Amazon's Kindle eBook Reader

On Tuesday last week, to much fanfare and extreme skepticism, Amazon launched their Kindle book reader. If you went solely by invective and blog traffic, a casual observer might surmise that Amazon had been handed a monopoly on reading and thus any failure of the device was somehow a personal attack on the intelligentsia, rather than the release of a small niche-market consumer electronics device. Within hours there were hundreds of reviews on Amazon for the device, most extremely critical, yet by definition there were no devices in consumer's hands. Even a week later, the love-hate relationship seems far more fired up with invective than could possibly be justified based on what the device is, and more importantly isn't. Noted tech-wonk Robert Scoble went so far as to switch from baseline praise to mind-wrenching red-faced diatribe calling for unemployment lines at Amazon. Notable author Neil Gaiman managed to get into a well-mannered disagreement about it with large-funny-person Penn Jillette.

All this over a gizmo?

The Kindle is really a dull and simple device designed to do exactly two things: Get stuff you can read, and then make it easy to read it. And yet, all of the discussion seems to be about its digital rights management, and its industrial design.

This DRM debate is endless and in my mind somewhat pointless. The exchange between Penn Jillette and Neil Gaiman on Neil's blog is typical: Penn argues for the pointlessness of DRM and the irrelevance of the product in the face of the joys of a physical paper, Neil points out that the whole DRM thing is a red herring and that the device has substantial benefits over paper. (At the end of the day, Amazon's DRM applies only to books you actually buy - everything else works natively or with minimal hassle.)

So which is it? Sliced bread or failed better mousetrap. Rather than engage in the kind of feature dissection we technophiles live on, I thought I'd just record how this thing has actually fit into the life of my family in the last 7 days.

Day 1: Ooooh, Shiny! And small!

Jess and I take turns poking around on it, trying to figure out what it does in the corners. We get used to holding it. Our first impressions are favorable. It's incredibly light and geek-lust thin. The navigation, through a little scroll-wheel and click, is completely intuitive. The screen essentially is paper, which even in the age of Rock Band seems somehow magical. We download a handful of books and subscribe to a bunch of magazines. We take turns fondling it.

Day 2: I haven't seen it in a day, because Jess downloaded a new release in a hardcover series to which she is addicted. It's 800 pages in print form, about twice that in digital clicks.

"So how do you like it?" I ask.

"It's good. Not as good as the last one, but it made me cry about half way through. They killed off one of the main characters, so I just had to finish it and see how they ..."

"No I mean the Kindle."

She looks puzzled.

"Oh. It's fine I guess," she says, shrugging. "I didn't really think about it. It's nice you can read it with one hand instead of lifting weights with a hardcover."

Day 3 (Thanksgiving): Now that Jess has finished vampire romance novel number 324, I spend some quality time goofing around with the Kindle. It's surprisingly easy to get non-Amazon material on it. I just plug it in to the USB cable which perpetually hangs off the back of my laptop, and it shows up as a hard drive. I drop .txt and .mobi files into the "Book" folder and they show up. I convert a handful of PDFs to .mobi files using Mobi Creator and they work perfect, Tables of Contents and all. Sweet.

Like a set of prayer beads, I take it with me to Thanksgiving dinner, and spend some time reading "The Secret Garden" to my daughter. I quickly see what Jess was talking about. After a few pages I forget I'm just reading a book. Yes, the page "flashes" briefly on page turns (a function of e-ink, not the Kindle per se). But after a few minutes, it ceases to be distracting. The only ongoing perception I have of the device itself is how nice it is not to have to hold it. Sitting curled up on the couch with my daughter, the kindle just rests on my lap, and I tap the "next page" button now and then. When I shift positions, I can just hold it lightly with my left hand by the spine of the cover, and nudge the page button with my thumb.

Day 4: I grab the kindle from my wife's nightstand. Yes, she's still dominating it. I'd bought a few books I'd been meaning to get and she's now decided they're at the top of her reading pile too. Curse Amazon and the "buy it now, get it now" book thing. I can tell it's going to be a constant battle who has Kindle rights.

I head downstairs for morning coffee. The previous night I had subscribed to a bunch of blogs, newspapers and magazines. I try browsing some blogs, and give up. While the idea of reading blogs on the Kindle is a good one, the problem is that most of the blogs I read are as much about linking to web content as they are content in their own right.

The Kindle will load the web pages most of my blogs link to. There's a rudimentary web browser. But it's less than ideal, and absolutely no substitute for a laptop, or even an iPhone. The web functionality is more an emergency backup than a true feature. This doesn't disturb me in the least - it's not supposed to be a portable browser, it's supposed to be a book.

My subscription to "Slate" and "Salon," more traditional internet magazines, is much more rewarding, and I spend an hour reading over coffee and a bagel. Again, the fact that I don't have to hold it is wonderful. It just lies flat in front of me, out of range of Bagel crumbs. Since I have it at some distance, I increase the typeface a notch, and it's comfortable to read at a distance of about 3 feet - way further away than I can read a paper, and while it shows poorly in photographs (like everythign about the Kindle) the text is, in short, gorgeous.

Day 5 AM: The Gym Test. My mom picks me up. Yes, my mom is my gym partner. Instead of my usual random magazine, I put the Kindle on the treadmill rack. Again, I'm delighted to be able to read a book without holding it. It's pretty much impossible for me to hold open a book on the treadmill normally. I'm just not coordinated enough. But lying flat in front of me, I can sweat like crazy and just tap the page once in a while.

Inspired, I crank the typeface all the way up and try actually running. Oh Joy oh Rapture Unforeseen! Yes, I can actually read a book at a full out run. I lose 20 minutes to Larry Niven's new tale of known space with my heart rate over 150. Simply impossible with a paperback, and it fills me with delight.

Day 5 PM: I spend some more time poking at the deeper features. I confirm that you can indeed listen to audio books on it just fine, and it's a miserable, but I suppose functional MP3 player. It's not going to replace your iPod, but for a little Brian Eno background music, it fits the bill. I play around with the Dictionary and the Wikipedia lookup features and they work - nothing fancy, just functional. I spend half an hour poking around the store and, like a jaded lover, discover the first big wart.

Book selection. Just as many early-adopter music services suffered from critical holes in the back catalog, so too the Amazon Kindle. I've been dying to read Into the Wild. It's not available. Thinking this might be a gaffe purely on Amazon's part, I poke around the web and discover it's not available in any eBook format, for the Sony Reader or the Kindle. Another hour shows me holes all over the library, again, not limited to Amazon, but rather limited to the whole idea of eBooks. And while Amazon accurately shows that 100 of the 112 current best-sellers are available, if you're after book 101, you're still heading to the bookstore.

That evening I just read. The Kindle disappears, and I realize how important the design of the book is, and how strongly I disagree with so many web comments about it's supposedly horrendous un-holdability. The instructions for the thing say that it's designed to be used with the cover on (even though all of the marketing shows it with the cover off). Being a weak pawn, I tend to follow directions, and I can confirm that wiith the cover on, it's extremely difficult to accidentally hit any buttons while reading, and the left hand spine becomes a natural handle. The super-matte surfaces of both the screen and the frame make it readable and un-distracting at any angle, in any light. The next page buttons on both sides make it usable in more positions than a normal book, and in no case does it ever require two hands to use.

It is, in short, the most invisible piece of technology I can recall owning. This makes it supremely unsexy, and exactly right.

Day 6: Once again, I wake up early and grab the Kindle from my Jessica's nightstand. The Kindle falls out of the cover and bounces off the floor of the bathroom. Thankfully no damage, and looking at the drop-test video on the Amazon website, I have some hope that my good fortune isn't accidental, but it highlights another wart. The kindle isn't a book, it's a device. It can break. It can out of batteries. It can drown. While a drop into the tub hurts any book, I imagine it ruins an expensive kindle exceptionally well.

No harm done, I descend to the temple of my morning ritual. It's Sunday. So I buy the Sunday New York Times for 75 cents (a bargain for a non-subscriber). While I miss the crossword puzzle and the smell of newsprint, I still get sucked into the Magazine's discussion of Rock Band and a dozen other articles of note. It's completely satisfying.

That's my week with the Kindle.

It's been at least what I expected. Yes, it's expensive, but with Jessica chewing through dozens of hardcover books a year, my payback on $400 will be less than a year. While this cost-justification was part of my purchase-justification, I find it's the subtleties that make me really pleased with it. Short of reading in the tub, the Kindle is easier to read in more places, positions, and situations than a physical book. The simple ability to lie flat or be held comfortably with one hand means I can read for longer, more frequently and with more comfort. And grabbing a book or a newspaper on demand is enough to make any word-geek giddy.

But it's far from perfect. It is expensive. The cover, which I find completely necessary, is in desperate need of more secure attachment (Velcro works great). The book selection is less-than-perfect, although I imagine this will improve with every passing day.

And Amazon needs marketing help. The Kindle's launch reeked of "get it out fast." The big-picture marketing efforts (like video demonstrations and blurb's from authors) we're great, but simple things like communicating how freakin' easy it is to get non-Amazon content on to the device, for free, remain horribly misunderstood.

But in the final analysis, the point of the thing is to be a better book. It does this very well. Everything else is just icing on the cake, which is, in this case, not a lie.



Awesome review. I am glad that Kindle lives up, and even surpasses the practical expectations. Looks like Amazon has actually got it right. Hopefully, this isa start of something big.

Really interesting, Rabbit. My wife loves her Sony e-reader, and i'm tempted to pick up one of these, but i'm wondering how they compare to sony e-reader 2.0. I know Amazon beats sony's store for content, plus the whole wireless thing, that's a big plus for the kindle. But the ergonomics of the thing look a little wonky.

So expensive, but so awesome.
I have alot of ebooks (some just uploaded pdfs) on a portable hard drive and have taken to reading them on my laptop.
I miss the lack of portability.
This sounds like the solution, but it may be too expensive to ask for for Christmas.

That was a pretty good article, and I had actually never heard of anything like sont e-reader or the kindle, but now I'm interested.

One question. For $400 you could get a PS3. Do you think you would enjoy this more or less than a PS3?

jonnypolite, check out It's a site dedicated to ebook readers. Lots of forum discussion and comparision from people that own both the Reader and the Kindle. Myself we have two Sony Readers in our house and I am tempted, but can't justify the cost right now.

I think my son watches 'My Mom is my Gym Partner' on the Cartoon Network.

You didn't mention how fugly the thing is. And do you actually think there is a great need to order a book anytime anywhere? I mean did they really need that keyboard & Sprint 3g? It occurs to me that right now every Amazon customer has a computer and waits days for their books to arrive. Has every Amazon customer wondered why they couldn't order books on a 4" screen with a hunt and peck keyboard without being tethered to a pc while on the subway? I think the device would be better off sans keyboard and 3g and just go USB into your pc. Keyboard and 3g are overkill for something like this. You'd get much better looking and no doubt cheaper device.

Another downside you indirectly hinted at is that you can't read the Kindle if your wife is. You can't share the newspaper sections and you can't be reading 'Othello' while your wife reads 'Vampire Tales from the Crypt.' It sounds like you need to cough up another $400. That's a criticism I have of a device like this at this time. I realize other devices aren't immune to this. I suppose it's mostly due to price, but other questions remain. If I do get 2 Kindles can I share content between them?

Also New York Times is free on the internet. Why do I have to pay for it on the Kindle? I don't even get color. Do I get photos? It doesn't sound like it. IT sounds like a RSS feed of sorts. Correct me if I'm wrong.

I guess my problem with the device doesn't have alot to do with the device itself per se other than the looks. SEe I don't really want a partial substitute for paper. I would want to make the switch 100%. And right now I see a few problems holding me back.

First the units are too expensive. $400 maybe the early adopter in me would crawl out. Maybe. ....but really I would need 2 Kindles for my family at this time. $800 is too much.

2nd, the content isn't there. I'm sure over time more and more content will become available in a format like this, but right now I'd still have to rely on paper magazines, books and newspapers. I want to make the full switch.

3rd, content pricing is too much. $14/month for NYT subscription or read free on the internet? It's pricing like this that drives me batty. Same with many of the book prices which are in some cases more expensive than having Amazon ship you a paperback copy.

4th, sharing of content in a household. CAn I do it? Have they thought this out yet? Let me know when they do.

5th, publishers are all big on digital rights management etc and yet they could care less if I bought the book before or not. They are more than happy to sell you the same book twice. It's a 2-way street and they should recognize this. It's probably impractical to bring boxes of books to a counter in order to get a credit towards digital copies, but could they recognize this in some other way? AT least they could price their digital content more appropriately to the cost savings they are reaping from going digital. And dole out some free books in recognition that 100% of your consumers will be buying at least a few books they have previously bought in paper.

But one of the biggest flaws is practically highlighted throughout your review and yet never pointed out as the significant negative factor that it is... and it gets back to the issues highlighted in one of the links provided to Gaiman by Jilette:

John Gruber wrote:

So the Kindle proposition is this: You pay for downloadable books that can't be printed, can't be shared, and can't be displayed on any device other than Amazon's own $400 reader "” and whether they're readable at all in the future is solely at Amazon's discretion. That's no way to build a library.

Emphasis mine. If you'd had the physical books, you wouldn't have to wait for your wife to finish her reading so that you could do some of your own.

Some might counter that the solution would be "his and hers" Kindles but the issue remains - you can't share a "book" and if you wanted to read something from "her" library, she'd have no alternative but to read one from yours.

Honestly, though, the solution is simple, in concept - allow rights transfer. Since Amazon continues to manage the rights centrally, it's unlikely to be susceptible to much pirating. If I can "loan" you an ebook the same way I can a paperback, I'd bet that most (but not all) of the DRM arguments lose a lot of steam. Speaking of steam, Steam might even be a decent model for a proof of concept. (Honestly, I've barely ever used it but I was able to transfer rights to a copy of Half Life 2 that a friend gave me.) Of course, I don't expect this to happen... but I think it should.

Edit: It looks like trip1eX was typing at the same time. To hit on one point he brought up, I suspect that the instant gratification of wireless connectivity will sell alot more books for them. In today's society, the "impulse buy" is strong....

This device needs different content and a bigger infrastructure to support it; at an airport walk past a bookshop and download kindle books using micro payments, for instance. Avid readers (and writers) getting enthused about the Kindle is fine, but I'm more interested to see how average people take to it. If it can change their reading habits, if it can turn books into impulse purchases, like music CDs in super markets, then it could do very well quite quickly. HOwever books require a psychological and temporal investment that CDs don't.

This is the first time I've heard of this thing. It sounds really nifty, but I just don't get the price.

Here is a comparison between the Sony Reader and the Kindle.

Image of the two side by side.

Another limitation of the Kindle would be that it doesn't work outside the Sprint 3G network. So try using it if you travel overseas. There you are stuck in Japan or Singapore or wherever and you can't use it. Or is there a way around that I don't see?

Oh and here is a 3rd e-reader book thingy. Bookeen Cybook

Is the wireless technology the main factor of the price? The "Anywhere" thing they're promoting doesn't come with any asterisk?

Why does it have to be a good product? I was fine with just ignoring this and waiting for something better to come out. Here's another $400 I'll be spending.

iTunes style "5 authorised computers" sharing would solve the "share a book with your wife" problem - allow 2 or 3 Kindles to be authorised to read a book at once. But I guess locking down the content is more important than actually making the system attractive to customers.

Some follow up:

- Zelos et. al.: I believe you can link up to 5 kindles to the same account, meaning yes, you can share content with your family members. You can't selectively say "share this book with my friends kindle over on his account." It's tied to your Amazon account. The fact that they don't tell people this right up front in the marketing is part of their endemic problems presenting it on the web.

- The "I need two" thing is quite real.

- It's not a particularly useful way to read the daily newspaper, and it's expensive. The ability to buy one copy for 75 cents is actually much more appealing to me than buying a subscription. I'll continue to get a paper Wall St. Journal.

- It's actually not ugly in person. It's essentially impossible for me to convince anyone of this, because it looks like ass in pictures.

- It is expensive. It's about 50-100 bucks more than comparable systems, when you start poking around, and yeah, I'd bet that's wireless right there.

- It's clearly designed with travelers in mind, not just avid readers, so the wireless does make sense. Yes, they could just use it through a PC, but its actually quite pleasant not to, and while Slate and Salon are currently the only things I'm getting pushed regularly, the system has tremendous potential. It's certainly not designed to replace a laptop in any way, so the whole "isn't the times free on the web" thing is 100 percent accurate but also irrelevant. If I'm sitting with my laptop open, I'm not going to use this.

- I got a PS3 about when I got the Kindle . I have already used the Kindle more. The Kindle will likely get 2-3 hours of use every single evening in this house. Unless there's some game I get horrendously addicted to, I don't think the PS3 will eat up that kind of time, and certainly not over the long haul.

- The content library isn't perfect, to be sure, and periodicals pricing clearly reflects that they're paying sprint by the bit, which is too bad. But I have no issues with the book pricing at all. Everything I've looked at or purchased has been less than the paper price, especially hardcovers. If you wait until things are marked down or used paperback, this thing is totally not targeted at you. It's squarely targeted at hardcover readers. If you aren't used to reading a book as soon as it comes out and paying more than $20 for it, you're for sure not going to drop $400 on a gizmo that lets you buy it instantly for $10.

I certainly don't think this is a panacea. I just think it does exactly what it says it does.

I still lament the day when eventually i wont be able to put an actual physical book in my library. It's not like music where you can move your existing library to storage/player device.

Like the Zune, no Canadian love.

rabbit wrote:

- It is expensive. It's about 50-100 bucks more than comparable systems, when you start poking around, and yeah, I'd bet that's wireless right there.

It's $270 more than the eBook I'm currently using.

Lester: Interesting gizmo. Can you get decent book selection on it?

Lester_King wrote:

It's $270 more than the eBook I'm currently using.

That's a standard LCD, not eInk though, right?

I still lament the day when eventually i wont be able to put an actual physical book in my library. It's not like music where you can move your existing library to storage/player device.

I long since stopped lamenting the day when I've put a new CD into on of my several CD towers for the last time. Is there anything wrong with me?

I'm nearly sold. Even considering that I already own a Sony Reader. It fixes almost every issue I have with my Sony (speed, selection, annotation, .mobi support) and is targeted directly at my demographic.

I still think I'd rather have one without wireless for a bit less.

Q1 2008 is going to be expensive for me...

Larry Niven link takes me to a casino

Thanks Shidarin. No idea how the heck that happened.

You missed the point on the NYTimes being free on the net. The point is they aren't going to attract me to their device with $14/month newspaper subscriptions when I can read them for free on the computer. I'd probably rather kick back on the couch and read them on a device like the Kindle, but by asking $14/month for it I'm not going to do it. They giveth then they taketh away.

The pricing is bad. Realize these guys want to get as much as money from you as possible. Consider this their first offer. I wouldn't bite on it. I'd hold out for a better deal just like you do when you're buying a car. Amazon's model also is built on selling you old content because the old content is all priced as high as the paper content. They make no money on the new releases or current best sellers. I don't see this as sustainable which means they are trying to get you into this thing and will in the future raise prices to a more sustainable level.

Much of this is the publisher's fault. I'm sure the publishers are not giving much of a break on wholesale costs of digital copies to Amazon compared to paper copies. I mean see videogames for the same scenario. Digital downloads are priced as high as B&M shelf product in the videogame world mainly to protect the retailers and because videogame publishers want to increase their profit margins during the transition to digital product.

rabbit wrote:

Thanks Shidarin. No idea how the heck that happened to go to a casino which has been quietly paying me under the table.

Uh huh. We're on to you.

Great write up on an interesting product.

I was digging around for one specific piece of info but I couldn't find it. I understand that it works well outside in direct sunlight (awesome) but what about LOW LIGHT conditions? Can this thing be read in the dark? If my wife is asleep I'd love to be able to grab this thing and read it without having to get up and go to another room.

I want one, but $400 beans is out of my budget right now. I think it would be awesome, and I could honestly lose the wireless to save a couple of hundred bucks. at $199 I think it would fly off the shelves.

Content input visa USB would be fine. Load and go. It holds like 200 books, so if you load it, you should have plenty to read. As an ancillary to the Sprint 3G paying by the bit observation by Rabbit, I would appreciate it if the NY times for instance let me upload the NYT content via USB for free and only charge the $0.75 when I used the Sprint network. I also agree that the iTunes authorization model would be a winner to share outside of your amazon account to your friends.

Lastly, its all about marketing where are the nifty iPod Nano colors?

Nice write-up. It made me realize another thing, I could do a lot of my school reading on it. I'm in the LSU distance learning program for library science (that way I get to stay in New Orleans, score) and a lot of my assigned reading is in the form of pdfs. I've been printing them out (which means a lot of paper and toner) because I despise on-screen reading, but if I converted them for the Kindle I could potentially pay for the device in a couple semesters. Not to mention the space it would save me in my backpack.

About the protected content, is there any way to drag and drop the Amazon books from your Kindle, drm'ed or otherwise? Back it up on a flash drive let's say?

Aaron D. wrote:

Great write up on an interesting product.

I was digging around for one specific piece of info but I couldn't find it. I understand that it works well outside in direct sunlight (awesome) but what about LOW LIGHT conditions? Can this thing be read in the dark? If my wife is asleep I'd love to be able to grab this thing and read it without having to get up and go to another room.

I'd say definitely not in the dark even though I don't have one yet. It's not backlit.

Trip1eX: Not trying to sell you on one, and I don' think the newspaper subscription thing really works either. It's a ludicrous amount of money to get the times, although I think being able to buy one issue when you're stuck on the tarmac isn't a bad thing.

As for books: I just don't see how the pricing is bad. Book pricing will always be more than the library (free). Until now, eBooks cost, in general, at least as much if not more than buying the paper version. Until last week, it cost $13 to get a best seller hardcover for the Sony reader. This week it's 30% cheaper. I don't see how this is a "first offer" from a publisher's perspective. The critical price point is "cheaper than paper" which, for the most part, it finally is. The last hardcover I bought was "Making Money" by Terry Pratchet.

List: $25.95
I paid: $21
Audiobook: $21
Online Price: $17
Kindle: $10
Local (small) Library: Free, but 1 copy and there's *always* a waitlist for new books

How this is hoser pricing I don't see. If you wanted the physical book, obviously $17 is the way to go. $7 seems like a decent premium for the paper. Would I rather it was $9, or $4, or that they paid me to read? Sure. But this crossed the critical "does it pay for itself before I see it going obsolescent" test. Obviously for you it doesn't.

I also don't get your comment about "old books" - this is how the book industry in general works. Back catalog paperbacks at Borders sell for cover price minus whatever store discount applies to everything. Amazon doesn't work by some magical inversion of the pricing process - they've just got buying power like any big-box. I think it's unrealistic to imagine that they will somehow go from charging about a buck less for a paperback to a buck more in the next year.

I remembered another question. What about illustrations? If you're reading a book to your child, do you miss out on that moment where you turn the book around and show them Max dancing around on monster island in "Where the Wild Things Are"?

Also, love it or hate it, I think the "0 results" on an eBay search speaks volumes about how happy the people who own them are.