Why Kindle 2 is the Goldilocks of E-Book Readers

5/8/09Follow @wroush

Fans of this column know that I spent months dithering over whether to buy Amazon’s Kindle 2 e-book reader. I had mercilessly panned the original Kindle, mainly for its ungainly looks. And while I was much more impressed by the Kindle 2 when it came out in February, I was put off by the $359 price tag, which left me casting about for more excuses to resist a purchase.

Well, I finally ran out of excuses and let my inner geek take over. My new Kindle 2 showed up last Wednesday, and I’ve been enjoying it immensely, for reasons I’ll detail below. But as luck would have it, my Kindle arrived exactly a week before Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced another new Amazon device, the large-screen Kindle DX. So the first question I want to tackle is whether Kindle 2 owners should feel any buyer’s remorse—that is, whether they would have been better off waiting until this summer, when the DX, with its much bigger 9.7-inch screen, will start shipping. I don’t think so. The Kindle DX will be great for reading electronic documents where some extra formatting aids comprehension—meaning textbooks, business documents like PDF brochures and white papers, and maybe magazines and newspapers. But for any document where the text is primary, meaning the vast majority of current fiction and nonfiction literature, the DX will be overkill. And for $489, the announced price of the DX, you could buy a very good netbook or even a basic laptop and get access to a much broader world of digital media, and in color to boot.

Or you could spend nothing and simply read e-books on your mobile phone. The excellent resolution of smart phones like the iPhone actually makes them credible e-book readers. Companies like Lexcycle, Shortcovers, and Amazon itself have come out with very nice e-book software for the iPhone, and e-books are the fastest-growing category of applications in the iTunes App Store. But the iPhone’s weakness—-for purposes of reading, anyway—its its limited screen size, which means you have to flick to the next page every few seconds.

Amazon Kindle 2 and Kindle DX ComparedThe Kindle 2 feels to me like the Goldilocks of information display devices: bigger than a smartphone, but smaller than a tablet PC. Its electronic ink display, which measures 6 inches diagonally, is more than twice the size of the iPhone’s screen. It can hold about the same amount of text as one standard paperback book page, depending on the font size you’ve selected. So you press the “next page” button only twice as often as you would turn the pages of a printed book (since the Kindle doesn’t have two facing pages, the way printed books do). But it’s still small enough to make the device extremely light and portable. You can read it comfortably using one hand. I can imagine pulling out my Kindle 2 on a bus or a subway car. I’ll be surprised if I ever see anyone do that with a Kindle DX.

Reading on the Kindle 2 is a beautiful experience. It is no less immersive than reading a printed book. (The first two e-books I read on the Kindle were The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel-Pie Society and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—The Classic Regency Romance, Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem; I recommend both heartily.) Of course, I didn’t really need to be convinced on this score. I first fell in love with e-book devices in 1999, when NuvoMedia brought out the Rocket eBook—in fact, I liked it so much I went to work for the company for a couple of years. But I’m still amazed by how much displays have evolved over the past decade. The Kindle’s electronic paper display, made by Cambridge, MA-based E Ink, is sharp and clear. It sips electricity like a hummingbird, meaning the battery lasts for days between rechargings. And the screen’s momentary flicker when you turn a page—which is needed to fully erase the previous screen, sort of like shaking an Etch-a-Sketch—isn’t nearly as annoying as it was on the original Kindle, thanks to the improvements E Ink built into the Kindle 2′s electronics. In fact, the screen redraws itself quickly enough now to allow a fully interactive interface, with pop-up menus for doing things like jumping around within or between books.

Far more earthshaking, however, is Whispernet, the 3-G wireless network that Amazon built for the Kindle family of devices. Even if you left out the electronic paper screen, wirelessness would make the Kindle a huge improvement over all previous e-book devices, because it lets you shop for books, magazines, and newspapers on the device itself and download them instantly, from practically any location where you can get a cellular signal.

The fact that Amazon has also released an iPhone app for reading Kindle editions makes it clear that the company’s long-term e-book strategy is to sell content, not gadgets. (As David Pogue puts it, “The Kindle is just the razor. The books are the blades—ka-ching!”). Going wireless was a master stroke, because … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Erika Jonietz

    Wade Roush writes, “…Amazon charges nothing for all other Whispernet traffic.”

    Not precisely true. The cost is presumably built into the $9.99 price of most Amazon e-books, which, while less than the cost of a new hardback, is still significantly more than the company charges for most paperbacks. How can delivering bits over the air cost more than having books shipped to Amazon’s warehouses; paying workers to stock them, pull orders, and prepare them for shipping; and shipping the books to buyers? (Not to mention the cost for publishers to print the books in the first place.) As a consumer, I’m very happy to pay for content, and glad to recognize the value added by a good publisher (including vetting, editing, copy editing, and preparing the electronic files). And I want to be “green.” But until the price for the e-books themselves reflects the savings that publishers and retailers would seem to reap from electronic editions, I won’t be a convert. Of course, I realize I am likely in the minority: $9.99 a book is not a barrier for most people willing to pay $300-$500 for an e-reader in the first place.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    Erika,

    Thanks for your comment. You make a very good point. The cost of “free” Whispernet delivery of Kindle editions is doubtless built into the price.

    For a long time, I felt the same way you do about Kindle edition pricing. Here’s what I wrote in a November 2007 article about the original Kindle (which cost $399 at the time):

    “…even if the Kindle were beautiful, there would still be the problem of price. Price, meaning both the $399 cost of the device itself—a very steep admission ticket to the world of electronic reading—as well as the $9.99 that Amazon is charging for New York Times bestsellers and other new releases. Yes, $9.99 is a big markdown compared to the typical $25 cover price for a new hardcover (and even compared to the $13 to $18 you’ll pay for a hardcover at Amazon). But it’s not nearly big enough. For better or worse, consumers have gotten used to paying low-single-digit dollar amounts for electronic content. A song on iTunes still goes for $0.99, a TV show for $1.99. Netflix rentals will run you $1 or $2 per DVD, depending on how many you go through in a month. It may be a travesty that undermines all the great traditions of literature and authorship, but my bet is that people simply won’t pay $10 for access to the electronic version of a novel, which is, after all, just a few hundred kilobytes of 1s and 0s (and with an e-book you don’t even get the paper this information is usually written on)…For the Kindle system to catch on as a real alternative to print books, I think prices for new releases would need to drop to the $5 level or below.”

    I guess my views have changed a little bit as we’ve watched the traditional business models for book, magazine, and newspaper publishers utterly implode. Writers need to get paid somehow. And I doubt Amazon will ever get the publishers to lower their wholesale prices for new books enough to make retail prices below the $10 range possible.

    And $9.99 really is a big markdown compared to the typical $25 price tag on a hardcover. It’s also in line with what people are apparently willing to pay for an album on iTunes, and it seems fair that musicians and authors should be treated roughly equally.

    In any case, my inner geek couldn’t wait any longer for the economics of e-books to change.

  • Dana Hartsock

    Funny you should mention Nuvomedia. I still use my Rocket eBook that I bought in 1998. Almost perfect in a first iteration. After all these years I still see 18-20 hours of battery life. Also funny how people complain about reading on an LCD-based device, yet probably spend hours a day on a pc or laptop without complaining. I generally have my Rocket’s backlight set to 20% intensity, never more than 40%. But eInk has great advantage in bright light. Getting new content requires Fictionwise and/or some conversion/DRM breaking. And of course with no DRM hack for the original Rocket titles I own, some day I lose all of those.  I do a lot of reading in low light situations so some form of integrated lighting is a must for me in a new reader. Same goes for a touch screen. I also own the ebookwise reader, the RCA 1150. I actually prefer the original Rocket over it but it is a little easier to get contemporary titles for the 1150.

    I’m not sold on the Kindle. As a pure “reader” I think there are better options. I think even my Rocket is superior for reading in some respects. I can annotate, underline, bookmark, do dictionary lookup, change screen orientation, via the touch screen.

    But Whispernet is a killer innovation in conjunction with the Amazon store. I heavily prefer a touch screen and some form of lighting. I won’t consider a Kindle in any form until there is a touch screen and some form of integrated lighting, and support for ePub.

    Sony has made a stab at lighting an eInk display with their LED edge lighting on the PRS-700. Not a complete success from what I hear. Also the Sony touch screen has some problems with glare, though fiddling with one in Borders I did not notice a problem. I think the Sony has a much nicer design. Give Amazon credit though, finally eReaders have some “sex appeal.” I roll my eyes as I listen to people gush about their Kindles, but at least they are talking about eReaders. The price issue still needs to be addressed. All the readers are way too expensive for mass appeal. The lowest price of entry is the eBookwise reader (RCA1150) which is an LCD-based reader. Cost is $136, close to where these devices need to be priced. But it is old technology.

    Keep your eye on http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2009/05/pixel-qi/
    I have been hoping this technology offshoot of the OLPC project will bear fruit. It promises to be more versatile than traditional LCD or eInk based displays. Time will tell if they can deliver on the promise.

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts on the Kindle 2. Even now I would prefer my Rocket over the Kindle. If Sony adds wireless to their reader I might become a convert. I need more from Amazon to be swayed. I guess that makes me something of an eReader luddite. But that is how it is for me currently.

  • http://blogger.sanook.com/kindledx hi007

    That was a short wait! Kindle DX is already out, and we do get the standard letter from Jeff Bezos to Amazon Customers on the front page of Amazon. Amazon has decided to get away for numbers for now, which is why Amazon is calling the new device Amazon Kindle DX. I have been calling it Kindle 2.5 as it is not really the third generation Kindle but it does offer some improvements over Kindle 2.0.

    Compare Kindle DX with Kindle :
    http://blogger.sanook.com/kindledx/2009/05/17/compare-kindle-dx-with-kindle/

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @hi007: Actually, I don’t think the Kindle DX is out yet. I’m looking at the Amazon product listing for the DX, and while you can pre-order it now, the page says it will ship sometime this summer.

  • NS

    Reading text from the public domain on your arbitrary reader whatsit seems to you a sneaky trick? My, how far we’ve come.

    “musicians and authors should be treated roughly equally.”

    Of course, though “equally” has little to do with absolute price and everything to do with the costs and margins of providing a service, and they’re not the same service. But the price points in both these cases aren’t margin-driven and are instead aimed at what people consider a droppable sum on luxury data in the parts of world society where this stuff is currently being marketed. I find nearly all digital media absurdly overpriced, but know that that’s because real competition for supply has only begun – and because delivery is still only available to a privileged few.

    But the real reason for this post is just to note that it’s not the Goldilocks of e-book readers, but the baby bear; if you find it fits the bill then you’re Goldilocks.

    Thanks for the review.

  • http://blogger.sanook.com/kindledx2009 new_sukae2

    While the Kindle 2 still packs a punch for its price and features, those looking for the ultimate reading pleasure will find the DX the best choice between the two devices. Like I said, the price is always the deciding factor in the equation so weigh the costs versus your needs and budget before making the ultimate decision.

    Kindle DX With Kindle :

    http://blogger.sanook.com/kindledx2009/2009/07/03/compare-kindle-dx-with-kindle/