "news," and all that that has come to mean.

At the end of the day, I really wanted to get back to reading books.

You could obviously argue that I could read books without the Kindle, and you'd be right. Partially. Sure, I can go out and pick up a book (and I've certainly done that over the last decade, though probably only a handful of times a year), but these books are missing what I've come to really appreciate and enjoy about reading online — the ability to [re]search and easily switch between sources. The Kindle fills these gaps.

For example, you can immediately lookup the definition of a word by using the device's built-in dictionary (simply move the cursor to the line where the word is and choose "lookup in dictionary" from the menu). Relatedly, and given that the Kindle comes with a lifetime EV-DO Internet connection, you can use Wikipedia to easily lookup anything on which you'd like more information. It all works quite brilliantly and is obviously something that simply can't be done with a paper book.

As another example, consider the auto-bookmarking feature, which automatically remembers where you left off in each of your books (and yes, you can manually place as many bookmarks as you'd like). Such a nicety also finds a parallel in the computer world: my browser automatically remembers not only tabs and other session information, but also the position at which I stopped reading the pages within the tabs.

Another feature I really like is the ability to see, at a glance, how far along you are in a book simply by looking at the dotted line at the bottom of the screen (the dots are "bolded" as you go), which can be considered equivalent to the scrollbar on a web page. Moreover, when viewing your list of books, these dotted lines are made relative to all the books on your Kindle; it's kind of neat to see not only how far along you are in each of your books, but also how long each book is relative to the others on the device.

One of the best features of the Kindle is its storage capacity. Out of the box it can hold roughly 200 books, and that space can be expanded many times over using its available SD memory slot. It's so nice to have multiple books at your fingertips (as you have multiple tabs at your fingertips inside a browser); you can flip back and forth between completely different subject matter, all from a single, light device that automatically remembers where you left off the last time.

Finally, the Kindle lets you highlight certain passages and take notes along the way; and like a web page (or the Internet generally), these highlights, annotations, and even the books themselves are searchable.

All of this may seem perfectly obvious, not perfectly analogous to the web world, and completely inconsequential to you, but for me, in the aggregate, it's exactly what I currently want in a book.

The end result of all of these things is that I find myself not only wanting to read more, but actually reading more. A lot more.

Design

Let's be honest, the Kindle looks like a crossword-puzzle device a grandfather might receive from his grandson at Christmas (and so it is with some trepidation that I use it in public), but the fact is, the design is actually very thought out, and well at that.

At first blush, the design seems irretrievably flawed. Indeed, when I first saw the pictures I couldn't believe Amazon went with what looked to be the worst type of design: ugly + impractical. In fact, I didn't feel too much better upon taking the device out of its packaging, but after some serious use I've come to really appreciate the way it works. Sure, even after nearly two months of use, I still find myself hitting the next/previous page buttons when I don't mean to, but I'm willing to look past that given that they work so well when you actually do want to move between pages, and which ease-of-use isn't predicated on the device's position.

I usually find myself holding the Kindle with one hand (i.e., near the bottom of the device with my thumb on top and fingers below), and switching back and forth between my right and left hands. The back cover is a rubber-like pad that actually feels pretty good and definitely makes the Kindle a bit easier to grasp.

As previously mentioned, it's hard to use the Kindle for anything other than reading without accidentally hitting the large next/previous buttons that make up most of its sides. That said, the layout of the buttons really does work well when you're reading; because they take up most of the sides, they are generally very accessible no matter how you hold the device, or even if you lay it down on a table, bed, lap, etc.

Many have criticized not only the large buttons, but also the combination of the "select wheel" and "scrollbar," used to highlight menu options and other controls. I quite like the select wheel and think it's a great compromise given the limitations inherent in e-ink. The wheel has a nice rubbery feel to it, and gives tactile feedback when you press down on it (not unlike the scrollwheel on a mouse). The one thing I'm not a huge fan of is the "cursor," which runs along a track parallel to the screen, and which corresponds to what on the screen you wish to select. It's a bit shiny (think reflective), and for reasons I can't quite figure out. I should note that the cursor also acts as a progress indicator in some instances, but I've yet to find that functionality useful.

One of the nicest things about the Kindle, and something that is inherent in such a device, is that, unlike a regular book, its orientation and weight aren't constantly shifting. With a paper book, you are made to move [it] around as you shift from the left to the right page, flip pages, etc. With the Kindle however, all of that shifting disappears and you can hold your chosen position indefinitely.

Such a "feature" generally allows you to expend less energy when reading. For example, I like reading in bed while lying on my side. With a paper book you have to constantly hold the book to keep it open and to move it slightly depending on whether you're reading the right or left page; with the Kindle, you can just let it rest on the bed and then tap the next-page button as needed. I realize that this may sound like a trivial thing to devote a paragraph to, but it really is amazing how such a device can change the way you read, or make the way you're used to reading that much better.

The e-ink display

If you haven't seen e-ink before, you owe it to yourself to check it out. It really does read like paper. Of course, this technology has been available to the public for quite some time (most notably via Sony's e-book Reader), but never has it been presented in such a perfect package (the Kindle's looks notwithstanding). Not only does the screen read like paper, but the viewing angle also mimics paper (i.e., it's limited more by your eyes than the technology), and it's very non-reflective, which means you can read it just the same in the bright sun as you can next to a lamp in a dark room (I've yet to find lighting conditions under which I couldn't read it, save no light at all). It's great.

Another nice side-effect of the e-ink technology is how little power it draws. Indeed, because there is no backlight, the only time the Kindle really touches the battery is when the screen is refreshed (e.g., when you go to the next page). Subsequently, the device can go for a very long time without a recharge, which, as you might guess, is incredibly freeing.

The Kindle offers six different font sizes, which is useful in ways you might not imagine. For example, lately I've been taking the Kindle to the gym if I know I'm going to be riding the bike, and if my arm gets tired from holding the device in a particular position for a prolonged period of time, I can simply increase the font size and set it on the control panel of the bike. Similarly, when reading at night, if my eyes start to feel really tired, I might turn the font size up a few notches to reduce the strain.

The refresh rate of the screen seems to bother some people, but my guess is that these complainers have either never used an e-ink device (and are commenting just to comment) or have only used one for a very short period of time. I'll readily admit that the first few times it was a little weird to have to "wait" for the screen to refresh, but given that it takes less than a second — roughly the same amount of time it takes to flip a page in a book — it's a total non-issue.

The included case is crap

The Kindle comes with a usable, but cheap case that uses one of those annoying elastic bands to hold it together (think Moleskine). Moreover, the device is secured to the bookcover-type case by just two flimsy braces located near the middle of the case. It's crappy.

Within two minutes of using the supplied case I started looking online for third-party options, but there were very few available. In fact, I could find only one company making Kindle cases, and I picked up their Slip Case. It's nice. It's certainly not going to win any design awards, but it gets the job done. It's very thin (fits well in the small pocket of my computer bag), is hard on one side (to protect the screen), and holds snugly the device. I definitely recommend it.

Buying books is addictive

I was amazed at how many books I bought within the first two weeks of owning the Kindle.2 It's so incredibly easy to buy books, either directly from the device itself, or through Amazon.com; either way, it's essentially a one-click process, and the book arrives on the Kindle within a minute of the purchase.

Using a similar process, you're allowed to download, for free, the first chapter of any book available in the Kindle store. A great move, which costs all involved parties essentially nothing, and in the best case may lead to a purchase.

Did I mention that there are currently ~120,000 books available, and most for $9.99 or less? I don't think you'll ever want for content.

The send-to feature

The ability to send to the Kindle, by email, long-form articles and other content (for 10 cents an email)3 is invaluable. If I come across a long article that I think I'll probably never actually finish reading on the computer, I simply email it to my Kindle address and seconds later it's on the device. OK, so the formatting is hit-or-miss, but what do you expect? Amazon obviously can't be expected to be able to parse perfectly everything you throw at it, and I'm sure this is something they're constantly improving.

Things I haven't tried yet

I'm so preoccupied with reading that I haven't spent any time at all connecting it to my computer (I've done everything over-the-air), adding music (much less listening to music through either the built-in speaker or headphone jack), adding memory by way of an SD card, or downloading and listening to audiobooks. I have spent a little time playing around with the "experimental" web browser, and while it's usable, I don't see myself ever actually using it, save for Wikipedia lookups (web pages just aren't meant to be consumed on a device like this, with non-scrolling e-ink).

What I'd like to see in future versions

I'd like them to offer different colors, or at least one other color (i.e., anything other than bright white).

It would be really nice to have my highlights (i.e., book passages that I've "circled") available to me through my Amazon account. Amazon currently keeps track of the books you've bought (and will allow you to re-download them at any time if, for example, you've removed them from your Kindle to make room for other content), but doesn't offer a way for me to use the highlights I've made, without plugging the device into my computer (though I think they're saved together with the book, and come along with it should you re-download it).

I use the keyboard so infrequently that it might be nice to have it slide in/out or otherwise hide itself, so as to bring down the overall length of the device. Then again, I'm not quite sure how I would hold it if that extra space wasn't there.

The behavior of footnotes can be inconsistent, even within a single book. I think this needs to be a bit more standardized across all books. When it works, it works great, but when it doesn't, you can be made to figure out where you left off (which may be next to impossible in some cases).

Should you buy a Kindle?

Yes, assuming you like to read books (or simply want to read more of them), I can't recommend this device highly enough. Amazon has made the entire process — from searching for and buying books, to reading and annotating them — effortless and fun. They really do have something special in the Kindle.


  1. Six months ago, Amazon sold out of Kindles within 5.5 hours of making them available, and only recently has supply caught up with demand; yeah, that's right, it was basically "out of stock" for six months (you could order it, but it was still taking, in some instances, a month+ to actually ship out). So, what's the fallback option? Right, eBay. The problem though is that for a very long time they were going for ~$1000 on eBay (2.5 times their retail cost of $400), and only a couple of months ago did the prices start to fall below $500 (which is when I finally grabbed one).   

  2. Rodney Brooks' Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us, Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto and The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, David Levy's Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, David McCullough's John Adams, and Tony Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World.   

  3. It costs you 10 cents each time you send content to your Kindle email address, but to save some time and a little money, you can actually zip up a few different files and send the archive to your Kindle address; the file will be unzipped and the individual documents will be sent to the device, all for just 10 cents.   

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