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The Amazon brand seems to have guaranteed a high level of initial interest in the Kindle eBook reader.

But does the reality of this new reader live up to the promise, or is it destined to be yet another disappointment, like so many other eBook readers before it?

 
 
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Amazon Kindle e-Book Reader review

Part 2 of a two part review

Kindle 2 Preview here
 

This flattering picture fails to adequately depict the klutziness of the Kindle's cover.

While the Kindle has some great features, its design and appearance is very disappointing.

A review in two parts.  This is part two, part one is here.  See also our review of Sony's competing PRS-500 eBook reader.

 

 

Amazon's Kindle became available for sale on Monday 19 November.  Within 5 hours, Amazon was reporting it had sold its entire stock on hand of the units, and within another couple of days its next shipment - still not received - had been sold as well, extending the delay for when new orders would ship until early December.

Currently (Thursday evening, 22 November) Amazon says it will ship new orders on Wednesday 5 December - almost two weeks later. (This backlog situation continued until mid April 2008, and then returned again later in the year - in Nov 2008 there is an 11 - 13 week backlog on orders - is Amazon deliberately mismanaging the availability of the unit to kill its sales and success?)

Does this mean the unit is wildly popular, or just that Amazon was very cautious in the quantity it was building?  Amazon is refusing to release sales figures, which would tend to imply the latter.

Is the Kindle a device which can realistically be expected to continue to sell well once the initial novelty and early adopter enthusiasm has worn off?

Much as we like the concept of the Kindle, and some elements of its implementation, we feel that this unit is still a long way from becoming mainstream.  Until such time as Amazon massively reduces the cost of buying a Kindle, improves some of the missing or puzzling functionality, adds to its range of titles on sale, and either reduces the still-too-high purchase price of books and/or removes the copy-protection issues, the Kindle will remain of limited general appeal.

Our suggestion - wait and see what the next model Kindle is like.  Hopefully it will be closer to the compelling value proposition that we all seek.

Buying and Storing Books

This is undoubtedly the best thought out part of the Kindle system - the ease with which you can spend more money and buy more books, magazines, newspapers, and blog subscriptions.

Buying Content

You can buy new content either directly from your Kindle reader, using its data connectivity to browse through the 'Kindle Store' on Amazon, or alternatively, you can go to Amazon as you normally would and buy content that way, with it then being automatically downloaded to your Kindle.

Either way makes use of Amazon's patented one-click ordering (how amazing that they can patent something like that) so you've bought new titles almost before you realize it, with Amazon using the account information it already has on file for you (or, if you're a new customer, it quickly creates an account profile for you).

It takes less than a minute for most new titles to be downloaded to your device, which is amazingly fast.

Book prices range up to $9.99 (see table below).

UPDATE MAY 08 :  While browsing to buy some new titles, I noticed one very ordinary book (The Sanctuary by Raymond Khoury) selling for $15.42.  What happened to the $9.99 top price?  And why is such an undistinguished book so expensive?  I didn't buy it.

This is very much simpler than the Sony system, requiring you to go through a cumbersome web interface through a computer, and then, after a complicated ordering system, transfer the titles through a special PC based program and onto the PRS-500.

Storing Content

Once you've bought a title, you can store it on any of several different locations.  First and foremost, Amazon keep a master copy on their site of all books and the last handful or so of issues of periodicals which you can re-download at any future time if you should somehow lose your local copy of the product.

Secondly, new content is automatically stored in the Kindle's onboard memory - about 180MB of free storage for user data.  Amazon says this is enough for about 200 books; this is an optimistic estimate, although the size of a book can vary widely from under 1MB up to 6MB or more.  The key factor in the size of a book seems to be not so much the length of the book, but rather the number of illustrations in it.

Another option is to add a removable SD card to the Kindle.  Currently the Kindle will support SD cards of up to 4GB in capacity.  This would suggest that a single card measuring a mere 1 sq inch  can probably hold more than 2500 books on it.  Amazing.

And if these three options aren't enough, you can also store content on any PC you own.

Due to the convenience of being able to download your books from the Amazon server at any time, few people will even bother keeping all their books downloaded on the Kindle.

Range of Titles Available

At present Amazon boast over 90,000 titles available for download.

[UPDATE 1 May 2008 - they now have 115,000 titles available.  Adding another 25,000 titles in five months is an impressive accomplishment.]
[Update 8 June 2008 - they now claim 125,000 titles.]
[Update 25 Nov 2008 - they now claim over 200,000 titles.]
[Update 9 Feb 2009 - they now claim 230,000 titles.]
[Update 9 Feb 2010 - what, what a difference in a further year.  They are now claiming over 400,000 titles.]
[Update Sep 2011 - Amazon now claim 'over 800,000 titles under $9.99' and more than one million titles in total.]

This compares with only about 20,000 on Sony's site in November, although - to be fair - Sony has grown their collection from 10,000 to 20,000 titles in only 3 months.
[UPDATE 1 May 2008 - Sony is clearly embarrassed by the huge disparity in selection between their product and Amazon, and now no longer make any claims on their site as to how many titles are available, other than to say 'thousands of bestselling titles'.]

Original comment : But neither 20,000 nor 90,000 titles (nor even 125,000) is a large number.  By way of comparison, the local Barnes & Noble store stocks 160,000 different titles.
Updated comment :  As the history of title expansion shows, Amazon's commitment to its Kindle eBook reader is causing massive growth in the availability of titles available.  There are still huge gaps, however, with some major publishers refusing to release their titles into the Kindle format, but the bottom line is positive - a huge inventory on Day 1 of the Kindle's release a year ago, and a massive increase in titles during that year.

Another real world example was received when I got a regular email from Amazon with a list of recommended titles that they suggested I might like to buy.  Only one of the seven titles was available as an eBook.

However, Amazon doesn't seem likely to rest on its laurels.  As part of the launch publicity for the Kindle, they have boldly said their objective is to have every printed book on earth available for instant download.

That's an impressive objective.  But don't go expecting it any time soon.  Not all publishers and not all authors have agreed to distribute their work electronically, although there does seem to be a growing interest by most publishers in doing so.  As indeed there should be - if publishers can zero out all their printing and distributing costs, they stand to have a vastly simpler life and will make much greater profits, even when accepting significantly less money per sold copy.

As an indicator that eBooks may be a technology that is finally about to break into the big-time, sales of electronic books have begun to rise, reaching $2.3 million in August, about triple the sales for one month three years ago.  $2.3 million is still a laughably small figure, but a tripling in sales (albeit in three years) at least shows the trend is starting to climb.

Magazines, Newspapers, and Blogs Too

In addition to buying one-off books, you can also buy a range of magazines and newspapers, and even Blogs.

Magazines and newspapers of course have monthly subscriptions rather than one-time payments, and while each individual magazine or newspaper subscription is modest in and of itself, they can add up if you sign up for too many.  Newspapers typically cost $6 - $15 a month, and magazines $1.25 - $3.50 a month.

Even blogs - free on the internet - are charged, although at very modest rates of $1 - $2 a month.  This is probably not a profit item for Amazon, but rather represents in largest part their cost of delivering the data to you over Sprint's wireless network.

This is an interesting extension of the eBook concept, and for newspapers and magazines offers a potentially invaluable new way to distribute their content to readers.  And, with no advertising, it also forces them to return to their roots of charging for content rather than making money from advertising - possibly a very good thing.

A word of warning - if you do sign up for any subscription services, you may find it difficult to unsubscribe.  Surely just an oversight on Amazon's part (hmmmm) but there's no way to unsubscribe from the Kindle itself!

Out of Copyright Library

One thing that is missing with Amazon is a library of out of copyright titles that can be downloaded for very little money each.  Sony offers this, with an unknown number of 'classic' titles, typically as much as 100 or more years old, which they sell for a mere $1.99 each.

However, there is a 'trick' that dedicated readers might choose to adopt.  It is possible to get unformatted eBooks from free sources such as the Gutenberg Project and then convert them into a format that can be used by Kindle, using the Mobipocket creator software available, for free, here.

Miscellaneous content

The computer file formats that you can read or listen to on your Kindle are :

  • Kindle (.AZW)

  • Text (.TXT)

  • Unprotected Mobipocket (.MOBI, .PRC)

  • Audible (.AA)

  • MP3 (.MP3)

Mobipocket files must have no Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection applied to be readable on a Kindle. If you purchased a Mobipocket file from a Mobipocket retailer, the chances are that it has DRM applied and so won't play.

Although the unit can play MP3 files, it has a very basic MP3 player and, with so many better ways to play MP3 content, this is not really a sensible option.

In addition to the file formats listed above, you can also convert other documents to read on a Kindle.  Amazon has a service that will convert files for you and send them to your Kindle for 10 a file (basically to cover the data service charge from Sprint), or they will send them to your email address for free.

Amazon can convert Word (.DOC), HTML (.HTML or .HTM), JPEG (.JPG or .JPEG), GIG (.GIF), PNG (.PNG) and BMP (.BMP) files into compatible Kindle format.

Copyright and Protection Issues

One of the biggest weaknesses of the Sony PRS-500 & PRS-505 is that the restrictive policies of the copyright protection system they use had no offsetting advantages (other than saving trees).  As the table of book cost prices below surprisingly shows, the cost of eBooks through the Sony system is almost the same as buying them through an online bookstore.

The Amazon Kindle system has the same massively user-unfriendly and simply unfair copy protection restrictions built into it, as well.  But, they are slightly more palatable because at least you're saving good money compared to the cost of buying the print edition of the books you're acquiring.

I now find myself with a Sony eBook reader that I never plan to use again, and contained on it are several hundred dollars worth of books.  They are now useless to me, because I can't transfer them to the Amazon reader, or do anything else with them.  I can't sell them (or even give them away!) to anyone, and neither can I now return them back to the Sony store for some sort of return credit.

The exact same thing would almost certainly happen again if I subsequently abandoned the Amazon format in favor of some newer device from some other supplier.

Rather than feeling threatened by digital books, publishers should feel delighted.  I have books that I've bought three times - in print, for the Sony reader, and now for the Amazon reader too.  And noting that the Kindle is almost surely not the ultimate state of the art device that will never be superseded by something newer and better, the chances are I'll be buying some books a fourth or even more times.

This is a bit like buying a movie on different formats - Beta, VHS, Laser Disc, DVD, HD-DVD, Blu-Ray, and who knows what else in the future.  But it is not exactly the same - at least with movies, you could sell your older versions, and you could lend them to friends, and some people (gasp) have even been known to make copies of the movies they own or borrow.

One can only hope that the tentative and hesitant evolution of digital music - a move from completely copy protected tracks to music that is less copy protected and sometimes completely unrestricted - will be copied with digital books, too.  If one knew that digital book purchases would be long lasting and have permanent value, independent of a choice of eBook reader, it would be easier to confidently buy many more.  But at present, one has to view any book as a 'read once and then throw away' type purchase, and that sure inhibits the 'collector instinct' that is one of the main reasons why people buy books rather than borrow them from a local library.

Feature Comparison with the Sony PRS-500 and PRS-505

The differences between the two units don't clearly reveal themselves in this chart, but here it is anyway.

Feature

Amazon Kindle

Sony PRS-500 & PRS-505

Size

 7.5" x 5.3" x 0.6"

6.9" x 4.9" x 0.5"

Size with cover

7.7" x 5.7" x 1.0"

7" x 5" x 0.6"

Weight

10.3 oz

9.0 oz

Weight with cover

16.1 oz

11.6 oz

Charger weight

3.6 oz

7.7 oz

Combined weight of unit, cover and charger

19.7 oz

19.3 oz

Screen

6" diagonal 800 x 600

same

Document formats

Amazon proprietary

Unprotected Mobipocket (.MOBI, .PRC)
Plain text

can convert html and Word documents
 

Sony proprietary

Unprotected PDF and RTF files
Plain text

can convert Word documents

Music formats

MP3

MP3
AAC

Page turning speed

Slightly faster

Slightly slower

Number of different text sizes

6

3

Can read books on PC too

No

Yes, through the Connect Reader software

Number of books available

> 200,000

> 20,000

RSS and Blogs

Chargeable, $1 - $2/month, limited range

Free, wide range

Newspapers and Magazines

Yes

 

Purchase price

$359 (price reduced from $399 to $359 in May 08)

$299

Warranty

1 year

90 days

File size - Freakonomics
Reagan Diaries

388kB
4.38MB

2.4MB
5.5MB

Pictures in books

Yes, larger than Sony

Yes, smaller than Kindle

 

Book Pricing Issues

Although there's an obvious difference in purchase price between the two units, this difference can dwindle (or increase) as you buy books.

To get a feeling for price differences between the Kindle and the Sony PRS-500, I randomly chose some titles, plus checked the top ten best sellers at each store.  Here's a chart listing the titles, both from Amazon and Sony's eBook stores, plus the lowest Amazon price for the same new book (paperback if available, otherwise hardback).

At the bottom are totals for all the books that were available in all three places to give you a feeling for the total difference in price you'd experience if buying all -- of these titles.

Altogether, we priced 29 titles and also searched for three other best selling authors who had no work available in either format.

All 29 titles were available on Amazon, 28 of the 29 with Sony.  One of the titles was currently out of print and not available as a print edition, and two of them (the Bible in different versions) were hard to compare to print versions due to there being so many available.

None of the titles were cheaper through Sony's format than through Amazon's Kindle format.  Nine were identically priced, and nineteen were cheaper through Amazon.  Occasionally it was even cheaper to buy a print version of a title rather than the Sony version.

For the 25 titles available in both e-Book formats and/or in traditional printed book form, the total cost to purchase would be respectively $224.25 via Amazon, $334.46 through Sony, or $364.43 if bought in print editions through Amazon online.

Amazingly, there was almost no saving offered by Sony over the print editions, and a massive $4.41 saving per book (ie a 33% discount) if choosing the Amazon format over the Sony format.  Just these 25 titles alone would close the price gap between the purchase price of the two readers, and with the lower cost per title, you're more likely to feel good about buying more books for an Amazon Kindle reader than you are when paying prices that all too often were higher than for the print books to load onto your Sony PRS-500.

We expect that Sony will swiftly move to counter Amazon's current massive pricing advantage, but even if/when it does, it will take a long time for it to respond to the more than four times greater range of titles available through Amazon.

UPDATE 27 November 2008 :  Sony has indeed moved swiftly to counter Amazon's massive pricing advantage.  We've updated the table below, adding a new column to show Sony's new price on the titles.  It is interesting to see the massive reductions in prices Sony was magically able to conjure up little more than a week after the Amazon Kindle reader was released, with some prices now less than half their price before - someone was clearly making way too much money before!

And, yet again in our free marketplace, we are all winners, with the competition between the two products driving down prices for us, the consumers.

Title

Amazon Kindle

Sony PRS-505

Updated Sony

Online Print (plus shipping)

The Reagan Diaries (Reagan)

$9.99

$22.36

$16.77

$21.00

The Hinge of Fate (Churchill)

$6.39

$6.39

$6.39

$13.60

Freakonomics (Levitt & Dubner, rev ed)

$6.39

$6.39

$6.39

$18.45

The Tipping Point (Gladwell)

$7.99

$7.99

$7.99

$8.97

World without End (Follett)

$9.99

$28.00

$12.99

$19.25

The Simple Truth (Baldacci)

$5.59

$5.59

$5.59

$7.99

Stone Cold (Baldacci)

$9.99

$15.19

$11.39

$16.19

Harry Potter series

n/a

n/a

n/a

 -

Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein)

$6.39

$6.39

$6.39

$11.53

Tom Clancy novels

n/a

n/a

n/a

 -

Valhalla Rising (Cussler)

$6.39

$6.39

$6.39

$7.99

John Grisham novels

n/a

n/a

n/a

 -

Double Cross (Patterson)

$9.99

$15.99

$11.99

$16.79

Pillars of the Earth (Follett)

$6.39

$6.39

$6.39

$14.97

Protect and Defend (Flynn)

$9.99

$13.59

$10.19

$16.17

Third Degree (Iles)

$9.99

$13.59

$10.19

$17.13

The Chase (Cussler)

$9.99

$21.56

$12.99

$16.17

Book of the Dead (Cornwell)

$9.99

$21.56

$12.99

$14.82

Cradle and All (Patterson)

$4.79

$4.79

$4.79

n/a

NIV Holy Bible

$9.99

$11.99

$11.99

 various

King James Bible

$0.80

$1.99

$1.99

various

The Golden Compass (Pullman)

$3.19

$3.19

$3.19

$7.50

You: Staying Young (Roizen & Oz)

$9.99

$13.59

$10.19

$15.60

Deceptively Delicious (Seinfeld)

$9.99

$15.96

$11.97

$14.97

Eat, Pray, Love (Gilbert)

$8.99

$12.00

$9.00

$8.99

I Am America (Colbert)

$9.99

$14.39

$10.79

$16.19

A Thousand Splendid Suns (Hosseini)

$9.99

$20.76

$12.99

$14.27

Rescuing Sprite (Levin)

$9.99

$13.59

$10.19

$13.20

The Daring Book for Girls (Buchanan & Peskowitz)

$9.99

$15.96

$11.97

$14.97

Clapton :  The Autobiography (Clapton)

$9.99

$14.36

$10.77

$15.60

Water for Elephants (Gruen)

$6.70

n/a

n/a

$8.37

You :  On a Diet (Roizen & Oz)

$9.99

$13.59

$10.19

$13.75

Totals for the 25 books currently available in all three formats

$224.25

$334.46

$251.35

$364.43

Average per book

$8.97

$13.58

$10.05

$14.58

 

Although it might seem that Amazon is the price winner here - and indeed that is the case, but there's no guarantee that will continue into the future.  Lack of competition - ie closed architecture which means you can only buy books from Amazon - means that, at a certain point, Amazon may feel that instead of needing to discount title pricing to sell more readers, it can swap tactics and start to increase the price of titles because of its large captive market.

Unlike normal books, where you have lots of suppliers and price pressure, there's nothing to stop Amazon increasing what it charges per book download as much as they may wish.  Clearly they can add almost 50% to their current charging and still be less than the Sony product, so there may be some upwards price movement that could distort the overall value equation of eBooks compared to 'real' books.

This is, of course, another reason to wait for readers - and titles - that don't require closed architecture and copy protected titles.

One last comment on eBook pricing.  Amazon is encouraging anyone to publish their books in Kindle eBook format on their website.  Amazon offers to give such publishers a mere 35% of the selling price.  Clearly Amazon is expecting some extraordinarily high margins from its eBook sales.

Summary

I desperately wanted to like the Sony PRS-500 eBook reader, but an unreliable battery, very user-unfriendly copy protection, and stupidly expensive costs for buying books makes it a product with only very limited appeal to very few people.  (Update 27 Nov 08 :  Price reductions on book titles have removed much of the sting of that part of my criticism, the other comments hold true.)

The Amazon Kindle is another product I desperately want to like.  In some respects, it is better than the Sony product.  It has a more feature-rich set of capabilities, and the cost of buying books is lower , but still too high.  Paying $10 for an eBook that has perhaps 25 in variable costs (ie a payment to Sprint to send it over their data network) and no other direct cost, and which can't be loaned, copied, or resold, is still too much to tempt most people into becoming regular purchasers of books.

If we look at the three elements of success for the iPod when it revolutionized the MP3 marketplace, can we seem the same elements in the Kindle?  The iPod offered a very slickly designed unit with an easy interface for people to use to operate the unit, and an easy way to buy music at low cost.  The Kindle is a poorly designed unit with no 'sex appeal' to it.  It has a complex interface that is hard to master and non-intuitive.  And while it is brilliantly easy to buy books, magazines, newspapers and blogs, it is not inexpensive.

The Kindle's design and user interface is flat, complex, and lacking in sex appeal.  It isn't a 'must have' gadget that shows the world you're a really cool dude, unlike, eg, an iPod or iPhone.  Instead it suggests you're a nerd.

Amazon are to be praised for their attempt in moving forward the 'state of the art' with eBook readers.  Some elements of the Kindle are futuristic (especially the wireless connectivity and keyboard).  But the overall result is disappointing, especially when viewed in the context of it having been a three year project by a major company with substantial resources.

So will the Kindle revolutionize the eBook marketplace the same way the iPod revolutionized the digital music marketplace?  Almost certainly not.  It is a poorly thought out imperfect implementation, and the greed of whoever it is that causes books to be sold in an overly copy protected state for $10 a title makes it of limited appeal to most casual readers, who'd rather pay under $10 for a paperback book.

Should you buy a Kindle

That is hard to answer.  A Kindle will cost you $360 (currently with free 2nd day air shipping included) (NOTE - price reduced from $399 to $359 in May 08) and is only available from Amazon directly.  Books cost $9.99 or less, and you can also subscribe to some newspapers, magazines and blogs.

I find it a useful way to bring a collection of books with me when going on long plane rides, or to take with me on vacation.  But if I'm buying a book just to keep at home, I'll probably happily continue buying regular books from regular bookstores.

Although Amazon say they've spent three years perfecting this product, the first release version looks very amateurish and second rate in terms of design and construction, and has no 'Wow!' factor.

If you're a 'money is no object' early adopting gadget lover who reads a lot, this is probably for you.  Otherwise, may be better advised to wait this out, and hope for a better implementation when (if!) the next generation of Kindle comes out, probably in about a year's time.

Where to Buy

Amazon's Kindle reader is only available through their website.

Read more about the Kindle and Sony eBook Readers

Read part one of this two part series on the Kindle and also our review of the Sony PRS-500.

Kindle 2 Preview here
 

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Originally published 23 Nov 2007, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 

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