Vol. XXII, No. 2
CSA Newsletter Logo
September, 2009

Review of the Kindle 2

Jocelyn Penny Small
(See email contacts page for the author's email address.)

I like the Kindle. It's not the total love I have for my digital camera.  But it is very much a continuing and growing attachment. By this time most of you have probably already seen a number of reviews of the Kindle 2, how it differs from its predecessor, and how both of them are different from the DX. So, here I focus on my personal reactions and use of the device.

First, it costs too much. If you live in New York City, then you're hit with nearly 9% tax. Plus you pretty much have to buy a cover to protect your investment, especially if you're going to stash it in a briefcase or a backpack. The cheapest cover costs $30.00 and is produced by Amazon. With free shipping my total cost was around $420.00. The price has now been reduced to $299.00 for a savings of approximately $60.00. It is not an investment to be made lightly, because, of course, once you get the machine, you have to feed it.  Amazon boasts that books cost around $9.99 even for current bestsellers, but seemingly not for the ones I want. While some books cost less, many cost more. In some cases, the Kindle edition is just pennies less than Amazon's discounted price for the hardback or paperback. In my case I save space on my bookshelves.

The Kindle comes in specially made brown cardboard boxes with a black box encasing the actual machine. It's overkill and a declassé take-off of Apple. On the other hand, the Kindle really does work right out of the box, because Amazon wants you to get busy buying books. It comes partially charged and endowed with your first name. The Kindle itself is sleek and feels well-made. I can personally attest to the fact that it survives minor falls. Unlike iPods, the casing and the screen do not succumb to fingerprints or smudges. What no one mentions is that at first it feels heavy for its size. The naked Kindle at 10.2 ounces is not that light to be held in one hand, though I have become accustomed to it. Because the cover adds considerably to the weight and pushes the total to a little over a pound, I tend to remove it from the cover for long-term use.  When waiting for the subway and the train (I have a long commute), I prefer to leave it in the cover to protect it. The sturdy, padded cover folds entirely back on itself and from that point of view is quite convenient. In addition, it has two clips that insert directly into the Kindle itself to hold it in place.  Its only problem is the absence of a catch to keep the cover closed. I use a high tech rubber band. There are other far more expensive choices (up to $100) which do have more secure closings, but I felt I already had spent enough money.

The next thing one notices -- and perhaps the most important thing -- is the screen. Amazon boasts of the Kindle's 16-grayscale screen, but it's just a boast. While the pictures used when the Kindle is snoozing look fine, the pictures and especially maps are often washed out. I pass over that flipping back and forth from the text to the maps in one travelogue became too much agony for me to bother. In fact, any fancy kind of anything other than straightforward print can be difficult to read.  Keep in mind that the pictures do not necessarily scale up and down the way the font does.

When I first used the Kindle, I found the contrast between text and background insufficient. Even when I light the Kindle with full flooding light from an architect's lamp, the background remains a dirty gray despite all those bright screen shots you see in Amazon's publicity. I immediately bought a light. Variations on three different models are available: gooseneck, clip with light able to angle, and clip with no choice on the angle. I bought an exemplar of the second choice and have used it only once on an Amtrak train. Despite all my concerns and futzing to get around the darkish screen, I have now adapted to the Kindle and have read from it for hours on end. Unlike reading from a much higher contrast computer monitor, the gray background in some ways is much less of a strain on my eyes.

The buttons are a tad stiff, but from the reviews that is a minor price to pay for fixing the Kindle 1's unfortunate habit of turning pages early and often.  You might think that it doesn't matter if the Kindle flips ahead or back a few pages, but that is only because you haven't experienced the slowness of e-ink in changing the pages and – something not written about -- the totally context-less pages of e-books. Every page in every book looks like every other page in every other book. The fonts are the same. The layouts are the same.  Yes, you can vary the size of the print -- which is sharp and, indeed, easy to read -- but basically the only thing that matters is the words.  (I did find the scalable print useful in my latest visit to the eye doctor.  I was able to increase the size of the font to a point that I could actually read it when my pupils were like saucers.)  Amazon adds to your difficulties in not trying to preserve the page count of the print edition, but by using its own cockamamie system of "location numbers."  Since the numbers often run to four digits, they are not likely to be remembered.  The "visual thumb" at the bottom of the screen that tells you the percentage left to read isn't all that helpful when its location numbers are  meaningless to you.  You do not want to read something that requires you to flip back and forth. On the other hand, some recent e-books come with "live" notes so that you can click on the note, read it, and then press the "back" key to return to precisely where you left off.  That is simply wonderful, especially in this day of disappearing superscript note numbers in the text.

I have to admit that, when reading, I now prefer to hold the Kindle than most printed books. It stays "open" to the page I want. I can put it down and pick it back up without having to mark my place. In fact, the Kindle keeps track of where you left off and automatically returns you to that page, marked by a diagonal slash (like a dog ear) in the upper right corner. It does not, however, allow you to mark the exact line the way the handy-dandy plastic "last line" bookmarks do, though I could "highlight"/"underline" the section with a faint line.  Highlighting a single word calls up the Oxford American Dictionary, not one of the great dictionaries of American English, but generally sufficient unto the need. You can also make notes that you can access either on the Kindle or transfer to your computer, but doing so is mildly agonizing because the keyboard is stiff with small keys even for my tiny fingers and with the letters too far away from the edges to reasonably "thumb" them.

The keyboard, however, as you might expect, works well enough to order books, lots of books.  This is the aspect that sets the Kindle apart from its competitors.  It really is quite magical to click on "order" and to instantly receive a  book while on the train or at home during a snowstorm.  An unheralded feature is the ability to download a "sample."  The samples serve two purposes.  First, over the years I have bought far too many books that I have abandoned upon reading beyond the first couple of pages.  Now I download everything as samples, which run about 10-15  pages of text. Remember, the location numbers preclude any idea of page numbers.  (I check the actual page count on the order page for the book to gauge how long something is.)  Since the samples are free, I have probably saved more money on the books I haven't bought than on the ones I have. Second, instead of immediately buying a book that I will want to read sometime in the near or distant future, I use the "sample" as my memory jog and only buy the book when I am actually going to read it.  Again, it's much more efficient and spares my overly crowded bookshelves -- one of my original incentives for buying the Kindle.

And, then, there was the time I advertently clicked on "buy" rather than "download sample" – and naturally for something that was in the iffy-category.  But Amazon has you covered.  Right below "I am billing you a gazillion dollars" is the option to cancel the order.  While the charge has already gone through, the credit is recorded just as quickly.  For those in overly taxed states like New York note that Amazon does not charge tax for e-books delivered directly to the Kindle, at least for the moment.  Moreover, since the Kindle knows what books you have, it doesn't allow you to buy a second copy for the same Kindle -- another savings of money for those of us who are forgetful.

Amazon boasts that it has over 300,000 e-books available.  What it does not tell you is that 290,000 are books about vampires or Harlequin romances. The same thing is true for the numbers quoted for any of the e-readers. There are, however, a large number of out-of-copyright books that can be read on the Kindle, which uses the Mobipocket format. And so I have loaded some works of Mark Twain, the letters of Pliny the Younger, Saki, and stuff like that. These files are not wirelessly transferred to your Kindle. Instead you take the plug off of the Kindle charger cable for its USB connector that you insert into your computer which then recognizes the Kindle as "Kindle," at least on a PC.  You can then transfer your downloaded e-books from your computer to the Kindle itself. It's easy. Moreover, Mobipocket Creator, a free program, will convert files from a number of formats into something readable by the Kindle. That PDFs can be converted into a "readable" format does not mean that they are actually readable on the Kindle, especially if a scholarly article is involved. The conversion keeps the "page" from the original PDF with the result that anything with columns or notes is a nightmare to read. The Kindle DX with its larger size might make reading PDFs possible, but I wouldn't count on it. And apparently reading newspapers on it is not easy, because they haven't yet been reformatted for the Kindle DX.

The battery does, indeed, last for a long time.  I used the Kindle on the train between New York City and Washington, DC – roughly six hours of being on continuously with no problem. I turn the wireless on only when I need to use it,  which may be easier for me, since I don't subscribe to newspapers or anything that is delivered to the Kindle in the middle of the night. You can also totally turn off the machine, not merely leave it slumbering, by holding the sliding switch at the top until the screen blanks. The connector for the cable to charge it is a standard Sprint (their wireless provider) telephone connector. Hence I was able to buy a tip to use with my iGo charging "system" which I use when I travel. (Why cart all those charging bricks,  when you can bring one unit with multiple tips? The only downside is that you can charge only one device at a time, though a multiple socket, more expensive iGo charger is available.) A bummer, however, is that the Kindle 2's battery can only be changed by Amazon for a mere $85. In other words, Amazon is "encouraging" you to buy a new machine when the battery dies in the same way Apple does with its iPhones.

The new controversial feature of reading any text aloud is a tempest in a teapot.  In no way does it replace real people reading books, but it could be useful to someone with failing sight. Instead the authors should have protested that Amazon puts only the title of the book and not the author at the top of each page. In fact even the charges sent to your e-mail account leave out the authors' names. The Kindle also comes with a MP3 player which I haven't tried.  It's general access to the Web -- labeled "experimental" -- is so agonizingly slow because of e-Ink that I don't use it.

Another mixed feature is that the Kindle keeps track of what you've read and where you left off in every book (and sample) you page through. One reviewer commented that when Amazon made available a program to read its e-books on the iPhone that his books from his lost or broken Kindle (I forget which) were all carefully archived for him by Amazon down to the pages he left off on. On the one hand, this is a wonderful feature. The books are yours "forever," though their format may or may not be readable on a future machine -- an issue that does not seem to have been addressed. On the other hand, Big Brother can now watch you and determine precisely what you're up to. In fact, Amazon removed illegal copies of 1984 (and actually other novels) from the Kindle, while crediting its customers for their cost. The flap was sufficient that Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, apologized and promised never to do it again. But, I wonder whether anyone will ever want to see Amazon's records? To name just one instance, remember the Bork Senate hearings? 

This feature also means that Amazon can tell, if it cares, whether you're buying its book or loading the Kindle with free e-texts or even e-books available via your local public library. Getting library e-books onto the Kindle, however, is not for the faint of heart. While I have read the directions posted on a Website not affiliated with Amazon, I have not yet tried it.  Certainly Amazon is not happy about the idea, since it made one website take down the software programs that would enable you to do so. Finally, consider that Apple has just filed patents to detect whether and how owners of iPhones might be "tampering" with their iPhones. I believe that an enormous loss of privacy is occurring throughout our electronic lives. And I am not sure that there is anything substantive that can be done about it. For example, I personally could not give up e-mail.

Just as I was finishing this review, Sony announced three new e-readers including a wireless version that uses AT&T's 3G network to download books.  It will use an open e-pub format and has arranged via OverDrive to load free e-books from libraries. Hallelujah! Actually I am rejoicing too soon. Sony's device costs $100 more than the Kindle and its books also tend to cost more.  Keep in mind that Sony is in the business of selling devices, while Amazon focuses on selling books. Hence Amazon made available a program to read its e-books on the iPhone. This difference also explains why Sony had some of the nastiest protections for its music. Remember its secret rootkit that destroyed the computers it was installed on? In other words, Sony is not enlightened; it's just trying to sell its own devices.

The Kindle 2 remains a work in progress. Other readers are available and all have problems, not the least of which is price. Color e-Ink will appear in a few years. No doubt dynamically reformatting pages will also. At the same time, computer manufacturers (possibly Apple this year) may actually be able to come up with a lightweight, long-running "tablet" to read books. No matter what the ultimate solution e-books are here to stay.  In fact, I read that e-Ink estimates that by 2012 20,000,000 e-readers will be sold each year.

-- Jocelyn Penny Small

After completing the review, Dr. Small saw an interesting comment on the Kindle as used at Princeton University at this URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2009/09/28/23918/ and suggested that it would be of interest to readers of this review.

An index by subject for all CSA Newsletter issues may be found at csanet.org/newsletter/nlxref.html; included there are listings for articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities and articles concerning Electronic publishing.

Next Article: Web Site Review: Review of The Virtual Museum of Iraq

Table of Contents for the September, 2009, issue of the CSA Newsletter (Vol. XXII, No. 2)

Master Index Table of Contents for all CSA Newsletter issues on the Web

CSA Home Page