Amazon Kindle 2 Initial Impressions

Note - this section was originally done back in 2009. Leaving for historical purposes at the moment.
I’m still not overjoyed by the lock-in of the Kindle ecosystem or prices and lack of ‘buy print edition and pay +10% for the kindle edition’ even existing, but I currently have a Kindle Voyage and use it often. If I have to replace it sometime in 2022, I’ll probably get a Paperwhite Signature edition.

So - Kindle, huh?

After using electronic versions of books for over a decade or so, sometimes referred to as, you know... PDFs, as well as various online or local documentation for development (man pages, javadocs, complete tutorials, you name it), while the idea of having a 'portable book reader' had some level of appeal around the time the Kindle (first version) was released, I also had some issues wit the idea (NOTE: I am NOT claiming Kindle was the first ebook reader by any means, just the last time I spent any amount of time thinking about it..):

I have had a general dislike for Amazon, or at least their legal team - going back to their insipid one click 'patent' on common sense in the 90s.
I have a general distrust of larger companies, and had concerns about the open-ness of such a device, as well as DRM concerns.

People already have too many devices - did I really want another?!?

I liked the idea in general principle, but why couldn't I get it on my iPhone instead? Well, ok..the screen is a bit small. Pricing? Forget about the razors vs razorblades model - I expect they make a good chunk of $ on selling the device itself, as well.

What about DRM? What if Kindle flops, or Amazon changes the terms of service, making the ownership of such a device offensive, unpalatable, or simply financially silly?

Well, yes..there's DRM. Being the 'ingenious' company Amazon thinks they are, they didn't invent their own, they essentially just encrypted the already existing MOBI format. This does have benefits, the Kindle (and Kindle 2) will at least read native MOBI documents, as well as PDF, Word and other formats. However, I'm unsure if these are simply able to be dragged/dropped onto the device or you need to have Amazon convert them for you, which is a serious annoyance ( I'll update this later, I've had the device for a few days, and have not yet tested this one..) if so.

Too many devices. Well, I no longer have a separate MP3 player, as my (still first gen) iPhone has done a good job there. Approximately 25% of 'everything I own' are...books, without enough storage space. And, I tend to take 'pack light' trips, like my recent motorcycle trip to the Dominican Republic, where a pair of books took up a fair amount of space and weight (at least in my head) compared to the basic clothes and gear I had, and packing smaller and lighter is always a bonus. Similarly, I'm planning to try to get a month or more off work in the future to either ride into Central America 'as far as I can get' or do the pseudo backpack across Europe thing...either one would be nice to have 'books at my fingertips' without the weight or bulk.

Plus, ok, I admit it..I do kinda like neat gadgets and toys, too. So, I thought about the Kindle on and off for a bit. I figured sooner or later, we'd see the next generation, and when I saw the Kindle 2 come available, I figured it was time to at least look at it.

Ok, so - you bought it.  What’s it like?

Amazon shipped quickly, relative to the release date on the Kindle 2. It came in the typical Amazon cardboard box, and inside was a smaller box. Opening that one was something vaguely reminiscent of Apple packaging. A cute 'tear strip' to open the black Kindle 2 box, with a black embossed outerwrap (EMBOssed with random letters and Amazon logo), and even the inside of the cardboard box was black and embossed. I bet those kids in China got at least a half cent extra on that one..a 'quick guide' was on top, and inside, the Kindle 2, and a power connector, again, looking like it was ripped directly from Apple's iPod/iPhone charger, with a small Power block for 110vDV, with a plug in USB cable, that doubles as your PC/Mac/Linux/computer to Kindle 2 cable. There's nothing inherently wrong with copying a good idea, just as has been the case with Amazon in the past, let's just hope they don't try to patent it :-)

The Kindle 2 screen had a plastic protector over it, with what looked like the usual printed 'very quick start' info. Removing it, and from memory, I think it was actually clear, but the e-ink might have had the text on the device itself. Removing that, followed by a quick power on showed at least the thing had a mostly full charge from the factory, which is fine for me, and I suspect other gadget freaks - who wants to have to wait an hour or more to play with a new toy, right?

Overall, the initial presentation was quite good. Turning on the Kindle showed it was pre-registered in my name, technically allowing me to 'buy ebooks immediately' if I so chose. A relatively large Users guide was pre-installed, and a welcome message. A visit to the Kindle Store is easily accomplished to make your first book purchases.

Distribution and Buying eBooks

I thought about initially calling this section, 'Amazon, meet Apple. If you can't beat them, copy them!' And with good reason, for the most part, although to be fair, it's not like Amazon is 'new' at selling books, either.

Amazon has built up a pretty decent web site for searching for, buying, and seeing reviews of books. While their 'bundles' ( 'buy these two books together for $$' ) are still a misleading, no savings involved abuse of consumer naivete, they do a pretty good job of an online book store.

And much of the 'Amazon store' translates very nicely to Kindle. You can search for books, and it will show you recommendations, just like the web store. There are several pre-configured lists as well, top sellers, and top Kindle book sales, for example, and book reviews are available to your kindle. And, there are a good number of books - it's not like there are only a hundred or two to select from - Amazon has aggressively gone after the market, with everything from topsellers to books by authors few have heard of, and everything in between.

Buying books is relatively painless. You do have to set up your 'One Click' (argh) payment details, and then buying anything via the Kindle Store is quite painless and a click (or two) away.

Delivery is done via 'Whispernet,' yet the menu items call it 'wireless.' I'm not entirely sure if it will use a public WiFi access point or not, but the claim is it uses Sprint's 1G or 3G data network for the data transfers. Downloads are done in the background, which is convenient, although battery life is used much more quickly when leaving either wifi or data transfer enabled, so I tend to download while plugged in or at least checking once it’s completed, then toggling into ‘airplane mode’ once done.

UI, UX/Usability and Design

Warning- I'm an engineer by trade, and have both studied HUMAN Computer Interaction/interface design/usability, as well as practice it for work in different contexts, and have been involved in bringing a few products to retail from design onwards. So, this may become a bit seemingly overly critical.

Using the Kindle 2 is pretty simple. The software overall shows at least some level of maturity to it, and while not perfect, most people should be able to do the majority of the tasks they want to without referring to the User manual.  

The hardware, according to a work friend with the first gen Kindle, is an improvement over the first generation Kindle, and a handful of online reviews I've seem generally acknowledge that fact. Is it great? No. But, it's pretty good, and I suspect an iterative improvement rather than a revolutionary one, over the first gen.

The power button is a bit awkward. It doesn't protrude very far from the top of the K2 case, and it's quite slick/slippery, for a slide type power switch (vs a button). But, that's a nit, as it does do the job. I have found myself sliding it back and firth a few times, and the K2 isn't ''instant on.' When the K2 is powered down, it's effectively in 'slepp mode,' and it picks a random book cover, usually from a classic, or image, and leaves that on the display screen..using e-ink, this is apparently nearly zero power consumption, and the device will also allow for delivery of books while in this mode, or can be 'really powered down' as well. With battery life expectations of a number of days, with wireless/WhisperNet enabled, I've felt no reason to shut it off fully since it arrived.

The little joystick nub, which has 5 directions- X and Y axis movements, plus pressing as a button for the 5th, is not what I would have used for the problem to be solved. There are Menu, Back, Page Next/Previous and Home keys, as well as a small QWERTY style keyboard at the bottom of the K2, and all but the keyboard suffice for general book reading, but any menu navigation, or selecting words for dictionary lookup, or copying passages to your clipboard, all require use of the 5 way stick. The stick protrudes past the front face of the K2, and gives me concern it's a matter of time before it snags on something, in the event the K2 is moved around and something comes in contact with the face. In use, it's ok, but slightly annoying/non precise, and doesn't really fit the thumb well. A single circular small 'D-pad', like from a game controller, with button/depress action, could easily have gone in it's place, and I'd bet with far better 'feel' to it.

The normal book reading buttons are sort of replicated on the left and right side, presumably the Next Page mirrored right to left for lefties. However, a few issues there...the left keys are Next and Previous, while on the right side, it's Next Page and Home. The keys have a good feel to them, but it's annoying to need your other hand just to go back a page. The set of 3 keys should have been mirrored on both sides, Home at top and smaller, below it, previous, bigger in size by a bit, followed by the large Next Page button, and just mirror it identically to the left side. Additionally, the keys aren't indented, nor is there any tactile way to tell by feel which key is which, unless you feel the 'gap' between keys. The former comment just makes sense, while the latter is a relatively minor nit, but you'd think a set of 3 keys on each side, with slight indentations to guide your finger, with a small nub/marking on each for tactile 'key finding,' would probably make a nice difference for some, and feel like the hardware and usability improvements were more fully researched. I'd also be quite happy with a simple spring loaded 'pivot switch,' where you simply press down (and then it retracts) to go to the next page, and up for the previous page, replacing or in addition to the current Next/Previous pages. They could go one further, and let it be depressible as well, for either Home, Menu, or other mode. Duplicated on both sides, of course. That would be intuitively obvious the first time it was used, as well as being easy to find without looking for it, as well. But, if they eventually mirror the right keys on both sides, it's not a huge deal on that one.

The K2 only comes in white, regardless of the pink Kindle in Steven King's UR e-book, and well, that's silly. Even Apple acquiesced and gave customers the Black MacBook (ok, at a price..) before going to the current aluminum only models. Worse than the color, is the 'feel' of the device. It just doesn't fit in the hand cleanly or satisfyingly. While there's a metal backplate to the device, once again reminiscent of Apple/iPod/iPhone, the plastic face doesn't feel seamless where it's joined to the back, with fingers tempted to pry at the obvious edges. It's not much, but it's very much noticeable in the hand, perhaps a half mm overhang all around the device.

Worse than the 'overhang,' is well, the texture, or lack thereof. This is actually an issue I have with the iPhone and iPod as well - don't give us something that begs to slide out of our hands, make something that feels solidly in your grasp when you use it! The back being metal, it's quite smooth, and the front is plastic similar to any modern computer case. How about a rubberized coating? Or a handful of strategically placed rubberized textures applied in the most common hand positions, with a small rubber nubs on the back, to help hold it in your hand or in the case, and help it from feeling like it wouldn't take a nose dive off the bed the second it gets put down on a set of satin sheets?

The keyboard is, well, ok. Deciding to go the route of even having a keyboard, versus having a touchscreen, ala iPhone and Sony's latest ebook reader, was the first decision they had to make. As it seems Sony is having some contrast issues with their touch screen reader, perhaps Amazon, for this generation made the right decision. While I'd prefer to have a slightly larger screen, but a smaller device in height by using an on-screen keyboard instead, we do have to take current availability and level of polish on the available technology into consideration, as there really aren't many sources for LCDs, nor presumably the e-ink screens, let alone touchscreen versions, and for many parts such as those, it simply doesn't make financial sense to become your own manufacturer. I've used the keyboard a bit, and it's funky, but no more so than any mobile phone with a physical keyboard, and it feels better than those, plus has better key separation.

While all of the above are individually mostly small nits, and wouldn't stop me from buying it, for a device that is meant to perhaps finally bring ebooks into the public retail space, addressing them would surely result in a cleaner, more polished presentation, where the device is more a near extension of the person using it, like, dare I say it, a book, where everything is simply intuitive to all, versus being cognizant I'm reading a book on a device' and actively thinking about it during use.

The e-ink screen is pretty nice. For those of you that believe it's 'just a regular LCD,' it's not. Maybe some of you who used to have CRTs, then switched over to LCD, and noticed a feeling of relief or less strain or your eyes can relate - it's a similar experience. While it's not backlit, it 'feels' visually, much like a book does. There is a 'flash' on screen when you turn a page briefly, which is essentially 'charging' sections of the screen for the e-ink to adhere to, after which, nearly no power is consumed while that page remains static (thus the 'powered off but has an author photo or artwork still displayed), and while it could be faster (and is, vs the first gen Kindle), it's not much of a distraction once you read a few pages.

While the K2 Lacks the level of hardware and usability polish I'd like to see, the software is pretty good.

The Kindle 2 has a built-in dictionary, and as you read, you can use the little 5 way 'joystick' (more like a keyboard style track-stick on laptops, but not as good feeling) to go to the start of a word, and a small box on the bottom gives you the short/primary word definition, which is a very useful feature. I have a reasonable vocabulary, but now and then it's nice to confirm or get the 'proper' definition of a word, and occasionally, I'll still see a word I'm not positive of the meaning, so this is quite nice, in theory. In reality, it's still pretty nice, only hampered by the so-so 5 way joystick. Hitting the enter key will also go into the full dictionary entry, along with alternate meanings, followed by a press of the back key to return to your reading.

Whenever you stop reading and power off the K2, powering it back up will bring you right back to where you left off. If you've been reading multiple books, and switching back and forth, each book's page you left off on is retained, so switching back and forth will still bring you to the proper page. This is quite nice and convenient.

The K2 will also go to sleep if left idle for 10 minutes or so.

I've only got a few nits with the software as it is today, really. Going into the Experimental section...well, it shows three items:

  • Basic web

  • Play MP3

  • Text-to-speech

Ok, fine...but while Basic Web is able to be selected by the joystick, the other two are not. Presumably, MP3 isn't selectable because I haven't dumped any MP3s to the Music folder yet, but..Text To Speech can be enabled while in a book, so why the disconnection in how/where to select items? Also, it seems if you try to move the joystick around in there, then hitting back or Home, the K2 has gotten 'confused for a bit' once or twice now, not sure why. Why not simply have Experimental allow enaling or not in the normal menu system, post-fixed with an 'E' for consistent UI? Minor nit, but again, the goal is to use a device like this without thinking about it much, and every bit of consistency and clear behavior would help.

The K2 also has a pair of stereo speakers on it's back, as well as a headphone jack up top, next to the power switch, for MP3, audiobook, or Text to Speech output. The Text To Speech, is well, adequate, sort of. Have it read a web page or the Welcome message on your K2 and you'll see what I mean - you can select male or female voices, and 3 speeds. They sound ok but mechanical, not too bad, but the pronunciation and the way it runs sentences together without pause at times, such as reading a web page or a list or HTML table/bullet list, makes it entertaining for a brief period of time. I'd say it would be acceptable if you're into audio books while driving, but I do hope (and expect) to see some improvements to this in the future from Amazon.

Sadly, there is no video out, nor as far as I know, any way to read your purchased ebooks on a PC/Mac/Linux system. Giving customers access to software to play their *purchases* on their PC makes sense, we can only hope to see it in the future.

The Basic Web Browser is also adequate. Saying that isn't entirely fair to the device, as it's really more of an add on to a device meant for book reading, without a color traditional LCD. It works well enough, and quickly enough, it's just not the same as browsing on my iPhone nor on a laptop or workstation. It's a welcome addition to the overall package, and while I use my iPhone a fair amount for browsing, but wouldn't want it as my 'only browser,' similar thoughts apply here - you don't want to use it for extended sessions, but for using it now and then, especially when not near WiFi or your laptop, it's certainly adequate in general, and you'll be happy it's there.

Pricing model

This is actually one of my largest gripes, and ironically, while Amazon tries to become the 'iTunes of Books, this really can become the make it or break it point for them. Price ebooks too high, and it's a curious device with potential, but of limited interest (or additional income to Amazon) in general, while people either hack the K2, or just use it for their own ebooks not purchased from Amazon, whether 'legal' or not.

Today, the model doesn't work for most consumers, let alone those in tech or engineering, that would love to have a set of ebooks at their disposal quickly for work. Generally, ebooks on Amazon are priced anywhere from 70% of print price (and often enough, versus hardcover pricing, like we should care what the hardcover pricing is?) up to 90% plus of the print price.

Amazon is also playing games there a bit. Their store isn't quite as 'user friendly' in comparing pricing of print books versus Kindle editions. Instead of having one single entry for a book, that then lists off Print Price (Paperback or hardcover)< THen New/Used from their registered non Amazon sellers, then the Kindle price, on a single page (which can also be used easily if a user were to say 'show only Kindle available books), they are technically different listings entirely. And, surprise, with some price 'fudging' going on.

Let's use an example. I do Python coding for work nowadays, so let's look at 'Programming in Python 3,' a book I've considered picking up.

If we look at the Kindle page, here:

We see the Kindle price is: $26.72

We further see a claimed savings of 41%, or $18.27, off the print price of $44.99. Sounds good, right? Too bad it's Amazon playing games...if we go to the print edition page, not directly linked to from the Kindle edition page, here:

We see that the print price is actually $29.69

So, let's do some simple math. You save around $3, or around 9%. But Amazon will happily tell you you are 'about to save 41%'! Surely, they wouldn't lie to consumers, or be intentionally deceiving, would they?

Well, yeah, it is Amazon, after all. Still wonder why they don't have a consolidated page per book showing all pricing for the different editions?

So, how could they make me think they're not as sleazy as they seem, and make consumers happy?

Easy. Consolidate pages and show the real relative pricing. More importantly, work on that pricing and create bundles. If I purchase Python 3 for nearly $30 in print copy, sell me the ebook version for an additional 25% or so. ebooks are really about convenience, and while there is an element of that in size and physical bulk, there are many of us that also prefer to still have a printed copy, especially for technical and trade books - perhaps the printed copy stays at home, and the e-book with you at work on the Kindle, or vice versa, or you selectively load the Kindle with books for a trip, but generally still use the printed copy? Regardless, I'd gladly part with another $7-10 on top of the printed book price, but I won't be making any tech book purchases at those prices, Amazon. If the issue is publishers, then you're pushing the wrong model there - this isn't income instead of printed book income for technical books, it's additional free income on top of the printed books, if you approach it right.

If a printed book is $30, and a customer only buys the e-book, sell it to them, for $15.

If they buy the printed book for $30, and the ebook, sell them the e-book version for $7.50. The customer's happy, the publishers still get more money, as does Amazon, and watch how many people purchasing print books just might consider purchasing a Kindle now. If you want to go a step further, then have promotions for printed + ebook bundles, or give away the ebook for certain titles during special sales - you can consider it a 'sale' while you charge your regular price for the printed book, just give the ebook for free. Obviously, we'll forgive you if you only do certain titles, like books with prices over $10 or $20, but it would all help in attracting more Kindle users, especially at the price of the kindle. Again, the Kindle itself is a convenience item, and at ~$400 (recall, you no longer get a cover, nor screen protector with the K2), if savings of 10% are the actual types of cost savings on buying ebooks from Amazon, and we give the Kindle a general lifespan of say 3 years or so (before upgrade or failure, either one, although hopefully it's upgrade and not failure..), just how many books would have to be purchased to make cost sense here? Obviously, it depends on the type and pricing of books a person buys, but...quite a few. So, help us to want to purchase not only books, but books from you, and sell more Kindles in the process, as well as making additional reasonable income for both AMazon and the publishers. Until then, I suspect the majority of my books will either be ebook 'paperbacks' on sale, or e-books I acquire elsewhere, or PDF conversions.

Amazon seemingly has also attempted the 'micropayment' scheme again, with their 10 cent conversion service, to convert from PDF, Word, or even MOBI format, by emailing them the document, then having it delivered to your K1 or K2. While this is a better amount for what should be 'micropayments,' especially compared to say, Sony, trying to sell you a virtual shirt for $5 or so of real money on their flop, Sony Home, it's not an additional fee on top of already overpriced ebooks that I'm willing to accept. I believe they do allow conversion then just emailing it back to your regular email account, at which point you can simply transfer the ebook manually yourself, at no cost, and hope that's the case. If that changes, or Amazon decides to 'get rich' by increased charges in that respect, for essentially 'allowing you' to read content you already own, or suddenly charging for Whispernet use, I expect there's going to be a fair number fewer Kindle users out there, myself included.

Conclusion - for now, anyways

While much of this initial review has been a bit critical, it also covers usability from an ideal perspective, as well as some gotchas and possibilities for Amazon to either succeed and expand the ebook market longer term, or watch as former users head for the hills, depending on what they do as this market evolves. I generally like my K2 so far, and expect to continue to do so. And yes, Amazon has managed to get a few $ from me for ebooks, including the amusing short (and yes, overpriced) Stephen King story, U2.  

The K2 could use some hardware and usability improvements, as mentioned, and I hope that Amazon learns as it moves forward. If not, hopefully someone that 'gets it,' as well as the pricing model, will win out. I don't expect that to be Apple nor Sony, looking at their own Video on Demand pricing (Sony PS3 Video and AppleTV/iTunes Store), but, who knows? Amazon has a good store implementation and delivery mechanism, and with a bit of foresight and some longer term thinking, the K2 or it's next generation, and Amazon, could bring the e-book reader into many households, if they try to be fair to consumers and do it right.

Meanwhile, I'll be watching and looking for alternate means to get ebooks, except for fiction paperbacks on sale, which I'll buy from Amazon, and will hope to see improvements in the future regarding ebook pricing.