Free Markets, Free People

review


Amazon Kindle 2 Review

I am a reader.  I am, in fact, a serious reader.  For most of my life, this was a bit of a financial burden, and over time, an even greater physical burden, since I acquired a library of hundreds of books.  A couple of years ago, I was liberated from much of this by the acquisition of a Sony PRS-500 eBook Reader.  As of this last Tuesday afternoon, my Sony Reader had 400 books stored on it that I had acquired over the last three years.

On Tuesday night, my PRS-500 went Tango Uniform.

The Amazon Kindle 2

The Amazon Kindle 2

A dilemma immediately arose about how best to replace it.  With the Kindle 2 now out, I had the following choice.  Buy a new PRS-700 from Sony, or get a Kindle.  With the new PRS-700, I could transfer all my old books.  But I was stuck with Sony’s horrendously inconvenient book-buying process.  Or I could get a new Kindle 2, which was a bit cheaper, far easier to obtain books for, but would require a massively inconvenient re-acquisition or conversion of my old books to the Kindle.

I made my choice, and bought the Kindle.

It arrived on Thursday, and I have to say that it’s not only signifigacantly better than the Sony, it’s a fantastic book reader in its own right.

The Form Factor

The Kindle is a bit larger than the Sony due to the QWERTY keyboard in the lower portion of the machine.  It’s still small enough, though to be conveniently sized, and easy to handle.  It’s quite thin, and light.  In fact, the deluxe leather cover I purchased with it is almost as heavy as the Kindle itself.

The one downside to the device’s form factor is the QWERTY keyboard–but that’s pretty much an unavoidable downside.  The buttons are small, and set very close together.  This makes typing a bit slow a laborious.  Of course, it’s physically impossible to get a decent keyboard on a small device, so you know going in that typing isn’t going to be convenient.  It’s no different from a Blackberry or palm device.  The surprise isn’t that the keyboard doesn’t allow convenient typing, but rather that there’s a usable keyboard at all.  The Kindle’s keyboard is usable, and that is probably the best that anyone can reasonably expect.

That having been said, the buttons are designed in such a way as to minimize accidental pressing unless you intend to press them, which is a plus.

The controls are well-positioned on the device.  As you can see from the picture, there are six main navigation buttons along the sides.

Left Buttons Right Buttons
Previous Page Home
Next Page Next page
Menu
Back

In addition to the buttons, there is a joystick control placed between the menu and back buttons for navigating the cursor through the menus.

The nice thing about the design of the buttons is that the depress to the center of the device, not to the edge.  This does a great job of preventing you from inadvertantly changing pages, or going to the home screen by accident while you handle the device.  it’s a small, but very convenient detail.  It’s also nice that there are Next page buttons on both sides of the device.  This is the button you’re going to hit most often, after all, so they are conveniently accessible at all times, no matter how you hold the device.  That’s helped out by the fact that they are significantly larger than the other buttons.

Kindle 2 and Laptop for size comparison

Kindle 2 and Laptop for size comparison

The image to the right gives a good real-world size comparison.  As you can see, the Kindle is conveniently small.

One final note on the form factor.  With the keyboard on the bottom, the screen is raised to the top of the device.  This means that when you read in bed, you can rest the bottom of the device on the covers, and the whole screen is visible.  On my Sony, the covers would obscure the bottom of the screen.  Since I read before sleeping every night, this is a noticeable improvement.

The E-Ink Screen

I was a fan of the eInk technology on the Sony, but there were a few drawbacks.  The contrast beteen the gray background and black text could have been better.  The refresh rate of the screen was also noticeably–sometimes distractingly–slow.  With only 4 grayscale colors, book covers and other images were nearly illegible.

That was a first-generation eInk screen, of course, and with the Kindle 2, there have been obvious improvements to the technology.  The gray background is a bit lighter, increasing the contrast.  The page refresh rate is also much, much faster, which makes “turning” the pages far less noticeable.  It certainly takes less time than turning a page in a physical book.

The biggest improvement is in the fact that the screen displays 16 grayscale colors now.  This makes the pictures far more legible and photograph-like.  In fact, every time you turn the Kindle off, a picture of a some author or literary scene is displayed, and they all look good on the screen.

Device Features

The most convenient of the feastures has to be the different font sizes.  The Kindle not only uses a pleasant and easy to read serif font, it offers a choice of 6 different font sizes.  There’s enough variation in font size to make easy reading for practically anyone.

Navigating through the device is very easy.  No matter where you are, you can get to the main menu screen by pushing the Home key.  The back key gets you out of any menus or secondary screens with one click.

Having to navigate through menus with the joystick control is slightly inconvenient compared to the Sony, however.  The Sony provides ten physical buttons that correspond to the menu items, so instead of navigating, you simply push the appropriate button.  On the Kindle, you have to nudge the joystick to move from item to item.

The menu system is faily intuitive, providing you with slightly different menus, depending on what screen you’re looking at on the device.  At all times, you are presented with menus that are relevant to what you’re doing with the device at the time.

If you find you’re doing something where you can’t actually read your book, the Kindle offers a voice-to-text feature that is surprisingly good.  You get the choice between a male or female voice, and can vary the speed at which the voice reads between three different settings.  The voice is obviously computer-generated, but it sounds closer to a human voice than any device I’ve previously worked with.  It still has trouble pronouncing certain words, but for listening while you drive–or ride your motorcycle–it’s a pretty neat feature.  It’s also neat that the Kindle has a built-in speaker, as well as a 3.5mm mini jack for headphones.

In addition, the Kindle will also play MP3 files.

Unfortunately, some publishers threatened to sue Amazon, saying that the voice to text feature was a copyright violation–which it clearly is not.  Amazon, however, rather than getting involved in a legal battle, allows publishers to disable the text to speech feature, so not every book will be hearable.

The Kindle does not take any external storage media, like an SD card.  It does, however, come with 2GB of onboard memory.  That’s enough memory to store about 1500 books, which seems like more than enough to get by.  Any book you buy at Amazon is perpetually available for download, too so, you can always swap out books if you find that 1,500 books isn’t enough.

Going Online

QandO on the Kindle

QandO on the Kindle

The Kindle contains an EVDO modem that operates off the Sprint 3G network.  When you buy a book from the Amazon store, the book is delivered directly to the device via the network.  In addition, the Kindle is assigned an email address, so you can take your text or RTF documents, and email them to that address, and Amazon will, for ten cents, convert the document to the Kindle format, and deliver it straight to the device as well.

eBook prices at the Amazon store are surprisingly good.  The cost of an eBook is significantly less than the paper versions.  I was able to buy Amity Schlaes’ newest book, The Forgotten Man, for $9.57, as opposed to the $25 hardback price.  In addition to that, I was able to pick up modern translations of some classics, such as Livy’s History of Rome, the collected works of Tacitus in one eBook, Xenophon’s Anabasis, The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Julius Ceasar’s Commentaries on the Wars, and The Histories of Herodotus for about $3.50 each.

In addition to wireless book delivery from the Amazon store, you can also transfer books from your computer to the device via the included USB cable. So, if you don’t want to shell out the dime for wireless delivery to your device when you convert a document, you can have Amazon convert the document and send it to your email address for free, then use the USB cable to transfer it to the device.

I buy a lot of sci-fi at the Baen Books Webscriptions web site, which offers books in the Kindle format.  In addition, nearly all of the books from the Gutenberg Project, as well as many other titles, are all available for free in several eBook formats, including the Kindle, from ManyBooks.  Having the USB connection allows the Kindle to be seen as a hard drive on your computer, and you can transfer those eBooks from your computer to the Kindle.

In addition to going online at Amazon, the Kindle is also a web browser, and you can simply go to a web site and read it.  I’m not sure if this is going to be a permanent feature of the Kindle, because I’m sure Sprint wants money for the use of its EVDO network, so this may or may not be a feature that goes away.  On the other hand, it’s a pretty pretty primitive browser.  It takes forever for a web page to load, and you have to use the joystick to navigate from link to link.  It’s not very convenient, so I can’t see someone wanting to use it on a regular basis.

You can, by the way, turn the wireless on and off as necessary, for lots of battery life extension.

Conclusion

I have been extremely impressed by the Kindle.  The speed at which it works, the ease of obtaining books, and the though that has gone into its design make this a definite winner in my book. (Pun.  Deal with it.)  It has been a pleasure to use for the last couple of days, and from my experience, it is vastly superior to the Sony Reader in nearly every way.  It’s been an absolute joy to use.  Now, all I need is a new Palm Pre, and I’ll be set.

My only problem with it has been how easy and seductive it is to get new books for it.  I just purchased Winston Churchill’s 6-volume memoir of World War II for $36.69.  Clearly, I’m going to have to figure out how to reign those impulse purchases in.