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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?


Also Filed Under Experimental: NowNow

The Kindle's limited MP3 playback features are also filed under the Experimental menu, along with an answer service that sends automated search results to natural language questions you enter. Called NowNow, the free service gives you "up to three" answers to questions you type, "usually within ten minutes."

No, the three answers aren't yes, no, and maybe. I asked it "how does the Kindle compare with Sony Reader" and received three replies within a couple minutes, two of which cited Gizmodo blog postings, and a third referenced an enthusiastic endorsement of the Kindle by another blogger who gushed about its advertised features but admitted she hadn't actually received it yet. Somewhat ironically, she also apologetically praised its unrealized potential by noting that "future versions show promise (much like the Zune)."

Unlike the Zune, the Kindle is actually a pretty good product right now for the role it was intended, and Amazon has carefully danced around all of the pitfalls described in Why Microsoft’s Zune is Still Failing. It compares well against leading ebook readers, doesn't push expiring DRM subscriptions, and offers wireless features that sap the battery but actually do very useful things. While it's not sharp looking, the Kindle is at least functional and makes the most of its limited scope technologies.

NowNow also asked me to rate the answers it sent me as great, good, insufficient, or junk ("off topic or inappropriate"). I also received the answers from NowNow on my computer via email. Of the other questions I asked, some answers sounded like customer support replies based on bulletin board posts based on Wikipedia articles based on blog entries: informal, unauthoritative, and representative of the fact that a lot of people have spare time on their hands to copy and paste text around. Is Amazon harnessing this idle volunteer workforce, or just faking it with smart algorithms? It wasn't obvious whether NowNow is completely automated, tied into Amazon's Mechanical Turk, run by dedicated staff, or some hybrid of all those things.

Amazon has been working to muscle its way into search since starting the A9.com search engine several years ago. Through early 2006, A9 had been powered by Google. Amazon then partnered with Microsoft's Live search. Late last year, A9 downsized and discontinued more of its services. Curiously, when I asked A9 the same question I'd asked NowNow, I got entirely different answers, and Gizmodo wasn't even in the top ten.

When I asked A9 about NowNow I found out that Amazon also offers the same NowNow service online, although it is currently limited to a private beta. It appears that NowNow may eventually replace Amazon's marginal A9 search efforts. NowNow is currently only available to the general public from the Kindle.

A Calamitous Keyboard

Typing in queries brings us to the Kindle keyboard. It has the same "real" mini keys that smartphone pundits like to recommend over the iPhone's touch interface, although the Kindle keys have more spacing and are larger and easier to hit than most mobiles' keyboards. The keys themselves cover an area about as large as the iPhone's screen itself. The keyboard is extremely horrible to a degree that's hard to overstate.

Entering long passages of text isn't a strong point of the iPhone either, but it easily outclasses any text input features of the Kindle. This tends to make any Kindle features that require any text entry borderline impractical. While it's easy to select pages as clippings or bookmark them, don't expect to enjoy annotating passages in your ebooks. Entering text on the Kindle is about as silly as editing Office documents on a tiny key cell phone without a touchscreen.

Sony's Reader dropped its keyboard for the US market, apparently assuming that text notations were impractical for ebook reader users. While it's really not very practical to type in notes, it is important to have some mechanism for entering text, even if the keyboard is absolutely dreadful to use. Amplifying the really bad physical design of the Kindle keyboard is the slow display, which can't refresh fast enough to keep up with even the slowest typing.

That makes it impossible to see what's begin entered as you enter text quickly, and by "quickly" I mean getting in four characters between the slow page redraws. The keys themselves are fiddly chicklet things that require a significant press and make a plastic snap sound as you hit them. It's an experience comparable to clacking out text with an tape label embosser. Don't expect to be writing emails, entering web comments, or jotting significant notes in your books. They keyboard is really that bad.

Searching for the Words

The keyboard does comes in handy for entering short bits of text, such as when searching local content, searching the online store, asking short questions of NowNow, or searching Wikipedia. That last feature, which is a free part of the Kindle package, is slightly more useful than general web browsing, but is still hampered by the single page navigation limitations of the display.

Another built in search feature that can be handy is the lookup of dictionary definitions for words in any text. From any document, you can select a line of text using the scroll wheel navigation track and then chose Lookup from the menu that appears. You are presented with definitions for every major word on that line (below). This works pretty well, although again it involves a series of slow page turning delays. At least it doesn't require using the keyboard.

Amazon Kindle


Room for Improvement

It's useful to look at the Kindle as more than just an oddly shaped, awkwardly designed bit of hardware. It's also a limited use, specialized computer so Amazon will be able to roll out software updates that offer additional features. One thing that would be nice is built in activation for Audible DRM, even if the Kindle isn't that ideal of an Audible client. Amazon could also add the ability to order other items from its online store.

Amazon won't be able to significantly improve upon its slow E Ink display or tragic keyboard with software updates, but expect the company to revisit the Kindle design in a year or so with better hardware features: a less worthless keyboard would be nice, a faster display might make a slight improvement, and a more attractive form factor would broaden its appeal.

Don't dream that a dedicated E Ink book reader like the Kindle will make a good web browser any time in the next several years, however. E Ink technology isn't really morphing towards an LCD replacement, but instead is getting thinner and more flexible. Refresh update speeds are getting better, but it would have to dramatically improve in order to edge around the problems plaguing the Kindle's web browser.

Beyond the Kindle unit itself, there's a huge amount of promise associated with Amazon's overall strategy to make content available digitally, particularly if Amazon opens up its ebook format to work on other devices. As a content retailer, Amazon seems better suited to selling content that works anywhere rather than trying to exclusively push its own hardware. Amazon isn't Apple; it's making money on content. Establishing a common ebook format would likely sell content faster than limiting it exclusively to a junior engineered reader unit. For that reason, its puzzling why Amazon didn't simply repurpose its existing Mobipocket format.

Love It and Hate It

Unlike a lot of other consumer electronics devices, the Kindle isn't a love it or hate it device; it's a bit of both. The Kindle's E Ink display, which is nearly identical to every other ebook reader because there's only one company that manufacturers them, is both efficiently readable and frustratingly slow. It makes it possible to closely emulate the printed page, but at the same time also hampers the unit's potential as a web client or really anything else but a dedicated ebook reader.

Amazon couldn't do a lot toward improving the ebook experience with hardware technology, so it tied in its real expertise: an online retail store that serves up fresh content. Next to the iPhone, that makes the Kindle among the first practical applications of the networked thin client devices that were talked about a decade ago but didn't immediately materialize. It's also a harbinger of other devices that make use of the existing mobile data networks without requiring an expensive contract.

How is it that Sprint is agreeing to offer data service for the Kindle without the typical $40 EVDO data service contract typically required of smartphones? Well for one thing, the Kindle is slow enough that users couldn't possibly drag down any significant amount of web traffic even if they tried. There's no way to tether the device to relay its EVDO data connection to a computer (although that would make an excellent hack). It appears Amazon pays Sprint a commission on content sales, allowing Sprint to make enough to cover the trivial amount of data traffic the Kindle generates.

The hardware itself is cheap and plasticky to the point of being embarrassing to use. It's not so bad hidden away inside the leather cover, but the spectacularly bad keyboard still pokes you in the eye every time you have to enter any text. The limitations of the slow display also painfully yank out your hair with every menu navigation. Bring up a menu and the display slowly repaints a selection of options (below). Pick one and there's another slow refresh of another menu, ad nauseam.

Amazon Kindle


Fortunately, as long as you contain yourself to reading longer passages of text, those glaring flaws fade into the background. Inside the cover, the Kindle does a pretty good imitation of an actual book, and page turns are reasonable enough once you learn to ignore the screen flash. The ability to carry hundreds of books digitally and request new content wirelessly both offer compelling reasons to sign up with the Kindle.

Content seems reasonably priced, particularly since it is both conveniently delivered and backed up for you on the Amazon site in your account. Text searching, word lookup, bookmarks, highlighting, and clippings are all additional good reasons to consider going digital.

There are also some very significant drawbacks. Text annotations are no match for scribbling notes in a book; even if you can bring yourself to type out a note of consequence using the deplorable keyboard, you're still less likely to remember your notes, and you won't be able to mark up a quick doodle in the margin. Its clumsy note taking features makes it very unlikely that—as many pundits have suggested—students will somehow be able to give up their backpack of heavy books for a Kindle anytime soon. Even worse, few of those textbooks are likely to be available in Kindle format.

Will the Kindle Catch Fire?

While the innovative and seemingly well executed Whispernet service is a key feature of the Kindle, don't expect it to serve as a PC or iPhone replacement for browsing the web. It's handy that you can access Wikipedia and web sources from the experimental web browser at all times, but it has nothing on a real web browser with an LCD display that can zoom and scroll and quickly navigate around the page and across pages. The Kindle is a book reader with some other things tacked on, and the closer you stick to reading, the less frustrating your experience will be.

If you love books, the Kindle offers a great way to pack around lots of virtual content and grab new content on an impulse buy. At $400, it's not inexpensive, but it's comparable to other ebook readers that don't offer wireless shopping and downloads. The digital books and periodicals Amazon offers are also significantly more affordable than most ebooks that have been offered before, including Amazon's own Mobipocket catalog. That might play into why Amazon created a new format for the Kindle: to leverage publishers into providing cheaper content using some hype and marketing to generate a larger ebook market than has ever existed before. In that sense, the Kindle strategy does have some similarity with Apple's iTunes Store.

Amazon has a lot riding on the Kindle and is heavily marketing it on its website. Even if the new ebook reader doesn't burn down the house with an iPhone-like fervor among book readers, the Kindle plays into Amazon's retail business strategies in a way that makes it appear very unlikely that Amazon will drop ongoing future development due to an immediate lack of interest. That's a key advantage over Microsoft and Sony, neither of which has made anything from their ebook efforts. Amazon has very little to lose in marketing a digital expansion of its book selling business, and can afford to sustain a progressive rollout over several years.

Rating: 3 of 5
3 Stars


Pros
  • Highly legible text
  • Long battery life
  • Exceptional wireless store for content
  • Fair prices for most content
  • Good selection for an ebook store
  • Experimental web features can be handy in a pinch
  • No extra data plan required
  • Roller wheel navigation mitigates slow display updates
  • Included cover hides most of Kindle's ugly bits
  • Works with lots of free, unprotected Mobipocket ebooks

Cons
  • Very slow E Ink display makes navigation clumsy and slow
  • Cheaply designed keyboard makes text entry unpleasant
  • Won't work with Amazon's own Mobipocket DRM ebooks
  • Doesn't directly support PDF, AAC, rich text, or graphics without conversion
  • Thickish, junior engineered device feels and looks cheap
  • Experimental web browsing features have been oversold
  • Extremely limited audio playback features
  • Requires Windows for Audible authorization


High-quality unboxing photos:

High-quality unboxing photos - AppleInsider.com
Where to buy:

Amazon Kindle - Amazon.com $399