If you're a heavy reader and into technology, it's difficult to imagine that you haven't least browsed to Amazon's Kindle page to peruse their reading device at any time since its first release three years ago. I certainly know I have more than once over that period. And yet there was always something holding me back, a nagging worry that I would drop the money, and yet not use the device very heavily. With this latest release, Amazon seems to have finally hit—what is for me—the sweet spot.
Why Not the Kindle 2?
Until the Kindle 3 (Amazon doesn't call it a Kindle 3, but for the purposes of brevity and clarity in this article I will), I had never really closely examined what kept me from buying a Kindle device. On the other hand, I'm usually quite the fan of uni-tasking items: generally, I like devices that do what they do well and don't try to do things they don't do well. It certainly wasn't the limited functionality of an e-book reader that kept me from buying one.
Remarkably, with the latest Kindle, Amazon seems to have telepathically plucked most of those concerns, even the unconscious and subconscious ones, from my mind and addressed them. (A few, mainly regarding the reading experience, I addressed myself by examining other devices in person.) On examination of the Kindle 3 release, what kept me from buying a Kindle 2 were three things: pricing, the reading experience (or my uncertainty regarding it), and the overall aesthetics of the device (and, to a lesser extent, the role the keyboard plays in that).
Clearly pricing was one concern: when you have an iPhone with an Amazon Kindle app, paying near-to $300 or more for a purpose-specific device seems a little excessive. But I found that despite installing the app on my iPhone and downloading free books and sample chapters, I never really liked reading on the device. The screen, for the purposes of sitting down and doing a substantial amount of reading, is simple too small for me. Nevertheless, paying the same amount (or nearly) I paid for my iPhone 4 was a non-starter, especially considering for not a lot more I could get an iPad.
New Kindle pricing: $139 for the Wi-fi only model (the one I bought); $189 for a model with Wi-fi and 3G wireless (via AT&T "Whispernet," no contract required). It's difficult to imagine much better pricing, unless the Kindle 3 eventually dips below the magical $100 barrier. However, at this price, it's equivalent to buying a living room entertainment device, like a good DVD or mid-range Blu-Ray player. The new price is eminently justifiable for most on a middle-class income.
The reading experience was the next-most significant stumbling block for me. E-ink is still a relatively young technology, so I wasn't sure that I would like the screen. Ironically, the prevalence of devices from other manufacturers in brick-and-mortar stores made it more likely that I would be buy a Kindle online from Amazon.
Several months prior to the introduction of the new Kindle, Sony e-book readers began showing up in ubiquitous locations like Target and Borders bookstores. Additionally, Barnes & Noble released their Nook reader, and made it available in stores. Although I did seriously consider a Sony eReader, ultimately I decdied against it. The higher end models with touch-screens suffer from a well-remarked on degradation of display clarity due to the additional screen layer; the lower end models didn't offer all the features I wanted. The Nook was a good display to look at hands-on, as it reportedly uses the same screen in the Kindle 2. However, when I handled one in a store, it seemed overly heavy to me for long reading periods, and there was very noticeable lag while changing pages or using the LCD navigation screen. Since them, some of the interface lagginess of the device has been addressed, but looking at another device recently I didn't notice much difference.
By contrast, Amazon is touting two features that address these concerns with e-ink displays. First, the new Kindle (and the new Kindle DX) use the "Pearl" display, a second-generation technology with a slightly whiter display and slightly darker blacks. It's still not white, but it's comparable to newsprint or mass-market paperback tones. Additionally, the new default "graphite" casing color helps make the display whiter than it is thanks to an optical illusion. Second, screen redraws are substantially faster. I don't know if they're the ten times faster that Amazon claims, but comparing the "screen flash" of my Kindle 3 to the flash of the Nook reader at B&N, I'd say it's easily at least a quarter as long; well under a quarter second for the Kindle and just slightly more than a second on the Nook. (More or screen flash later.)
Finally, I just wasn't a fan of the Kindle aesthetics. This might be a minor concern to some, but there were things about both the first and second generation devices that put me off. The keyboard, while I recognize its utility as an input device, was near the bottom of my desired feature list for a reading device. I've never been much of a note-taker for books. Also, it seemed to take up an inordinate amount of the face of the device, distracting from the screen. For me, the screen on a reader needs to dominate, or it doesn't make sense as a single-task device.
Similarly, the out-of-joint proportions that that oversized page-turning buttons and thick side bezels gave detracted from the screen. Generally, I was much more attracted by the proportions of the Kindle DX, where the screen is by far the most significant facing feature. Could I have still read from a first or second-gen Kindle? I'm sure I could have, but I personally find design an important consideration; poor physical design often indicates poor design in other areas, too.
Amazon's redesign of the Kindle now includes smaller, slimmer page-turners, slimmer bezels, and a redesigned more-compact keyboard. This allows a Kindle that's more than half an inch shorter in each front-facing dimension, greatly improving the proportion of screen to non-screen area.
Having had each of my pre-existing concerns addressed, we can focus on the Kindle 3 alone:
The ordering process is, typically for Amazon, about as easy as can be. It's worth noting, though, that Amazon is still in the early days of meeting demand for this new device, and so expect to find it backordered for some weeks yet. As of today, if you order a device Amazon says it should ship by the 20th of September. I didn't order my device during the first week or pre-sales, but I did order it within the first two weeks. As it turned out, my device ended up shipping a day or two earlier than the quoted ship date when I ordered.
I chose free delivery, which in this case was via USPS using FedEx SmartPost. As the listed delivery date was the 13th and I received my Kindle on the 9th, I can't really complain about the delivery experience. Updates via their online tracking site weren't always timely, however, so don't necessarily rely on them as gospel truth. For example, I received the notice that my package was delivered the day after I picked it up out of my mailbox.
In The Box
The unboxing experience is fairly unremarkable. The box itself is thankfully easy to open, with a single pull tab. Inside the box immediately on top is the Kindle itself. Below the Kindle is a quick-start pull-out pamphlet, a USB cord (mini-connector to standard size), and a power connector to connect the USB cord to a standard power outlet.
Of note once you open the box is that if the quick-start is too onerous a read for you, the e-ink display itself ships with a two-step setup guide. It's a nice touch that Amazon has thought of the often impatient among us. I myself followed the on-screen instructions and then hit the quick-start pamphlet for any additional setup requirements. If you buy a Kindle from your own account on Amazon and not as a gift, it will ship automatically registered to you. Otherwise, there is a short registration process to go through.
Perhaps more interestingly, it was already configured for use with my Amazon account without any requirement for me to enter my password. While it's unlikely the device itself actually stores your Amazon password (more likely using a device ID to authenticate), it's worth knowing that if you order a Kindle and it never arrives you probably need to deregister the device from your account as soon as possible to prevent fraudulent purchases.
The final bit of necessary setup involved connecting to my home wireless network. Thanks to the keyboard, entering the password wasn't the chore it could have been, but it was made slightly harder by the fact that the Kindle 3 has removed the number buttons from the keyboard layout (overall a move I approve of, as it allows for a smaller device). As it happens, I used the "Sym" (symbol) key to enter the numbers in my password from an on-screen menu, but a tip I found later in the Kindle User Guide is that you can enter numbers directly from the keyboard by pressing Alt + one of the top-row letters (Q is 1 and P is 0, for example). Some kind of on-key (or beside the key) printing might have made this feature more discoverable, but it's an easy enough convention to remember now that I know about it.
The first thing one notices about the Kindle 3 is that it seems smaller in person than in pictures. I've tried to include a few photos throughout that adequately convey the size, but it's possible it takes simply holding one yourself. In comparison to the Nook from Barnes & Noble, it's substantially thinner, although only slightly smaller in height and width. Also in comparison to the Nook, it's quite a bit lighter. Four ounces doesn't sound like a lot in theory, but the Kindle is definitely on the good side of the tipping point between noticeably fatiguing and noticeably comfortable to hold unsupported for long periods.
It's difficult to convey in words something that's ultimately completely subjective, but the Kindle's size and weight seem perfectly designed, in a way that an Apple iPhone felt "right" the first time I held one. If you've ever picked up a 3/4-sized hardback book in an airport and thought the size felt so much better than a standard full-sized book, then the Kindle will feel very natural in your hand.
The Kindle has, other than the keyboard, relatively few buttons. On each side there is a page forward and page back turner. The page back button (on both sides) is slightly smaller than the the page forward and located above it. This makes sense from an ambidextrous design standpoint, but I kept finding myself wanting to use the left hand page forward button like a web browser's back button (left to go back, right to go forward). I suppose that might be a quirk specific to me and not the device.
On the bottom of the device is the wake/sleep slider, beside which is an LED that will light up green if there is a good deal of battery charge and yellow otherwise. There is also a volume rocker for adjusting the volume if you're listening to MP3s on the Kindle or the text-to-speech voice. Beside the keyboard (and in-line with its keys) are the Home, Back, Menu, Sym(bol), and text adjustment (Aa) keys, along with the D-key multi-directional navigation rocker.
Key-press performance is acceptable, if slightly mushy. It can be difficult at times to tell if you actually pressed a key hard enough to register, especially if the network connection is slow. Generally, I've found it's better to err on the side of a slightly harder press than simply gliding over the keys. This doesn't bother me, though, because it makes sense that I wouldn't want to hit keys on accident while reading and have it register. A fair amount of intent is required.
The keyboard is standard QWERTY, although the rows aren't offset in the normal way. Instead, all the keys are presented in a square grid (although the keys themselves are circular).
Other than the keyboard and other buttons, there is a headphone and mini-USB port on the bottom of the device between the wake/sleep slider and the volume control. According to the user guide, there's a microphone down there, too, but I'll take their word for it. The top back of the device has two speakers, for text-to-speech output presumably in the absence of headphones.
The reading experience on the Kindle is, for quite obvious reasons, the most intuitive and best-designed function of the device. If you did nothing else to learn how to use the Kindle, you could quite easily pick it up and flip through and read a book with no problems.
Features of reading on the Kindle include multiple font sizes and styles. There are eight font sizes, from slightly smaller than newsprint to very, very, very large. The three typefaces are regular (a standard serif font), condensed (narrower), and sans serif. It's also possible to adjust the line spacing and the number of words per line (basically the word spacing) so as to make reading as comfortable as possible for the individual. Full justification of both margins is the default at the two smallest font sizes, and you can't turn it off. However, it disappears at any of the larger sizes, and even at the smallest sizes the algorithm isn't terrible in how it presents the text.
While reading, it's normal to see a progress bar at the bottom of the screen. The percentage counter is welcome, but the less obvious "Locations" number could use some explanation. It appears that various chunks of text are divided into "locations" and there are options to jump to location by number. In practice this doesn't seem very useful since there's no real correspondence of location to any marker in the text itself. It could conceivably be useful for those using the Kindle to research by standing in for page numbers, although highlighting or annotating the text itself seems more sensible.
Exploring further in the Kindle guide, there are a number of online resources one can use to get additional content, including from Project Gutenberg and openlibrary.org. One demerit against the Kindle is that, unlike the Nook and the Sony eReader, it doesn't support the ePub format, which means that it won't work with the many local library organizations across the country who now support lendable e-books. There are those who follow technology and hope, however, that with the release of the Kindle app SDK that ePub support will soon be forthcoming via a third-party solution. If local library access is a primary need of yours, the Kindle is not at present the device for you.
However, the Kindle will display text and PDF content with no trouble. When you connect the Kindle to your computer, it mounts as a USB drive. On the drive are folders for the various content types, and you can drag content to the appropriate folder to have it loaded and rendered in your Home list. Additional content types can be converted and delivered to your Kindle via Whispernet by Amazon. Every account is associated with a Kindle e-mail address to which you can e-mail documents in Word .DOC and other formats to be converted. There are fees associated with this, but you can set a fee limit per document (by default $2.50) in Settings if you're worried about accidentally sending something absurdly large.
Magazine reading on the Kindle is an enjoyable experience so long as the magazine's primary focus is the article form. User reviews for most of the magazines I looked at noted that frequently charts, graphs, and other pictorial representations were missing from the electronic version. Magazines that seemed to get the best reviews were those which limited graphical content, like the "New Yorker," Asimov's science fiction monthly, and "The Nation." Most magazines and newspapers offer a trial period during which delivery is free so you can try them out. User reviews are critical in this area, as they can uncover issues with a publishers delivery methods or translation to electronic form. But be careful to look at the review date, as some early reviews when the Kindle first launched three years ago are still highly placed in Amazon's system, but may not accurately reflect current conditions.
The Kindle Store
I found the Kindle Store on the device well laid out and easy enough to navigate. By default you start at a page that displays at the top links for Books, Newspapers, Magazines, and Blogs. Below this is are links for New York Times Best Sellers, Kindle Top Sellers, and a link for "New & Noteworthy Books" (whether books get in this section via editorial merit or otherwise, I can't say). Every day there is a new "Kindle Daily Post" which highlights a free or low-priced Kindle book offer and frequently includes an extended excerpt. You can also search the Kindle store by immediately typing (a nice touch) from this page, and then keying over to the "search store" button.
At this point it's worth highlighting the plethora of free (FREE AS IN FREE BEER) content available on the Kindle. Free content is not a section as such when browsing on the Kindle, but one can easily find free content via Amazon's website. Additionally, if searching for content that's known to be free (such as public domain books), it's easier enough to find $0 versions even from the Kindle itself.
In addition to the expected free content like public domain books, many multi-volume series are available with their first book free, especially in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. The reason for offering the first book free is obvious (the first hit is free, kid), but it's still kind of neat to download a contemporary novel for no charge as a way of trying a new or lesser known author. There are even some full series that are free in the store: for example, I found a four-volume Stars Wars novel series (not for everyone, by any means, but that there's a fully free novel series of any genre available is pretty keen).
Pricing on Other Content
Magazine and newspaper pricing is generally okay, if not great. Considering it was estimated at one point that as much as three-quarters of the costs of producing the New York Times went to printing and delivery costs (as opposed to newsroom and editorial costs), the markdown for electronic editions isn't as steep as I would like. There are some good values to be found, such as "The Atlantic." Deserving special opprobrium is "The Economist," which is more expensive than the paper version despite lacking many features of the print version (like charts and graphs) and no access to their online archives.
Although reading text in the form of books and periodicals is first and foremost the function of the Kindle, there are several other available functions which either extend this function via convenience methods not found in normal reading or offer wholly new functionality. Because I'm new to the Kindle, I won't be covering these in any great detail, but for completeness they are described below.
Notation & Highlighting
As I mentioned earlier, I myself have never been one to heavily annotate while I read. But I do understand how important this feature can be, especially those who review written material or use it more heavily for research. Notes and highlighted passages are stored centrally at Amazon, and are kept and retrievable even if you remove the annotated content from your Kindle. Your notes are restored when you re-download the content, which is always available via your Archive folder.
Entering a note is accomplished by moving the cursor with the D-pad to the word at which you want the superscript indicator to appear. Then simply start typing, and a note window will pop up. Highlighting is similarly easy by moving the cursor the beginning of the first word of the desired passage, clicking the D-pad, and then navigating with the D-pad to the end of the passage. Click again and the passage will highlight.
On the Kindle, annotations and highlighted passages are available in their own entry on the Home screen.
Social Networking Sharing
A closely related feature is the ability to share your notes and highlighted passages on the popular social networks Facebook and Twitter. Connecting the services is done in the Settings screen on the Kindle. Amazon has already configured the Kindle 3 to use the updated OAuth implementation from Twitter, so there's no need to store that password on your Kindle.
Notes and such aren't shared by default, but can be shared at any time when you save them. Notes can be shared individually. The degree of control over what is shared and what isn't appears to be completely opt-in on a note-by-note basis, which is good for those who are worried about inadvertent sharing. However, it's not as convenient for the person intending to share everything, and there's no apparent way to switch the default from opt-in to opt-out.
I mentioned above that you can navigate through the next with a cursor using the D-pad in order to annotate and highlight the text. Another feature which presents itself by doing this is automatic dictionary lookup for most words in the text. There are two included dictionaries: The Oxford Dictionary of English and The New Oxford American Dictionary. Neither is the single most up-to-date edition, but for quick lookups of a troublesome word, there's no better or more convenient way to gather the gist of the author's meaning in the process of reading.
With all the content available for the Kindle and because the Kindle can store more than 3000 books at a time (but only displays about ten per page in the main listing), some organization scheme was inevitable. Kindle calls these "Collections," although they seem to be essentially folders by another name. However, unlike traditional folders on a PC, books can belong to more than one collection at a time. This means that if you want to store all your Mark Twain books in one collection and all your American satirist articles in another collection and all your Nineteenth Century fiction in another collection, you can assign your single copy of Huckleberry Finn to all three with no problem.
Once a collection has been created, the default view for the Home list changes to "By Collections," which lists all collections first, and then any books that belong to no collection after. If you a delete a collection, the books "contained" within it are not deleted. If after deleting a collection a book belongs to no other collections, it will reappear in the main list. If it still belongs to one or more other collections, it will continue to appear there instead. (You can change the default view from Collections back to the first default "By Most Recent" at any time; additionally, there are the other sort options of "By Title" and "By Author," too.)
Having already downloaded about fifty free books and book chapter samples, I can easily see where the organizational power and flexibility of collections will come in handy. They remind me a bit of Smart Folders in OS X.
Text-to-speech & Voice Guide
An accessibility feature of the Kindle is its ability to read text displayed on the screen. This has two main expressions: text-to-speech and Voice Guide. Text-to-speech will read content to you, either via the external speakers or over headphones. Voice Guide, on the other hand, is the feature that reads Kindle navigation and links.
Both features are of interest to the visually impaired as well as anyone who finds certain tasks easier when read aloud. Unfortunately, text-to-speech is available only on a book-by-book basis, as decreed by the publisher. This means that some books available on the Kindle cannot be read by the speech synthesizer. Usually this is to protect a genuine audiobook version of the same title. Fortunately, the Kindle supports audiobooks from Audible.com (an Amazon subsidiary). Unfortunately, there is no way to bundle Audible content with text content: if you want both (and text-to-speech is not an option) you have to buy both.
The Kindle includes a fully Webkit-compliant web browser meaning that it can display most modern web pages. Navigation is possible, although it's not especially speedy. This is mainly owing the D-pad. If you've ever navigated the web using the Lynx text browser, this is similar in that you jump from link to link to link as you navigate (graphics are displayed, though, unlike Lynx). I wouldn't use the browser frequently, but in a pinch it will suffice. One notable use for the web browser: accessing your Instapaper account, although I hope better integration with Instapaper is an upcoming feature via third party apps.
As mentioned above, when you connect your Kindle to a computer it mounts as a USB drive. You can copy non-DRM protected MP3 content to the appropriate folder, and the audio will be available to the MP3 application. The Kindle is able to play audio as "background music" while you read if you wish.
The new Kindle from Amazon is a strong offering in the e-book space, and addresses many of the criticisms of the earlier models. Its price well within the reach of a broad selection of potential buyers, and it is paired with the large (and growing) Amazon catalog of free and for-fee books and periodicals. One caveat is that not every feature is immediately obvious, intuitive, or discoverable (such as Collections). Browsing the included user guide at least once is probably a good idea. Nevertheless, the primary function of simply reading is intuitive and dead-simple. Although the Kindle has its limitations, as a single purpose device for reading text it accomplishes its task with verve and competence.
Verdict: highly recommended.