Posted by: Matt Compton | December 2, 2008

Reviewing the Kindle

More than a year ago, I wrote a long post about the future of books, where I speculated about what it would take to change the way I read. This is what I said:

The device I’m thinking of would be small (the size of a book); it would be portable (battery life needs to last at least couple novels); and it would need the right kind of software (the ability to search for any word on any piece of text, the ability to add marginalia, and the ability to link between works — and that’s just for starters).

And the price points would have to be right. Folks will make a substantial investment in the gadget in exchange for cheap digital books. But if you’re going to charge people a lot up front and then stick them again for content, this whole thing falls through.

If someone out there would make and market a device with the right user interface that sells for less than $200 and pair it with a cheap online bookstore, I’d buy it within weeks of it coming out.

Just about a month ago, I started using an Amazon Kindle, and I’m pleased to report that it meets just about every part of that description. The price point is a little higher than what I imagined (and that’s what kept me from buying this thing for nearly a year), but otherwise the Kindle is almost exactly the device I dreamed up.

The result is pretty incredible.

In the time that I’ve owned my Kindle, I’ve read six books on the device (well over 1,000 pages), and purchased six more (for a total of 12) with prices ranging from $.25 to $15. I’ve read it at my desk, on the couch, in the car, and in a deck chair outside.

I can tell you the exact moment that this device made a believer out of me.

When Amazon began marketing this device, Jeff Bezos repeatedly told interviewers that the Kindle had been designed so that readers would get lost in the words. He said it was specifically engineered so that users would forget that they were holding an expensive piece of electronics.

I didn’t believe him.

But about 10 days into ownership, I was reading the Kindle late one night while brushing my teeth. And just like he said, I got wrapped up in the world created by the book on the screen. Without thinking, I sat my toothbrush on the counter and tried to turn a physical page, just as I had done with books my entire life. I only paused for second before I hit the next page button, but that was enough — I was hooked.

Like many people, I had a day or two of trouble with the next page buttons that run long either side of the device. But now that I’m used to the layout of the hardware, it’s been weeks since I’ve inadvertently turned a page.

I originally had trouble with keeping the Kindle in its case, but after I learned how it fits, I’ve had no problems at all. Using the case also helps with the page button problem.

I was initially annoyed that there was no screen lock button (like you’d find on an iPod). But it turns out that the same buttons that turn off the screen-saver also turn it back on. Learning this trick has helped me from losing my page considerably.

What works for the Kindle?

The screen is close to perfect. The Kindle uses e-ink technology, and for the most part, this means that the display renders almost exactly like newsprint. It doesn’t need a backlight so your eyes don’t get tired from reading it. The screen is non-reflective, meaning you can read the Kindle outside in full sunlight.

The added beauty of e-ink is what it does for the battery. Using this technology, you only need power to refresh the screen (i.e. navigating to another page), and that in turn lets the Kindle go for days without needing a charge. I’ve never turned my Kindle off, but I only charge the device about once a week.

Part of the reason I get that kind of battery life is because I don’t spend much time on the Whispernet — Amazon wireless network (leased from Sprint) — which really does use a lot of power. But I do love the time that I spend online with the Kindle. This thing comes with its own web browser, which for the most part, does a great job of rendering major web pages (NYTimes.com, ESPN.com, etc.). And of course the Amazon Store has been incredibly well designed, and navigating it is a pleasure.

I love the Amazon Store for the Kindle, in fact. The selection is pretty solid, and continues to grow every day. I’d love to see more backlist stuff, but given that Amazon makes this thing, I’m fully confident that the selection will continue to expand. Every book I’ve purchased comes cheaper than it’s physical counterpart (in some cases dramatically — I bought my copy of The Old Man and the Sea for $.25), which makes the girl happy.

Out of the box, the Kindle will hold at least 200 books, and with an SD memory card, I can bump capacity up to 2,000. For me, that’s a revelation. The whole thing is searchable, and I love the ability to highlight, bookmark, and make notes.

What would I change?

I’d add two features.

I love that there isn’t a permanent backlight, but a small, built-in reading light would be big improvement of my user experience.

The Kindle is a device that screams for a touchscreen. You could replace both the keyboard and page buttons, and it would be almost perfect.

If the pictures of the Kindle 2.0 that are floating around on the Internet are true, this next version includes neither improvement. That doesn’t mean that this new device won’t be worth a purchase, but it does mean that I’ll be happy with my Gen1 model for awhile.

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