Kindle Impressions

I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with an Amazon Kindle over the past week. The Kindle is Amazon’s attempt to bring book reading and distribution into the 21st century. It’s essentially a small, purpose-built, handheld computer that incorporates several interesting technologies to create a compelling experience for the book lover.

The first distinctive thing about it is the display. Rather than using the LCD or OLED screens that are common on laptops and cell phones, the Kindle uses electronic paper, a display made up of thousands of tiny capsules filled with black and white particles that can be dragged to the top or to the bottom electronically. It functions (and looks) a bit like a high-resolution Magna Doodle.

This screen provides a couple of advantages: first, it gives the kindle a distinctive, book-like appearance. Though the 800×600 display isn’t quite as high-resolution as print, it looks very good, and the four gray scales allow for some basic graphics and diagrams to be included (and some lovely screen savers). One might reasonably wish the background color were a purer white, rather than a light grey, but the constrast ratio is still very high, close to that of a newsprint. Second, the electronic paper display is extremely power-efficient. Because it only draws power when it is changed, the Kindle can run for up to a week on a single charge — something unheard of with emissive displays. Third, because it is reflective, it can be read in all the same conditions one could normally read a book — bright sunlight presents no problems. (The ironic flip side of this advantage is that you need a book light to read it in a dark room.)

The second distinctive thing about the Kindle is that it has a built-in wireless data connection that runs over Amazon’s Whispernet service. Amazon subsidizes the service through device and electronic book sales — it doesn’t cost anything to use. It’s built on the cellular phone network, and therefore has excellent coverage, though the bandwidth is fairly limited. However since it’s used primarily as a delivery mechanism for textual content, that’s rarely a concern. One can use the device to grab a sample of a book from the Kindle store nearly instantly, and can download an entire purchased book within about a minute.

According to the hackers, the software that runs the whole show is largely Java on top of Linux. However, as a user, you’ll never be aware of the fact. The system is controlled with an easy-to-use system of menus which are almost entirely accessed through a little scroll wheel. I gave Kathy (who will be the first to admit that she’s no big fan of technology) 20 seconds of instructions on how to use the scroll wheel while we were driving to San Antonio last week, and she, without further help, kept herself entertained for the two hour car ride downloading sample books, reading, and exploring the device — an impressive testament to its ease-of-use.

There is currently no SDK for the device, so one is limited to running the applications that Amazon ships with it. Amazon has hinted that they might consider creating an SDK in the future, but hasn’t made any official announcements yet. Even so, the Kindle is quite functional. One can, of course, buy and download books from Amazon’s library at rates substantially lower than what one would pay for a hardcover edition. Amazon also has a conversion service where you can send a variety of document types to a special email address and have them converted into a format viewable on the Kindle. It costs $0.10 to have the document sent to your Kindle over Whispernet, but is free if you use the included USB cable to put it on the Kindle yourself. Since the Kindle registers itself as a standard mass storage device, you can transfer files to it easily using a computer with Mac OS, Windows, or Linux with no additional drivers.

Amazon also includes several experimental applications, including a music player, a human-backed question answering service, and, most interesting, a basic web browser. While the browser doesn’t support a lot of advanced features, it works well for browsing well-formatted content, and is even quite usable for some web applications. I’ve been able to update my Twitter while walking home, though haven’t yet convinced it to display my RSS feeds in Google reader. Though the browser isn’t as good as Mobile Safari, its reliance on the cellular network means that I can use it in many more places than the iPod Touch, which relies on having a wireless access point nearby.

While the Kindle has a lot to recommend it, it’s not perfect. The display takes about 3/4 of a second to refresh when you move from page to page. It’s very easy to hit the Next Page and Previous Page buttons by accident. It’s rather homely. Purchased books are wrapped up in DRM. And it’s expensive.

However, by taking advantage of its unique place in the book selling market, Amazon has managed to create the most viable electronic book yet. For the traveler, the reader, or the person who needs convenient access to a reference library, it’s a very compelling product — and a lot of fun.