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2010-12-04

Amazon Kindle DX ebook reader: review and iPad comparison

I recently got my Kindle DX. This post reviews my experience with the device and finishes by comparing it with the iPad and the non-DX Kindle.

Ordering and unpacking: You have been able to order the Kindles in Germany for a while, now. The process is simple: you order on amazon.com and they send it to you via priority international courier. This means that it’ll take 2-4 days and will be delivered by UPS. After unpacking and switching on the device, there is the first pleasant surprise: Amazon has already registered it to my name. The Kindle comes with a USB cable and a USB power adapter with a US plug. Amazon sells adapters with other plugs, but any local USB power adapter will do, if you are not in the US. While charging, the Kindle does not show how much it is charged (e.g. in percent). There is only an orange LED that turns green when charging is finished. Unfortunately, the DX is 3G only and does not support Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi-only would have been enough for me, as there is limited use for going online while on the go.

The hardware: is slightly above average. It’s the typical plastic enclosure and I’ve seen better, but I’ve also seen much worse. From what I’ve read on the web, you need to be a little bit more careful with a Kindle than with, say, an iPad. The standout is the display which uses the E Ink epaper technology. Epaper has a high resolution, with 16 shades of gray and only consumes power when the displayed content changes, not while displaying it. Thus you can leave the device “on” and stare at the same page almost indefinitely. Epaper’s high contrast make it very pleasant to read, as does the lack of backlighting. This means that you need light to read in darkness (which sometimes is a disadvantage compared to the iPad, but you cannot have it both ways) and that it works well in direct sunlight (where the iPad display is bad). When you see epaper in action for the first time, you think someone is playing a prank on you. It looks like a dummy device with content printed on it. Switching it off is a weird experience, because the only thing that happens is that a picture is shown. There is never the blank screen one has come to expect from devices such as TVs, cell phones, and computers. I don’t understand why the switched-off mode is even necessary, the only purpose I can think of is to lock keys and prevent accidental input.

The user experience: A touch user interface would have been perfect for the tablet form factor, but Amazon decided against it, because adding a layer for detecting touches reduces the contrast of the display. Given that the display is best suited for static applications, anyway, this was the right decision. They did the best they could with these constraints. I was able to figure out how to use it right away. The only exception was the AA-key for screen rotation lock and other display settings that is slightly hidden at the right side of the keyboard.

Books from the Kindle store: Amazon’s Kindle store has an amazing amount of ebooks. But they are still mostly in English. The store’s greatest feature is that its ebooks can be read on almost any platform: There is a Kindle app for Windows, Mac OS, iPhone, iPad, Android, and BlackBerry. Thus, if you buy Kindle ebooks, there is no platform lock-in. And you can switch between, say, your cell phone and your Kindle for reading a book. You order a book on Amazon’s website and they record what books you have bought. The next time you start you Kindle (app), all books are available to you automatically. The biggest problem with Kindle ebooks is that formulas are very ugly. Thus more theoretical content should not be bought in this format (PDF is better). For example, Greek characters such as μ are inlined as oversized bitmap graphics and stand out like a sore thumb.

Other file formats: The Kindle supports the file formats Kindle (.azw), plain text, HTML, Microsoft Word, image (.jpeg, .gif, .png, .bmp), PDF, and Mobipocket (.mobi, .prc). If you connect your Kindle to your computer, it becomes an external storage device and you just copy your files over. Notably absent is the EPUB ebook standard which is used by many competing devices (but they tend to each add their own DRM, making them incompatible with each other in practice). For PDFs sized A4 or letter, the larger screen of the DX (compared to the non-DX Kindle) is a god-sent, because they cannot be reformatted like ebook formats and scrolling or zooming is very slow on epaper. As an additional way to get a file onto the device, you can email it to an address associated with your account and your Kindle will download it. This costs you a small fee, though. A killer way to read offline web content on your Kindle is Instapaper. It allows you to save all your articles as a single .mobi file and you get a great user interface.

Organizing your documents: The documents on your Kindle can be arranged in collections, which are similar to file system folders, but the same document can be in several collections at the same time. Collections are usually displayed as top-level entities with documents in them. The reverse view, where the document is dominant and labeled with the collections it is a member of is less well supported: you need to descend one level from the document information to see these memberships. A minor complaint, but there would easily be room for this information one level up. Collection membership should also be displayed with each document when you are not in collection browsing mode and the home screen only shows a list of documents.

Kindle DX versus the iPad and the non-DX Kindle: If I hadn’t tried out the Kindle app and ebooks on the iPad, first, I don’t think I would have bought a Kindle. But because I liked ebooks on the iPad so much, I wanted to get an even better reading experience. And this is what you get from the Kindle, but it is also the only thing. For anything else (web browsing, emailing, videos, comics, ...) you need a quicker display or color. This specialization is a boon, though, because it makes for a very calm reading experience: having no backlight is soothing, as is the absence of temptations such as checking email or browsing the web. The iPad’s Kindle app has let me avoid the hardware lock-in of Apple’s ebooks and migrating to the Kindle device was a breeze. Having a Kindle and an iPhone 4 almost makes the iPad unnecessary, because the iPhone’s high-resolution display works so well for most dynamic applications and you have the Kindle’s large display for static ones. I still use the iPad for watching video, casual web browsing (when I’m too lazy to wake up my desktop computer), and as an ultra-mobile device with a long-lasting battery (when even a lightweight notebook would be too cumbersome to operate). Kindle DX and iPad are about the same size, but the Kindle DX is significantly lighter. Some people prefer the non-DX Kindle’s smaller size and weight, but that never mattered to me. Instead, the larger screen lets me read PDFs easily and that’s what weighed my decision in favor of the DX. If you only read ebooks, the paperback-size of the normal Kindle should be fine for you.

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