On Christmas morning, I was one of the thousands of people who awoke to find a Kindle, Amazon’s e-book reader and the company’s “most gifted” product ever, under the tree. As my family’s gadget geek, I was definitely excited to test out the holiday season’s most talked about toy, even though I hardly have time these days to read traditional paper books, much less digital ones.
But now that I’ve had a couple weeks to play, I can definitely make a case as to why I should return my Kindle.
1. No Backlight
I shudder to think of life before my iPhone. I can use the iPhone anytime, anywhere. Often, this means catching up on tweets or the latest headlines under the covers while my husband thinks I’m sleeping. My midnight rendez-vous with the iPhone would not be possible without its backlight. In fact, the phone’s incessant glow has become so ubiquitous as to inspire a New Yorker cover.
To my knowledge, the Kindle does not have a backlight (though I understand that the Sony Reader has an LED that you can switch on or off). Kindle uses EPD (electronic paper display) technology for its e-books. This technology is said to reduce the glare on the Kindle screen and “provide the contrast and resolution of traditional ink on paper.” (Computer World article) That’s great if you want to read your Kindle in the bright sunlight. But I want to read in bed and it sure would be nice not to have to turn on a separate light to do so.
2. “Experimental” Features
If you click on Kindle’s “menu” button – one of several buttons on the ergonomic, yet slightly cumbersome device – you’ll see a list item titled “experimental,” whose name already suggests to me that my Kindle 2 will soon be obsolete. The experimental features in question are a web browser, an MP3 player, and a text-to-speech component. In theory, these are excellent additions to the device. In practice, however, they leave much to be desired.
For starters, the web browser is a mess. If I go to a site that is not retro-fitted for text-only viewing, it feels like I’m surfing the web using Netscape circa 1993. The layout is disjointed and all the eye-catching graphics I’ve come to expect from my favorite sites are non-existent. What’s more, typing in a URL using the Kindle keyboard feels less like texting and more like using a scientific calculator.
Likewise, the MP3 player is a good concept, as it allows me to play Amazon MP3 purchases in the background while I’m reading. Unfortunately, I can’t add these items to Kindle using its wireless “WhisperSynch” technology. Rather, I must upload the MP3s by connecting my Kindle via USB to my computer. That seems so antiquated, especially in light of the fact that most smart phones – gadgets that the Amazon Kindle no doubt wants to emulate – allow wireless uploads via wifi or 3G networks.
I’ll admit that I haven’t tried the text-to-speech yet. But judging from the other two components, I am sure that I wouldn’t be impressed.
3. Amazon as Gatekeeper to Your Reading Material
The whole reason Amazon invented the Kindle was to create a market where there was none. Indeed, when all those Kindle giftees opened up their new toys on Christmas morning, they began downloading e-books from Amazon, the only store that sells digital books in the Kindle (.AZW) format. To be fair, many of these books sell for a fraction of their hardback versions. For example, the hardcover edition of the Edward Kennedy memoir True Compass retails new for $21.00 on Amazon, but costs only $9.99 on the Kindle. Amazon also offers a lot of Classics, such as Gulliver’s Travels and Machiavelli’s The Prince for $0.99 or free, and also allows you to download short samples of any of its digital books.
Still, at a price of $259, you’d think that Amazon could throw in a few free books. Better yet, why not allow users to download the digital versions of books they’ve already purchased through Amazon? Having the option to download and read, say, five of the books I already own would be not only a generous gesture on the part of Amazon, but an incentive to get me to buy more books.
Another cool feature I should mention is that you can email personal documents in the txt or PDF formats to a specially assigned Kindle email address. So, if you need to catch up with reading a brief for work or are a writer who wishes to peruse the latest draft of your article while you’re on the go, you can send it to email@example.com. I love this idea, but I don’t love the price. Yes, Amazon charges U.S. customers $.15 per megabyte to use Kindle’s Personal Document Service via Whispernet ($.99 internationally). Or, you can go the free but more complicated route by emailing your document to firstname.lastname@example.org, where Amazon will convert your docs to its Kindle-compatible format.
I think I’ll just stick to reading documents on my iPhone, either by emailing myself or using one its apps, such as Evernote.
4. Kindle for iPhone
Speaking of apps, I downloaded the Kindle for iPhone long before I had any inkling I would receive the real deal. The app is free – surprise, surprise! – and allows you to shop in the Kindle store just as you would if you had a Kindle. You can even synch your app with your device. So, if you forget your Kindle but have your iPhone, you can pick up in your book where you left off. Sadly, this only works for books: “Periodicals such as newspapers, magazines, and blogs, and personal documents cannot be viewed on the Kindle for iPhone.”
The real Kindle has the iPhone app beat when it comes to the on-screen appearance of books. On the other hand, when I’m reading on my Kindle, I have to unlearn that swipe-scroll motion that I’ve become accustomed to while using an iPhone touch screen. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Amazon roll out the Kindle 3 with a touch screen and built-in, on-screen keyboard.
5. Magazine Subscriptions
Finally, I’m dissatisfied with the Kindle’s magazine subscription service. Amazon currently stocks only 43 magazine titles, including PC Magazine, The Economist, and Shape. While I do like the idea of saving trees and getting my periodicals wirelessly, I don’t like the fact that I can’t synch up with subscriptions I currently have. For example, as part of my New Yorker subscription, I can read that magazine online. But if I want to read that magazine on my Kindle, I must sign up for a completely separate subscription. What’s more, “The Kindle Edition of The New Yorker will usually include all articles, fiction, and poetry found in the print edition and a selection of cartoons, but will not include other images at this time.” A New Yorker without images and minus some of its articles?? What kind of BS if that? I think both Amazon and magazine publishers would be well-served to come up with a solution to this.
The Kindle does allow users to sign up for a 14-day free trial of any of its magazines. Though, if you want to cancel that subscription within those two weeks, Amazon does not make it easy to do so. One has to manage his magazine subscriptions through his Amazon account online, and you can’t even use Kindle’s “experimental” web browser to see or update your account information. That to me is an epic fail.
Magazines aren’t particular cheaper on the Kindle, either. As one subscriber to Shape commented, “I like the Kindle, but I also like my money. I got 2 years of Shape delivered to my home for only $10…why so much on the Kindle?” I have to ask the same thing about Slate, for which Amazon charges $2.49 per month for the privilege of reading “most of the articles from the online edition.” I’d rather get my Slate with ads and all of its articles rather than a lesser – but more expensive – Kindle-ized version.
And A Sixth Reason…
Don’t get me wrong, the Kindle is a fine toy, especially if you are an voracious bookworm. But I still think much work needs to be done before this e-reader becomes essential. Besides, the one thing that Kindle doesn’t do for this mother of two boys under 4 is find more time to read. When the Kindle figures out how to do THAT, then I may reconsider.