Kindle Revisited: A love-hate relationship
A Kindle 3G has been part of my armoury for nearly a year and I have developed a love-hate relationship with it. Most of the time, especially when I’m reading a book in good light, I love it. But I hate the non-touch screen and the ponderous 1980-style navigation. I loathe the keyboard, which takes up far too much space and is prone to inadvertent pressure (especially on the “back” key in the bottom right-hand corner which you press at your peril while reading).
With a new back-lit colour Kindle just around the corner, it’s a good time to look again at the popular e-ink device that has defined ebook reading. The Kindle was the first and has been the most successful of all the dedicated readers. Although the Kindle is a one-trick pony compared with an iPad, it is cheap, light, easy to handle and has a great screen. The lifetime 3G connection in over 100 countries, which comes free when you buy the cellular version, is a superb bargain and makes book selection and purchase a breeze.
The Kindle ecosystem is superb but it is merely incidental when choosing the Kindle reader. You can enjoy the Kindle system on most tablets, smartphones and computers—including iPhone, iPad and Mac—so buying the Kindle reader doesn’t offer anything unique. You buy the Kindle because you want a cheap, light, dedicated device with an e-ink screen. If you have almost any other portable device you will probably be just as happy reading your books via the Kindle application.
Over the past couple of years there has been a big divide in the e-book world between e-ink fans and those who prefer a backlit screen. E-inkers claim the high moral ground because the screen most closely resembles the printed page. Fans are convinced that the non-backlit screen is easier on the eye than backlit screens such as those on the iPad or iPhone. There is truth on both sides. But I happily change every day between my Kindle and my iOS devices without any feeling of deprivation. The e-ink screen excels in normal or very bright lighting conditions, where the contrast is great. On the beach it is definitely the screen of choice. Yet in many everyday circumstances the e-ink screen is unsatisfactory.
If it is too dark to read a book it’s too dark to see a Kindle screen. At night or in gloomy conditions you need an external light source, just as you do with the printed page. Often, though, I find myself in conditions where the ambient lighting is too low for reading (in some restaurants for instance) and it is then a struggle to read on the Kindle.
Conversely, it is in such conditions (and more or less in all conditions short of very bight sunlight) that the backlit screen is superb. I guarantee that an iPad or even an iPhone is readable more of the time than is the non-lit Kindle screen. Only in very strong daylight is reading an iPad screen a strain. The backlighting isn’t strong enough to cope with direct sunlight. Inevitably, though, in some such circumstances reflection is a problem, although this can be cured easily by adding a non-reflective plastic coating to the screen.
E-ink afficionadoes often complain that a backlit screen is too bright and is a strain on the eyes. The answer to this is simple: Turn down the brightness. I vary the brightness all the time depending on the amount of ambient light and it works well. I never seem to get eye strain with the iPhone or iPad and, frankly, the only time I do have to strain is when using the Kindle screen in less-than-ideal conditions. I do wear glasses but I seem to be able to use all three of my devices without many problems.
The simple fact is that if you want to be able to read in any conditions you need to pack both a Kindle and a backlit device such as the iPad. Fortunately, this is a very practical solution because of Amazon’s excellent Whispersync which keeps all your devices page perfect. Provided you have your wireless switched on, of course.
This brings me to battery life. On paper, the Kindle is a clear winner here. Amazon claim the device can last up to two months with the wireless switched off. I don’t know where they get this figure from, but I suspect it involves very few page turns, therefore very little reading. It has doubled in a few months from a “one month” life, presumably to meet competition from other vendors. My experience is that with the wireless turned off I get about two weeks’ use. With the wireless on, the battery life is down to a few days.
This is all well and good if you use only a Kindle. But if you want to take advantage of the Kindle ecosystem and read your books on other devices, believe me you need to keep that wireless switched on. Otherwise, you will soon lose patience when you’ve left your Kindle at home and your iPhone doesn’t know what page you are up to.
Long battery life sounds like A Very Good Idea, especially if you are living in a tent in deepest Patagonia with no means of recharge. In the real world, though, it is something of a curse. You forget to charge the Kindle regularly and, most times, the battery will just die on you at the least convenient time. With a backlit tablet or smartphone you plug it in every evening and start the day with a full battery. It works well because it’s a routine.
Having an extended battery life, with no clear routine for recharging, results in pain. I have never run out of power on my iPad or iPhone because I charge them daily. But I have been left high and dry on numerous occasions when using the Kindle.
I mentioned the abysmal navigation on the Kindle. Selecting text is a laborious up-down, left-right joystick affair that drives me to distraction. Especially when I compare it with the instant gratification of stabbing the iPhone or iPad screen when running the Kindle app. There’s just no comparison and, frankly, I hardly ever feel motivated to look up a word or perform any other task on the Kindle screen. In contrast, I have a fully interactive relationship with the Kindle applications on my iOS devices. If you want to do anything other than read, turn page, read on a Kindle you’d better get reused to MS-DOS circa 1985.
Then there is the keyboard, a particularly useless and imprecise means of input. It’s necessary, of course, because there has to be a means of text input and there is no touch screen to offer a virtual keyboard. The physical keyboard, which I use infrequently, takes up a good 20 percent of the front of the Kindle, meaning the device has to be bigger than it ought to be. Compare the Kindle with a touchscreen reader such as the Sony where the screen occupies a much bigger percentage of the device.
As with most physical keyboards, inadvertant key pressure can have unpredictable results. I remember my old HP iPaq phone/organiser which once made 87 overseas calls while I had it safely stashed in a pannier of my BMW motorcycle. The redial button was being prodded continually because of the vibration of the bike and the result was an eye-watering bill from Vodafone. This won’t happen on the Kindle, of course, but the “back” button, all exposed as it is at the bottom righthand corner of the device, will cause you grief. If this button is pressed by mistake your book will regress. And the more the key is pressed, the more you regress, never to find your place again without manual intervention. It’s frustrating and I hate that keyboard with a passion.
The new Kindle, with its Android OS and multi-touch screen will suffer no such problems. It will be just like an iPad with its virtual keyboard, easy navigation and instant look-up of words in the dictionary. In fact it will be so much like an iPad that I’d probably just buy an iPad.
The Kindle does have one feature that until recently was unique: Collections. These are folders where you can classify your library. I normally use three: Finished, Reference (dictionaries, manuals) and On Hold (books I’ve started but can’t get into). On the Kindle reader you can create and manage collections and it is far better than simply deleting finished books from the device. By delete, however, I mean just from the device. All your purchases remain on Amazon’s cloud and can be re-downloaded on demand.
Collections, then, is a very useful feature that has been missing from Kindle applications for other devices. On the iPhone and iPad, for instance, you cannot create or manage collections. All you have is the option to delete finished books in order to avoid clutter.
The good news is that the latest Kindle application for OS X does include connections, with the ability to import collections from other devices. I hope that the next versions of the iOS apps include this feature.
Most readers will be familiar with the Kindle ecosystem and, probably, read Amazon books on a number of different platforms. Anyone new to ebooks might wonder how the system works and why it is important. As a system of selecting, buying and sycnchronising your purchases over different devices, the Kindle system is by far the best in the book world.
Other ereaders have required you to download and store your books on a computer and then transfer them to a device such as the Sony Reader. In most cases you are then restricted to reading on that particular device. Don’t want to carry it with you today? Nothing to read.
With the Kindle system every book you buy is stored on Amazon’s Kindle cloud. In effect, you have a permanent link to the master file and, in theory, any updates (such as spelling corrections) will be reflected in your version. The beauty of this is that Amazon doesn’t need to store your books, just a simple link to the master. When you buy a book you get permanent access to the file. You can download it to any of your devices (where it is stored in memory) but you can also delete it from a device without actually losing it.
The system remembers all your toys, your Mac, your iPhone, your iPad, your Android tablet and, of course, your Kindle reader. You can manage these devices on the Amazon web site. When you buy a book from the Kindle bookstore you are given the option of downloading immediately to one of your devices. You can choose, and usually you choose the one you are using at the time. For insance, if you buy a book while lying on the beach you’ll probably have it sent to your Kindle reader. Later you can download it to your iPhone or iPad.
All the Kindle applications on various devices give you immediate access to your “Library”, a list of all the books you have purchased. You can download as many as you like to any of your devices. After finishing reading you are able to delete them to avoid clutter without losing access to the master in your library at Amazon.
The Kindle system depends on a cloud synchronisation system which Amazon call Whispersync. This ensures that your current page and any highlights or notes you have made will be synchronised across all your devices. So, for instance, you can be reading at home on your iPad, close the Kindle app and then walk out of the house with your iPhone in your pocket. When you get on the bus, pull out the iPhone, open the Kindle app and your book will be at the page you left when you closed the iPad.
Whispersync works well but, of course, you need a wi-fi or 3G connection. That’s why the Kindle with 3G is a good buy because it gives you cellular access for life in over 100 countries with no subscriptions. When you think about it, you are getting the Kindle free because worldwide 3G access doesn’t come cheap. Note that this roaming access is limited to the business of buying books and synchronising, it isn’t a true, unrestricted access to the internet. Uncle Amazon does have his limits.
Paradoxically, Whispersync works quicker and more reliably on non-Kindle devices such as the iPhone or iPad. You seldom catch it out. On the Kindle reader itself, though, there are often delays and, sometimes, automatic synchronisation can fail. In this case, however, you can do a manual sync provided you have internet access.
It’s this Kindle ecosystem that has made Amazon so successful in the ebook world. It is device agnostic and, reasonably, you can expect to be able to access your books as long as Amazon exists and on whatever device you buy in the future.
Apple, with their similar iBookstore and iBooks application have failed miserably to meet Amazon head on. For reasons best known to Apple, the iBookstore is a closed system for owners of iPhones, iPads and iPod touches. They haven’t even made an app to work on OS X, never mind a Windows, Android or BlackBerry app. The Apple ebook system, quite unlike the universal iTunes music store, is hamstrung from the beginning. While most people prefer the design and user interface of iBooks to that of the Kindle apps, they are stuck in a cul-de-sac with the Apple system. If you decide to leave Apple in the future there is no guarantee you will be able to take your books with you.
For this reason the Kindle ecosystem is preferred by most keen book buyers and is clearly the most sensible option.
That screen again
All my carping is forgotten as soon as I switch on the Kindle and look at that glorious, easy-on-the eyes screen. That, and the lightness of the device, is a crowning glory. In itself it is reason to shell out £152 on the Kindle 3G, but probably only if you can justify it in addition to an iPad.
As an adjunct to my iOS devices, the Kindle is loveable and is great value for money. I couldn’t live with it alone, but then hardly anyone who is in the market for an iPad would even consider a Kindle unless as an addition to the stable.
So what is my favourite reading device? It isn’t the Kindle, it isn’t even the iPad. It is my iPhone. Seasoned photographers will say, somewhat tongue in cheek, that the iPhone is the best camera they own, simply because it is always in their pocket. Similarly, the iPhone is the book that is always in your pocket. It can be pulled out anywhere, on the train, on the bus (especially where it is crowded or cramped) and all your Kindle books are presented and are up to date. If you rely on a Kindle reader or a tablet, you must make a conscious decision to pack it. Neither will fit in your pocket. In this respect, the tablets and the Kindle are like conventional books, they have to be carried.
In conclusion, buy a Kindle if you have absolutely no interest in doing anything other than reading in perfect lighting conditions (just like a book). Buy it if you can afford to add it to a tablet or smartphone stable. But if you must have just one device and are interested in doing more than reading, go for a backlit tablet.
Full details on the Kindle here