Awesomeness #2 – Amazon Kindle

#2 Amazon Kindle

Jeff Bezos was in New York today, pumping up excitement for the new electronic book from Amazon, the Kindle 2. I have a Kindle, and unlike so many first-adopters, I absolutely love the thing. I was happy to see the Kindle 2 announcement, and I’ve already paid for the new one.

I make no secret of my love of bicycles, and even less of a secret of my love of books. When Jenny and I built our house, one of my specifications was room for a library. Unfortunately at the time, I had little idea of just how much space books will take up when you’re completely unable to separate from a single volume. As I frequently tell people, I subscribe to the idea of “cultural memory.” If you know where the book is, even if you haven’t read it, you have the knowledge. This excuses my clutter in some small way, in my mind. Still, Jenny just won’t buy it.

The Kindle addresses the clutter issue very well. “Disposable” volumes like textbooks and technical books only take up memory space, not shelf space. When you’re done with a volume, you can just delete it or move it to an SD card. You can even re-download it later from Amazon if you decide your deletion was in error. In this way, you end up only committing to the hard copy of certain, special books, and you don’t waste valuable shelf space with something you should give away or sell, but just can’t get around to doing so. In addition, I receive three newspaper subscriptions wirelessly every morning, directly to my Kindle via Amazon’s Whispernet. There are never unread issues taking up space by the bed or on my desk, just waiting for the reading that I am “going to do” but somehow never do. I may still be wasting money on the newspaper, but I’m not wasting trees or space trying to house the waste itself. Even some magazines are available, though the Kindle really shines with copy-heavy magazines as its photo capabilities are limited without color. Thus, the Kindle is perfect for the pack-rat. They should give away the things on Clean House.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m in the Mathematics department at FSU as an old-fart undergraduate. As such, I need a lot of books to supplement my reading with examples and different forms of explanation. With a 4Gb SD card, I can hold a pile of textbooks for reference, and many classic tomes are readily available–cheaply in many cases–through Amazon. Certain popular textbooks still cost a premium, but even so, the costs are generally a few percent lower than the hardback edition. The Kindle is perfect for the student who wants to carry a bunch of books around, even if he doesn’t actually want to carry the books around. (I should mention the rumor that some colleges are pressing for the use of Kindles in the classroom for exactly this reason. Imagine having your entire 4 years of textbooks available in a single, small volume–pretty nice, eh? Though it does mess up the whole used-book cycle.)

The screen flicker that occurs between pages really isn’t an issue for me, although I could see how it could be annoying, especially if you are the sort who fixates easily. The button placement and the cover are far more irritating issues. The buttons extend to the very edge of the device on the sides and along the edge taking up most of the side. This makes them far too easy to mis-press, especially if you’re trying to pick up the Kindle as it lies flat on a tabletop. To some extent, keeping the Kindle in its case rectifies this issue, but the Kindle doesn’t like to stay in its case. It relies on small plastic detent in the back of the Kindle battery cover which sorta-mates with a small clip in the case. Two loose leatherette loops hang over the corners of the Kindle on one side with the intention of applying enough pressure against the detent that the clip can hold the Kindle in. This must only work in theory, because unless you’re careful, the case actually increases the likelihood that your Kindle will abruptly fall to the ground. Luckily, they supplied an elastic binder to keep the case closed when you’re not reading. Kindle 2 seems to address both these issues with shorter buttons and special hinges to retain it in its case.

The overall profile of the new Kindle promises to be thinner yet wider. The original Kindle doesn’t bother me a bit. It’s the right size to resemble a large paperback, though it’s certainly thinner. The original Kindle had a bit of space, and was well-expandable with an SD card (mine has 4Gb). The Kindle 2 will have 1.4 Gb of usable space built in, but no expandability. This seems like a mixed blessing as it forces the user to rely on Amazon directly to maintain backups.

I’ve never used the Kindle’s MP3 capability and I’m pretty certain I’ll use the new Kindle’s text-to-speech capability even less. The decision to include MP3 capability in a limited memory device befuddles me, but then I wasn’t an iPod early-adopter, as I waited until they were big enough to hold EVERYTHING before I bought one.

The lack of a back light is one of the sticking points many have for the Kindle. I’m not too disappointed that neither the original nor the new Kindle has one. I don’t particularly care to read back-lit screens due to eye strain. Additionally, such a light would certainly have negative consequences on the battery life. If you’re going to do a lot of on-plane or in-bed-with-sleeping-spouse reading, this may be important to you. I’d recommend a Lightwedge for the Kindle, though I’d not go so far as to recommend the competing Sony reader which is back-lit.

The original Kindle relies on a scroll wheel and an odd little side-screen which contains only a cursor. You scroll the cursor down the screen to select lines on the left, in the main screen. It’s a weird throwback to some early time, to be sure, but it works well enough for a device that is really meant to be a book. The new Kindle promises a joystick which operates on the main screen proper. It’s not the magic of a touch-screen, but again, for a book, it’s not a terrible solution. I don’t find myself using the Kindle for much past reading and a few notes; I never use the web functionality outside Whispernet for orders and fulfillment. If you want an all-in-one, don’t get a Kindle and expect it to be a good browser; get an iPhone. This criticism extends to the keyboard as well. It works. Don’t expect magic.

The real strength of the Kindle lies in Amazon’s fulfillment of book orders. Primarily, the Kindle relies on a cellular product called Whispernet to send and receive orders wirelessly. The cost of this service is built into the price of the Kindle and the books themselves. Ordering is as simple as browsing and selecting from the Kindle itself, although one-click payment setup from a PC is required to activate your account. The market saturation of Whispernet seems pretty good, roughly following the availability of higher-end cellular services. In other words, serious boondocks might not be Whispernet capable, but you’ll have no problems around most towns, any cities in the US, and Interstate and major highways. Between Tallahassee and Cairo, Georgia, I have had no issues whatsoever. The use of the built-in cellular modem negatively affects battery life, but it can be turned off independently of the device with another switch on the rear. Without the engaged modem, the battery life of the device extends to several days of serious reading. Still, if you want your newspaper, you’re going to have to turn it on occasionally. Otherwise, you have to rely on the Kindle’s USB connection–a feature I’ve never used. The worst part of this fulfillment scheme is the amount of money you’ll spend buying books. Even then, this is tempered by the ability to download sample chapters to the device.

Non-Kindle books can be uploaded to the device through Amazon or the USB connection. Unfortunately, Amazon saw this possibility and built-in a small charge to cover conversion and delivery of these “outlaw” books through Whispernet. Even so, the charge is minimal and the ease of Whispernet use really makes it a non-issue. Extended converters are available from non-Amazon sources, though I’ve had little exposure to them.

To summarize, the Kindle is awesome. It could be better (a la the sturdiness, back light, and touch-screen of the Sony E-Reader), but its fulfillment method makes it the best attempt at an electronic book to date. Amazon has stuff to read, and the Kindle works plenty well enough to read it.

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