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Fri, 30 Mar 2012

Amazon Kindle

[originally published 25 Mar 2012]

I've had my Kindle for a few months now and, as promised, here's a review.

There are now several models of Kindle available, of which two are available in the UK. Other parts of the world have other models available which may be cheaper but are also infested with adverts and therefore are crap. Of the two now available in the UK, I've only used what they now call the "Kindle Keyboard", so please bear that in mind when reading this. That model is £60 more expensive than the keyboard-less version, but as well as the keyboard it also has a 3G connection so you can download books (and, of course, pay for books) on the move, it has somewhat better battery life (I charge mine overnight once every few weeks - it would be more like once a week if I left the 3G and Wifi connections up all the time), and it has twice as much storage. Of course, for books you don't need much storage. The 2GB in the keyboard-less model is enough for hundreds of books, and the extra storage will only really matter if you use it for audio-books, which are not available on the keyboard-less model.

The Kindle is great and I love it. If you read a lot you'll be familiar with the problem of having to carry several books with you when you go on holiday, or two with you on the journey to work in case you finish one in mid-travel. I now have a dozen or so books loaded on my Kindle, plus a few short stories, some magazines, and essays. Many of them were free - either free from Amazon's website, or from places like Project Gutenberg or Baen Books, or downloaded from other random websites. Having all of Project Gutenberg available on demand in my pocket is awesome.

[added 30 Mar 2012] It is also really good for discovering new authors - both those that are new to me and also those that are new to writing. Amazon does a pretty decent job of recommending things to me based on my purchase history, and once you start reading a few authors' blogs you'll soon find a rich seam of references to other authors from people you trust, and links to books posted for free online. And those online books will mostly be in formats that you can easily put on your Kindle.

So why only three stars? There are all kinds of niggling little problems. Some are design flaws in the Kindle hardware, some are software bugs and poor user interface design, and some are inherent limitations in media which have Digital Restrictions Management. Let's look at those in reverse order.

The Kindle can read DRM-free books from third-parties in a number of common formats just fine. However, books bought from Amazon are infected with DRM. While it can be easily stripped out, this really shouldn't be necessary. All DRM schemes are doomed to failure, and yet users who wish to move their books to a better device (and you can bet that someone will come out with something better in the future) have to go through this annoying dance. E-book vendors (well, most of them - Baen are a splendid counter-example) insist that you mustn't lend your books to your friends or sell them second-hand. You can, of course, if you strip out the DRM. Publishers only harm themselves by preventing lending, as this means that I can't so easily introduce someone to a new author. It's less obvious, but killing off the second-hand market will also harm them in the long term. When I was young and didn't have much money, I bought second-hand almost exclusively. Second-hand books got me hooked on reading. These days I buy new almost all the time. I wouldn't read as much now - and hence spend as much money with publishers - if I hadn't got hooked on cheap drugs second-hand books. And even for well-off readers, the second-hand market is a good way for people to find out about authors they hadn't previously read.

DRM is closely related to the problem that some books are only available in some countries. This is because authors sell rights to different publishers in different places. However, surely if this were actually enforceable I wouldn't be able to buy US editions of paper books in the UK, and people in the US wouldn't be able to buy UK editions. And yet that works just fine. There is no reason for these stupid geographical restrictions. This plagued DVD sales early on until region-cracking hardware and software became common-place, but these days there's nothing stopping people from buying "US-only" DVDs in the UK through Amazon's website so their enforceing this for e-books is stupid. They should use their muscle to slap the publishers into line and make them get rid of this idiocy.

On to the software bugs. There is at least one really nasty bug to do with wireless networks which Amazon must know about - it's all over their user support forums - but don't seem to care about fixing, and the user interface seems to be a bit obtuse. You would think that the UI tools for getting books onto the Kindle and for deleting them would be close to each other, but they're not. To get a book onto the Kindle, press the Menu button, then navigate to the Kindle Store. To get a book off the Kindle, you'd think that you want to go into that menu, but no, you have to do a funny dance with the arrow keys on the home screen. There are lots of other little UI niggles too, the worst being the on-screen menus for typing punctuation characters and numbers when annotating a book. The damned thing has a shift key for typing capitals, so why the hell doesn't it have another meta key for typing symbols? This is bad UI design plain and simple, and I dread to think what it's like on the keyboard-less version.

Another serious UI problem is that organising books into "collections" is fiddly, and can only be done via the Kindle's built-in software. It would work much better if you could mount the Kindle as a drive on your computer (you can) and then organise books into folders (you can't). And if you're going to have many hundred books on the device at once, a thousand or more even, like Amazon say you can, being able to organise them easily and effectively is essential. This UI flaw effectively makes it impractical to have more than a few dozen books on the device at once, which also means that having gigabytes of memory is pointless. Half a gig would be fine, and would make it a few quid cheaper.

And finally, the big hardware bug. The e-ink screen is very good indeed. It's clear, high-contrast, and can be read easily under all lighting conditions that you could read a paper book. It is also fragile and unprotected. The fragile pixels of an LCD display are at least protected behind a sheet of glass or plastic, but the e-ink display is right on the surface with only the thinnest covering layer. This makes it very vulnerable to damage. I'm on my second Kindle already, the first breaking after just a couple of months. I have no idea how I managed to break the screen - I didn't bash it hard, or sit on it, I just carried it in my pocket like people do in Amazon's own adverts for the silly thing - but it broke anyway. This would seem to be a very common failure mode, by far the most common amongst Kindle users I've spoken to, and one with which Amazon's customer support staff are very familiar judging by how fast they said they'd send me a replacement. Given that incredibly quick replacement I don't actually fault them for this, I just think it's something you need to be aware of.

Let's compare the models. Starting with the cheap keyboard-less model as a baseline, what extras do you get in the more expensive model? More memory, but that's only useful for audio books, so most people won't use it. A keyboard, which I use for making notes as I'm reading, but which is also nigh-on essential if you want to shop for books on the Kindle itself. 3G, which is useful for when you are away from a proper network. Of course, the lack of 3G on the cheap model means that you're less likely to be able to shop for books on it too - a network connection and a keyboard, in the form of a proper computer, tend to go together!

Do I recommend a Kindle? Yes, with reservations. The fragile screen is a problem, mostly mitigated by excellent customer service, although it might be more serious if you didn't have good access to a postal service such as if you spend lots of time travelling or live somewhere very remote. The software problems can be worked around but they, in conjunction with the fragility, mean that I think of the Kindle as being more of a prototype than a finished, polished product. DRM isn't much of an issue as it is easily worked around. The inability to legally lend a book to a friend or sell your books second-hand is a big drawback, although this affects all of the Kindle's competitors too.

Posted at 21:38 by David Cantrell
keywords: electronics | kindle
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