Meta-book review: Kindle DX (Part 2: First Look)

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I recently bought a Kindle DX. I've only had it for about 10 days, but after taking it to the Maastricht IETF, I'm ready to report some initial impressions.

Screen
The best part of the Kindle is the screen. The new high-contrast display just looks fantastic. Even on the smallest font size, it's still very readable, and you can easily take your average academic paper (typically Times Roman or Computer Modern in 10-12 point), copy it on the Kindle and read it there with no adjustments. When you're reading books, which aren't really formatted for this display, you do have to compromise between number of words on the page and line length, but I find that the smallest size usually works well. And of course, you can always use a bigger font size.

All e-paper displays are fairly slow to change, and when you change pages, the entire screen goes black briefly and then you get the new page. This is annoying at first but eventually you stop noticing it. The new display refreshes much faster than the old Kindle display and it makes a big difference here.

Since the display isn't backlit, you need some light source; most sources will do, but there is enough glare off the screen under really direct light that I can't use a headlamp to read in bed, the way I sometimes do with paper books. This is a minor flaw but is obviously something that could use some improvement.

UI
The worst part of the Kindle is the UI. To some extent, this is dictated by the performance of the screen. Because the response is so bad, you just can't build as responsive a UI as you can with an LCD. So, whenever you want to do anything complicated, you end up waiting for the UI to do stuff, which is annoying. The UI is better than with the first generation Kindle. Amazon (or maybe the display manufacturer) has figured out how to change parts of the display without blanking everything and so you can at least tab through links on the page at a reasonable pace (though there's still a fair amount of ghosting).

The UI problems can't be laid entirely at the feet of the display, though: for instance, I'm right handed but I like to hold books left-handed while I'm doing other stuff (brushing my teeth, making an espresso; yes, I'm that guy). Unfortunately, the navigation buttons are only on the right, so this doesn't really work out. The original Kindle had buttons on both sides but Amazon seems to have given up on that. Regardless, it's annoying.

Another irritating feature is the keyboard, which just stinks, even by the standards of cruddy chiclet keyboards. Just typing a search term using the keyboard is annoying and using it for actual annotations is out of the question (at least for me).

Other Ergonomic Factors
The balance of the Kindle DX is a little off. You tend to want to towards the bottom, but then there is a long lever arm and this puts some stress on your hands which you don't get with pocket-sized paperbacks. The situation isn't any worse than with hardcover or trade books, so you just need to find somewhere to rest the device if you're going to do any really extended reading.

Kindle Store
Amazon, of course, runs a Kindle e-book store. You can access it via your Kindle but because of the aforementioned UI issues, that's kind of a last resort thing. Instead, you want to use the online store, which is just like Amazon's ordinary book store, except that when you buy something it gets wirelessly delivered to the Kindle (the thing about "around a minute" is no lie, btw. I ordered a book from my PC in Europe and had it downloaded in a minute or so.) That's all fine, but to be honest Amazon's prices aren't that great, with Kindle books generally running at between 6.99 and 9.99, so more than the corresponding paperback but less than a hardcover. Obviously e-books have advantages, but it's annoying to be paying more than you would for a physical book which you could lend to a friend when you're done. Of course, I knew this was the situation going in and planned to mostly use free books (see below).

Free Sources
There is a really excellent supply of free e-books for the Kindle. Mostly what's available is books (classics and otherwise) which are out of copyright. Some authors have also made their work available under Creative Commons or other free licenses. The best place to start is probably Feedbooks, which provides a "book" called the Kindle Download Guide. Really, the Guide is a meta-book, since it consists mainly of book descriptions and links to where you can download the books from Feedbooks. This all works relatively smoothly. You can also apparently get books from Project Gutenberg and The Internet Archive, but I haven't really tried either. There seems to be a fair amount of overlap between these sources. For instance, many of the books on Feedbooks come from Project Gutenberg. See here for a more complete page of free Kindle books.

Amazon also provides a selection of free books in the Kindle store, but unfortunately (though unsurprisingly) it's not really that easy for me to browse through; in particular, the organization into categories is kind of messed up. For instance, it thinks Lorentz's "Einstein's Theory of Relativity" is fiction.

Loading Your Own Files
Finally, you can load your own files, which is useful for papers, documentation, etc. The Kindle DX will process PDF and as I mentioned above, it doesn't need to reformat them the way that the smaller Kindle does. All you need to do here is download the PDF onto your computer, then plug the Kindle in via the USB cable, where it appears as a hard drive. You just copy the files into the Kindle's document folder and they're available as soon as you unmount the Kindle.

The major drawback here is organizational. The basic Kindle interface is just that you have a pile of documents which get sorted in some order (like most recent). They recently added a "collections" feature where you can tag documents as belonging to a particular collection, but the UI for this, like all the UI, is clunky, and there's no official way to manage it from your computer. (More on how to make this work later).

4 Comments

Almost everything that you mentioned here the iPad improves on. And future android based tablets (whenever they show up). Frankly - eink is dead. Unless they make major improvements over the next 12 months - it has no future.

I have 10 gigs of PDFs and even more free books on the thing (many from Project Gutenberg). You can't beat the interface.

I don't mean to be argumentative, but you'll notice that I said the best thing was the screen. I've seen the iPad screen and it's nice for a lot of things, but it's still reading on a screen.

I'd like to second Eric's point here vis a vis the iPad, but in a snarky way. The iPad is a superior reading device to the Kindle in every respect, except for you know... actually reading the words on the page.

I've had an iPhone since the beginning and love my MacBook Air, so I'm not an Apple hater. I like the iPad as a general purpose device. But if you read hundreds of pages a week and spend the rest of your day in front of an LCD, reading on the iPad feels like work both physically and psychologically.

yoshi, color e-ink's supposed to go into production this fall and that will be a big deal. Once that's out, people who just want to read or browse the web will have little reason not to pick up a relatively inexpensive Kindle. But remember, I'm not saying they're the same class of device - I don't, and I like both, but for different reasons. That said though, I agree with EKR, in that the e-ink display is *the* reason I prefer the Kindle for serious reading. No backlit display can compete with it and the next advance up after color is a flexible display. Methinks you write off e-ink too soon.

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