It’s dumb to test the Amazon Kindle by sitting at a desk, pressing a lot of buttons. The real judgment as to its usefulness has to come after experiencing it throughout the week in three key real-life reading scenarios:
• In the bedroom
• On an aeroplane
• Atop the porcelain throne (yes, I’m talking about the toilet)
Join us as we take you where we don’t like to take too many strangers, and experience the real-life Kindle review:
I understand the Kindle. Book reading is always a one-on-one activity, and there is more or less only one way to experience a book—from a rectangular object in your hand. An e-book reader that’s PC-free, connected directly to the book source, is even smarter than an MP3 player or phone that’s connected to a music store, because music ends up all over the place, while books will always stay in your lap.
People bitch about a lack of Wi-Fi, but as a fan of wide-area wireless, I think Sprint’s EV-DO was a good way to go, because it’s available in more places. And as far as the lack of backlight, I am inclined to believe the messaging from both Amazon and Sony, that E-Ink is easier on the eyes than anything backlit, and that long battery life is more important. I used the Kindle regularly without charging for four days straight before it completely crapped out just this morning.
As for the criticism about document and e-book format compatibility, I suspect these problems will work themselves out over time, as the Kindle’s Linux platform is surely easy to enhance through software. At any rate, you already know many of the issues, so there’s no point rehashing them here, especially when much of it is a matter of personal preference.
No, none of these theoretical concerns were in my mind as I read using the Kindle this week, but that’s not to say I didn’t uncover some issues. Here’s what I discovered this week while reading a book on Kindle—Heat by Bill Buford— that I was already halfway through in its old-world hardcover paper form:
• Next Page buttons on both sides mean tremendous comfort in bed. No matter which hand you are holding the Kindle in, you can easily turn the page, and if you have it sitting on the bed next to you, you can even tap the large button on the right with a finger or your elbow.
• Since it’s much larger than a hardcover or even a trade paperback, you can hold it without tiring out your arm, or needing to use your leg to prop it up.
• Normally when reading in bed, you have to shift positions when you turn the page, especially when at the beginning or end of a large book. Since the Kindle only displays one page at a time, and doesn’t have a shifting weight of pages from one side to the other, you can pick a position and stick to it.
• I have a lamp next to my bed for reading old-school printed books; it works just as well with Kindle.
In the Air:
• EV-DO isn’t available everywhere, or even at all airports. The one I flew out of only provided a paltry 1X signal, and it took me about five minutes to download the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly.• Speaking of The Atlantic, text-heavy weeklies and monthlies really are the target. Newspapers are a problem, because the editions that appear on Kindle are already outdated by their own websites, so newshounds would get frustrated. The lineup of magazines needs to grow, though. I won’t be happy until The Economist and The New Yorker appear on the menu. (I may come from the Great Red State of Indiana, but I prefer my current events smart and a little left-leaning. But while we’re at it, Amazon, a Guns N’ Ammo Kindle Edition might be nice too.)
• Once aboard, FAA regulation required that I not use the Kindle at takeoff and landing. Though obvious, this pissed me off because that’s when I always read on planes, before iPod time kicks in and I have the option of a movie.
• There’s a handy switch to shut off the cellular data modem, and prove to the flight attendants you’re no rule-breaker.
• The onboard Oxford New American Dictionary is good but not great with proper nouns. It picked up “Romanesque” but did not get “Florentine,” for instance. And Wikipedia, which would have more elaborate data on both, is of no use when you’re airborne.• Private reading lights have been part of the airplane experience since time immemorial. No backlighting on e-book readers means this glorious tradition will continue.
On the Toilet:
• Friction rubber grip makes it okay to set down on the side of your sink or back of toilet without it slipping. We have a porcelain pedestal sink in one bathroom that anything without a grip would slide off of—and smash on the floor.• Buttons on both sides of the Kindle mean that it’s sometimes hard to grip it securely and not press a button. I were to hypothetically make a mad dash to the toilet, Kindle in hand, I would risk flipping a bunch of pages on the way and losing my place.
Other usage discoveries:
• As I mentioned, the battery lasted four full days of regular use, mostly with the EV-DO switch turned on. (It probably would have run much longer if I had left it off.) When your battery gets low, you get the error message below, but shutting down EV-DO that late in the game does nothing to conserve battery life, which died 5 minutes after I saw this. Charging is quick though—juice it for 15 or 20 minutes and it’s good to go for a while.• I never turned the thing off, either: when you leave it alone for a few minutes, it turns to a keylock screen with a pretty picture or a promotional tip (see gallery below—I’ve shot 8 so far, but there are tons of ’em). You click and hold the Alt and font-size buttons to release it.
• I will never understand the magical technology behind the shiny LCD bar on the right. It is sooo pretty I sometimes do stuff just to watch it jump around. Very unique in this copycat-heavy CE universe.• The leather case is good for protecting and carrying around without hitting buttons (see “On the Toilet”), but it is totally lame when you are trying to read. Slip it out and hide the case until you are ready to move again.
• The Highlight clipping tool is too primitive to be cool. You can only highlight a line at a time, so your clippings, particularly when viewed by themselves, look ugly and confusing. Anything you highlight is automatically saved in My Clippings, where all of your Clippings, from all publications, are lumped together.• In natural settings, I never used the web browser. I surf the web a-plenty in my daily life, and while I’m reading, I’m just not thinking about dot coms.
• The keyboard does have a bit of a lag, as we reported, but that’s not too problematic. My biggest problem is the spacebar, hidden on the left side. Little known trivia: As it turns out, I SPACE with my right hand.• Footnotes are weird. I was reading a David Foster Wallace piece that, like most of his work, was riddled with footnotes, and each time I had to click it to see the note, which could get annoying. Same goes for Colbert’s book I Am America.
• My wife likes it. OK, so you weren’t curious about that, maybe, but she’s a voracious reader and she generally turns her nose up at most of the gadgets that arrives at our doorstep. With the Kindle, though, she got excited. She picked it up and started reading the Atlantic Monthly, saying how “amazing” it was that Amazon got the magazine’s formatting right, and how pleasant the E-Ink was to read.
• In the end, looks mattered least of all. Even though my wife thinks it looks like a “medical device,” it was not a turn off. I think people underestimate its wedgey coolness, while overestimating the impact that would have. Bezos said you don’t look at the thing, you look at the book within—maybe he was anticipating a hazing from the Style Police, but I think he’s right. I just read my damn book.
My verdict is that a connected e-book reader was what the world needed, and as long as Amazon’s library expands to encompass every book I want to read, I see no reason why I should be upset that I have to buy it from them. Yes, $US399 is expensive, but that’s likely to drop, and the more market-resistant $9.99 book price hits a Jobsian sweet spot.
Having lived with the Kindle, I can say that it serves most of my immediate reading needs. As a guy who enjoys amassing a vast library of books and displaying them in bookcases, I am a little frightened of the future, but inevitability is the name of the game, and fear of change isn’t a good enough excuse. Will I continue to buy books or will I jump into Amazon book buying mode? That remains to be seen, but you, o early adopter, should not share my fears. The Kindle is a quality invention, and I can see why the first batch sold out so fast.