Friday, March 28, 2008

Review: Kindle

With the upcoming move to Munich, I realized that my usual habit of checking out books from the Santa Clara County Library or the Mountain View Library wasn't going to be easy to sustain. Yet while it was possible to order English books from Amazon Deutsch, paying for Euros while on a U.S. dollar denominated payroll didn't sound very smart, neither did accumulating lots of paper at a temporary stay. One reason I gave up buying books wasn't because of the cost, but because of the space.

So I ordered a Kindle in February, waited a full month for the delivery, and received it on Tuesday. Lots of people complain about the supposed ugliness of the product, but since I'm not even cool enough to own a Mac, I didn't find the Kindle ugly at all. In fact, if Apple designed it, it wouldn't have a $20 user replaceable battery, so I'm actually somewhat thankful that Apple did not make this product.

The Kindle charges very fast. I plugged it in, went for a workout at the gym, and it reported a full charge by the time I came back. It comes registered to your Amazon.com account, and I was happily downloading book samples over the wireless connection. I dug up a 1GB SD card, and plugged it into the Kindle for additional storage.

The screen is as readable as advertised, though it's gray, not white. JPGs render beautifully as gray scale pictures. What really sold me, however, was Mobibook Creator. One of the problems I've been trying to solve, for instance, is that when I tour, I end up carrying a ton of paper with me, including the OCD travel guides. Well, Mobibook Creator would take an arbitrary HTML file and turn it into a kindle book, including rendering the diagrams quite beautifully (apologies for the blurriness):


I can't tell you how big a deal this is. One of my biggest complaints in the past was not having the entire Jobst Tour of the Alps collection with me for reference when I was touring, and this makes it possible to have the entire portable reference in a search-able form in a 10.3oz package. If you are planning to tour the alps, the $400 purchase of a Kindle will pay for itself in one trip alone, in terms of finding you better lodging and food. For good measure, I also scanned my paper collection of OCD pass guides into PDFs and converted it using Kindle's free conversion service to download it to my Kindle. The results aren't as nice as Mobibook Creator's output, but it was still largely usable.

The first electronic book I bought for my Kindle, ironically, was not at Amazon.com --- it was a subscription to the electronic version of Interzone Science Fiction Magazine on Fictionwise. This British-published award-winning magazine costs $80 a year to subscribe to from the US, but is only $24 in electronic format --- a true bargain in any sense of the word.

Another good source of electronic books is the Baen Free Library, which I've actually read from in prior years, but is a perfect match for the Kindle. My second purchase for the Kindle was an Omnibus of Tom Godwin stories at Baen's electronic books site. I would never contemplate dragging along such a volume onto a plane in my backpack, but in electronic format, size is simply not an issue. The other good source for free books is Project Gutenberg, which has many of the classic Jane Austen novels available for easy download.

I then tried a wireless purchase through the bookstore: Conan Original Stories for $0.99. The wireless transfer was fast and painless, but the text was mis-formatted --- an e-mail to Amazon's customer service quickly and easily reversed the charge.

It was a sheer pleasure reading from the Kindle. There's a little bit of glare if you're reading with light coming from a point source, but it is no worse than say, a glossy magazine. This is more than made up for by having a choice of font size, the legibility, and the ease of switching materials just because you're in the mood for a change. In fact, I'm afraid that I might start suffering from Kindle-induced ADD, where I read so many books at once that I end up not finishing a single one. This must be how television viewers felt the first time they held a remote control in their hand --- the Kindle is like having a remote control for your entire library of books.

The Kindle incorporates a web-browser which is surprisingly good --- it renders this blog correctly complete with the ads and pictures, for instance. The speed, however, is nothing to write home about, and this is not the intended use of the Kindle. The MP3 player that's built into the Kindle is also rather limited, allowing no selection of songs, for instance, and should be regarded only a stop gap for short train rides or when you are trying to shave weight to a minimum (e.g., on a bike tour). For an 11-hour plane ride, for instance, you are best off bringing a dedicated MP3 player as well

My Kindle turned out to be defective --- the battery only lasted a 8 hours with the wireless turned on (it's supposed to last 2 days), and about 14 hours with the wireless turned off (it's supposed to last a week). A call to Amazon's customer service resulted in their promising to ship me a replacement one as soon as it became available, but in the mean time I could keep using the one I had and just charge it more frequently. Customer service assured me that I had a rare unit, and most of the Kindles out in the field have more than satisfactory battery life.

Criticisms: The Kindle book cover is terrible. It weighs almost as much as the Kindle (8oz), and does not hold on to the Kindle at all! (It clings through a divot in the back of the Kindle, but the mechanism is incredibly unreliable) I replaced it with a Waterfield slip case for protection, and a Sea To Summit Ultra-Sil 2 liter Dry Bag for waterproofing when I'm riding to work with the Kindle in my saddlebag. The two combined weigh under 4oz and provide more protection than the case.

The unit does need a hold switch for the side buttons. It is definitely easy to accidentally tap the buttons when adjusting your Kindle in the default book cover. However, if you remove the Kindle from the cover and read it in your hands this becomes not an issue at all. I definitely think that the design could be improved quite a bit, though given that I detest the ipod-style of non-user replaceable batteries, I'm quite happy with the compromises.

The charger should have been an industry standard USB charger, given that the Kindle has a mini-USB port. This is one of those things where a consumer electronics company would have gotten it correct --- when traveling (and early adopters of the Kindle will largely be travelers), I simply do not want to carry a separate charger for my cell phone and my Kindle. (Yes, the iPhone has a special charger, but it also doubles as your MP3 player)

The book selection is also not quite there yet. I was very annoyed, for instance, that Iain M. Bank's Matter isn't available in the store. I was also disappointed that none of the Lonely Planet or Rough Guides type of books have made it into electronic form (these are the killer apps for the Kindle --- what would you rather backpack through Europe with? 5 pounds of paper books, or a Kindle?). A letter-writing campaign is in order here.

Despite all that, the last few days have had me happily reading various book samples from the Kindle store, and reading the material I bought and downloaded to it. In fact, it got to the point where I was annoyed at having to put down the Kindle, get out of my chair and grab a paper book to keep reading whatever it was I was reading before the Kindle arrived. This might wear off as the novelty of the Kindle wears off over time, but nevertheless, I am keeping this device, and will happily buy later versions if they incorporate new features.

If you are an outdoors person who loves reading (my brother and I used to go on back-country walks with 14 pounds of books), the weight savings and easy readability of the Kindle alone will sell you --- line up and buy one now! You will love it, and wonder why you ever hesitated when it came down to buying one. If you are a cycle tourist and the area you're planning to tour is covered by web guides, buy one as well. You won't miss the weight or the bulk taken up by paper. The way I see it, I read a lot more often than I listen to music (the ipod sold for $400 each when it was first introduced), and the $400 the Kindle costs is more than justifiable for an avid reader. In case you haven't figured it out yet, the Kindle comes highly recommended.
[Update: After 6 months of living with it, here's my long term Kindle review]
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