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November 20, 2007

The Kindle: A reviewer's first impressions

Posted by Mark Watanabe at 3:05 PM

You could say that Glenn Fleishman, one of the authors of the Practical Mac column, which appears in Personal Technology, is something on an early adopter. He was among the early purchasers of Amazon.com's Kindle electronic book reader, which was launched Monday. At least Glenn didn't have to wait in line.

Here are his first impressions of the device:

I put my hands on the new Amazon Kindle electronic book reader this afternoon, and my reaction is mixed. Amazon is trumpeting the always-networked device as solving both the problems of legibility and content delivery. It clearly has done both. But simplicity may have triumphed over usability.

Before getting into details, I should note that it's pleasant to read text on the Kindle. Despite having just four levels of gray to show images, the high density of the device's resolution -- it shows more than 160 pixels per inch -- and its clarity, stability and contrast all contribute to a very paperlike feel.

I could see Kindle replacing a stack of books and periodicals for a trip, although its monotonous text style, formatting, and justification could wear after a while. Though Amazon made good design choices, the Kindle's approach belies the importance of the 550-year tradition of typeface and book design in mechanical printing.

The Kindle is a bit of a technological marvel, I have to admit. The device is compact, and feels nice in the hands, although the design isn't up to par of its features. It feels precisely like a prototype for what the real Kindle will look like. The Kindle is full of angles, which I suppose are meant to make it easier to hold, but I find it a little awkward to use.

After plugging the Kindle into power and powering it up, I notice that I don't need to register it. I purchased it through my Amazon.com account, which is already preset in the Kindle.

The display takes a bit of getting used to for someone who has spent 16 years with luggables, portables, laptops, and handhelds avoiding reflection from lights. Rather, the E Ink display -- also used by the slightly cheaper, but unnetworked Sony Reader -- works best with more light on it. The 180-degree reading range is also remarkable: turn the thing nearly perpendicular to the plane of your vision, and it's still crisply readable.

I found the Kindle weighed on my hand or hands after holding it for a few minutes. The buttons for moving forward and back pages or jumping back to a previous action are large, well placed, and can be used while holding in one hand, two hands, or on a surface.

A nice touch: There's a previous and next page button on the left side, so if you hold the Kindle in your left hand, you have access to both. There's also a next page button on the right side, for two-handed operation.

I tried out a book sample (which was rather long), purchased a book, subscribed to a blog and a newspaper, and converted some documents from PDF. Purchases and conversions worked just fine.

Downloads are as fast as Amazon promised. Today's edition of The Seattle Times downloaded in its entirety -- before I had even navigated back to the home page. A several hundred page book was available in tens of seconds. Now, reading books, that's a different story.

You can't scroll on a Kindle as such. That took me by surprise; you page through it like a book and menus for bookmarking and navigation appear when you summon them.

The reason is that the E Ink display can't rapidly update. When you change pages, the "ink" is erased and then reset in a slightly disconcerting flash that the introduction to the Kindle on the device assures you is perfectly normal. It takes getting used to, and it prevents page turning from being seamless.

A nifty scroll wheel handles menu and item selection; it can be depressed like a mouse button to click on a selection. Because there's no live scrolling, a physical strip runs the height of the Kindle screen to the display's right. The bar is full of a reflective material that's selectively revealed.

As you use the scroll wheel, a section of the bar lights up as if you've scrolled to that point, next to links that are highlighted in the main page.

The interface is a bit troublesome. Navigation isn't easy. There's no button on the device to jump to the Kindle Store. Perhaps this is Amazon's nod to keeping the reader from being all about commerce. Still, I would have liked such a button.

Clicking the select wheel next to the Menu button at the bottom of the display brings up a set of contextual options, but there's a bit of a lack of streamlining to get where you need to go.

When the Kindle isn't in use for a few minutes, the display pops up an interesting screen saver: I've seen birds and Oscar Wilde so far.

(Disclosure: I worked for Amazon for six months in 1996-1997, received no stock options, left on marvelous terms, and own no stock in the company.)

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