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Kvetching About Amazon's Kindle 2

I know a lot of you love, or at least really like, Amazon's Kindle e-book reader. So I'm not expecting a tremendous amount of approval for today's "nice gadget, but..." review of the Kindle 2.

kindle_2.jpg

It's not that I don't find the new model's form and function a major upgrade over the original Kindle's cluttered, awkward arrangement of controls. It's not that I can't easily lose myself in a book when I read it on this thing (yesterday, I didn't even notice that my boss was standing right behind me as I read the thing while waiting to cross L Street). It's not that Amazon doesn't have a tremendous selection of Kindle titles these days.

And yet... I have issues with both this device and the e-book market it's tied to.


* The Kindle's screen has gotten better since the first release, but the lag to go from one page to the next (I clocked it at 1.3 seconds), the limited grayscale palette, and the relatively poor contrast all could use improvement. (So could the text-to-speech function you can hear demonstrated in the video below--assuming that this feature doesn't fall victim to a groundless copyright shakedown.)

* The Kindle 2 costs $359, but you're not going to save too much on individual e-book purchases compared to what Amazon would charge for a print copy. You may not save anything on some books.

* Amazon's selection of e-book titles still has gaps of its own, even among current bestsellers and critically-applauded books.

* Kindle e-books constitute some of the least compatible forms of software I've ever used--they work on Kindles and nowhere else. Amazon has made vague promises of support for Kindle e-book reading on other devices, as I noted in my blog, but I've seen a lot of unfulfilled promises of "digital rights management" systems that would work on multiple devices from multiple vendors. Remember, the whole point of DRM is to prevent software from working as it normally would; compatible DRM is a bit of an oxymoron.

* Finally, let's look at what that DRM does: It deprives you of most of the rights usually associated with ownership--a point unintentionally underscored by the Kindle's terms of use. (I don't object to DRM when it's only used to enforce time limits on rented or loaned content, but that's not an option on the Kindle.)

Amazon can address the first two issues on its own, given enough time and effort. The third will take a little more work, but resolving that only requires a normal level of profit-seeking behavior among book publishers. But doing away with e-book DRM would require a fundamental change in attitude among publishers and authors.

Until that happens, the Kindle seems best suited for certain niche markets. Among those that come to mind: college students, frequent travelers (though the Kindle might not work so well if your travels take you to rural areas, or anywhere at all in Montana) and occupants of severely cramped living quarters.

Then again, I could be completely wrong about how people view the Kindle's DRM. After all, I don't remember the iTunes Store's use of (less restrictive) DRM slowing down its growth much. That's where I have to ask you all to report back: Is DRM a deal-breaker on this device, an acceptable trade-off for convenience, or something you don't even think about?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 26, 2009; 9:31 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , Gadgets  
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Comments

For books the DRM is a problem, but the Kindle isn't a book reader. It's a magazine/newspaper reader. Or, at least, it should be.

I subscribe to:
The Washington Post daily.

Newsweek and The Economist weekly.

The Atlantic, Washingtonian, Linux Journal, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Cook's Illustrated, and a couple of others I can't think of offhand, monthly.

PC Magazine (monthly) recently went all-digital using some proprietary format. Dr. Dobbs just ceased printing, but maintains a website. (Which is what Byte, also a CMP property, did. There's a special place in Heck for CMP Media)

Of all of those, only National Geographic wouldn't work acceptably as a Kindle publication, due to its high resolution color. And WaPo would have to add thew Toles cartoon and the comics for me to like it.

PC Mag would be better, as I could then read the digital version away from my PC.

All of these magazines are read once, by me, and then tossed into the recycle bin. Sometimes I share an article with friends, but it's usually on the web by then, so I usually just send them a link.

The Kindle is perfect for that sort of use. Pity most of those publications aren't available for it.

The iPhone? The screen is too damn small for an electronic reader. At least, it is if you need reading glasses. The long rumored Apple Tablet could do the job. But I bet it'd cost more than $400 (including case). Bet the wireless access plan costs more, too.


Posted by: wiredog | February 26, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

I would so use/want one if it was a magazine/newspaper reader. The powers that be should definately look into this. As a book reader? Not so much. I prefer books for tactile reasons (it's just one of those things for this life-time reader) and because I prefer to use the library.

Posted by: Lizka | February 26, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

For me, with the digital rights management - no transfer - only works on one unit - to actually be worth it, the books would need to be priced in the 2-3 dollar range, at that point I can see the value. But I have stacks of unread "waiting" real books that call my name in the night all bought for around the same $9 price, that I can then lend to friends, reread, take into the bath and not worry if I drop in the soapy depths, take on the bus (I've left more than one pocketbook on a bus - when I used to commute every day there was always a "bus book" stuffed in a jacket pocket, but I'd hate to loose a $400 machine, likewise, I'm unlikely to get mugged for a used Nicholas Freeling mystery, though you look at what happens currently with i-pods...

What I do see as very valuable is for students, with a Kindle, they could get all their required books in one download, and not stuff their packs with heavy loads - and at 60 to 100 bucks a textbook, certainly more cost effective - though bad for publishers - textbooks and university book stores do well because they can more accuately guage the demand than regular public stores.

Posted by: kiosk | February 26, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

DRM is definitely a barrier for me. I'd love one of these, as I think it would be more convenient than a real book to read lying down and/or in bed. (Incidentally, it IS backlit, isn't it? How does it look in the dark?) But I love to lend and give my books to friends and even strangers when I'm done with them, so it would feel like hoarding if I could only delete my e-book from my device without passing it along.

Posted by: MaxH | February 26, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the $2 - $3 price point, though I doubt publishers would ever go for it. Books cost next to nothing to print, maybe $1 each, but Amazon sells lots of non-fiction paperbacks for $10 - $14 or so. I buy a lot of them. If they sold books for $2 - $3, I'd stop buying the paperbacks and buy the cheaper versions, costing both the publishers and Amazon lots of money.

I think that in lots of circumstances (Metro, airplane, searching for a fact you can't quite remember, etc.), the Kindle would be much more convenient. I keep waiting for Amazon to let you buy a $1.99 Kindle copy when I buy a copy of the physical book too. At $2 a book, it's still cheaper than buying from a bookstore. I can pick the slow shipping, since I'll have a copy in-hand in five minutes. It's upselling, and it makes the book itself an impulse buy, since you get it immediately. It would also be a major selling point for the device itself, instead of "$10 a book" they can say "$2 a book". They lose lots of customers, like me, because I can't see paying $400 for the privilege of paying $10 a book. The rest of the retail world does it. The publisher can't possibly mind, they've already gotten their profit from the sale of the actual book. This would also let me read a copy of the books I buy for my Dad without leaving tell-tale creases in the spine.

The only thing I can't figure out is why doesn't Amazon do this already?

Posted by: JohnOfCharleston | February 26, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

I like the "2 for 1" idea that JohnOfCharleston suggests.

As well, there is a lot of Guttenberg project books that are free, which isn't mentioned, just don't expect anything after the creation of Micky Mouse, as that is the (almost fixed in cement) starting point for copyright protection.

Posted by: kiosk | February 26, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Yep, DRM will be more of a problem. iTunes isn't a good proxy of what will happen. People treat books and music entirely differently. With a few exceptions, people read a book once and then pass it on, or return it to the library, or stick it on the bookshelf. CDs (or other album formats) they listen to again and again and again. That's why passing it on with no cost is so important. The ability to leave the book at a hotel for another reader, or pass it on to your friend. Or, perhaps for some of us, take up space on bunch of overstuffed bookshelves to prove how "smart" we are. I agree that as a magazine/newpaper reader this has a lot of merit. Who wouldn't mind losing the overflowing mailbox of magazines and other subscriptions?

Posted by: jchj | February 26, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

I'm not worried about the DRM - the reality is I buy & read ~300 books a year - and when traveling this wil let me easily load up on books and take them with me. I've been pricing books before buying the Kindle - and I'll save anywhere from $1 to $5 a book - so the Kindle will pay for itself in less than a year. As much as I tried to give friends books - most were untaken and I just donate the library since I simply can't keep all of them.

I don't see this device getting ipod status (everyone seeming to have one) - but it fills a particular need well - I hope!

Posted by: spruby | February 26, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse

I will never buy this system due to its DRM limits, its utter incompatibility with other formats, its excessive cost, its fragility, its so so image quality ....

Posted by: infrederick | February 26, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

I like technology, but I guess in regard to the Kindle and e-books, I'm a luddite. I'm sticking with good old fashioned hardbacks and paperbacks.

I suppose it would be eco-friendly to go digital and get an e-book reader but frankly I'm starting to think that it's not healthy to spend so much time in front of a screen. On the computer all day at work, on the computer at home, watching TV, texting, scrolling; I don't really think I need yet another screen to divert my eyes away from the world around me. In a general sense, though, I wish Amazon luck with its Kindle. But I'm sticking with regular books.

Posted by: NW_Washington | February 26, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

I was given a Kindle - probably would not have bought one at such a high price. Finding lots of free books, even fairly new ones as special promotions. I would love to be able to download the e-books available from our county libraries - would even be willing to pay a monthly fee, ala Netflix. I am sensitive to copyright issues, and don't want any bootleg copies.

Posted by: marmite | February 26, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

I got my Kindle yesterday. I've been eying it for a while but not succumbing. What tipped me over were the improvements that made it friendlier, the Washington Post subscription (I can't get it delivered in the VA countryside), how much lighter it will be to read a bulky book, and not having to travel with 10 to 20 books in my suitcase.

I expect that I'll still buy some books in paper but I average buying 200 to 300 books a year and cutting that to 50 will be a space saver.

Frankly DRM doesn't concern me. If I can read enough books on it, that's why it want it.

Posted by: Ruralreader | February 26, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Max: "Incidentally, it IS backlit, isn't it? How does it look in the dark?"

It is not backlit for two reasons: Power and eyestrain. Much more comfortable to read for long periods with reflected light. (But you couldn't read a book in the dark either.)

I just upgraded from K1 to K2, and am pleased (with both, but the 2 is an improvement -- except for chiseling you out of the free case that came with the 1.) I travel a lot, so not having to deal with piles of books makes Kindle quite worthwhile. I do agree that there should be a price break on books that you also buy in hard copy, but after filling three rooms with bookshelves, I'm out of room! So not having a physical copy of most books is no heartache.

Posted by: airsix | February 26, 2009 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Once upon a time the e-books were touted as a way for maintenance folks to have all the service manuals in a portable form. Did that really happen?

Posted by: baldricbear | February 26, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

I bought a Kindle about 8 months ago. I use it exclusively for books, and I love it. I find that I much prefer reading on the Kindle. I haven't been able to put my finger on why that is -- perhaps it's because the display is so easy on the eyes (no, it is not backlit and cannot be read in the dark), perhaps because I can adjust the font size to my preference, perhaps because it's so much easier to hold and to carry around. Whatever the reason, I find that I'm reading quite a bit more since I've had the Kindle. Is it perfect? Of course not. It has a klunky, old tech feel, and it has serious design flaws, some of which may be addressed in Kindle 2 (which I've already ordered). But to spend time fussing over its flaws is to miss the bigger point that, at least for some people, the Kindle makes reading easier and more fun.

Posted by: marco42 | February 26, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

The Kindle is a boon to:
1) Students
2) Readers with poor eyesight
3) The environment
4) Professionals who need ready access to large, heavy technical manuals.

It doesn't do it for me because most of what I read is non-fiction that is frequently heavily illustrated.

Posted by: thranx | February 26, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

I buy a lot of books used on Amazon... some for as little as a penny. When you factor in shipping, you're in the $4 range. So, for about 4 bucks I get a book I can read, lend, sell, whatever. For $9 I get a book I can only read on Kindle. Numbers just don't work for me -- and I'm a BIG reader and dedicated Amazon customer. Being able to pass on or re-sell the book is not critical, but paying more to NOT have that ability is galling. I could see $7-9 for new books, $5 for new paperbacks, and then a big selection of older titles for $3-4. Then this would be very attractive. (Unless Apple brings out a tablet or netbook with reader.)

Posted by: LynnDeanne | February 26, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

I've been sick to death over hearing the gripes about page turns of---what is it now, 1.3 secs on the Kindle? You have to be kidding me! Has anyone ever timed themselves turning the pages on an actual book? Having pages stick together, not to mention the occasional paper cut---neither of which has ever happened on my Kindle...only our "short-attention span theater" culture could complain about a gap that's pretty much in line with the experience of reading a real book---I take a glance at my location numbers to make sure I'm on the next "page"(just as I do with a physical book) and there it is- ready to read--what's the problem?

Posted by: starskeptic | February 26, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

That text-to-speech wasn't *too* bad, but BOY are they going to have to get it to pronounce "Obama" correctly. I can't imagine having to hear "uh-BAM-ee" every time.

They will also need to get the TTS to understand newspaper format a little better. Does it not know that "Washington Post" is a title, and that just because it doesn't have a period after it doesn't mean it shouldn't pause?

Now, I'm sure that this is going to get better with time. One question, however, is: will buyers of older versions get updates to the software? Or will someone buying a Kindle today be forced to head about "uh-BAM-ee" and every other mispronunciations for the rest of the object's life?

Posted by: asbestos999 | February 26, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

@starskeptic: Actually, a 1.3 second delay is very long.

I took out my book, just to test. I doubt I turn pages faster than anyone else.

Between a left-hand page and a right-hand page: 0 seconds. (Or rather, the time it takes my easy to move from the bottom of the left page to the top of the right, which since we saccade at almost 1000 degrees a second is essentially zero).

Between right-hand page and left-hand page (i.e. actually turning a page): less that half a second, but well call it exactly half a second to account for losing my place and re-focusing my eyes.

So to read through four pages of text, and get to the fifth page, I spend no more than one second "in between" pages.

To read through four pages on a Kindle, getting to the fifth page, I would have to wait 1.3x4 seconds = 5.2 seconds. That's five times as long.

And when you're in the heat of a book, five times as much waiting is enough to get you out of the flow.

Posted by: asbestos999 | February 26, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

So the only way to make the Kindle work is to get the price point down to a small fraction of the current price. Considering that authors already get only a small percentage royalty on each book sold, I don't see how anyone can make a living as an author selling books for the kindle. Forget the big names. Forget the celebrities and others who get the big bucks up front. The typical writer (as opposed to the "celebrity author") may spend up to a year writing a book for which they receive, if they're lucky, $5-10K for an avance and then not another cent until royalties from sales exceed that amount. This requires tens of thousands of sales of paperbacks at the current prices. Unlike musicians, writers don't typically have concerts and other paid gigs to supplement the income from their work. If the kindle and other e-book readers become ubiquitous and the publishers require that everything they buy is available for download, most authors (especially those are are writers first, not celebrities or ideological propogandists) cannot make a living in this world.

Posted by: bizecology | February 26, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

It isn't possible to turn a page in 0 secs--there's ALWAYS some moment of delay-the bigger the pages, the more that gap; I tested this out too; just leafing through a book about the same size as my kindle wasn't that much faster than the kindle-and I wasn't even reading....and 5.2 secs spread out over 5 pages is long enough to get a reader out of the flow? I think my point about our culture has been seconded, thanks...

Posted by: starskeptic | February 26, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

DRM is just another nail in the coffin of Kindle2.

An iPod Touch is cost equivalent; has a touch screen, is back-lit for reading in the dark, 24-bit color, and can read books using the Stanza program (free and uses "Bookworm" technology by O'Reilly Labs) can download books directly via WiFi, surfs the web, checks email, listen/watch music, videos, etc, etc, etc... albeit it only has an 3.5 inch screen, but text size is adjustable to personal taste and easily fits the the palm of one hand.

Enough said.

Posted by: Vesuvius5 | February 26, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

My big complaint is the mandatory wireless part of the package. This requires me to pay for a feature that I can never use---I do not reside in the USA. Now even if they have a deal requiring it to be sold this way in the US, can't we have a foreign or travelers edition sold outside the US? Maybe include a cover or docking station to download books via pc. I do think the idea of upselling a kindle edition for couple extra dollars when buying a hard copy is a marketing no-brainer. They could also offer a discount the other way, if you like the kindle copy and decide to buy a hard copy within 30 days. I would love to have this device be practical for me.

Posted by: eaphilipp | February 26, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

@Vesuvius5 yeah, you're right -if one likes reading small, back lit screens---I DON'T; reading on my iPod is nothing like reading on e-ink...

Posted by: starskeptic | February 26, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Also remember you can recoup the cost of the Kindle by downloading 30-40 free books or books that cost only 99 cents. Most of these are the classics (Jane Austen, James Joyce, Proust, Flaubert, etc etc.)

Posted by: bicbic | February 26, 2009 3:37 PM | Report abuse

I am very interested in Kindle, but am still waiting for these books to be DRM free. It's just so much easier and "thought-free" when I don't have to worry about DRM and how I use something. The higher the resolution, the better it is too. We are nowhere near true 300-dpi but that's a technical limitation at this point.

Speaking of DRM-free, Amazon does have an awesome MP3 store that is DRM-free with a large selection and often good prices. It would be nice if they had the same thing with books.

On the note about Amazon, I recently came across an interesting table that details the discounts on Amazon. Maybe someone will find it useful too. It is at http://www.uberi.com

Anyway, Amazon appears to be quite serious this time. We will probably see faster advancements in this area in the near future as competition heats up.

Posted by: John100 | February 26, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Rob-

I was pleased to see another user note the issues with the WaPo Kindle edition, but I was disappointed not to see these issues get discussed here or in your column.

If you can't tell us about plans to improve the Post Kindle edition, who can?

Posted by: arlingtonian4 | February 26, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

...also remember that e-ink is still relatively new and a lot of the gripes seem to me to be the equivalent of asking why televisions weren't in color when they were first available. We don't know where this technology will lead---which is a good reason for folks to sit back and wait if they want; there's even talk of LCD screens in development that supposedly will be easier on the eyes than e-ink is.

@bicbic: excellent point!

Posted by: starskeptic | February 26, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

My wife has a Kindle and loves it. She commutes with it and uses it when ever she has a chance to read. I would guess she doesn't even know what DRM stands for and it hasn't slowed her down. Too many techincally oriented people harp on these things without stopping to think that they do not represent the average user.

Posted by: ds_kelly | February 27, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse

I got my Kindle2 and love it so far. I am waiting for the day when a more mature Kindle ecosystem (like one for iPod) emerges. I can think of quite a few good apps related to books which can make reading on Kindle more fun compared to reading a printed book.

-----
Got Kindle?

Posted by: swd1 | February 27, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Probably not relevant to most of your readers, but I got the K2 because I have arthritis in my hands and it's hard for me to hold books. (Hoping will change with surgery to "replace" both thumb joints starting next week.) So both for present "issues" and anticipated incapcity for a couple of months, got it because easy to support and can easily "turn" pages with either hand. Ease of delivery, sampling various books and periodicals also pluses. I think it's a step in the right direction and greatly appreciate it right now.

Posted by: oldguy10 | February 27, 2009 7:24 PM | Report abuse

I had my kindle 1 for about a year and it was wonderful. I had to travel a lot last year and it saved a lot of space and weight. I really liked the ability to order and download books from the comfort of my hotel room or even an airplane at the gate.
I remember making trips to bookstores in unfamiliar towns during pouring rain etc.
I left my kindle in a plane last November and really had withdrawls waiting until my new kindle arrived this week. I wish the new kindle came with a cover. I've ordered one of the after market ones.
My wife & I will be on a a 10.5 hour flight next week and I'm sure glad my new kindle arrived in time. All the books I had previously ordered (many not read yet) were archived on my new kindle, so it was easy to download them.

Posted by: matthewrcolver | March 1, 2009 12:01 AM | Report abuse

I'm very excited by the Kindle. I'm unemployed now but when I finally get a job I look forward to downloading the NY Times, Wash Post, and WSJ and reading them without getting guck on my fingers, fighting huge pieces of paper on the crowded metro, and all the waste from printing on the paper, distributing it, just to recycle it. I can't wait to download books in 60 seconds. I have so many books now that I am regularly pressured to find ones to donate - with Kindle I can have almost all the books I want without them taking up more space. I will be able to easily find a phrase. I will be able to easily get the definition of a word. I'll still be able to highlight and annotate.

Posted by: LiberalbelieverinrealAmericanvalues | March 3, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Dear Rob:

I always appreciate your articles aqnd your continuing discussion of the pain that DRM has become. However, the world does not end with the Kindle. I invited you to CES to see the Astak (San Jose, CA) offerings. We have two lines of eBook Readers (EZ Reader and Mentor). We will be releasing 5-6 new models (5 inch, 6 inch, 9.7 inch)with the Epson Controller... which IS WHY you note the lag time when turning pages... Kindle does not have this. Instead they continue to use a controller made five years ago by PVI. The Epson Controller solves the problem.

Astak promotes Open Format. By that we mean not only that ePub can be read on a varoety of machines... but that we have ten formats and we discourage DRM. Our web site lists links to 27,000 FREE books and we encourage downloading from these sites.

How about equal time for other makers of eBook Readers that ARE trying to improve the lot of the end users?

Posted by: EZReader1 | March 3, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

A critical review of Kindle 2 that doesn't mention the abysmal UI organization? I never know whether to get to a given bit of functionality via the Menu button, right-clicking the 5-way controller, left-clicking the controller, or using the Back button to get to the menu at the level above.

The controller is a clumsy mechanism, and Amazon magnifies that problem by not allowing menus/lists to wrap vertically.

I could go on. As you say, as long as I am reading a book, I am perfectly happy with it. But when I want to do anything else the UI is just a mishmash. My first extremely frustrating hour with mine yesterday, *while making heavy use of the manual*, mind you, made it painfully clear to me that no one ever put the Kindle 2 through full-on user testing.

The welcome message from Jeff Bezos said something about him wanting the Kindle to melt into the background and get out of the way of the experience. (Sorry I don't have the actual quote; I deleted it). The Kindle 2 does anything but.

If I had to make an analogy, I would liken it to the nav system on my wife's 2006 Prius. Wonderful physical engineering, good core functionality and feature set, and atop it all one of the worst UIs it has ever been my misfortune to encounter.

Posted by: r_wolfcastle | March 3, 2009 8:56 PM | Report abuse

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