After embracing the mortality that electronic books represent, it’s easier to evaluate the latest Kindle.
The new Kindle is practically weightless, holds more books than many people read in a lifetime, runs for a month on a single charge, and frees you from housing physical manifestations of books you buy.
Size and Weight
The new 2011 Kindle is small. Smaller than you might expect if you haven’t seen one in person, and significantly smaller than the previous generations.
Compared to a paperback:
The Kindle has the capacity to store about 1500 of those.
The 6” screen seems to have significantly improved in contrast compared to the second generation Kindle I own.
The “flashing” of all black during each page change of previous Kindles has been replaced with a flashing every few page turns, at the expense of slightly less sharp text, though I can’t tell the difference without looking through a macro lens. (I also have terrible vision.)
Turn The Page Again
The diminutive size of the device comes with a cost in terms of content displayed per page.
A quick non-scientific sampling of a full page of text in terms of characters per line:
- 50 cpl (1036 characters over 21 lines)
Compared to my older Kindle 2 on the same text:
- Kindle 2nd Generation: 50 cpl (889 characters over 18 lines)
Similar line lengths, but the new Kindle has less cruft at the top and bottom of the screens, allowing more lines per screen. In comparison to the Kindle app on an iPhone 4S:
- 32 cpl (411 characters over 13 lines)
The line length still seems a bit short compared to most physical books, even tiny ones. Grabbing a trade paperback from my shelves for comparison showed about 60 characters a line, and about 40 lines per page.
The Elements of Typographical Style suggests 45 to 75 characters as acceptable, with a 66-character “widely regarded as ideal.”
The fewer characters per line is in part due to the way the text is typeset on the Kindle, generally yielding significant rivers of whitespace. Excellent typesetting (whether manual or automated) allows hyphenation and tightening of the space between words and letters together at times for better readability and compactness, while most electronic books and your web browser generally only spread words and letters further apart to justify the text, and don’t add hyphens. This leads to less pleasing rivers or white space, and hampers readability.
Compared to previous generation Kindles with the same size screen, there’s much better use of the space by eliminating some of the persistent indicators at the top of the screen. Pressing the menu key brings them back when necessary. This is a clear improvement.
But compared to a trade paperback (the smallest commercially sold books sold intended to be read) you’re still getting about 5/6 of the line length, and about half the lines per virtual page, so you’ll be “flipping” pages a lot more often than you would be for an analog book.
This makes the controls to flip pages even more critical.
But the page buttons are terrible and the affordances are all wrong.
I literally could not work the page flip buttons on my first attempts.
The buttons are flush with the beveled edge of the device. The angled bevel is extremely small - and much smaller than the edge of the device, which is what I assumed (incorrectly) was the part of the button one needs to push.
This is wrong.
Having realized this was wrong, I attempted to push inward on the tiny bevel to turn the page, which is also wrong.
In fact, the buttons aren’t even really buttons you push, because they hinge away from the device, so it’s actually more like you’re pulling the button away from the device - pushing “out.”
You have to, more or less, rock the edge of the device away from itself to change pages.
I have never seen or used a similar button on a device, and even after using the device it felt a bit unnatural. Compared to the buttons on the second generation Kindle, they seem more aesthetically pleasing but significantly less usable.
The directional control and four accompanying navigation buttons don’t exhibit any such problems, and navigating the menus and other systems is fairly easy, except for the noticeable delays in the refresh of pages.
The Off Switch
Why does it even have a power switch?
You don’t need to turn a real book off. You just pick it up and start reading.
Although it’s an electronic device, I’m unconvinced it’s necessary an ereader should behave differently. The long lasting battery of eink devices is because the screen is only powered on when changing the screen, not in a “steady” state.
So it actually uses power to reconfigure the screen to turn it off.
One of the possible advantages of having a power switch is that the device would stay off and not accidentally change pages when placed in a bag or pocket. But the power button - a small push button on the bottom of the device - can be triggered easily in a pouch or pocket accidentally.
A lock switch somewhere on the device might have been a better design.
Of course, the real reason you “close” your ebook (and it closes itself for you) has nothing to do with usability.
A Special Offer to Sell Yourself
At $79, the Kindle comes with “special offers” or what people who are not writing marketing copy for companies call “advertising.”
When “off” the Kindle displays an ad. There are also ads in the menus. There are no ads within the text of books (as far as I can tell.)
The cost of not having your devices “off state” sold to the highest bidder is $30.00.
If you’re not sure if this is annoying, it’s best to order the cheaper version as you can pay the $30 to remove the ads later.
If I continue to use the device, not having ads is worth $30 to me. Books are one of the few mediums left that are generally free from the noise of commerce and advertising, it seems unfortunate to sacrifice that.
The physical keyboard of previous Kindles is thankfully gone, replaced with a frustrating on screen keyboard that is best left unused. The slow refresh of eink, combined with the difficulty of navigating on screen keyboards with a directional pad makes more like texting on an ancient phone than typing on a computer keyboard.
This Kindle is really best as an auxiliary device for reading, where the books are chosen and purchased on a computer. When used in this way, there’s not much use for the keyboard.
Also removed is the free 3G wireless data connection present on previous Kindles and available on more expensive models, instead replaced with WiFi.
Other than the annoyance of typing in a WiFi password on the on screen keyboard, this doesn’t seem like a major loss, but does change the context of the device a bit.
Planning Ahead vs. Instant Vending Machine
With ever-present 3G access, the Kindle was entirely self-contained. You could go anywhere (within reason) and purchase and read books. No planning necessary!
With WiFi, before a trip you’ll have to actually load up your Kindle with what you want to read. Or find a place with WiFi, which is getting easier but is often not guaranteed or pricey.
This does make the Kindle lose a bit of the magic it originally had as a completely self-contained device where you could instantly buy and read a book anywhere, but practically may not impact most people. The real magic is buying on Amazon.com on a computer, and having books just show up on the device.
The Power Cord
The $79 Kindle comes with a USB cable to connect to a computer and charge it, but does not come with the AC adapter to charge the device by directly plugging it into an outlet.
Amazon charges $9.99 for the charger. Which is ludicrous.
(I already had one from an earlier Kindle.)
I’m taking it on a vacation next week and will post part three when I return, reviewing sustained usage, along with a comparison to other ereaders.