First Look: Amazon’s Kindle Reader: The Gap Between Description and The Device

After today’s festivities concluded, I eventually got a chance to sit down and play with Amazon’s (NSDQ: AMZN) Kindle. The first thing to note is that the screen isn’t like reading actual paper. It’s not as bright and there is glare if the light is too direct. Unfortunately, it’s a rainy day here in NYC, so there’s no way to test what it would be like reading it out on the beach (that would have to wait until this unit reaches Rafat in Santa Monica). Next, the navigation is far from intuitive. I figured it out after a few minutes, but compared to the effortlessness of the iPhone, the Kindle doesn’t hold a candle. A video demo from Amazon.com is here.

Books and blogs: The first thing I did was to check out the blog subscriptions. There are 308 titles to choose from in total, organized by category and popularity. I eventually settled on paidContent (naturally) though I opted for the free 14-day trial, since it seemed weird to pay $0.99 for a month subscription to the site (the site can also be accessed through Kindle’s web browser for free — more on that later). The first time I tried buying it, the transaction didn’t work, but eventually it came over the Whispernet. Unfortunately, it wasn’t particularly well-formatted. Next I bought a book. My first choice wasn’t available, so I settled on Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk. One cool thing about reading books on the Kindle is that the table of content is hyperlinked, making it very easy to jump around. That being said, it’s still too early to tell whether I could get used to using this device for reading literature.. It is readable, but there’s a very annoying screen flash every time you flip the page, which sort of makes it hard to get lost in the book. Another important thing is that you can only flip the pages — you can’t scroll. This may be an effect of the E-Ink technology in use. And iPhone users may have to resist the urge to touch the screen to zoom in and out.

Non-Amazon content: Obviously, the Kindle is designed to work best with Amazon’s service, though it is possible to get your own content onto it. I was able to send myself a PDF file via my @kindle.com email address, though it didn’t show up for several minutes. Also, there’s a $.10 charge every time you do this, presumably to pay bandwidth costs. I also tried importing a file via USB connection, but this just didn’t work for me, and the product manual offered no help. Smartly, Amazon asks you to make a whitelist of e-mails that can send content to your Kindle, so as to avoid Kindlespam. The company’s site has the full list of the documents that are supported this way: Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) Word (.DOC), HTML, JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP and TXT files. (Note, no industry standard IDPF).

Browsing: It’s obvious that Amazon hasn’t invested too much into this functionality. Several times at the event, people asked why the company isn’t playing up the fact that the device has a browser. Each time the answer was the same: this is a book reading device. The browser is an additional function. This is evident from using it. It’s fairly clunky and prone to error messages. In its defense, the browser is listed as an “experimental” function on the Kindle itself. Interestingly though, when you do open a page, it doesn’t look bad. paidContent.org looked almost as good through the browser as it did through the blog-reading function.

Looks: There’s been some talk about the Kindle not being a very attractive device, based on the pictures so far. It’s true that it’s not very attractive — certainly Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) wouldn’t put it out, though it’s not that ugly in person either. Perhaps the pictures haven’t been flattering because it’s not very photogenic, sort of like a person that just looks bad in pictures. You can see the full set of pictures here.

Converting my library: Next I wanted to put my personal library of a few hundred books onto the Kindle, so I could take it with me… but that functionality hasn’t arrived yet.

Bottom line: Although Amazon’s been working on this for awhile, this is very much a first-generation product. It’s not going to revolutionize the industry overnight, though it sounds like Amazon is going to take this business seriously and continue to invest in it. It seems safe to guess that in a couple years, the top-of-the-line Kindle will be a much-improved product. The concept is definitely sound. Bezos’ speech had most of the audience pretty enthusiastic about the device — the problem is the gap between the description and the device itself. With some improvements to the display and a more intuitive navigation system, it could become an attractive product, even at the price.

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