Video of my Out-of-Box experience with Amazon's Kindle (and some quick impressions)

Summary:No. It's not a review of the Kindle, yet. There are plenty of those already circulating the Web and I'll get to mine (better late than never).

No. It's not a review of the Kindle, yet. There are plenty of those already circulating the Web and I'll get to mine (better late than never). But, after missing the Amazon press conference in NYC where the members of the press were offered Kindles to take home and try, I finally was able to get one sent to me and it arrived today. So, before opening it up, my multimedia wingman Matt Conner and I decided it would be best to fire up our camera and videotape the out-of-box experience (literally, out of the box that it arrived in, via UPS).

One thing you may notice: Amazon doesn't yet have a shipping box (or at least didn't use one for my unit) that's designed to fit the Kindle. I'll bet this changes. They'll probably have one that says "Kindle" all over it. The Kindle is smaller (and thinner than I imagined). It's very light. My fellow blogger Josh Taylor noted that it doesn't have a backlight if you're going to read in the dark (like I sometimes do next to my sleeping wife). I have one of those lights that you can clip onto your book. The one I have can't clip onto the Kindle or the leather cover that comes with it (*sigh*). I suspect that outfits like Coach will come out with more sophisticated Kindle carrying cases: ones that come in different colors/patterns, some with built-in lights, pockets, etc.

The Kindle has a USB port on the edge that faces down when you're reading. I was thinking about how, if that port was on the top edge, I could plug one of those USB-based mini-halogen lights into it and that would work really well as a means for lighting up the Kindle's "page." Fortunately, the Kindle uses Verizon's Sprint's EVDO network to connect to through which digital copies of books can be purchased and downloaded right into the Kindle. That's the network with the strongest signal in my house (it's winter, I'd hate to have to walk down the block to buy a book).

One other industrial design issue: On the Kindle's backside, there are two power buttons, one for the Kindle's overall power and one for the EVDO radio that connects to Amazon's network (don't ask me why, when I point to this in the attached radio, I call it a WiFi radio. The icon confused me, but it was still a serious brain fart). Neither of the two power buttons are very accessible when the leather case is wrapped around the unit. It's not a major drag. You can bend the leather back to get at them and, theoretically, you shouldn't have to get at them very much because of how good the Kindle is at conserving power (I'll test that). Even so, the buttons in the context of the leather cover could have been done a bit more elegantly.

Josh Taylor called it an ugly duckling with potential. On the other end of the spectrum, Robert Scoble wrote an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos about what a trainwreck the Kindle is. In general, I think Scoble's criticisms are good food for thought when Amazon gets around to building future Kindles. But, my sense is that the heart of the market -- the one that Amazon really wanted to hit first -- is the the one that just wants to read books. In addition to usability issues (Scoble wants a touch screen and thinks it's not designed for the way people will hold it), Scoble talks about adding social features and an ability to buy stuff for other people (via Amazon). I don't know about the ergonomics of it (I haven't tried it enough to comment), but I think Amazon was right to focus on making it easier to acquire and read digital books and to leave the social features for later. Personally, I'd like the social features too. But I have to realize that those sorts of features -- features that are in our DNA because of the other digital tools we use (blogs, FaceBook, etc.) -- don't matter right now to most of the people that Amazon is targeting (nor will they matter for the forseeable future).

And it's not like Amazon is getting serious pressure to stay one step ahead of some competitor. Due to its unique position in the book industry, there really aren't any other companies that are in a position to efficiently compete against Amazon. Think Dell, but for books. Only in this case, I really don't see another seller (eg: what Gateway was to Dell) or even a legacy company like Barnes & Noble or Borders coming into the market with something competitive.

I have played with the user interface some. Admittedly, I haven't read the manual (so some of you will yell at me RTFM). But sometimes, I think the measure of how intuitive something like this is, something that's geared at the masses, is to intuit how to use it from the user experience without the help of the manual. This was not obvious to me in a couple of cases. For example, when a welcome letter (a form letter) from Jeff Bezos suddenly appeared as a link on the Kindle's home page, I read it, but it wasn't intuitive to me how to close it in a way that when and if I came back to it, I could start it over. Actually, I was looking for an easy way to delete it first and I didn't see that. So, then I wanted to close it. I ended up pressing a button that saved the last page of Bezos' form letter as a "clipping" (like the way you might clip something from a newspaper), that was subsequently listed on the Kindle's home page. Realizing that that's not really what I wanted, I looked for an intuitive way to delete the clipping and couldn't find that either.

Eventually, after reading the manual, I found the instructions for entering the Kindle's "Content Manager" and removing both the clippings and Bezos' form letter. What would be more intuitive to me would be if there were context sensitive menus that could be pulled up on each item (for example, one of my clippings or the letter from Bezos) where ever they are listed as well as when you're reading them. For example, a simple "Delete This Document" menu choice. I don't want to presume these don't exist yet. Such menu choices could easily be available to me. I just have to spend more time with the manual to see if that's the case and how to activate them (perhaps by pressing the ALT key before pressing the menu button).

One last initial comment. There has been some commentary around the Web about how the display is not color. For reading most books, this isn't an issue. But for reading blogs, newspapers, Web pages, and other forms of content that the Kindle is capable of gathering, I could see where the Kindle would not be an ideal client device. On the other hand, by choosing to forgo color, the Kindle is saving on both battery life and storage space. What sort of battery life does Kindle take? Color requires a different sort of light which invariably requires more power than is currently required to drive Kindle's digital paper implementation (which has great contrast by the way). Downloading color content also means the Kindle must download more bits and more bits means more work for the radio. More work for the radio requires more of the battery's power. Those more bits also have to be stored somewhere.

Given the lack of any real competitive pressure, I think Amazon picked the right sacrifices to make. More to come. Check out the video.

Topics: Hardware, Amazon


David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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