Amazon Kindle DX: The solution to a problem that doesn't exist

Amazon Kindle DX: The solution to a problem that doesn't exist

Summary: From the first moment I picked up Amazon's new large-format e-reader, the Kindle DX, I liked it. The plastic was smooth to the touch, the flat e-ink screen was easy on the eyes, and the large 9.

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From the first moment I picked up Amazon's new large-format e-reader, the Kindle DX, I liked it. The plastic was smooth to the touch, the flat e-ink screen was easy on the eyes, and the large 9.7-in. screen only magnified just how thin the device really is.

Oh, and less page-turning, naturally.

For the most part, I like the design of the Kindle DX, whose lines it shares with its smaller sibling, the Kindle 2. The sloping corners and wide buttons are made for hands, briefcases and purses. The e-ink, by its very nature, is relaxing to your eyes and versatile in different lighting. The device is thin and light, but not flimsy. Really, the only detail complicating the device's form is the gaggle of Casio calculator watch-style buttons at the bottom.

Amazon must truly be given credit for the Kindle family, its first foray into hardware: after all, how do you reinvent the book -- a format that has been perfected over thousands of years?

But a book isn't Amazon's declared aim with the Kindle DX, though those with poor eyesight may prefer it over the smaller six-inch Kindle model. Instead of books, Amazon would like to bring you more content to read: newspapers, magazines, textbooks. The company's "Kindle Vision" is to bring you content to read in 60 seconds. The DX is an extension of that goal, but it doesn't take a radically different path.

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Practicality: A solution for business or pleasure?

The larger format of the DX, designed to handle an 8.5" by 11" page, suddenly makes the original Kindle seem travel-sized -- or as I call it, "paperback-sized."  The new format allows standard documents and magazine pages to display without the need to zoom, pan, or scramble for the full experience, and  you can even adjust the margins for readability.

That's a great thing for business-minded people, who can now take PDF office reports with them to read on trains, flights and other transport. No more lugging around 100-page reports; no more burning-lap, strained-eyes syndrome from trying to read said report on your 13-in. laptop.

The debate, however, is if that's a great thing for consumers who aim to use the Kindle DX as a leisure device. At $489, the new Kindle DX is in no way inexpensive, living up to the "DX" ("deluxe") name well.

For rabid readers, it's a no-brainer: at $10-$15 for a new paperback, the Kindle DX breaks even at roughly the 45th paper book purchased.

But for those who spend a month or more with a book, the Kindle DX is doubtlessly a luxury item: you are paying dearly for the convenience of a one-stop shop for reading.

The math gets even more complicated when you take the Kindle DX's intended formats -- newspapers, textbooks, magazines and reports -- into consideration.

[Image Gallery: Hands-on with the Amazon Kindle DX]

All the news that's fit to download

Some of the first rumblings about the new Kindle DX is that it could give newspapers their (staid, color-in-the-lines) personalities back. At the Kindle DX launch event, Amazon announced partnerships with the New York Times, Boston Globe (owned by NYT) and the Washington Post. Without revealing pricing, the company said subscribers of these newspapers would receive discounted Kindle DX devices.

While it's nice to see the Times, Globe and Post in their native format, it isn't quite a deal for the consumer, whatever the price. The majority of the content these news organizations offer is news, followed by analysis and commentary. But the advent of the Internet has made news a nearly-free commodity, and in fact neither the Times, Globe or Post charge for their content. These papers are banking that you'll pay them to appreciate the original layout of their content. I doubt many people will.

At the press conference, New York Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. made it a point to highlight "those who do not currently receive home delivery of the Times" as prospective customers. The fundamental problem with this concept is that nearly everyone receives home delivery of the Times now, thanks to the cable plugged into the back of their computer.

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Cracking college textbooks -- and wallets

Journalism identity crises aside, Amazon's real big target is higher education, and it's no surprise, then, that the Kindle DX was launched within the hallowed walls of a four-year, Ph.D.-granting university: Pace.

The theory of the Kinde DX for students is a nice one: no more lugging around textbooks, saving paper, saving money, and being technologically hip.

The reality, however, is that the Kindle DX is simply far too expensive a proposal for a student -- be it one at $60,000/year Harvard or the $3,000/year local community college. There is a reasonable, albeit slightly apples-to-oranges, argument for the iPod touch with consideration to an inexpensive media browser. But the iPod touch isn't built for extended reading and annotating, rendering the argument slightly moot.

Really, the main problems for student adoption of the Kindle DX aren't competitors -- they are the price tag and professors.

Books at college can run up to $400 per semester. The Kindle DX is intended to last longer than that, of course, but this is under the assumption that the student won't break or damage the device quickly and all a prospective student's material is available through Amazon's service.

At this point in time, that's simply not the case.

Many professors, in addition to using standard curricular texts from major publishers, choose smaller books -- sometimes self-authored -- they deem relevant to the course as reading materials. Few of those, by definition, are available via Amazon.

The upswing to this is that "coursepacks," or cheaply-bound paper collections of readings and excerpts compiled by the instructor, have become a popular campus choice in place of true, bound textbooks. The Kindle DX's native PDF support certainly makes it technically possible to read coursepacks on the Kindle, but the student is dependent on the professor to have the technical know-how, and the will, to do so.

That's a tough proposition.

[Video: Amazon Kindle DX in action]

First-bound fumble: magazines & reports

And finally, what of magazines?

Simply, the Kindle DX is far from being an optimal format for a magazine. Not only does the Kindle DX's monochrome screen sap all the life away from the art department of every publication, but it also removes the "two-page" magazine feel: A picture or design element that spans two pages, which is presented more often than you think in glossies. By only viewing a magazine one page at a time, you're reading a stunted publication -- even if the PDF support makes it easy to get a magazine on the device in the first place.

Further, there's still an element to paper that can't be reproduced by the Kindle. To be frank, would you take an issue of Sports Illustrated to the bathroom with you? Would you take a Kindle DX?

Display limitations also apply to reports and other office documents, particularly the lack of color. Graphs, images -- and in the case of textbooks, diagrams -- are all stuck in 16 shades of gray. For mathematics and langugage material, that's not a problem. For a color-coded anatomic illustration of the major systems of the human body, that's an issue.

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...But would you buy it?

Many tech bloggers are expressing their discontent over the $489 price tag, and I understand the sentiment.

In a vacuum, that's a lot of green: things you could buy for that price include two iPod touches, one or two Blu-ray players, an Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook, a Sony Alpha A200 digital SLR camera, two or three semesters' worth of books (at a very liberal 50% buyback price), two Boston-to-Washington round-trip fares on the high-speed Acela train, or enough magazine and newspaper subscriptions to fill your mailbox three times over.

And that's before you pay for any of the content.

This wouldn't be such a hard pill to swallow if the content wasn't marginalized like it is. But the New York Times or Newsweek or Janson's History of Art simply aren't the same on the Kindle DX, even if they can fit. The lack of color only magnifies the problem.

That's not to say Amazon's at fault here. The Kindle DX makes a lot of sense in the short timeline marking the evolution of e-readers, and the device will probably make a tidy bundle by targeting relatively affluent customers.

But it simply isn't quite there as a substitute for the real thing. Is anyone complaining about how hard it is to get the news? Or how heavy a newspaper is? Is anyone complaining about anything but the price of textbooks?

And are you willing to drop $500 for a proprietary solution to eye strain from reading reports on the plane? (Perhaps you are.)

Kindle DX: Solution in theory, not in practice

The Kindle DX, I fear, is an answer to a problem that doesn't exist. It's a necessary step toward an eventual portable content solution, and a good improvement on the paperback-sized Kindle 2. So much so, in fact, that I believe the DX will usurp a not-insignificant portion of the sales of the original Kindle.

But it in no way makes me any more likely to ditch my habitual reading of NYTimes.com each morning, or my subscription to GQ, or the occasional newsstand purchase I may make. And as a student, I simply couldn't see fronting that kind of cash for a device whose features significantly overlap with a required laptop, which allows me to read my course readings and news and write a paper about it.

Is the Kindle DX important? Yes. I believe it will help the Kindle family become even more popular, make Amazon more money and further e-reader development. But make no mistake: it remains a niche luxury item until the price is brought down to $150 or so.

It's hard not to like the Kindle, mainly because it aims to revolutionize a task anyone reading this article is fond of: reading. But until Amazon reproduces that experience in a more complete fashion and makes reading as inexpensive a habit as it currently is, it will remain out of reach for most consumers and out of touch with most publishers.

Topics: Hardware, Amazon, Mobility

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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92 comments
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  • I won't buy this, but you know what I WOULD buy?

    I would buy a lightweight, feature-rich, electronic replacement for my leather-bound notepad. In fact, I've been searching for this mythical device since the first PowerBooks, always to be disappointed. Laptops are too big and use the same I/O paradigm as the desktop PC. PDA's, and I'm including every device from the first PalmPilot up to the latest iPhone, are too small. Tablet PCs have been too bulky with buggy software. This Kindle seems like yet another piece of the "Electronic Notepad" puzzle, but it STILL doesn't seem to meet the requirements of the sort of device I'm looking for. Some day, maybe.
    roystonlodge
    • What I want, addendum...

      ... oh, and I have no need for always-on wireless connectivity. Wi-fi suits me just fine. And I really have no need for colour. Greyscale does the job just fine.
      roystonlodge
      • This is a good point.

        That's a great point.

        One of the big takeaway questions from today's Kindle DX event was: why not have a Wi-Fi only version for a cheaper price, especially for students?

        (Perhaps because the WhisperSync system is so lucrative.)
        andrew.nusca
      • textbooks need color

        I purchased a Sony 505 ebook reader, which is smaller, but is sufficient for paperback novels (or other printed media where pictures & figures are not needed). However, I would need color in near 8.5 x 11 size for textbooks. Lack of color in textbooks that I've 'modified' for my Sony 505 (at tedious job when there are lot's of figures and pictures) almost makes the text unuseable. For the duration, I've purchased a netbook for reading my e-text books. Slow to open, but almost as portable. I will try installing Presto (a fast, Linux OS) to see if that can increase the boot time enough.)

        ko
        peter.kostanich
        • Not all colleges depend so much on textbooks

          My Alma Mater Reed College is one of the test sites. None of my classes had textbooks. We read all original texts (most in translation, admittedly). Many of them were available in the library in sufficient numbers, but it would have been great to have them on a Kindle and just had that one tiny little item to carry around. I'm curious if Reed students who get the Kindle will be able to download most of their reading material. We weren't big on looking at pictures there!
          Sharon Toji
    • Apple had one

      it was called the Newton. Actually, all you would need to do to this Kindle would be to add a touchscreen and handwriting recognition - and there would be your notepad.
      Roger Ramjet
      • Too bad it's not still available... or is it?

        light weight, handwriting recognition (improving over last couple years), animations, color some wifi access ... what a way to bring multimedia to a class, and include the library holdings!!! Maybe the technology is coming to a full feature support for all -- college classes from liberal arts to science to design to communications -- to workplace and beyond.

        I'll be ready to buy when i find it, and have it encouraged for all students in classes and labs.
        d.richardson2
        • You can find the Newton

          The Newton is out there you just got to know the right places to look. last
          year i bought a Newton 2100, and a lucent wavelan PCMCIA card and a
          1gb CF card and a PCMCIA to CF adapter and i use that for allot.

          i think i paid around $70 for my newton 2100 with the cards and
          interconnect cable.

          you could join newtontalk.net and see if anyone is selling one., or you
          can continue the search for a PDA. most of the places have moved over
          to ebay to sell now.
          madmax_2069
    • I very much agree.

      I very much agree. I've tried using PalmPilots,
      Tablet PCs, and even digital pads/pens that are
      supposed to record your writing.

      Nothing quite measured up. The Tablet PC was
      close but it was expensive, and in many cases
      too slow to keep up. True they have gotten
      faster and might be able to keep up, but I don't
      need a full PC for this.

      I'm hoping Waccom + Intel Atom + OLED will let
      us get to a device that will do this. Currently
      I'm using a netbook + OneNote for taking notes
      in meetings and it's working pretty well. But
      often times I wish that I could just right and
      retrieve it digitally.
      VooDooAddict
    • Keep an eye out for a device coming from Apple.

      There are rumors circulating that Apple is working on a thin new device which could be described as a cross between an iPhone, Newton, and Kindle. Hints are that it may do everything you described and far more. Don't expect it to be cheap, though. The price will probably make the KDX look really cheap by comparison. I'm guessing it will be like $800-1000 range. All of it is speculation, though.
      BillDem
    • CrossPadXP

      I've used a CrossPadXP for some years now, and it works for me. The habdwriting recognition takes some training and the syncing software's a bit long in the tooth (and no longer in development), but I like writing on an actual paper notepad and having the device capture my pen strokes as a graphic (that's OCRed in conjunction w/the handwriting recognition stuff). Pictures or diagrams I draw are simply rendered as they came off my pen, even doodles. And to top it off, the input device is a nice Cross pen. :-)
      dw.needham
  • price is the deciding factor for me.

    I like the Kindle - I like the Sony Reader too -
    problem is, they cost a lot. I can buy a full-color
    iPod Touch for less, play music, read books, cruise
    the web, store full-color photos, play games, etc. -
    only downside I can see, is battery power & text size
    - neither of which I mind that much, because although
    I am 41 years old and wear glasses, I am nowhere near
    blind yet & currently read on a 15-year-old Palm-
    powered Sony Clie' (the kind with the 4-level gray
    screen) - but hey, even that holds a ton of books and
    has a backlight. Too bad Kindle - it's cheaper &
    better to just buy a netbook at this point.
    timgesner
  • RE: Amazon Kindle DX: The solution to a problem that doesn't exist

    I'll just stick with reading on my iPhone.
    txscott
  • RE: Amazon Kindle DX: The solution to a problem that doesn't exist

    [i]For rabid readers, it?s a no-brainer: at $10-$15 for a
    new paperback, the Kindle DX breaks even at roughly the
    45th paper book purchased.[/i]

    $10-$15?!!! Where on Earth do you shop? I never pay more
    than $7.99 for a new paperback. Considering those same
    books for $6 + change in Kindle format, that's a
    staggering 350-400 books before I could break even with
    the Kindle 2.

    I read a decent amount, but that's still years worth of
    purchases for me.
    JakAttak
    • And then there's...

      ...the library if you really want to save money!
      timgesner
    • You really read 300 books a year?

      Man! Get outside.. play soccer!
      Olderdan
      • RE: 300

        [i]You really read 300 books a year?[/i]

        No. That was the point.

        I said that it would represent "years worth of purchases" before I could even think about breaking even. I read every day while taking the train to/from work - maybe 40 books a year - but that doesn't approach the number of books where the small discount on Kindle versions could break even with the money spent on a Kindle.
        JakAttak
      • 300 books/year?!?

        Who reads THAT slowly? *heh*
        dw.needham
    • "staggering" book count

      "...a staggering 350-400 books..."

      Different strokes. That'd be a rather low book count for a years' reading for me. So, in that case, given that about 70% of the books I now read are ebooks, it'd be useful for me.
      dw.needham
      • agreed

        It's going to be different for each person. For me, it would take along
        time to break even. I like the idea of the Kindle. There are definitely
        conveniences offered that make it an appealing product.

        My point was more to the fact that the author stated new paperbacks
        go for $10-$15 and the discount offered by the Kindle versions would
        break even at around 45 books. In my experience, this isn't the case.
        Most new paperbacks in stores today are $6.50 - $7.99. There are a
        few that are more expensive (like the large format paperbacks,) but
        they are in the minority. When you compare the price of typical new
        paperbacks to their Kindle versions, the discount is a buck and
        change. Granted, that represents a decent percentage discount. It just
        means a LOT more than the author's 45 paperbacks to break even.
        JakAttak