Archive for January, 2008

Kindle – The Reading Experience

I posted earlier today about intensively using Kindle on a Mexico trip. While it was a positive experience overall, I definitely encountered some issues with the reading experience. In no particular order:
Painfully slow current-location-relative navigation. Going to any but the next or previous page is a real chore. There’s a non-reliable “type ahead” with repeated presses of the page buttons, but with the almost full-second time to show a page it can most charitably be described as “stately”. Any mostly you end up in a “press-wait-press-wait” loop. Even with fiction I found this problematic, especially given the propensity to accidentally press the awkwardly located next/prev page buttons. But with non-fiction this was an out-and-out hair-pulling experience. A paper book of course is quickly
Cumbersome menus. For example, pressing the font-size button brings up a menu, warping the “cursor” on the LCD stripe up to the top of the screen, with the “Close” menu item selected. So you need to move your eye focus from the very bottom (where the font size button is located) up to the top, move your thumb up to the cursor roller-button, take note of the current value (which has an arrow indication), roll the cursor down to the desired font size, then click to select. The Sony Reader’s simple font-size button function simply increments around the set of sizes, providing immediate visual feedback via the updated page view. In contrast, the Kindle implementation seems incredibly cumbersome. Implementing a volume control on an MP3 player by popping up a modal menu would be crazy – the font size feature seems analogous for a reading system.
Slow text input, which makes searching a chore. If I raced a person reading a paper book to read all the pages containing a given index term, I’d lose by a country mile. The fact that searches always return results from all content was also distractive. Digital should kick butt over paper in searchability – so this is almost shameful. The frequently-displayed tip on using accelerators like “@store” to constrain searches was almost laughable – given the s-l-o-w typing experience, the term “accelerator” hits an ironic note.
No intrinsic lighting, plus glare with focused light sources. Let’s face it, a lot of reading goes on in bed, much of it next to a sleeping spouse. The opaque reflective display that makes E Ink excel in sunlight leaves it no better than paper in the dark. I had thought that the lack of an edge LCD was just a cost issue, but after more use I think there may be deeper issues. Using various book lights and flashlights, the glass frontplate of Kindle caused a lot of reflective glare. Best results with Kindle were obtained from diffuse light sources at a wide angle; but these days most portable book lights tend to be of the high-intensity LCD variety and angled acutely to the display surface.This was a situation where I found paper still delivered a significantly superior reading experience.
For most of these issues the Amazon Kindle team at Lab 126 can’t be blamed; they are hamstrung by the limitations of the current generation of E Ink display subsystem and overall Kindle is a very usable breakthrough device. And, pioneers are destined to take some arrows. Luckily, this display technology is rapidly improving, especially in refresh rate, so these issues should be much improved even within just the next year.
One suggestion for the Kindle team: you went to all the trouble of putting a quick-refresh LCD “strip” on Kindle, why don’t you use it more? For example, why not support navigating to a location by using the LCD as a scroll bar, which it already resembles: e.g. hold down the “ALT” key and the strip shows your relative position in the current book, and as you roll whenever you pause it moves the page view to that location – bingo, fast navigation, like thumbing through a paper book. Hit back button and you are back to your previous reading view. BTW after a week of heavy use it seems obvious that the separate LCD strip is more clever hack than fundamental user interface concept; Scoble’s Kindle review was overly harsh but I completely agree that a touch-screen UI is eventually going to be a much better way to go – and even with the current E Ink technology the iRex iLiad delivers a nice experience with touch screen.

eBooks Storm the Beach

On a holiday visit to beautful-but-isolated Yelapa, Mexico, I took along an Amazon Kindle for a real-world test. I read 5 books on Kindle, along with several more on paper (I had to time-share the Kindle with the family), and I can now say definitively: eBooks have arrived! I was a little concerned about Kindle in the salty, sandy beach environment but it never faltered or felt fragile, readability in bright sunlight was great, and battery life was excellent – lasting over 6 days before needing a charge (wireless off, since the Sprint network wasn’t available anyway).
But I’m already a convert – the real evidence was the attention I received from a procession of people wanting to know what I was doing, which invariably led to the inquirer getting excited and expressing keen interest in adopting eBooks. Never once did I get an “oh, OK” kind of response. And it’s clear why: the gringos of Yelapa are truly desperate for reading material! Yelapa is accessible only by a 30 minute open boat ride, and the local book supply is a few slim shelves of left-behind paperbacks at various restaurants and casitas. Even those who only spend a week at Yelapa are likely to exhaust the reading supply they are able to reasonably include in their luggage budget – and there are people here who stay months on end or year-round. So these folks – by no means gadget-philes, after all this is laid-back car-free Yelapa that only got electricity 4 years ago – immediately realized that eBooks were a compelling, practical solution to being able to read what they want, wherever they are.
I did come up with a laundry list of usability issues with Kindle that I’ll post about in a separate review, and will compare and contrast with the Sony Reader, but to me the bottom line is that I finally feel confident in saying that eBooks have really arrived as a consumer-relevant media type. Market forces and the continuation of Moore’s Law will lead to radically improved reading systems in the coming years, but it’s already become a no-brainer. My ever-practical spouse questioned whether it was a good idea to bring an eBook reader on this trip. It’s clear that next time she’ll be questioning whether we should take up space and weight with any books of the paper variety.