Amazon's Kindle 2 is sleek, stylish, and has a crisp and easy-on-the eyes "electronic ink" display. But it only does one thing -- read books.
After all the relatively hostile things I have said about Amazon's Kindle e-book reader in the past, I didn't actually expect that the company's official PR firm, Outcast, would actually send me one to play with. In Mid-March, they contacted me to inform me that they were going to loan me one for ten days, after which I had to send it back, this due to the extreme demand for review units. Ouch! The first Kindle I looked at, I had 30 days to play with the device.
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Of course, I was literally on the bottom of their list to receive one, no doubt due to my less-than-warm opinions of their product that were expressed during the launch and the actual release timeframe. Our gallant Editor-In-Chief, Larry Dignan, got one first at the end of February, along with the other "Tier 1" consumer electronics writers like Walt Mossberg and David Pogue who had their widely-publicized reviews published weeks ago. I think Larry took one look at it and put it on the shelf and gave it a thorough ZDNet Labs (TM) dust accumulation benchmark before sending it back. Gee, thanks boss.
Also Read: Kindle Economics 2
So none of what I am going to say is probably going to be new or interesting. But since Amazon was nice enough to send me one, even though I hardly feel timely, I sort of feel obligated to write something. Note to Amazon for future reference: sometimes it makes sense to send review units to your harshest critics at the same time as your adoring fans. 'Cause they might, like, you know, say something constructive.
First, the hardware. I must admit, that the Kindle 2 is one slick device, particularly from an ergonomics perspective. It's a lot thinner than the previous model and takes up a lot less space in a briefcase, a large handbag or backpack. Those of us who travel frequently know that carry-on space is at a premium, so it's great that Amazon spent a lot of time streamlining the second generation unit. Additionally, all of the previous faults with accidental page turns due to weird button placement and the awkward wedge shape of the original Kindle have been addressed. It's much more comfortable to hold and is an extremely pleasant device to use.
The 16-level black and white digital ink screen on the Kindle 2 is also an improvement from the first generation model (which could only represent 4 levels of grey) particularly from the perspective of reproducing of diagrams and greyscale artwork from printed media. This is immediately noticeable with the Kindle "screen saver" which depicts a different author each time from classic literature whenever the device enters idle state. Some of the pictures are actually quite stunning, giving an almost scrimshaw-like or woodcut appearance. The "screen saver" on the Kindle isn't actually a screen saver per se, as Digital Ink technology doesn't actually use power when the unit is idle, it only draws power when the page is being re-drawn. Essentially, the Kindle's screen is one big computerized Etch-a-Sketch, so it can't be "burned in" for that matter either.
From a User Interface and Software perspective, the Kindle 2 is nearly identical to that of the first generation device -- a home screen shows the library of content stored on the device, and each item which can be highlighted and selected in order to begin reading. The menu button allows you to enter the settings screen or browse the Amazon Kindle store and purchase books directly on the unit using the device's integrated Sprint "Whispernet" 3G wireless data service, the cost of which is compounded into the purchase of the unit and the price of the books.
The major UI change on the device is the elimination of the thumbwheel and illuminated line bar display with a five-way directional thumb pad similar to what you might find on a Game Boy, which I am not sure is really an improvement -- I actually liked the thumbwheel on the older unit and felt it was a more natural menu selection device, particularly with the visual indicator. The split and stiff/angled key keyboard of the original Kindle has been replaced with circular membrane stud keys, not unlike a circa 1980's Speak & Spell. Obviously, Amazon really hasn't intended this device for extended text entry, it's really just for using for book searches on the Amazon Kindle Store. The much smaller BlackBerry series of smartphone devices have a much more useful and tactile keyboard by comparison.
Much has been said about the Kindle 2's integrated voice narration feature and the audiobook industry backlash it has generated. Frankly, I'm not so sure what all these folks are so worried about, as using this feature is about as entertaining as listening to Professor Stephen Hawking do a stand-up comedy routine. I found it amusing and appropriate only as much when listening to a few sexually explicit passages of the Charles Stross novel Saturn's Children, which is an (excellent) Asimovian/Heinleinesque-style science fiction yarn told in the first person from the perspective of an unemployed Sex Robot turned secret agent. I highly recommend reading it, and I think it should get the Hugo even though it's overshadowed by Anathem this year in the best novel category. Even still, I had to turn the voice feature off after about five minutes because its incessant yammering and mispronunciation was driving me absolutely batty and detracted from the reading experience. For Sci-Fi erotica, the Kindle 2's electronic female voice is the ultimate buzzkill. I also tried using it in both the male and female versions with Neal Stephenson's Anathem, but that only made the difficult novel with it's unique vocabulary even more ponderous.
For straightforward book reading, however, the Kindle is great, and if I could justify the $360 for a unitasker device, I'd probably become an e-book addict. The fonts can be easily adjusted to several comfortable point sizes (I find the middle setting to be the most optimal for my level of eye strain) and the integrated dictionary is helpful particularly when you reach weird words or clarification on their use in a particular context.
However, I really feel Amazon could have gone a bit farther with the dictionary capabilities. In the case of 960-page Anathem, which has a significant glossary addendum of the many neologisms used in the book, it would have been nice if those words were actually added or referenced by the dictionary lookup during the course of reading that book electronically. Obviously, this would take some extra work on the part of the publisher to do this -- as well as an API for Amazon to create to allow access to specialized dictionaries, but the benefits would have been well worth it. I essentially gave up on reading Anathem on the Kindle because it was too cumbersome to electronically jump back and forth between the body text and the glossary section at the end -- in this case, the paper version of the book would have been much easier to read.
There are a lot of instances where I think custom dictionaries for certain books might be helpful -- such as those using foreign or technical words not within the scope of the New Oxford American Dictionary. Particularly, I can see where scientific, legal and medical texts might benefit from alternative dictionaries.
This is exactly the sort of application where opening up certain aspects of the Kindle to developers might be beneficial to Amazon. For example, in the case of Anathem, there is a wiki that has been set up on the Web for discussing various aspects of the book. While full-blown web applications on the Kindle might be difficult to present on the Kindle's Digital Ink screen, a Wiki API or viewer to talk to sites like Wikipedia or Wikia for retreiving text data might be useful.
Which gets to the unitasker conundrum of the Kindle. I really wanted to justify paying $360 for it and keeping it beyond the review period, because I genuinely enjoyed reading books with it. However, I would find myself during the course of a relaxing evening reaching for my BlackBerry when I would hear my email alerts go off. Now, I'm not saying that a Kindle should do virtually everything a BlackBerry should do, or that it should even be a full-blown Web tablet -- the refresh rate of current Digital Ink techmology would make normal web browsing cumbersome -- but I would expect that a text-based application such as email reading and responding to messages would be a good feature to have and easy to add in. Additionally, something like Bloomberg stock quotes or an RSS news aggregator would be neat to have on a larger format tablet device like a Kindle. Amazon offers blogs by subscription at the Kindle Store, but you actually have to PAY to read them. Pay to read blogs that I can normally read for free on my computer or my BlackBerry? Are they on drugs?
These are precisely the types of things that could be implemented on this device if Amazon opened the Kindle up for development, a la iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry. They already have the online store for books, so why not apps that could exploit the digital ink technology?
If you're satisfied with a $360 unitasker that does one thing very well -- which is to read electronic books -- I can reccomend the Kindle 2 wholeheartedly. But for skinflints like me that expect an expensive device like that to do more, I'll wait for the price of the technology to go down.
Did you break for the Kindle this time around? Or did you pass? Talk Back and Let Me Know.