Tuesday, November 20, 2007

First impressions: quick review of the Amazon Kindle

I received my Amazon Kindle this afternoon, and my first impressions are good. I think it's really important though to understand what it is, and what it isn't. It's not going to be my device of choice for reading blogs, or newspapers, or magazines, or my business or personal documents. But I do think it is going to be my device of choice for reading BOOKS which you read from start to end (not so much technical reference books where you jump in and out).

I read a lot online. I almost never buy paper newspapers and rarely watch TV - I get most of my news online. I read a lot of blogs. Both of these activities - reading news and blogs - tend to be non-sequential. You skim over headlines, read the stories that interest you, and skip those that don't. When online (as opposed to reading paper newspapers), there are often links in one story that lead you to another. Standard web browsers are a good environment for this - you can fit plenty of information on the screen, it's fast and efficient to move your mouse to select links, the pages can include color and graphics. The Kindle can let you read news and blogs, but it's clunky for this. I could potentially see myself using it occasionally for this if I was traveling and didn't have other options, though even then I would probably prefer the browser on my iPhone in most circumstances - it does have color and graphics, and I can more quickly select links on the touch screen. But in general I would use my laptop whenever possible for these things. The same is true of magazines on the Kindle, only more so - I think that here you lose more by not having color graphics. In general I read more offline magazines than newspapers, as I think it's harder to recreate the full magazine experience online.

For reading my own work or personal documents, again in most cases I think that the Kindle will not be the right choice. In most cases when I am reading a document like this, I may want to take notes, make edits, email things to other people. Again my laptop is really the right tool for this job. If I have some documents that I may just want to refer back to then it's nice that I can download those to the Kindle, but I don't see that being a primary use. On that note, I saw before I bought it that it costs ten cents to convert a document and deliver it wirelessly to your Kindle - I found out after buying it that there is an option to convert it for free and download it to your computer, then transfer it via a USB connection. Though to be honest unless I was really transferring lots of documents, I'd probably pay the ten cents most of the time to save the hassle of doing the manual transfer (not a huge deal, but you will spend several minutes to do that).

So anyway, on to the books, the real reason for having this. Despite all my other online activities, I have never read a whole book online. I have had Safari subscriptions for technical books, where you jump in and out, search for specific items, and read sections at a time, but you typically don't sit there and read the thing from end to end. With the Kindle I think I will be quite happy to read books from beginning to end. The "electronic paper" display really is very easy on the eyes. And all you have to do to flip to the next page is press on the large bar which runs all the way down the right hand side of the Kindle (there's a smaller one on the left too), which you can do without thinking at all. This really just lets you get immersed in the reading more than in most online environments where you might have to use the mouse or even just the page down button to scroll to a new screen or page.

The form factor is nice - it's very light and compact, but the screen is large enough to read comfortably. The design could be slicker, but I like it better in person than in the pictures. It comes with a nice leather book-like folding case. And when you're reading on it you really are just focused on the screen - Jeff Bezos talks about making the technology "disappear" so you can just read, and I think they have been successful in doing that.

And I like the browsing and buying experience, which you can do either on the Kindle, or on Amazon in your regular browser. You can download the first chapter of a book (on everything I've looked at so far, at least) which is nice for sampling before you commit to buying. Prices relative to hard copy books vary significantly. For technical books there is no difference in most cases (which is a shame!). For those I think that O'Reilly's Safari continues to be a good option. Current best-sellers and new books are mainly priced at $10, which is often $10-20 less than the corresponding paper book. And there seem to be some good deals on "classics" - I have bought 1984 for $3.75, versus the cheapest paper version on Amazon being $10, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles for $2.39, both of which had been on my list of things to re-read sometime. So while the initial cost of $400 is pretty high and will clearly need to come down quite a bit before any widespread adoption, the net cost if you read tens of books a year is actually a lot less.

I think that the form factor is really good for travel. I like to travel light, and if I throw 3 or 4 books in my bag I really feel the difference. The Kindle is very lightweight (lighter than a single paperback book), so I really like that aspect.

In conclusion, I think it's highly likely that having the Kindle will result in me reading more books than I did before, especially when I'm traveling (though I'm not doing that much these days). But I think that a combination of the ease of the buying process, the good prices (in many cases), and the convenience (and novelty factor, at least initially) of the device itself will encourage me to read more. But only time will tell whether this really will be the case or not ... I'll report back in a little while!


Anonymous said...

good review peter, I was thinking exactly the same thing about the blogs/newspaper content but the real draw is obviously the long form book

How is the screen in variable light situations? (outside, sunny, half indoor half sunlight etc). This is the main concern for me, it really needs to "read" like the printed page for it to be compelling and I'm hoping the eInk will do just that.

We like to travel a lot and the number of books that ends up wasting space in the bag is almost comical. I'd love to reduce it to a single lightweight device. How's the durability "feel" of it?

also, was the online purchasing seamless?


Peter Batty said...

Thanks Brian. Ironically yesterday was one of the few non-sunny days in Denver, so I haven't had a chance to try it in bright light yet. In fact I had the opposite problem, which is that you need to read it in a fairly well lit place (just as you do with a book), whereas I'm used to being able to read my laptop or iPhone without good lighting because they're backlit. But I'll certainly test this out over the next few days and post an update. I think it will work well in this regard, but we'll see.

It feels pretty durable, and the leather case seems as though it offers good protection. Amazon shows a video of some drop tests from 30" on the product page. The online purchasing was completely seamless - it's great choosing something and having it show up less than a minute later. And being able to download the sample chapters is excellent. Integration with your existing Amazon account is seamless, so you have access to their recommendations for you, and it uses the credit cards you have stored there.

Anonymous said...

Hey Peter, very interesting to hear about the Kindle. For comparison, I'm reading a few books on my iPhone of late, as an experiment. It's working out surprisingly well - I find reading from the screen and scrolling pages completely comfortable and unobtrusive. The longest I've sat down with it for continuous reading is about 3 hours, but I'm confident I could happily read from it for much longer should the situation arise - it suffers not at all in comparison with the vanilla-or-garden paperback.

The only real drawbacks to its use Apple's fondness for proprietary formats. For all Steve Jobs' recent rhetoric swearing off Digital Restrictions Management, the reality is that I still can't simply drag and drop html or pdf books directly to my phone and read them.

I've always been a big fan of the principle of eBooks, so in many ways I was a convert before I even tried this out. Still, I've never used a device before which has passed the threshold of being, finally, good enough in practice. There are minor wrinkles - the build-in book reader software doesn't flip the screen based on the tilt sensor, things like that. But I think for me personally, it's finally time to get on board and abandon physical books, the same way I abandoned physical CD's back in '98.

badger2196 said...

It's odd that the Sony Reader has been around for so long, using the same E-Ink technology, and they never thought of providing wireless capability or the ability to search within a book. I'm betting that the next version will have these features, and still remain cheaper than the Kindle. We'll see.

As for the Kindle, I think the most interesting feature of e-books in general is the fact that books can now become dynamic objects, with authors and publishers providing updates that correct errors or ommissions and even alternative endings. I am not sure if Amazon provides this type of service, but it seems to me that books targetted at such devices could become totally different animals to their paper counterparts.

BTW, nice review Peter.