And as much as I like “real” paper based books (as the thousands of volumes stacked around my house would attest too), I also like eBooks. I have been reading eBooks in various formats for over 10 years, and my day job revolves around the delivery of content online. I started reading eBooks with my first laptop, then on my Palm Pilot and pretty much on every electronic device I’ve owned since (With the notable exception of the couple of years I carried a BlackBerry).
I took a look at a Kindle last year but decided that the first generation device looked a little too fragile and it had some serious design and usability issues. Now that the Kindle 2 has been launched it promised so much more. Before taking the plunge and purchasing one, I’ve borrowed one and have been using it for several days.
I wanted to like the new Kindle, I really did – but so far I am less than impressed. In fact I am distinctly unimpressed.
Let’s answer that question from a number of angles:
1. Physical Dimensions. The Kindle is 8” tall and 5.25” wide. The width of my palm that I can comfortably hold something in is 5”. The Kindle is just too much of a stretch to grip in the palm of one hand. Yes I could balance it flat on the palm of my hand, but it slides off (unless I buy the $30 case – which makes it even wider.) – In contrast a standard Mass Market Paperback (MMP) is just over 4” wide, my iPhone is 2.5” wide – both are easy to hold in one hand. One thing that people mention as a benefit of the Kindle is its light weight – it actually weighs more than a MMP and is poorly balanced with a natural tendency to tip up – making it easier for gravity to take over and slip out of your hand. Why do I like eBooks? I like eBooks because, in theory, I can carry multiple books with me and be able to read them anywhere, at anytime. I need a device that I can carry with me and always have to hand. That means it needs to fit in my jeans or jacket pocket. The Kindle is simply too big for that.
2. Fragility. As one of my friends put it when I mentioned on Twitter that I was comparing the Kindle with a paperback – “Try dropping them both on the ground as often as I drop my electronics, and see which one still works.” – I will add that have dropped my iPhone several times and it always comes up working. It’s a rigid rugged case and the screen seems well protected. The Kindle feels fragile to me, and the protruding “mouse” button is a sure candidate to be snapped off. The “mouse” also gets a lot of use, and the engineer in me took one look at that and said “potential single point of failure.”
3. Screen Size. – The reading area on the Kindle 2 is 4.75” x 3.5” (16.6 sq in, or just under 40% of the device’s surface area), on the iPhone it is 2”x3” (6 sq in, or 51% of the device’s surface area), while a paperback book page is 4”x6.75” (or at 27 sq.in, 100% of the device’s surface area.) While the screen on the iPhone is physically smaller, due to better placement, the black surround and the fact that it takes up a greater percentage of the surface area, it gives the impression of being larger than it actually is.
4. Word Count. Screen size aside I thought it might be interesting to compare actual word count differences. I have three eBook applications on my iPhone so I compared the amount of text each delivered per page with the Kindle and a random page from the MMP you see in the photo. Each of eBook readers had the font size set to the default. (Of course I realize that to do a true test I should have used the same book on all devices and selected the same page – but this is all I had time to do.)
- iPhone Stanza app – 154 words/page
- iPhone Classics app – 98 words/page
- iPhone Shortcovers app – 104 words/page
- Kindle2 – 86 words/page
- MMP – 286 words/page
While the text on the Kindle may be slightly easier to read due to the word count, and what to me seemed like excessive spacing, it means you will be flicking pages more often than you would on any of the iPhone apps, and almost three times as often as you turn the page of a book.
5. User Interface. I actively dislike the Kindle UI. I’m amazed that the aforementioned mouse is the primary way to navigate around the screen and activate menus. As a test I left the Kindle out on the family room coffee table over the weekend, of the 8 different people who picked it up all, without exception, touched the screen trying to access a book. No-one realized what the “mouse” or the small “menu” or “home” keys were for until they were shown. If the Kindle is to be a mass market device it needs to intuitive – you shouldn’t have to explain it. And talking about intuitive, which genius decided to put equally sized page forward keys on both sides of the device? We read from left to right, that means the key on the right should be to page forward and the key on the left to page back! And with a typical sense of US centric, “everyone speaks English” design flair, all the buttons are labeled with text even when they are for functions for which there are internationally recognized and understood symbols. Why write “Next Page” when a simple forward arrow will do? I have a Japanese student staying at my house, and although she speaks and reads English really well, she had to look twice to figure out what the buttons did. Didn’t anyone at Amazon look at the controls on their VCR? ( I say VCR rather than DVR based on the fact that the rest of the design seems mired in the 1990s). And what’s with the clicky permanent keyboard under the screen. Sure at start up I used the keyboard a lot to do searches, download a few books, but once I’m reading I want it gone, out of the way. I’d rather that space was used for more screen real estate. Back in 2000 my Palm Pilot keypad was an “on demand” touch screen UI – it isn’t new technology, so why doesn’t the Kindle have one?
6. Content. Another of the Kindle’s big selling points is that it has access to Amazon’s impressive inventory of books. Yet the first three business books I tried to download, which I had already purchased off Amazon in the last few months, weren’t available in a Kindle format. I know it’s probably unrealistic, but I would expect that if a book is available on Amazon then it would be available on the Kindle too. It would also seem a no-brainer to me that if you had purchased a hard copy book from Amazon that you should be able to get the eBook version too (Ideally for free, but to be honest I’d be prepared to pay a small premium for that.) Another selling point for the Kindle is that you can reportedly upload your own content. You have to send it to Amazon to be converted and then they charge you a small fee for adding it to your wireless download (or you can upload it for free if you elect to have the converted file emailed back to you, and use the USB connection to transfer the file.) Many of the iPhone eBook suppliers also offer an “upload” your content service. To test this I submitted a copy of a white paper I’d written to both the Kindle process and the iPhone Shortcovers service. It was submitted 6 days ago – My document has yet to appear on the Kindle. On the other hand I was reading a correctly formatted copy on my iPhone within an hour of submitting the source document. (And that’s without mentioning the Kindle’s well documented lack of good support for PDF documents).
7. Audio. A lot has been made of the Kindle’s text to speech feature. It is frankly ridiculous. You get better voice synthesis on most telephone exchange recorded messages. I kept expecting it to shout out “Danger, Will Robinson!” Every one I played it too convulsed in laughter. There is no way you could listen to more than a few seconds. Yet Amazon has a vast inventory of some of the greatest audio books produced. Why not offer the audio books on the Kindle (I listen to lots of audio books, on CD in the car – and yes, on my iPhone). The same genius who designed the buttons must also have been in charge of the audio. Why put the speakers on the back of a device? If you are going to listen to the “text to speech” it will most likely be because you are too busy to be reading the screen or holding the device – so where will you put it? Down on a surface, most likely flat on its back.
8. Pricing. On The Daily Show last week Jeff Bezos commented that the Kindle was priced at $350 as that reflected their manufacturing costs. Really? But then again with so many small parts and moving, clicking things then maybe it does cost that much to make a Kindle. Or is the price one that the market of book loving gadget geeks will bear? (Well as a book loving gadget geek – it’s too much for me). If it was a $99 price tag I might think differently. Then there’s the price of the books – buy it on the Kindle and books are only $9.99 a copy.
Let’s compare by looking at two eBooks I’m currently reading on my iPhone.
- Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” on Kindle $9.99, on Shortcovers for iPhone $9.98
- H.G. Wells “The First Men In The Moon” on Kindle $2.50, on Stanza FREE
And the cost of the three eBook readers I have on my phone – Stanza ($0.00) – Shortcovers ($0.00), Classics ($1.99) – tell me again how the Kindle makes economic sense? It’s cheaper than buying hardback books? Really? I did the math, assume that a hardback book costs $24 (the cover price of the hardback sitting on my desk right now). You would need to buy 25 hardback books on Kindle before any savings kicked in. I buy a lot of books, but I don’t buy that many hardbacks. And of course those savings assume that you would stop buying the physical books altogether and only buy eBooks. I calculate at my average rate of purchase it would take me around three years to see any savings. Of course your mileage may vary, and one comment I hear from Kindle users is that they now read more – which is great. But why not read more books and support a local independent bookstore?
9. Overall Experience. As I mentioned at the top of this post, I really wanted to like the Kindle, but it failed me on many levels form both a design and usability aspect. But there is one other area I have failed to mention. A large proportion of my reading is graphic novels and comics. I also write comics and books that are heavily illustrated. I want to see all that on any portable device. Yet the, albeit improved, monochrome display of the Kindle is a non starter for anything other than plain text presentation. If I can’t read comics on a device, then it just doesn’t fit my reading needs. (There are several apps for reading comics on the iPhone - like the one shown below). As a side note, a couple of times The Kindle failed to connect to the wireless 3G network even though the iPhone sat next to it on the desk could access its 3G network with no problems.
So it seems based on this “test drive” that the Kindle 2 isn’t for me. So would I ever buy a Kindle? Let’s see, it would need:
- touch screen,
- intuitive interface,
- on demand keyboard,
- audio book support,
- open third part app development,
- rugged design with no “moving parts” that can break,
- smaller size so I can take it anywhere.
Oops – I have that already – it’s my iPhone – and it also lets me watch TV, movies, listen to podcasts or music, play games, do any number of cool things (such as take the photo above) and even make phone calls.
EDIT The morning after I posted this Kindle review I found out that Amazon also has a Kindle for iPhone app that is a FREE download. So far I'm not impressed with that either - touching the "Find Books" button just takes you to a screen telling you to use a web browser to go to the Amazon.com website. - However the existence of the iPhone app does raise the interesting question, will there be a Kindle 3 or will Amazon focus on trying to make the Kindle format the de-facto standard for eBooks?
Further Addendum - I've now had a quick look at a book using the Kindle for iPhone. The formatting and presentation is awful. It breaks one of the basic rules of presentation and has the text justified to both the left and right margins - this introduces large uneven white space between words that breaks up the flow of the text and distracts the eye.
I did a word count of the same page I used for the Kindle 2 word count above - 48 words on the page!
Am I really to believe that no-one on the Amazon design team has no knowledge of document formatting or even basic typography?