By Simon Barber*
I have just spent a week with a Kindle 2 Amazon lent me to review. Tomorrow I have to send it back and will be sorry to see it go. I am fairly certain that I will not be able to resist the temptation to buy one of my own although I do continue to have reservations about the $350 price tag and the longevity of the device.
On the latter score, I find it intensely irritating that I should be asked to pay $65, a fifth of the purchase price, to extend the warranty from one year to two. That is either a rip-off or, if an actuarially based insurance premium, a worrying omen.
I buy and read a lot of books, both for pleasure and for work. This past week I was preparing a column on Cass Sunstein, the University of Chicago, and latterly Harvard, law professor President Obama has just appointed head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House. Sunstein is a prolific author, though perhaps not yet a household name. I had no trouble locating Kindle editions of his works on the Amazon website at $9.99 a pop, beamed instantly and without additional charge to my device via Sprint’s wireless EVDO network. Dead tree editions, delivered, would have been closer to $30 and would have arrived too late to have been of any use to me.
I work in Washington and commute from the rural exurbs by train. I planned a motorcycling and camping trip with my son for the Memorial Day weekend. The Kindle was a godsend, lightening my briefcase and panniers considerably.
The Kindle screen is not backlit, but has to be lit externally like a regular book, so I needed a flashlight in the tent. The compromise allows for extended battery life (with a wireless receiver off) and supersharp text. The screen excels under bright conditions where I found it to be far easier on the eye than printed white paper.
For my purposes, the size was ideal. With its protective leather cover, the device has the dimensions of a standard 250 page trade paperback. The screen is the size of a small Moleskin notebook. A brushed steel back plate gives the Kindle an attractively solid feel.
I particularly liked being able to highlight passages and save them to a clipping file along with notes entered using the Kindle’s small but serviceable keyboard. Clippings are saved in a text file, rather than the proprietary Kindle format, so that you can download them via USB cable to your computer to do with as you wish.
I worry about the durability of the five way toggle that performs the functions of a mouse as on some older laptops. It also lacked responsiveness perhaps because the relatively slow screen refresh rate retards cursor movement. Selecting text accurately requires practice and patience. Figuring out how to turn the cursor on (the default is off) and then put it into text selection mode is not entirely intuitive. When it’s on, a dictionary definition of the word to its right will appear at the bottom of the screen. The dictionary is serviceable, although the result I obtained for the word “heuristics” was not as helpful as I might have liked.
I signed up for free trial subscriptions to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker and Newsweek. After the two week trial, the subscriptions would respectively run $13.99, $14.99, $2.99, and $1.49 a month. The obvious question is why one would pay to have content transmitted to one’s Kindle that is otherwise available free, and in many cases with far more features, on the Internet. The answer depends upon your tastes and circumstances. Personally, I would probably spring for the New York Times. The paper version is hard to come by and expensive out where I live. If you have a multimodal commute like I do, relying on one’s laptop can be a pain. Yes, I can read the Times for free on my cell phone, but the experience is less than optimal and I cannot make notes or clippings.
As for magazines, I would certainly shell out for the New Yorker. At its current stage of development, the Kindle does not handle complex graphics well, let alone colour images. It does not do video period. The screen is monochrome and a colour Kindle is not on the cards. For the purposes of reading the New Yorker, none of that is much of a problem. The Kindle edition carries each week’s cartoons in a section of their own and they reproduce quite well. There are a number of text rich journals to which I might subscribe – Commentary, Foreign Affairs and the American Prospect, for example — were they become available in Kindle editions at the right price, but at this point the range of choices is still quite narrow.
My experience trying to put my own material onto the Kindle was not good. You cannot simply download documents from your computer via the USB connection. You have to e-mail them to Amazon which converts them into a Kindle readable format and sends them back wirelessly for a supposedly nominal fee, or free by e-mail. The forthcoming Kindle DX, in addition to being larger, will apparently have the capacity to read and display PDF files without their having to be sent away for conversion. It would be good to know whether a software upgrade could give the Kindle 2 the same ability.
My attempt to have a document converted and installed was admittedly fairly eccentric. I sent Amazon a chapter of the Roman historian Tacitus in Latin. The Kindle can also function as an MP3 player and can play audio books downloaded from Audible.com. My plan was to use the Kindle listen to Tacitus in English while following the text in the original on screen. Unfortunately, Amazon never sent me back my text.
Under normal circumstances, I’m not entirely sure I would use the Kindle as an MP3 player. Its two MB of RAM may be plenty to store a library load of books in text form, but would be depleted very rapidly by audio files. Another factor is the battery, which is fine for displaying books on a passive, unlit screen that draws little power between page turns. Ask it to do more, including run the wireless link, and it tires pretty quickly. I suspect, but cannot definitively say, that the text to voice feature — which is pretty gee-whiz when you first hear it, but palls quite quickly — is also a juice hog.
Theoretically, the Kindle can access the Internet via Sprint’s high-speed network. It even comes with a rudimentary browser that displays pages with the CSS coding stripped out. You can find instructions on the Internet about how to use the Kindle to send and receive e-mail with Google mail, but my view is that you would have to be pretty desperate to want to use the device for this purpose. Browsing the Internet is a bridge too far for the Kindle at this point in its evolution.
It is not a netbook. It is a device for acquiring, storing and reading books and periodicals that you have purchased from Amazon. It does this job very well — albeit only if you live in the US and are in range of a Sprint cell tower.
I hope to have a chance to try out the bigger Kindle DX, but from my experience so far I’m not sure that I would want a larger device, let alone one selling for $130 more than what is already a high price. The Kindle I’ve been looking at, and enjoying immensely, works for someone who is constantly on the move and wants or needs to devote every spare moment to reading. Making it bigger isn’t much help. What does hold me back, however, is the prospect that the current version will rapidly be overtaken by new versions that fix the things that could still be done better. But, of course, that is a risk one takes with virtually any popular consumer device.
*Simon Barber is the US country manager for the International Marketing Council of South Africa and a columnist for South Africa’s Business Day newspaper.