When Steve Jobs told John Markoff of the New York Times that it didn’t matter how good a device the Kindle was because Americans don’t read anymore, somewhere an angel lost its wings. It’s not that Jobs was wrong; the statistic he quoted, which states that in 2007 forty percent of Americans read one book or less, seems a generous assessment. What he really meant was that Apple would not be paying any attention to the fledgling eBook Reader market. And that’s depressing, because having spent three days playing with my new Kindle 2, the dominant feelings that I’m coping with right now are disappointment and frustration.
Much of my reaction has to do with unrealistic expectations. I wanted Kindle 2 to blow my mind and expand my technological horizons with elegant simplicity. I wanted this single purchase to mean that I would never have to buy another physical book, magazine, or newspaper ever again. In short, I wanted Amazon to do for the printed word what Apple did for music. After 3 days of intensive use, it has become painfully clear to me that Kindle 2 cannot even come close to fulfilling my expectations. Having said that, it is not without its redeeming qualities.
When you hold the Kindle 2 in your hand, the first thing you notice is just how slim it is. At just over 1/3 of an inch thick, it is about as thin as a magazine. The front of the device is divided between the screen, the keyboard, and the navigation buttons. The screen is a 6’’ Black and White E-Ink display. E-Ink is a radically different display technology than that used in standard LCD or LED displays. The benefits of using E-Ink in the Kindle 2 are clear. E-ink is reflective and as such it is much easier to read in direct sunlight and produces none of the eye-strain typically associated with LCD screens.
Furthermore, E-Ink draws much less power than an LCD as it only uses power when it refreshes the page. This means that Kindle 2 can go for a full week on a single charge when the wireless features are enabled and an impressive two weeks when those features are disabled. Having spent a few days reading from Kindle 2, I understand the logic of using this display technology in a dedicated reading device. While not quite as good as the visual experience of reading an actual book, it is certainly on par with reading a real newspaper and noticeably better than reading from an LCD. Also, there are the added perks of being able to dynamically make the font bigger, annotate the text, and look up any unknown words in Kindle’s integrated dictionary.
Unfortunately, E-Ink technology is also Kindle 2’s greatest Achilles Heel. Even at 20% faster than the first generation, the refresh speed of the screen makes navigating the menus painfully slow and the five-way navigation nub is an inelegant and non-intuitive input solution. In fact, the experience of navigating Kindle 2 was so cumbersome that I found myself wanting to close my eyes, click my heels together, and chant: “There’s no place like iPhone!” This urge also struck me, interestingly enough, while using the Kindle 2’s physical keyboard. Something about the combination of the awkward circular keys and the on-screen delay made me pine for the iPhone’s touchscreen keyboard, flawed as it may be.
The best part about Kindle 2 is the Kindle Store. Amazon has made it very easy to find and download content to the Kindle and its price points are very attractive. New releases go for ten dollars and classics are typically one dollar. Amazon claims to have close to 240,000 titles available for download in the Kindle Store and while I found more than I expected, there were a number of titles that were frustratingly absent. Furthermore, the actual eBooks available vary in quality. For example, I bought the complete works of Jane Austen for a dollar, but the font was ugly and the formatting didn’t suit the Kindle screen. I had better luck with the formatting of Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” , though the illustrations were of such low resolution that they were virtually unreadable. This variable quality issue is somewhat made up for by the fact that for most books you can download a sample chapter for free and try before you buy. In addition to books, the Kindle Store also allows you to purchase newspapers and magazines. You can either purchase these digital downloads a la carte, or pay a monthly subscription fee that varies by publication. I’m not sure why reading the newspaper on my Kindle 2 felt right, but it did. I haven’t read a dead-tree newspaper in years as I get all of my news from the internet, but there was something very comforting about sitting down with a hot cup of tea and my Kindle 2 to read the New York Times.
One of the much-touted new features of the Kindle 2 is the controversial new text-to-speech capability. This feature takes anything that’s on the screen and reads it aloud to you in a computerized voice. You can choose whether you want the voice to be “male” (passable) or “female”(a... and you can toggle between three speeds as well. It’s a cute feature, but I’m not sure that I’ll ever use it and I’m definitely not canceling my Audible account anytime soon.
When I look at my Kindle 2, I can’t help but think of what this device could have been. Yes, over the course of a year I will save enough money by buying books from the Kindle Store to justify the exorbitant $360 cost of the device. Yes, it is nice to be able to carry around 1500 books when traveling in a device that’s super-model thin and very light. And yes, E-Ink is easy on the eyes. But when Amazon cribs everything from its industrial design to its launch event from Cupertino, it’s hard not to mention the fact that Apple would never have let Kindle 2 see the light of day. And Kindle 2 is the second generation of this device! Despite all of its flaws,however, Kindle is obviously the future. As sales of newspapers, magazines, and books continue to decline, the Kindle Store model will be the only way for journalism and the written word to remain profitable. But how much better would it be if this great idea were implemented by Steven P. Jobs and company? Mr. Jobs, get well soon and take another look at eBook readers. I’m one of the sixty percent of Americans who read more than one book a year. We need your particular genius to make this experience more elegant.
This new toy from Amazon is bound to boost their worth on the stock market!