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January 22, 2008

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

The Primer

The problem with me reviewing the Kindle is that I'm the central section of the target audience's venn diagram. I love ebooks, I read constantly, and I've got the disposable income to spring for a $400 device in the hopes that it will, eventually, prove economical. What I'm trying to say is: look, I really dig the thing, but that doesn't mean it's made for you. That said, I think the Gamers With Jobs review is excellent, and basically spot-on.

Jeff Bezos says he wants it to disappear while you're reading, and for the most part it works as advertised. After half an hour, you get the timing of the page turn down so that it blanks the screen while your eyes are traveling back up to the top of the page, and you stop noticing the delay. The reading quality of the display is otherwise very, very good, which you'd expect from e-ink. The "Whispernet" (which I guess sounds better than saying "Sprint cell phone modem," perhaps because most people hate cell phone companies) is also fast and effective, but it does take a big chunk out of the batteries, particularly when first activated. I leave it off probably 99% of the time.

A lot of reviews have been critical of the Kindle for the placement of the page-turning buttons. I think they're overreacting. The main time when I see them hit accidentally is when I hand the device to someone else--they're not expecting the borders to be sensitive. But when I pick it up myself, there are plenty of places to grab it, especially since I lock the buttons (by hitting the ALT and Text Size keys on opposite ends of the keyboard) before I put it down. When holding it, the buttons are actually placed logically: your left hand rests with the thumb able to reach the next page easily, and the previous page with a little bit of a stretch. You can also just hold it with the left hand, and use the right hand for additional support and page turns. Part of the confusion may come from people who expect to be able to read one-handed all the time, which you can do easily left-handed but not so easily with the right. But at the same time, most people do not read books with just one hand--they use two, one to prop it open and one to read pages. The Kindle just mimics this.

As far as the industrial design goes, it does look better in person than it does in a picture. It's still not going to win any design awards, but it is surprisingly thin and light. It's solidly-built and passes the "creak test," so it doesn't look as expensive as it maybe should, but it doesn't feel cheap either. Its case is also better than you'd expect--there's a little tab that slots into a corresponding slot on the Kindle's battery cover and keeps it from sliding out. The LCD roller is a very clever solution to the refresh rate problem, and once you point it out to people they seem to get the hang of it immediately. Some people have claimed that it needs a touch screen. These people are wrong.

The Internet access is unfinished, to say the least. The built-in browser is a variant of Netfront, which long-time PocketPC users will recognize as passable, but not nearly as good as Opera's native offering. It handles Wikipedia just fine, and most blogs load without much trouble. Pages with more formatting may need to be dropped into the single-column rendering mode, which disables Javascript and extra formatting in favor of a simplified view (it's also often shorter). What this mostly does, as far as I'm concerned, is point out just how bad mobile site design is. In any case, web browsing isn't the reason you should buy it, but it doesn't hurt to have it around. I know that Amazon's trying to monetize RSS, but a reader would be a much better addition (as it is to most mobile devices).

I've finished five downloaded books on the Kindle so far, and the experience of buying them and reading them has been smooth. Because the wireless can be hard on the battery, I don't find myself browsing Amazon from the Kindle much, but if I want something directly it's easy to just type it in with the keyboard and grab it. That's assuming that they've got it, of course--the selection is not quite as comprehensive as I'd like it to be yet. Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series, for example, is exactly the kind of disposable pulp that I'd like to read on Kindle, but the second book (and only the second book) is missing, so I'd have to go buy the paper version before I can continue reading them. All of Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs books are available, but I still can't buy any Iain Banks. On the other hand, they've got a good choice of Murakami titles. Best-sellers and new books are well-represented, but older titles are less reliable--I went looking for M.T. Anderson's Feed based on a recommendation from a while back, and it's not up yet. And the periodical selection seems weak to me, particularly in magazines: no New Yorker or Harpers?

That's not to say that I can't find stuff to read. I've been using the free samples as a shopping list--if I see something on Amazon and it's available on Kindle, I click the "send sample" button, and it gets downloaded the next time I turn the wireless on. I probably sent 15 titles the other night, just browsing through the virtual stacks. And while I hope it gets more coverage, I'm not unhappy with the selection--even just buying off the bestsellers and the new hardbacks, there's lots of good stuff there and the price discount isn't anything to scoff at.

People tend to forget that real-world selection is nothing special either. The other day I went out to buy a book as a birthday present for one of Belle's friends. We called a couple of stores to see who had it in stock, and then when I got there, they didn't actually have it, so I got to trundle over to another branch and wait in line to buy it. This is not, by the way, an isolated incident: I'm always looking for stuff in the chain bookstores, and have to go to several before I find it, or I resort to Amazon and have to wait a week. I bought the same book that night as a download, and I had it in two minutes. The Kindle's a fine way to read, but for all its flaws I think it's also a better way to buy books in the first place.

So the long and the short of it is that the Kindle is, for me, a success. I think it's better than most reviewers have treated it (the Ars review, for example, is overly harsh). That said, it's basically a $400 wireless bookstore. If you don't see yourself going to the bookstore very often, or if you've got close proximity to a used bookstore, or if you're irrationally attached to the idea of paper, that's a lot of money to spend. I personally love the experience of the Kindle (or more accurately, the lack thereof), and I love the fact that I'm not buying more physical books that I'll read once and then have to find space to store (or haul down to Manassas to sell).

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