I’ve had the chance to spend a little time with Amazon’s Kindle 2, and I want to share my initial thoughts. I have also included a photo gallery at the end of this post to give you some close up views of a few of the things I talk about here.
The first thing I noticed was the attention to detail that went into the packaging – it was almost Apple-like in its design. The outside of the box looks like a standard Amazon cardboard shipping package. On the “Tear Here” tag on the side of the box, the words “Once upon a time…” are printed – a nice, subtle touch. Opening the box, there is a covered tray holding the Kindle itself, the charging cable, and a thin, fan-fold “getting started” brochure. When you remove the cover from tray, the Kindle 2 is sitting on top, and has some basic instructions on it’s screen for charging it up and turning it on.
All in all, the new Kindle makes a great first impression.
Unlike the slightly awkward feel of the previous generation Kindle, the new Kindle 2 feels refined and balanced. It has traded in the angular look for a smooth, rounded, very modern appearance. The ergonomics are really good. It’s easy to hold and use the device with either hand, and it is far more difficult to accidentally press any buttons. The new 16-grayscale display is great upgrade, especially when it comes to e-content that contains images – newspapers, periodicals and web content (more on this later). Even for books, the new display felt easier on my eyes than the monochrome screens of both my Sony reader and the Kindle 1.
Navigation on the Kindle is handled via a small five way joystick, Next and Previous Page buttons, and Home and Back buttons. Collectively, you can use them to navigate any menu or page. For the most part navigating books is dead simple, but moving through non-book content isn’t always that intuitive. That said, once you figure it out it isn’t difficult to do.
Purchasing content is simple. One option is to shop online at Amazon.com and purchase books, newspapers, magazines, etc from the Kindle store. These purchases can be sync to your Kindle over Whispernet without needing to attach the reader directly to your computer. The other option is to buy content right from the device itself. Though lacking the refined shopping experience of the web, it is straight forward to find books you are interested in and to then purchase them with a single click. They are downloaded immediately. You can also download the first chapter of any book for free, letting you browse the catalog until you find something you’d may be interested in buying.
You can also purchase subscriptions to publications that will be delivered automatically to your Kindle. You could have the NY Times and The Wall Street Journal download daily to read on your daily commute or even when you’re traveling. While incredibly convenient, some of these subscriptions are quite expensive when compared to the cost of their online or physical counterparts. They also don’t have advertising (which I don’t understand) and lack some of the content found in the other formats as well. They come with a 14 day free trial, and I would recommend trying it out before you buy it to see if it works for you.
Adding Your Own Content:
Beyond purchasing, you can also put free content or content you already own on the Kindle. Every Kindle is assigned an email address in the form of firstname.lastname@example.org. You can attach PDF’s or office documents to an email message you send to this address and they will be delivered to your device. As a part of the emailing process, Amazon will convert these attachments to a Kindle friendly format on the fly. There is a $0.10 charge for emailing documents to your Kindle, but that is probably about the same amount you would pay in consumable costs to print out a normal sized document on paper. I haven’t tested the limits of compatibility here, but it does seem to work well. You can connect the Kindle to your computer and move files to it directly, but Amazon hasn’t make a conversion application available yet that will let you convert files on your own. I would love to see them make something like this available, but I’m not sure if it is in their plan.
Though I haven’t done it yet, you can also add your own MP3 files as well as your own picture files to the Kindle 2 for playback on the device. It’s an interesting addition, but will probably be redundant for most folks, and a poor substitute for an iPod.
Accessing The Web:
Kindle also delivers the web to you – sort of. Every Kindle comes with Whispernet, a digital cellular connection (an EVDO Sprint connection here in the United States) that is used for delivering content to the device. Amazon does provide a very crude browser that lets you use it to connect to the web to do basic surfing. It works fine for simple sites like Wikipedia or Google, and does a serviceable job on news sites like CNN. Unfortunately, any site more complex than than probably wont work. I did a quick test of GMail, but that didn’t seem to work. Navigation runs from poor to painful to unusable based on the site, making this suited for light browsing at best. I’ll need to spend more time with this to map out what can reasonable be done – especially testing sites that are designed for more limited mobile devices.
An interesting, and controversial, new feature of the Kindle 2 is the inclusion of text-to-speech capabilities. This allows the Kindle 2 to read a book to you, albeit in a somewhat stilted, mechanical voice. The quality of the computer generated voice is actually quite good by technical standards, but it offers no where near the engaging experience a well read audio book can deliver. Unfortunately, this feature has also stirred up folks in the Authors Guild, who claim that text-to-speech conversions create a derivative work that Amazon has no rights to and thus see it as a violation of their copyright. I’ll post on this one separately, but Amazon has agreed to give authors control over enabling this feature for any books they publish.
The Reading Experience:
At the end of the day, the Kindle 2 is a device designed for reading, and at that it excels. The keyboard at the bottom, which I though would be a distraction, becomes more like the palm rest on a laptop and essentially disappears once you start to read. The screen is extremely readable – even under less than ideal conditions – and the font size adjustments easily let me compensate for the shortcomings of my aging eyes.
While the Kindle 2 is pricey at $350 (US), you do get a lot for your money. The ebooks available for it are relatively inexpensive and you have a reasonably sized (and growing) catalog of digitized titles to choose from. There are also basic web capabilities built in to the Kindle, and the convenience of ‘on demand’ access to books, newspapers and magazines will guarantee you’re never in want of something to read. The Kindle 2 is far from perfect. Navigation can sometime be confusing, web browsing is really primitive, limiting what you can actually do online, and it offers no easy way to convert your own content for display short of the email option. There are no showstoppers in this list, and it goes a long way to making a ebooks a mainstream delivery model.
That said, ebooks aren’t for everyone. Some people I know seem to have an almost emotional attachment to the physical manifestation of the printed word. On the other hand, I much prefer the more streamlined experience of reading on these types of ‘virtual paper’ devices, and have been an ebook advocate for a long time.
If you feel like I do, Amazon’s Kindle 2 is definitely worth a look.