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.

2 Responses to Kindle – The Reading Experience

  1. BJ Nicholls says:

    Since the Kindle uses the same display as the Sony Reader I have experience with, I suggest that “no better than paper” understates the problem in low light. In fact, “white” on an e-ink display is grayer than even low grade newsprint, and “black” isn’t as black as ink on paper. The resulting poor contrast means these readers need significantly brighter external illumination than almost any book.
    [ Agreed. I was just trying to point out that while E Ink and paper are both reflective, the glass faceplate also causes glare/flaring with point light sources. That’s an additional issue to the need for somewhat brighter illumination due to lower contrast ratio. -B ]

  2. avagee says:

    For reading prose it’s worth trying your cell phone. Most modern phones should be able to read books from they give away public domain titles. You can download direct to the phone or via a PC. The screen size is fine, I quickly forgot about it and was ‘in’ the text. The size does mean it is hyper portable, you can just add books to what you already carry everywhere. You already paid for the phone, the books are free – it’s worth a try.
    [ I see phones, future notebooks (that morph into UMPC form factors), and dedicated reading devices as all being used to consume text-based content. Different people will have different preferences, as is the case with digital cameras and usage will vary by geography. Hence we need a platform that allows users to choose and move between these classes of device.
    Japan is alreading experience significant consumer adoption of eBooks on mobile phones. But at the right price, the larger, reflective screen of a dedicated reading device should trump what can be delivered in a pocket-sized phone for many consumers, esp. in the U.S. where there’s less usage of phones as a PC replacement. Personally, I greatly prefer reading on Sony Reader and Kindle to reading on my 320×240 res phone. 15 years from now we’ll probably all be reading on contact lens displays. – B ]