Hands on with the Kindle: This ugly duckling has potential

Guest post: Josh Taylor is the director of ZDNet and its sister site TechRepublic. Keep an eye out for Josh's product review blog later this year.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Guest post: Josh Taylor is the director of ZDNet and its sister site TechRepublic. Keep an eye out for Josh's product review blog later this year. In the meantime, here's his first impressions of the Kindle.

I got my first peek at a Kindle a couple of weeks back in an NDA meeting with a representative from Amazon’s marketing team, and have now been messing around with one for about 30 minutes this morning, and I have to admit, it’s growing on me.

But this is still one ugly duckling.

Full disclosure: The aforementioned meeting with Amazon was to discuss making select ZDNet blogs available on the Kindle. Given that, ZDNet at least hypothetically stands to benefit financially if the Kindle takes off, although only if – and this is an enormous if -- Kindle owners embrace the idea of paying for blogs that they can now access for free from their PC or wireless device. In other words, our CFO isn’t doing a lot of Kindle revenue modeling right now.

What I like so far:

  • Readability: Despite what my colleague Matthew Miller says, I can’t actually read extensively on a Windows mobile device, or my computer for that matter – my eyes just can’t take it. And
    while clearly I haven’t had the time to read a full book on my Kindle yet (unboxing gallery right), the screen is very easy on the eyes (as is the Sony Reader, which uses the same digital ink technology as the Kindle). That readability does come with a price: the six-inch electrophoretic screen is grayscale, and it’s not backlit, so if you want to read it in bed, you’ll need the same lighting you do with your 1.0 books.
  • Feel: At 10.3 ounces, the Kindle actually feels like a book – not too heavy, not too light. Amazon says that it weighs less than a typical paperback book, but I have to admit, I haven’t weighed many of those lately, so I’m taking them at their word on that one. The back has a rubberized strip that makes it easy to grip, and it’s also magnetized, which helps to keep it in place in the bundled leather “book jacket.”
  • Wireless: Though some will no doubt criticize Amazon for not including a WiFi antenna with the Kindle, let’s face it – nobody can blame them for wanting to keep getting online as easy as possible, and it doesn’t get much simpler than an EVDO antenna with an on/off switch. The Amazon Whispernet network has thus far been very speedy, and I’m getting terrific signal strength in my office, which is a remarkably hostile environment for my 3G AT&T phone.
  • Flexibility: If you’re out of EVDO range, you can still download content to your PC, then transfer it to your Kindle via a bundled USB cable.
  • Document viewing: Each Kindle comes with an e-mail address, enabling users to receive Word and text documents, as well as a variety of image types, for 10 cents per mail. One of those features that I’m not sure I’ll ever use, but it’s nice to know it’s there.
  • Other odds and ends: I can’t yet tell you if the Kindle truly gets a week of battery life between charges – and a lot of that will no doubt be based on my wireless activity. That said, if it gets anywhere close to that, I’ll be satisfied. At first glance, I’m also impressed with the offerings in the Kindle store, which according to Jeff Bezos, currently sells 101 of the 112 books on the New York Times Best Sellers and New Releases lists (all of those are $9.99 apiece), along with more than 90,000 other titles.

A little digging around in the Kindle menu also turns up some pleasant surprises. One, the thing has a basic Web browser. Now, you would have to imagine that if too many people start using that feature too much, Amazon won’t be able to keep offering wireless access for free, but I guess they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it. And yes, of course if they’re offering a Web browser with free connectivity, it’s not entirely clear to me why anyone would pay a monthly subscription for blogs or newspapers, when they can simply read them for free – although admittedly, the UI is far better for subscription content, and all of your publications are pushed to the reader so that you can read them offline, which is handy for frequent fliers.

That Kindle menu also has another pleasant surprise that was missing from Bezos’ dog and pony show this morning – the Kindle included an MP3 player, along with a headphone jack and external volume control buttons – nice touch.

What I don’t like so far:

  • The aesthetics: While I agree with my colleague Larry Dignan that the device is better looking in person that it is in pictures, that's a remarkably low bar. Roughly a quarter of the device is taken up by a split keyboard, giving the Kindle a Blackberry for Shaquille O’Neal sort of look to it. I can’t help but think that a little color – or even making it black instead of white – would have helped to sex it up a bit.
  • Navigation: While there’s nothing wrong with it per se, navigating the Kindle is a different beast than most of the devices that most consumers are familiar with – PCs, iPods, etc. The primary navigational tool is a clickable scroll wheel, and your cursor location is indicated by a bar on the right side of the screen. Now again, clearly I’ve only been using the device for a short time, but so far I still have to pay a lot of attention as to where exactly my cursor is to ensure I’m clicking on the item I think I’m clicking on.
  • I also must admit that I’m shocked that there’s not a dedicated store button on the keyboard. There’s certainly room for it, and I would have thought that given Amazon is clearly counting on the Kindle to generate sales of books and other content, one-click access to commerce would have been preferable to clicking on the menu, then on to the Kindle store. Maybe we should be grateful for not shoving shopping down our throats?
  • Storage: The Kindle has 256MB of storage, though only 180MB of it is available to the user. That’s enough for plenty of books, blogs, and newspapers, but you add a couple of albums to it, and you’re done. There is an SD slot on the device, though unfortunately it’s hidden under the battery cover on the back of the device.

My early verdict: If you’ve been considering jumping into the e-reader game, the Kindle offers enough bells and whistles to justify the $100 premium over Sony’s $299 Reader – heck the wireless access alone is worth that. But make no mistakes about it -- the Kindle feels like a 1.0 device, and like most first generation products, there appears to be a lot of room for improvement. And I can’t help but believe that Amazon knows that too, but that they figured that the current version was good enough for public consumption, and that by releasing it, they could get a lot more guinea pigs.

What do you think? Will you ask Santa – or Hanukkah Harry – for a Kindle this year? Tell us in Talkback.

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