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Monday, December 10, 2007, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

In-depth review: can Amazon's Kindle light a fire under eBooks?

Amazon's new Kindle ebook reader is billed as the iPod for digital reading. Will it inspire a new era of mainstream electronic reading, just service a dedicated niche of hard core readers, or simply fizzle out into failure? We put the new device through its paces to find out.

eBook vs iPod: Amazon's Digital Strategy

The deck isn't stacked in Amazon's favor. Unlike Apple's iPod, which only improved upon the technology and design of music players that already enjoyed an established market, the Kindle attempts to outmaneuver existing ebook devices that have never really achieved mainstream popularity. The Kindle faces the daunting task of cultivating ebook adoption in the scorched soil that failed to yield sustainable growth for earlier ebook vendors over the last decade.

If anyone could make ebooks work, it's likely to be a company like Amazon with the clout and connections to line up content and reach a wide market of avid readers. Last year, Borders, the second largest US book vendor, similarly partnered with Sony to sell its new Reader. Barnes and Noble, the number one bookseller, turned down the offer to participate, telling the Associated Press, "We have sold e-readers before and they haven't done particularly well."

Despite its partnership with Borders, the Sony Reader hasn't been a big hit over the last two years of trying. Unlike Sony, Amazon has no relevant experience in developing and delivering consumer hardware. That makes the Kindle hard to compare against the the success of the iPod, because Apple's improvements over existing music players back in 2001 were largely technology improvements.

Apple used a smaller form factor hard drive to make the iPod more compact than direct rivals and give it more capacity than Flash devices. It chose high speed FireWire to make it sync much faster than USB 1.0 models, and it commissioned an intuitive user interface that made using it simpler. Unlike devices designed by Sony and Microsoft, Apple also made the iPod DRM-optional and allowed users to add their existing music. Apple didn't start offering its own content until 2003.

Amazon's primary value add is in lining up commercial content for the Kindle and delivering it through an innovative partnership using Sprint's cellular network. Amazon also leverages its existing online store to integrate a user's account with the unit, making it easy to find, order, and manage content. Since most users don't already have a library of ebooks waiting to be read, Amazon isn't really following the footsteps of the iPod at all.

Technical Hurdles for eBooks

As with the devices already on the market, the Kindle faces some significant engineering challenges. Readers expect ebook devices to meet or at least approach the experience of reading physical books. That requires a high resolution display that is at least close to the size of a paperback book. However, high resolution LCD screens are expensive and large enough displays to be easily readable eat up power too rapidly.

Those factors force the Kindle to use E Ink, a different display technology that offers high resolution density for sharp text and longer battery life despite its generous 6" display. Everything from the iPod to the iPhone to laptops and flat panel displays use LCDs, which use a matrix of liquid crystals that change shape when electricity is applied. As they change, they form patterns that are nearly invisible, but using a bright backlight, they can be illuminated to create a bright, colorful display.

E Ink works using colored particles. When an electric current is applied, the light and dark particles are aligned into patters that are clearly visible without a backlight. That results in much greater power efficiency, but introduces some limitations of its own. Essentially, an E Ink display is a bit like an electronic Etch-a-Sketch or the magnetic beard of Wolley Willy: it redraws the screen one page at a time as an original creation. E Ink displays can't rapidly update though, resulting in very slow and clumsy animation of the user interface; animation is an important feature in navigation and user feedback to signal progress and changes. In addition, on the Kindle and most other ebook readers, E Ink is limited to four shades of grey.

The result is a sharp, monochrome display that requires ambient light to read but which requires so little power than it can coast for days without recharging. That makes E Ink perhaps the best technology to use as a book replacement. However, the technology also severely limits E Ink's applications outside of acting like a book. The image below contrasts the Kindle's E Ink display against the backlit LCD display of a laptop.

Amazon Kindle


Interface and Navigation

The biggest problem for E Ink is that it can't redraw rapidly enough to support animation such as a mouse cursor or smooth page scrolling. Kindle attempts to work around this limitation using a scroll wheel to navigate between options on the page.

Amazon Kindle


Dialing a small roller up and down animates a silvery block cursor in an independent track that uses its own display that can update rapidly (above). This navigation track allows the user to select between options presented on a page, or to select a line of text which might include multiple hyperlinks within it. Once selected, a push down on the roller brings up a menu, typically including options to:
  • select from one of the hyperlinks in the selected line.
  • lookup a word in the selected line.
  • jump to the Home page.
  • visit the Kindle Store shopping page.
  • navigate within the existing document to its front page, table of contents, a specific location, a sections listing, or user specified bookmarks.
  • add notes to a document, highlight a selection, and access earlier notes.
  • create bookmarks.
  • save a selected page as a digital text clipping that can be output to a computer.

The right and left edges of the unit each have two large buttons: next and previous page buttons on the left, and next page and "back" buttons on the right. It seems logical that "back" and "previous page" would do the same thing, but that is not always the case. Sometimes back returns to a previous section, for example. It isn't consistent enough to really be intuitive or predictable, however.

There is also a full keypad below the screen for entering text, along with alt, symbol, and search function keys and a button that brings up a menu to change the text display size used when reading a document. Between the E Ink display and the roller wheel cursor track, it's quite easy and usually intuitive to figure out how to navigate around, but the slow page refresh is a significant problem that severely taxes navigation speed, as every menu presented involves a flash and a pause.

Physical Features

The unit ships with a USB cable and a power adapter (below). The adapter automatically handles worldwide voltage differences, so to use it overseas you only need a physical plug adapter, not a more expensive transformer. The Kindle's cellular wireless features only work in the US, however.

Amazon Kindle


The Kindle itself is oddly wedge shaped. The left edge is 0.7" thick, and slopes down to the right so that even when laying flat, the display is at an odd angle. Apart from the top and bottom edge, every side, surface, and corner of the unit is beveled at odd angles and surface planes. The device looks like a blandly modernist building of the mid 80s trying to stand out solely through quirky, unexpected lines.

Amazon Kindle


Amazon Kindle


Amazon Kindle


It must have been designed by a committee that deliberated long and hard over input from lots of people, because clearly a lot of compromises were brokered, and there's just too many odd mistakes for it to have come from the mind of one lead designer.

On top of its strange shape, the eggshell white plastic unit looks extremely cheap, from its roller navigation control wheel to its chintzy keyboard. The Kindle almost feels purposely cheesy, as if it was designed to look fashionably tacky as a nostalgic nod to early 90s electronics. Within its price target, it blindly blows past any previous example of shoddy looking electronics gear to attain a level of unsophisticated ugliness that would seem difficult to rival.

At the same time, it doesn't really matter that the Kindle's hardware looks silly because it's not designed to show off or admire, but rather to be used. Being sexy or fashionable isn't of prime importance for an ebook reader; looking sharp certainly hasn't helped Sony's Reader, an ultra slim metal tablet that has been largely ignored by the public. The Kindle's cheap white plastic makes it a neutral looking frame for the text you're reading, as opposed to the shiny black or silvery metallic finishes popular on many ebook readers.

Amazon Kindle


The bottom edge of the unit sports volume controls, a power plug adapter, a mini USB port, and a headphone jack (above). Two slider switches on the back turn the unit on and optionally activate its wireless service. A dark grey rubberized cover slides off the back to reveal a standard SD Flash RAM slot for extending memory and a removable battery pack (below).

Amazon Kindle


The odd styling of the Kindle makes it clumsy to hold. I'm right handed, and typically would hold a book in my left hand and turn pages with my right. I instinctively picked up the Kindle with my right hand, but found it extremely unwieldy to hold that way because the center of gravity is on the thicker left side. That forces you to hold it in your left hand. I found the Kindle a bit clumsy to hold every way that I tried; it's also difficult to handle without inadvertently hitting the page turning buttons that make up most of the right and left sides.

On page 2 of 5: Judging the Kindle by its Cover; The Amazon Content Connection; The Depth and Breadth of Amazon Content; and Thinking Outside the Book.