Kindle 2 first impressions

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I received my Kindle 2 two days ago, thanks to Borderlinx that managed to ship it from US to Singapore within a week. This is a product that I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating before buying (nearly a year actually), largely because I hadn’t seen one in person.

That is until my colleague Vicente showed it to me during our daughters’ ballet class a few Sundays ago. I took a look at it, flipped a few “pages”, and I knew it was worth buying.

Then I waited a while more until Apple announced their iPad, and then I knew the Kindle was more suited for my type of book-reading. The iPad’s power-sucking LCD screen is undoubtedly great for media viewing, but I have my doubts about using it for long periods of text reading. I can’t read the Bible for long on my iPod touch.

And what finally pushed me to order the Kindle?

Finding out that the entire collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories on Amazon was only US$0.99 for the Kindle.

This might seem like a silly decision, given that you can find the whole collection online for free anyway. But that is precisely the point – it’s one thing to read a book or novella on your computer screen.

It’s another thing to hold it in your hands, snuggle up on a couch and get absorbed within text floating across a 6” screen.

Perhaps Cthulhu called out to me across the twisted colors of space and warped my mind (that’s Lovecraftian prose for you, folks), but after years of trying to find cheap paperback versions of Lovecraft lore, this was my personal Achilles heel and I bought the Kindle 2. It’s not cheap at US$259 and US$30 for the leather cover. Including shipping it came up to about SGD$450 in all.

Now my wife says that I’m excited about the Kindle only because it’s a shiny new gadget. That’s also true, but the reason why I’ve stopped buying books over the past decade is simply because I don’t have enough space in our 5-room flat to keep books.

When Goy had chickenpox last year, I bought for her the Twilight series, and I can tell you they take up a ridiculous amount of shelf space. I don’t like to rent books either, because I always end up keeping the books instead and adding to the space problem. That’s why I haven’t really invested time in exploring new series like the Percy Jackson or Sookie Stackhouse novels.

And every time I go on long plane flights, I’d buy a novel and end up chucking it away after one read. That’s both a waste of money and real estate space. When was a kid growing up in Balestier Road, we had a big cardboard box full of books and we devoured library books at an incredible pace. Where did all that book-reading passion go? I blame it all on the space issue.

But writers (and I still consider myself one, even though I’ve crossed over to PR and marcoms from journalism) need to read voraciously. This is a basic requirement in keeping one’s writing ability in top form, and you need to read a wide range of books to gain enough knowledge to have a balanced opinion on all things important. I still read plenty of newspapers and websites online, but the writing in such media is often designed to be concise, but not deep. Books still offer the opportunity to fall into new worlds and get totally sucked up.

Enough of my ramblings, you want to know what I think of the Kindle right? So here goes.

The reading experience

This is the most critical bit for any e-book reader. At first I thought that the Kindle had too big a bezel in relation to the screen size, but after some use, I realized it was pretty good industrial design – you need plenty of “gripping” space when reading in a moving train. It’s not like an iPod touch which is small enough to hold in the palm, so the bezel comes in useful as an ergonomic feature for your hands.

The screen (apparently the same as those found on other e-book readers) takes some getting used to and honestly I think it could have been better.

As a photographer, my eyes are attuned to detecting contrast levels and this screen offers a contrast level that is probably 80% of what is really ideal. The background is of a light grey hue (like a piece of grey recycled cardboard) and the text is about 90% black.

Now this provides a eye-strain free reading experience, following the principle of how you should always tune down your PC monitor to be as bright as a piece of paper to reduce eye fatigue. But the Kindle screen background needs to be about 1 stop (in photographic terms) brighter to provide better contrast.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA          Click on image for a clearer view of how sharp the Kindle text is. Read only the first three sentences because the rest aren’t in exact focus. This is at the third largest font size, or about 14pts from my estimation.

The Kindle’s fonts are displayed with a font-smoothing technology similar to Microsoft’s ClearType, but because the text is not 100% black (even in the non-dithered portions), you don’t get the same absolute crispness from an actual printed book. You can adjust the font sizes across 6 different sizes, but the smallest font at approximately 9 point size is really not crisp enough.

Other bigger font sizes are nicely rendered, whether in italics or different body font families (as dictated by the book publisher)

That’s not to say that the Kindle screen isn’t good – overall it’s good enough for reading for really long periods.

It’s just that imaging professionals like us will no doubt feel that the display maker Prime View International decided to stick to a “good enough” contrast level for the masses. Whether it’s actually possible for such a display to render a super “crispy”, higher contrast page is not something I’d know. But it does open up direct comparisons to why people should buy the iPad instead for reading e-books.

But what many people don’t know is that the Kindle’s display screen is incredibly energy-efficient. It only draws power when it draws a new page (or refreshes to show other new content). Once you have flipped the page, the image stays there. Sort of like a super-advanced Magna-Doodle drawing board. That explains the 2-week battery life of the Kindle, or even longer if you read very slowly!

And that’s why the iPad and its LCD-toting competition will occupy a different niche in the e-book reader market. Its LCD screen will no doubt drain power continuously, even when you aren’t flipping pages. It’ll be useful for multimedia books but for the millions of people content with just soaking in text, it’s not necessarily the best device. I’d get an iPad just to read digitized comic books though, once Marvel gets its online comics portal in order (it’s currently slow and cumbersome).

So far, I’ve been reading a few chapters of a sci-fi anthology and I’ve been absorbed pretty much into the stories. The Kindle as a device moves out of the focus, I stop thinking about the contrast ratio, and the book comes alive on its own terms.

That’s no small achievement, if you ask me – I’ve never had a good experience reading on any other monitor or handheld device as the technology was always distracting and in the way.

But it has no color!

Of course, with the announcement of the iPad, e-book makers are now scrambling to invest in color screens too. Perhaps I’m old skool, but I don’t think it’s necessary even in the long run. Books have a unique capability of transporting you to another universe with text alone, and images have been used as embellishments, not plot devices. There aren’t many examples of books that know how to wield images like Dr Seuss books or Alice In Wonderland, where it was critical to see the image of the Jabberwocky to understand what on earth was going on.

To put it more plainly, I’m happy just to discover and enjoy good writing. The pen will remain mightier than the JPG or Flash trailer in the long run.

The book buying experience

Before purchase, I read this local blog where it gives plenty of good advice to Singaporeans looking to invest in the Kindle. There are tips on hiding your IP address and other methods to getting your content. I had no problems buying books with a Singapore-based credit card and a US billing address. Just make sure you have the book downloaded to your PC instead of delivered wirelessly. Once in your PC, you can copy over the book document to your Kindle like a thumb drive.

And on my first night with the Kindle (sounds kinky eh?), I was stunned to discover it could access the Kindle wireless network known as Whispernet in Singapore! How this works is that the Kindle accesses a local telco’s 3G network and connects your Kindle to the Amazon online store to buy books over the air.

In the US, the cost of buying books wirelessly is built into the price of the e-book, but outside of the US, you have to pay USD1.99 extra per purchase.

I tested it, bought Foundation by Isaac Asimov and it downloaded within a minute. Then I logged on to the Amazon website on my PC and found that I was locked out of buying books because my country of use had switched from the US to Singapore, and there was no content available to Singapore buyers.

I regained access by changing my billing address back to the US and all was good again. Obviously, Amazon is doing trials with Singapore telcos, which explains the Whispernet access, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Singapore is just too small a country.

Despite what a lot of locals think – that we are the centre of the universe – our small population offers small potential revenue to many companies doing digital distribution. That’s probably why we haven’t seen an iTunes music store here after so many years. Hopefully, with more Singaporeans buying phone applications, we’ll see more digital downloads available here.

One last note on downloading books – Amazon’s servers are pretty slow at about 30-50KB a second. So a book is usually 500KB or more, and downloading seems crawling by today’s broadband standards.

The verdict so far

I’m not crazy about finding free books online, largely because I don’t care for the complete works of Shakespeare or other non-copyrighted literature. I’m willing to pay for books because good intellectual property isn’t always free and books offer a far different experience from what one gets online from websites.

That’s why I don’t mind that I’m locked into the Kindle’s proprietary ebook format (it does read PDFs and TXT files and some other open formats), because you can’t touch Amazon for the sheer range of books. That’s over 400,000 books for you!

Other geeks will say “Oh, you can’t transfer books like other e-book readers which use open formats.” That’ll be nice, but I don’t forsee myself devouring thousands of books as say, versus MP3s. I like buying songs from iTunes (a US account too) because the songs are DRM-free and I can do what I like with the files. But I’m okay with DRM in books because the usage model is just different.

A friend did point out that when the Kindle becomes obsolete, or if Amazon goes out of business, there goes my books too. I agree, there is a chance that instead of owning my Kindle books, I’m actually just temporarily owning them. That’s just a risk I’ll have to take until e-books achieve a global, archival and commercial standard that everyone can agree with.

Is the Kindle better than the iPad? I don’t know until I experience an iPad for myself. And I don’t care that the Kindle only does one job of reading. I have two iPod touch players in the house, but the family members use them for very different needs. I only listen to music on it 90% of the time, while the wife and kids use them heavily for games, not music or video. Multitasking is nice, but I do enough of that on my PC and at work, thank you.

So from what I know today of the tech landscape, and from my usage model, the Kindle is a great device that really meets my needs and solves the space problem in the house. It needs a screen with better contrast to make the reading experience go from “ok, not bad” to “pleasurable”, and I’m sure the Kindle 3 will have that (or even color).

But we buy what is available today, and what we have today is pretty darn good.

And for the record – the first e-book I bought from Amazon was the Lord Of The Rings trilogy for US$12.24, which I’d never have bought in the printed form. Have you seen how thick the books are?

Published by

Ian Tan

Ian worked in the media industry for a decade, focusing on communications, photography and technology. He now works in the IT industry, permanently plugged into his PC and Facebook.

14 thoughts on “Kindle 2 first impressions”

  1. Thanks for the full-on review, Ian! Newb question – how do you set up a US billing address? I’m guessing that it’s the same address you indicate for your iTunes account. I have an iPhone, and iTunes doesn’t work on it cos I’m guessing it recognises it’s on a SG telco and broadband network?

  2. Hi G, yah, I use my Borderlinx US address as my billing address. My iTunes account is a different US address. You need to buy prepaid cards from US to buy from iTunes USA.

  3. Ian, thank you for this review! V useful.
    I too have been thinking and thinking and thinking about the Kindle.
    And I think I’m done thinking.

    Am gonna go get one soon :) Hopefully all the tips I’ve read from you and others will work for me.

  4. Hi, Ian. Thank you for the detailed review. I have been hankering after an e-reader for over a year and have not decided on one. Just as I decide on the Kindle, Kobo announce their e-reader :). But I think, I am leaning towards the Kindle. Except for buying books only from Amazon, I think it pretty much serves all my needs!

  5. Hi Mas,

    Thanks for reading!

    Actually, at this point of time, I’d hold off buying a Kindle because Amazon just released the Kindle app for the iPad. The iPad will undoubtedly offer better viewing experiences and sharper text. And it’ll be launched in SG sooner or later, along with other tablets. I still like my Kindle 2, but I’m afraid it will be replaced soon.

  6. Ian,thank you for the wonderful review. It’s the best I have read from the internet. I have been contemplating the Kindle for sometime (since Nov last year when my buddy got one). I am definitely getting one (for I love reading years ago and still love it except for the space issue you mentioned!). I will also be getting an iPad when launched in Singapore. But their uses (for me) will be very different.

    If I may just ask a very unfair question. With so many competitors in the market, do you think the Kindle 2 will go sub-200 soon? Just wanted an opinion.

  7. Hi Peter,

    Honestly, I don’t think they’ll drop the price, but they’re more likely to launch the Kindle 3. A better screen has been announced by E-Ink with better contrast ratios and I’m sure that’s for the next Kindle.

    If you ask me, I’d stop making Kindle hardware if I were Amazon, and just make sure the Kindle software is available on as many 3rd party tablets as possible. More profitable this way :D

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