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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?


Audible DRM Support

While the Kindle advertises support for Audible audiobooks, it requires a PC to handle the Audible DRM; you have to download Audible's Windows-only AudibleManager software to authorize your Kindle before using it with Audible content. Once that happens, you can then copy over your audiobooks purchased from iTunes or elsewhere and play them.

Since Amazon advertises Audible support, it should offer an authorization feature within the unit itself so users don't have to do that step manually. Apple's iTunes invisibly handles this step for users of iPods and the iPhone.

The Kindle might serve as an occasional audiobook player, but it makes no sense to use it primarily as an audiobook device. The iPod Nano, outlined in Winter 2007 Buyer’s Guide: Microsoft Zune 8 vs iPod Nano, costs half as much and is nearly invisible compared to the diary-sized Kindle. It also holds 4 or 8 GB of audio, rather than less than a quarter GB of Flash RAM on the Kindle.

A two hour audiobook file is about 30 MB, and a full book such as John Hodgman's "The Areas of My Expertise," involves three files. That means two full audio books could easily wipe out the entire capacity of the Kindle. Using the SD slot, you can add more capacity, but doing so wouldn't make the Kindle a cost effective or reasonably sized device for listening to audiobooks.

Kindle MP3 Playback

On the subject of audio, while the Kindle includes a tiny speaker on the back of the unit and supports headphones, it doesn't offer much for sound quality. If you like to listen to fair quality audio while you read, it's there, but don't expect much from it as an audio player.

It currently only supports MP3 files that you manually copy over via USB, and again, it only ships with 180 MB of free space. It also only plays back songs in random order. There's no playback controls and no way to select a specific song to listen to while you read something else. The Kindle also can't yet play back standard MPEG AAC, the format iTunes uses to rip CDs by default; the Sony Reader and other modern audio players can. If you use iTunes, as most people who use audio on computers do, you might find that you don't have as many MP3s as you might think.

I did a search on my laptop for an MP3 to test, and all Spotlight unearthed was a bizarre test file hidden in "ringtone samples" that shipped with Adobe GoLive CS2. It sounded like Erasure yodeling. Please don't look this file up, and certainly don't play it on your system, or you'll be scarred for days with the kind of terminally catchy, candy bells CGI sound that is so hard to purge from playing inside your head once you've heard it. You have been warned.

In any event, the Kindle's inability to play AAC means you might not have much music to copy to it unless you purposely transcode it back to the older MP3 format. Inability to play AAC is probably not a huge problem for the Kindle, as its not much of an audio player anyway. The fact that Amazon has launched a parallel effort in selling DRM-free audio in the old MP3 format might also play into why Kindle doesn't support the newer and less restricted AAC format.

Amazon vs Open Formats

Amazon seems to be intentionally limiting the Kindle from playing back popular open formats—including PDF, rich text, and AAC music and podcasts—that might compete against what it hopes to sell to Kindle users itself. These limitations might be explained away as efforts to ship the Kindle; Amazon might likely expand the supported file types in the future.

Nobody should expect the Kindle to play back rival DRM-encrypted ebook formats from Sony, Microsoft, and Adobe, but it is bizarre that Amazon isn't even supporting its own Mobipocket DRM format, which works on various other systems. That sure makes it look like Amazon hopes to own a closed system for ebooks that prevents users from using Kindle DRM files anywhere else but the Kindle itself.

In addition to the Mobipocket Reader software for PDAs and smartphones, there is also a variety of competing ebook devices that handle commercial content in the Mobipocket DRM format. By not supporting this on the Kindle, Amazon is signaling what appears to be an intent to abandon existing Mobipocket devices such as the Bookeen Cybook and the iLiad, made by Philips spinoff iRex.

Imagine if Apple had—after establishing iTunes in the market—released the iPod as a new device didn't play either MP3 or FairPlay music sold in the iTunes Store, but rather introduced a new format that could only play on the iPod itself, and expected everyone to repurchase their music in FairPlay II. This would have resulted in a blogger Armageddon. It will be interesting to see if Amazon licenses its new Kindle DRM format for use on these other systems, which largely serve markets outside the US. Regional book licensing agreements may also play a factor in complicating how Amazon can distribute its ebooks. Kindle sales are currently limited to the US, just as Apple's iTunes sales were at its launch.

The situation with Amazon differs from iTunes in that Apple is primarily a hardware company; it opened the iTunes Store in order to ensure that commercial content would remain available for the iPod at a time when Microsoft posed an overwhelming threat to competition in media with PlaysForSure and Windows Media, as described in Universal vs Apple in the iTunes Store Contracts. Amazon is the direct opposite: a content retailer entering the hardware business in order to drive sales of its content in a way that existing hardware makers can't compete against or participate in.

Kindle Readability

Realistically, most users in the Kindle's target audience won't be fretting over open standards and interoperability, but will look primarily at whether the ebook reader works as advertised. Is the Kindle practical as a reading device? It certainly is, but how useable it is depends a lot upon what you want to use it for.

Like a diesel engine, the E Ink technology in the Kindle is best suited to readers who want to plow through long hauls of sustained reading. Reading full length books are its strongest point, magazines are also quite practical, but newspaper articles lie on the edge of suitability. The more you plan to read content out of order, skip between sections, and scan over short articles, the less practical the Kindle becomes, largely because of the slow display technology. Each page turn on any E Ink system involves a brief flash that repaints the display. If you're reading a book, this pause isn't any more of a problem than flipping a page, and feels quite natural after a while.

However, while I like the idea of reading newspapers digitally rather than waiting for the delivery of a dead tree version, the Kindle rapidly bogs down when reading news. Its navigation design is about as good as once could hope for, but the page turning delay at every navigation, every skip, and every skim over a headline and section can quickly become frustratingly slow.

A Real Page Turner

It's also too easy to go back when you intended to go forward, as a Next Page button lies along most of the right edge, and also along the lower left edge. The Previous Page button is on the top left. The Back button on the lower right commonly goes back a page as well, unless the context suggests to go back some other way, which is often the case (back to a previous heading, for example). This cross positioning of the hair trigger page buttons frequently led to my hitting the wrong thing, either by targeting the wrong one by mistake, or accidently bumping an edge when i had no plans to leave the current page at all.

The result is a pause and an unexpected page turn, which requires first deducing which direction you actually went and then deciding how to get back to where you intended to be. When that happens, the page flash refresh pause is far more distracting, particularly if you hit the wrong button again. There's no animation suggesting which way the page turned, so its easy to get lost as to what's happening when a page refreshes unexpectedly.

The Kindle also redraws the page twice in a row on occasion, with a delay between the two. This happens in particular when loading graphics; one refresh gives you the text, a second redraws the page with full graphics. When that happens, its easy to be left wondering if you're still on the correct page or if you've accidently triggered a page turn and need to be somewhere else.

The Kindle's Experimental Periphery: iPhone Territory

Once you stop reading long passages and begin skipping through content and rapidly navigating around, you reach the line between where the Kindle falls apart and the iPhone takes off. While the Kindle offers a longer battery life and a larger reading area more suited to extended reading sessions, the iPhone's direct contact interface, immediate zoom and instant scrolling simply leaves the Kindle gasping to keep up in tasks outside of the Kindle's dedicated reading niche.

If you want to read books and periodicals straight through, the Kindle should suit you well. If you want to browse newspapers and use the web, Kindle's E Ink technology makes it at best a third rate alternative; it works acceptably in a pinch if you're reading long passages of text on the web, but it is nearly worthless for general purpose web browsing, despite its fast 3G Internet connection. Unlike a PC browser, the weakest link for the Kindle isn't connection speed but its slow display, which makes navigation a delicate affair that can be undone with a single accidental tap on the Back button.

Sometimes, back means go back a page; other times it returns you to the main menu, which is particularly annoying if you are in a web page. It forces you to navigate to the Experimental menu, look up the web site, and then find your place again, with each step plagued by a series of slow page turns. This kind of thing makes using the Kindle web browser about as frustratingly challenging as building a house of cards on a lazy susan in a small room with a kitten and a puppy, during an earthquake.

It also highlights why Apple didn't wait for 3G data service on the iPhone. Browsing the web using EDGE on the iPhone is faster, more efficient, and far more enjoyable than the 3G Kindle, simply because the iPhone's Safari web browser is speedy and so much easier to use. EVDO also has a dramatic impact on battery life, sucking down a week's worth of battery life in less than two days, whether you're actively using wireless services or not.

In Kindle's Advanced mode of the web browser, the page layout of a variety of common websites—including Wikipedia, oddly enough—is rendered unusable because many sites assume users have at least a 1024x768 display. On those sites, text wraps beyond the edge of the screen, and there's no way to scroll over horizontally to read it. Switching into Basic web mode (which is the default), I could at least read the full text of Wikipedia, blogs, and other sites, although the formatting was scraped away in a way that was distracting. Common punctuation was missing, including dashes and quotation marks, and subheadings that were supposed to be in bold were not. The inability to scroll while browsing the web is a major handicap. Looking at the web one page screen at a time feels like a trip back to 1995, browsing the web via Lynx on a command line terminal.

As noted above in the comparison to reading documents on a device like the iPhone, despite having less resolution than the Kindle, the iPhone easily shows more content on the screen in its web browser (below, with the Kindle browser in Advanced mode). Its Safari web browser can pan around or zoom out to view the entire page as it was intended for a larger screen. The Kindle is set frozen in a 800x600 page view with one font of text, no ability to scroll horizontally, and can only navigate one page at a time vertically.

Amazon Kindle


The default font size for the web browser is set by default in the middle (setting 3 of 6), which roughly matches the smallest size (setting 1 of 6) of text when reading ebooks (which is the default setting for documents). While you can adjust the web browser font smaller than 3, doing so makes the text on most websites illegible. At setting 1, the letters are about the same size as the iPhone when zoomed in to a similar scale (above), but kerning and letter forms on the Kindle degrade rapidly at small sizes in the browser, either because of inherent limitations of the E Ink display or Kindle's limited font smoothing software. Which ever is the case, it makes the first two size settings impractical. When reading ebooks, all of the text sizes are very readable.

Another problem with the Kindle browser is that graphics can frequently fall on the edge of two rendered pages, making them difficult to view. There's no way to repaginate the web on the Kindle apart from fiddling with the text size, which involves three slow page redraws as you navigate through the text size menus. The four shades of grey also leave a lot to be desired when viewing the web.

The limited nature of the web experience explains why Amazon charges a nominal monthly fee for "reading blogs," a service that delivers content from a variety of internet sites in a format similar to a periodical. While you can enter the Experimental menu and try out the web browser for free, some might want to pay to not have to struggle with the troublesome browser. Realistically, as long as the Kindle uses an E Ink display, web browsing is not going to improve dramatically. Most of the painful experience of web browsing relates directly to the screen technology, and there's little Amazon can do to dramatically improve things with software browser improvements.

On page 5 of 5: Also Filed Under Experimental: NowNow; A Calamitous Keyboard; Searching for the Words; Room for Improvement; Love It and Hate It; Will the Kindle Catch Fire?; and Rating.