Random acts of kind(le)ness

Alex reviews Amazon’s Kindle.
Warning: This is long. Even by my standards.
And now it’s even longer, with my thoughts on the insane charging fiasco, right at the bottom.
So, a review, then. But not in my usual here’s a publisher, please follow the link style. That may well come in time. But when I write for a publication, I’m generally writing in the house style, to fit in with the target market of the magazine. The readers of a given publication are often targeted based on expectations, demographics and sometimes just the editor’s “feel” for what kind of audience they’d like to have.
And then the reviews end up being read in a GP’s waiting room five years from now, because the only other alternative is a little Golden Book with five missing pages, or staring at the scary posters telling you about cervical cancer in excruciating detail, making you worry even if you don’t, technically speaking, possess a cervix.
Actually, that may not be all that accurate. Five years from now, so the theory goes, you’ll be reading the review on a digital device, presuming the crappy wireless connection actually works within the GP’s office. Suddenly, the Little Golden Book starts to look enticing. What is the Poky Little Puppy up to?
Actually, that’s not a bad segue into the Kindle. Well, it’s somewhat weak and could have done without the Poky Little Puppy joke, but then again, this is my blog. My rules.
So this is more my personal thoughts on the Kindle. Not so much a “should you buy the Kindle” review, and more a “will Alex, personally buy a Kindle”.
Yes, it’s a bit self-indulgent. But I’m currently stuck in bed with a stuffed shoulder, and this is keeping the boredom at bay.
In any case, Amazon’s local PR was nice enough to arrange to have a Kindle sent out to me for review. It arrived on Thursday while I was out at the Windows 7 launch being told… well, not a whole lot I didn’t already know, but the cupcakes were awesome. In any case, Amazon also supplied $30 worth of credit, just for anyone who thinks that journalists can be bought.
Of course they can. But in this case it makes a certain amount of logical sense to provide a bit of inbuilt credit with the device, given that journalists are going to have to send them back in a fortnight. Otherwise you’d be spending money on effectively renting books you wouldn’t be able to read again once the Kindle goes back. At least, not without a little bit of work anyway. And as we all know, journalists hate work and avoid it wherever possible.
There’s a couple of different ways to approach the Kindle — or at least the international version. It’s mildly annoying that the International version comes sans Web browsing facility, although I’m not that fussed personally, as a greyscale browser suddenly feels very ten years ago to me. Who else remembers the first Nokia Communicators? Oh. Only me. Oh well.
The larger screen Kindle DX is also AWOL for local buyers, so if you really did want a 9.7″ digital book and storage for a claimed 3,500 books, you’re out of luck. On the plus side, the smaller Kindle is much cheaper — US$259 versus the US$489 for the DX. That’s a little over US$62 per inch, for those who like working that stuff out. Clearly that includes me right now.
It’s more annoying to me that the eBook prices are rather — and there’s really no polite way to put this — fixed. Badly. If you’re a US customer, there’s a slew of books (mostly public domain, to be fair) that cost exactly nothing. Try to buy them on an international Kindle and you’ll be slugged $2 a pop. Why?
Even with paid books there’s a notable price “gap” between buying a Kindle book on the US store or internationally. The latest Onion AV Club book, “Inventory: 16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls, 10 Great Songs Nearly Ruined By Saxophone, and 100 More Obsessively Specific Pop Culture Lists” is US$9.99 to an actual US customer. Live somewhere else? Sorry, Mister-Non-Stars-N-Stripes, that’ll be US$11.99. Must be something to do with converting the international digital bits into metric from the imperial system, or something…
One school of thought would suggest it’s because of the difference in data charges outside the US, but I don’t really buy that. For a start, the US phone system (from an external perspective) seems to be even more of a basket case than the Australian one. At least we had SMS years ago, could call between carriers and even (eventually) got around to mobile number portability. The average e-book text can’t be that big, and there’s no way it’s even 20c worth of data, let alone $2. If you can give ’em away in the US, why not here?
I’m informed (to give credit; by Leigh Stark) that there’s also a smaller collection of books available to international customers. That kind of thing happens in other fields — think DVD/Blu-Ray especially — but it equally doesn’t make it right, especially for a digital product where the costs of production are going to be rather low compared to physical product. Not “zero” — this stuff still has some production cost — but surely less than a physical product that requires printing, shipping, storage, retail store space, electricity to light it and so on and so forth.
Enough with the economics, Kidman! On with what it’s actually like.
The Good Stuff:
The core tech
The Kindle’s well built. I’ve tested a few e-book readers, and the Kindle for the most part gets it right. It’s sturdy — even moreso in its little leather-style holster — and has excellent text reproduction characteristics. I can’t think why I’d want to read an eBook at a 88 degree angle to the page — or even a real book — but with the Kindle it’s technically possible. It’s also quite robust; I’d be much more worried about it being pinched by someone when out and about than I would be about it breaking.
Carrying around multiple books is somewhat neat.
No, I don’t need 1,500 books to hand — nobody realistically does — but it would be good for things like technical reference manuals, where being able to search out a problem quickly but not on the screen you’re working on — would be a big plus.
“Free” 3G
Well, not really. You just don’t have to pay for the access for the books you’re buying or the magazines being delivered, whereas with a smartphone or laptop based ebook solution you would have to. More on that thought — and concept — below.
Ease of use
The UI makes sense. It’s kind of sad that’s a plus point, thinking about it. UIs should be obvious, but so many of them aren’t. Big shiny buttons labelled “Next Page” and “Prev(ious) Page” are a boon, although so far everyone who’s used the sample Amazon sent me has hit the left-hand “Next Page” button thinking it’d be the “Prev Page” button because it sits opposite the right hand “Next Page” button. Odd little bit of button design, albeit not a mistake you’ll make twice.
Magazine delivery and formatting
One of the benefits of a two week period to evaluate the Kindle is that it matches up with the trial period for magazine subscriptions, so I’ve signed up for a bunch of them (with a tip of the hat to David Flynn, who pointed out this to me). And as a magazine flipping-through-while-bored technology, it works quite well with one notable limitation (which I’ll get to shortly). It’s easy enough to skip dull articles, or flick back to a contents page. It also suits my lazy side; I don’t have to look up particular web pages or the like if it’s just there when I want it.
It’s a good conversation piece.
It really is. I’ve only had the thing a couple of days, and everyone who’s seen it has wanted to have a “play” with it. Technically that should be a “read” with it, but frankly speaking it’s a gadget, and people “play” with gadgets, especially if they’re only given a few minutes to muck about with them.
The Bad Stuff
It’s not backlit.
Might not seem like such a big thing, unless you ever owned the original Gameboy Advance and its high-tech squint-o-vision solution. I like to read at night, or sometimes if I’m a passenger in the car. Sure, I can’t do that easily with a real book without illumination either, but this is a digital product. I’m sure some kind of balancing was done between battery life and sticking in some kind of backlight — perhaps predicated by the technology behind the E Ink used to deliver each Kindle page. The balance reached was that the Kindle’s digital pages work very well in bright sunlight — much better than many digital screens — but conversely worse than actual paper in dim light conditions.
Magazines outside the US don’t get images.
Because… well, at a guess, because Amazon doesn’t want to foot the bill for the additional data that might involve. That could be very painful for some titles (stop sniggering in the back there!) where illustration or flowcharts were a key part of a story. I’m willing to bet that no images is a blanket restriction, and it’s not as though the references to “image on opposite page” would be sliced out by hand by Amazon employees. You’ll just have to guess what the illustration looked like, or work it out from the text.
The refresh rate is really, really slow.
I remember old monitors well. You could see them flickering, especially if you bothered to film them with a tape-based camcorder. The E Ink solution used by the Kindle (and competing e-readers) has them all beat, as its mix of positive and negative charges to refresh the page happens in real time, taking 1-2 seconds to change pages. I read quickly, and find the flashing of the page pretty annoying, both because it invites minor level eyestrain — probably no worse than all the hours I spend staring at LCD screens, but still annoying — and more problematically it breaks my mental flow, which takes me out of the story, article or document at hand. I can deal with that when I’m browsing the web given that all new fresh data has to be retrieved, but the delay on the Kindle is effectively a mechanical one, not a data problem.
A lot of what the Kindle does is already done by genuinely multi-purpose devices.
This is really the big thing that gives me pause for thought. I do like the tech and the form factor of the Kindle; it tickles my gadget funny bone in most of the right places. But I can’t ignore that even some of its better features are already “here” in equivalent or sometimes better formats.
The magazine that refreshes itself? With only a bit of work I could set up more RSS feeds to feed to any given electronic device than I could possibly read in a month. Per day. Some of it even reasonably well written if I’m lucky.
A portable electronic book? Hello, smartphone. In my case, that’d be an iPhone 3GS. It’s backlit, it’s even more portable than the Kindle and it can browse the Web. It can play my music. I can even play Earthworm Jim on it. I have done exactly zero research into it (remember: Journalists — don’t like work they don’t have to do, and I’m writing this for me) but I’d be stunned if there weren’t equivalent eBook readers for Blackberry, Symbian and Windows Mobile users.
There’s even a Kindle-specific eBook reader for the iPhone that dodges the screen refresh problem, flicking between pages with ease and at high speed, although annoyingly it’s not available outside the US iTunes store. Because… well, again presumably because those not born in the Land Of The Free(tm) smell funny, or something.
Even so, free eBook readers like Stanza are readily available. I’ve been using Stanza for some time now on the iPhone, and it works really well. Although, a weird bit of corporate buyout strategy, Stanza’s parent company Lexcycle is owned by… Amazon. Perhaps I can’t escape Amazon after all.
Updated: The Charging Fiasco
27.10.09
OK, just when I thought I knew it all — a new wrinkle. The battery life on the Kindle is pretty good, and after four or so days it was still sitting on a decent charge. The Kindle charges via a USB cord supplied in the box, which at first I’d plugged into a PC, largely because that was the nearest socket nearby. But I do own a couple of USB-connected wall chargers, and I’d presumed that this should work. I mean — USB is USB, right? It’s a standard, and presumably any fancy current alteration needed might be in the cable itself, if the cable itself is even that smart to begin with.
Then I hit a colleague  (the Courier Mail’s Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson)  who was having distinct Kindle charging problems, and stated it would only work via USB plugged into a PC. This seemed dumb to me, so I tested it out, as per my original comments below.
Specifically I plugged my review model into the charger plug supplied with the iPhone. It’s a standard USB plug adaptor, and I have used it to charge other USB gadgets. The light came on, and the electrical bolt symbol came up in the battery field, which would seem to indicate it was charging. Or so you might think.
It wasn’t. A couple of hours later, the charge hadn’t moved upwards a jot. It hadn’t decreased much — after all, I wasn’t using it — but it wasn’t charging, despite the light being on. To make matters even more weird, unplugging it left the electrical bolt symbol lit up on the Kindle itself. Only a hard reset (holding down the flickable power switch) seemed to fix that.
Jennifer was 100% right (and I was, originally, 100% wrong). It won’t charge from a wall socket, no matter how much it might seem like it is.
Plug it into a USB socket on a PC, and it charges just fine. With the same lights and indicators coming up in the same way, but this time it works.
That’s just INSANE product design. I’ve emailed Amazon to try to work out why this is so (or if there’ some trick, flaw or setting that needs tweaking), but why on earth if it’s not wall socket compatible would you have it appear to work? There’s going to be a LOT of flat Kindles out there rather quickly, methinks..

About the author

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

Comments

  1. The battery life was OK — I charged it when it turned up and haven’t charged it again after a couple of days moderate use.
    In dim light you really start to notice the pages getting harder to read — I grabbed a nearby book for comparison and got a much clearer view. Think… “dusky” kind of light, I guess. Hard to put into words without some kind of light meter!
    And I’m undecided; my e-reading can admittedly be done on my smartphone, but I may come up with a professional reason to need having one. These are early impressions, but so far, no, I don’t *think* I would.

  2. Hadn’t tried it (as I hadn’t hit battery issues)…
    To the Testmobile!
    Ingredients:
    Kindle
    Kindle USB cable
    Wall charger (pinched from iPhone; the in-box Apple model, if that’s got anything special about it. Well, special beyond what Apple would probably charge for a branded replacement, anyway).
    And it’s… charging. Fine. Light at the base and electrickety bolt up in the battery charge indicator area. Seems fine.

  3. As an avid reader I’m sort of interested in the portability factors of a kindle or similar. I like the idea that I could cart around the Count of Monte Cristo; Out of Africa; a James Lee Burke Robicheaux adventure; The Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of time saga at the same time. I prefer the size of a kindle-type thingy to PDA size; I don’t like the possibility that the machine could only charge via a PC. Or did you correct that comment – I can’t remember…
    Have you fallen asleep while lying in bed reading it? If so does it hurt when it falls on your face?
    Is the Kindle ready now to be used or should iteration 10 be the one to go for?

  4. The portability factor is interesting, if you can deal with the screen refresh issue. As noted, this was pretty much a review “for me”, and other people might not find that a problem at all!
    Still waiting on confirmation from Amazon re: charging, but as it stands, it’s PC (or Mac; computer, essentially) USB port charging only, which does limit its utility for longer trips unless you always have a charged laptop to hand.
    The model we’re getting is (I’m pretty sure) the Kindle 2, and Amazon’s said to be going for colour E-Ink in future models. That’d work for Mags/Papers but not so much for books. Probably what the Kindle 10 will be, though.

  5. I note the problems with charging through a wall charger, but has anyone any experience of using the USB outlets on planes?

  6. The charging issue is not unique to the Kindle – quite a few other devices will suffer from this also. it seems the USB spec wants the data lines bridged (the two middle ones) if you want to charge. When you connect to a PC – this happens…so it charges. Some chargers do this anyway (my blackberry one doesnt, the motorola does)
    You can connect them if you are handly with a soldering iron. Or just get a usb charger that does it.
    It is annoying though – ill grant you that. Took me a while to discover this on my Palm Treo Pro.

  7. I’ve had a few people comment that there’s some phones that have the same kind of problem, and it’s undeniably true. It’s just that I’ve never hit a phone that didn’t explicitly come with its own wall charger anyway, so the “need” to use a USB wall plug hasn’t been there. The fact that Amazon’s particularly quiet on the issue is also a worry, I’d say.

  8. hi Alex
    I am thinking about purchasing one, but what I don’t understand is why Amazon doesn’t want/don’t ship the Kindle to Australia with a wall charger.
    The wall charger that is included for US & other countries is rated at 100-240V, and while there is a help page teaching users how to use this when they travel overseas, all we get is a special mention down the very bottom:
    Notes for Customers in Australia
    Kindles shipped to Australia include the USB cable for charging via a computer but do not include the U.S.-compatible power adapter. To ship a Kindle to Australia, please visit this Kindle product page.
    Surely, they can make an Australian version wall charger for something that costs $259USD… if not just include a simple adaptor/or we can buy one ourselves for $2!…but just don’t exclude it from the pacakge!

  9. Hi all. I’ve read that the USB wall charger from Dick Smith works. Haven’t got one yet though. I noticed Amazon has reduced the price of there one down from approx $30 to $20.

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