Sunday, January 23rd 2011

The paperlike device

So I finally lost it and bought a Kindle. Sure I have blogged against Amazon’s stupid policies in the past, and the Kindle seems the nexus of such. But on the other hand, I did want an e-reader that doesn’t suck, and nowadays it’s indeed hard to find electronics/internet companies not behaving like assholes in some ways. It’s easy to choose some lesser evil over Apple (I also bought an Android phone recently, and intend to post some remarks soon), but in the e-reader landscape the choice seems between the proprietary and good, the (little more) open and expensive, and the cheap and utter rubbish. So I did order a Kindle 3, and I’m keeping backups just to be on the safe side.


Why the Kindle is the best device ever: the screen. It’s exactly like paper. After a while, you forget you’re holding electronics. It’s paper, even if a bit on the glossy side (but no worse than the stuff many magazines are printed on). It’s crisp, it’s easy on the eyes, it’s magical. Of course, it’s so much like paper you’ll need a light, but it’s okay: because it’s like paper. So good, I find myself turning it on and off and on and off again just to look at the gorgeous random ‘screensaver prints’ that come up when you turn it off. The refresh-only-on-demand paperlike screen also comes with another benefit: battery life. I charged the thing once when I got it two weeks ago, have been using it every day, and the battery indicator is only down one notch. Amazon claims one-fucking month of battery life, and they seem to be telling the truth. The Kindle also has decent WiFi connectivity (I didn’t go for the 3G version, and even though Amazon provides free 3G Internet worldwide, the browsing experience is so bad I don’t regret it — more on that later), which enables me to get stuff on the Kindle over the Internet. I’m already used to an automated daily Instapaper digest — the morning newspaper for the 21st century, and I doubt I’ll ever run out of stuff to read. The Kindle also comes preloaded with two dictionaries, and I love the nice touch of being able to navigate to any word in a text and having a definition pop up. Truly useful. And best of all, it all comes in a light package: the device along with the (by the way overpriced) cover weights less than an A5 Moleskine.

Why the Kindle is a piece of crap and deserves market death: The screen is too damn small. They say the Kindle is the size of a paperback, and they are right. But paperbacks don’t have oversized bezels and keyboards. In fact, the reading area is pocket-book sized. But still, there’s the larger Kindle DX, so I guess this one’s on me. The Kindle opens PDFs, but unless you format them for the small screen you’ll be scrolling a lot and zooming in a lot or reading really teeny tiny type. Perhaps the DX PDF experience is better, but then again, the PDF reader is so slow Adobe Reader in a malware-infested Pentium III feels zippy by comparison. Ditto for the Web browser. Even though it’s Webkit-based and capable of rendering modern websites pretty accurately, it’s an usability nightmare. And to make it worse, even though one wouldn’t actually expect tabbed browsing on a Kindle, a target=”_blank” link is all it takes to hit a brick wall, with a dreaded error message to the effect of “The Kindle browser doesn’t support opening multiple windows”; with no way to open the link in the same window. Amazon may have even put the browser under an ‘experimental’ menu (despite the fact many regular Kindle functions will automatically open the browser), and they may be worried about the cost of the whole “free worldwide 3G Internet” thing, but do they need to punish users connected via their home WiFi networks?

The Kindle is so full of ergonomical nonsense it’s ridiculous. The browser may be the worst of it, but usability WTFs are a Kindle staple. The menus and the navigation feel like an afterthought, as irritating as a MS-DOS productivity interface. The keyboard manages to be too big and small at the same time, and the relegation of numbers to the ‘symbol’ menu really made my day when I had to enter passwords, the ironic thing being cellphone QWERTY keyboards a quarter of the size are endlessly more pleasant to use. Not to mention the awkward position of the Menu, Home and Back buttons; and the way the D-pad is not only bad but seems placed wherever the designers found a place it would fit.

However, 95% of the time, you’ll be looking at the gorgeous-but-small paperlike screen, and using the big and rather well placed (in comparison with the ergonomical bankruptcy of the rest) page-flip buttons. And that’s what counts. If you look at the Kindle as electronics, it’s an infuriating piece of shit. But if you look at it as a reading medium, it’s quite swell. I’ve been taking mine with me every day.