Kindle 2 Review

The number of eBook downloads is approaching the number of book sales…

Reasonably short one today compared to that marathon review of Heavy Rain, but this one is desgined to be straight to the point. I am, after all, reviewing a device, and anybody who knows me knows that when it comes to hardware reviews I tend to get straight to the point and leave it at that. Software? I can go on for hours about software. Hardware? I only care if it’s useful, outside of that I’m not interested. Anyway the Kindle 2 is an eBook reader. Now there have been plenty of eBook readers in various states of awesome. Up until recently though pretty much all of them used an LCD screen. LCDs are great, but we tend to spend ages reading books, and LCDs are a bit power hungry. Also, for some people, LCDs tend to be a bit eye-burning after a while. I’m used to staring at screens (I used to do it for 12 hours a day working in emergency communications) so it doesn’t bother me so much, but still I don’t always like having a screen in my face 24/7.

The Kindle 2 uses a technology called eInk. What exactly is eInk? I’ll give you a bit of a rundown. Essentially there are small capsules containing ionised pigments. An electric charge is applied to each capsule such that the black and white pigments change position to generate an image on screen. As a result an eInk screen is only grayscale, and it also has a slow refresh rate; somewhere within the vicinity of 1 second. However the screen more or less only uses power when it’s changing the image on the screen. Until then, it sits dormant. Naturally this makes them excellent for devices like an eBook reader that have battery life measured in days or weeks. You know the kind of “standby time” used to describe how long your mobile phone can say in standby mode? These devices will eclipse even that. Also the screens are reasonably sharp as well, and are visible from all different angles. And yeah, they really do look similar to paper. That said it’s also somewhat disconcerting to see an image on the screen when the device is “powered off” (or in sleep mode really) and pulling the Kindle 2 out of the box, you’ll notice that the instructions for turning it on are visible on the screen, not on a packing slip. It’s kind of creepy.

The Kindle 2 is a pretty neat little device; it has a QWERTY thumb board, buttons to swap the page, a little navigation thumbstick, and speakers, though there’s a headphone jack too. Charging is via the USB cable, and in Australia all we get is the USB cable, no 240v wall socket adapter. It comes equipped with 1.5GB useable memory, with no media card slot. Odd choice, but okay. Most interestingly is the wireless connectivity; it lacks a 802.11b/g/n adapter, but does incorporate 3G connectivity. The device comes with a SIM card preconfigured to allow access to a tiny section of The Internet – specifically you can access Amazon’s store, and Wikipedia. In the US you have access to a larger part of the Internet, but the browser is basic; it’ll show text and images, and nothing much else. The screen’s refresh rate is far too slow to display movies. It does a fair job at browsing the mobile version of Wikipedia though, and I can see why they’ve done this; it’ll keep data costs down if the device can’t access media-rich websites, which is fine by me. I’m more surprised that they found someone willing to give people free access to Wikipedia, and hopefully the data arrangements will expand in the near future.

File formats supported include Amazon’s own format, Mobipocket MOBI and PRC, TXT and PDF files. The PDF support is new and it has a few problems which we’ll get into in just a second. For the other file formats the Kindle 2 can dynamically change the text size, can change how many words are on a line, can make use of a table of contents file, and can even read the book out to you. Why you’d want a Text-to-Speech Engine voice read something out to you is beyond me, but there you go. PDF support is a bit more limited; there’s no way to zoom the page, there’s no support for PDF navigation links, and the device’s default portrait mode will fit the entire page to the screen, thus making using PDFs a bit of a nightmare. I have a suspicion that a firmware update will be out before too long allowing people to zoom PDF files, because swapping to landscape mode will zoom in, so applying a similar fix to potrait mode seems simple.

In the other modes the screen is fantastic and easy to read, and being able to control text sizes is pretty cool. Image display is also astoundingly good for a grayscale screen. Swapping between pages causes the screen to invert before it swaps but that’s part of the eInk downside, and I can’t really criticse it because of the easy readability and fantastic battery life. Navigation is simple and you can add notes/annotations and bookmarks on both native and PDF files. I’ve comfortably read novels and textbooks on the screen, though the limited PDF support does make reading a lot of textbooks a bit more difficult. The Kindle DX’s larger screen would go some way to solving this problem, but the Kindle 2’s small size and thin profile (it’s thinner than an iPhone) make it a bit more attractive. It’s like holding a thin DVD case in your hand.

The UI could do with some improvements, notably the ability to put books into folders or some sort of organisation ability, but otherwise it’s pretty simple to use. I’d also like to be able to name my bookmarks; that’d go a long way to fixing problems with PDF files. You can use something like Mobipocket Creator to convert a PDF file into a PRC file, which makes them far easier to read on the Kindle 2, but there’s no automatic table of contents creation unless you manually add HTML tags to the generated file, and it doesn’t work well with images.

In terms of prices in the store, Amazon’s eBook sale prices are pretty good, but unfortunately living in Australia means that a lot of them simply aren’t available for purchase. Amazon has to work with local publishers to work out eBook sales. I really hope that they swap to the eBook system because I’ve got a hell of a lot of books that I’d much rather have in digital form. Remember eBooks aren’t very large; Paradise Lost for example is about 400KB, so you can fit a lot even into 1.5GB.

OVERALL: Good.
The Kindle 2 isn’t an “essential” device. It’s definitely a “nice to have” device, particularly if you’ve got a lot of eBooks, but it’s not yet something you won’t be able to live without. As books move into the digital age (which they will, we can only keep pressing paper for so long) devices like the Kindle will become a lot more important. Until then, I’d recommend the Kindle mostly to students. Why? We carry an awful lot of textbooks and stuff, many of which can be found in eBook format. I’ve also got a LOT of notes which I’ve since printed into PDF form (from OneNote) and put on the device. It’s pretty convenient to carry so much stuff in one device, and if you can get away with converting the content to a native eBook format, you’ll get even better bang for buck. The Kindle 2 is a useful device for eBookWorms or people who carry an insane number of notes, but it does need better PDF support. Still, it does what it does in a very good way.

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