[Apologies for the blur on that above pic. It’s absolutely 100% not indicative of the display quality of the Kindles’ display]
I’ve owned my Kindle (3rd Gen, Wi-Fi only) for a exactly a week at this point (December 2nd, 2010). Having read two books so far on the device, as well as having spent some time ‘getting a feel’ for it, I figured it was perhaps time to write up a few thoughts. I’ve expanded from my original premise slightly, to include some thoughts on the actual ‘market’ that devices such as the Kindle are designed to serve, and why said marketplace, might end up holding the sale of e-book readers back.
As per usual, to anyone who knows me - I haven’t sat down and really ‘blocked out’ a narrative as such for this - ‘tis just a stream of thoughts and opinions. So with that little disclaimer.
Why I’ll still be buying books, even though I love my Kindle…
First things first - I’ll start with a review of the device itself. Mostly because, at this point, a number of people have asked me for my thoughts on it, and I figure I might as well dispatch with this part first - that way, they don’t have to read through the rest of this, to find the part they’re interested in :)
This current (3rd) generation of the Kindle comes in two ‘flavours’ - the £109 Wi-Fi only version (which I own) or a Wi-Fi + 3G version, which clocks in at £149. Other than the addition of the 3G (allowing you to download books over cellphone signals, rather than having to use wi-fi), there are no differences between either device, bar a slight weight increase in the 3G version (241 grams for the wi-fi only version, compared to 247 grams for the wi-fi + 3G version).
Both devices contain the same 6” e-ink Pearl display, backlight free, and come equipped with 3.3Gb of usable storage space, which Amazon claims is enough for around 3,500 books, which seems about right, given that most books are around the 1Mb size. Unlike other devices, such as the Nook (by Barnes & Noble) and the Sony range of e-readers, the Kindle doesn’t allow for the addition of additional storage space (though unless you load it with .mp3s, you’re unlikely to fill the devices’ storage capacity, imo).
Compared to other devices, particularly the Nook, the Kindle can, at first, appear to be the ‘ugly ducking’ of the group. There’s no touchscreen, no colour, and the keyboard doesn’t exactly look brilliant. If you’re after something aesthetically pleasing, then I wouldn’t recommend the Kindle. If, however, you actually plan to use one of these devices for it’s primary purpose - the reading of actual books, then the Kindles’ ‘failings’ suddenly become amongst it’s strong points.
First - the big one - the screen. Most e-book devices on the market contain displays that aren’t really suited to heavy reading, unless you want to strain your eyes. Most displays are backlit, which, imo, really doesn’t make them suitable for prolonged periods of reading. The Kindle (and the Nook) both contain, non-backlit e-ink screens, which are designed to be as close to the printed page as possible (the Nook also contains a small colour touchscreen at the bottom). They’ll never get the display 100% perfect, but - well the best way I can put it, is that, I’ve yet to sit there and think “I’m reading on a screen”, whilst reading a book.
Because the device is designed to mirror a physical book, you can’t read it in low-light / the dark - in the same way that you can’t with a physical book. I’ve done a lot of my reading in my bedroom, sitting on bed, with a small bedside lamp, and have had absolutely no problems with glare.
From an Accessibility point of view, the Kindle scores major points. Font size, Font Width, and line spacing, are all easily adjustable, and you can have the device read to you, if you want - either via the speakers at the back of the unit, or through the headphone jack. You can also rotate the screen orientation, so if you’re reading a text more suited to widescreen - click a few buttons, and you’re reading in widescreen.
[Kindle 2 Widescreen mode. Image via darkdragon1976 @ Flickr]
Amazon also includes, under the ‘experimental options’ (more on those later, along with a possible reason to opt for the 3G version, if you can afford it, instead of the Wi-Fi only unit) a Voice Guide, so not only will the Kindle read the books for you, it’ll read anything on the screen - including the devices user interface - speaking of which…
The On screen User Interface is a bit clunky. Granted, I didn’t expect it to resemble an i-Device (Apple probably sends more money designing their UI icons, than Amazons’ entire research budget), but it is a lil bit ‘awkward’. Fortunately, you’re not in that interface all that long - just selecting which book you wanna read, then it goes away. From the Homescreen, you can select which book you wanna read, as well as access the Kindle store, the system menus, etc, etc.
The one problem I can see with the user interface, is that if you do go ahead and load the device with 100s of books, it might take a while to navigate through them. Say you’ve got 20+ Michael Connelly books (which you should, he’s brilliant), and you wanna read The Reversal. You can’t simply type in ‘The Reversal’, to find the book - you have to click through the pages of titles, until you find it, before starting it (unless it’s the latest book you’ve added to your device, in which case it’s easier to find).
As for the physical interface - the buttons on the exterior of the device - they’re perfectly fine. Personally, when I first started to use the device, I thought the buttons ‘were in the wrong place’, as each of the bigger buttons, on the left & right, are ‘page forward buttons’ where as the smaller ones above, are page back buttons. As a ‘rightie’ I thought the big button on the left was the page back, with the one on the right being page forward. However, obviously Amazon have designed the unit to be equally easy to use for both ‘lefties’ and righties’ (rightly so, if you’ll pardon the pun), and you soon ‘click into things’.
Actually holding the device, is easy a pleasure. I’m currently using my Kindle (Naked) - it doesn’t have one of Amazons’ obscenely expensive covers (more on them later), so I’m using the device, as it is out of the box. Because it’s super lightweight, you don’t get any arm strain - put it this way, I’ll be starting Under The Dome, either over Christmas, or early next year, and I know which version I’ll be reading:
So that’s the ‘main use’ for the Kindle dealt with - the reading of books. What else does it do?
Truth be told, not all that much. Unlike an i-Device, which is designed to do a veritable smorgasbord of things - the Kindle really is primarily designed to read books, and that’s about it. Amazon, have however, included a few extra tricks.
There’s two dictionaries built into the device, which you can access from within the book you’re reading. Say for example, there’s a word, or name you’re not familiar with, you can highlight it, and the definition will pop up, either at the top of the page, or the bottom, depending on where in the ‘page’ you are. You can also highlight certain passages of text, and store them as notes. If you want, you can also share these notes with other Kindle readers, via the Kindle store, or tweet them out / post them to Facebook.
Accessible via the ‘Experimental’ tab, the Kindle includes an mp3 player, that’ll play songs in the background while you’re reading. It also includes a highly experimental, and prone to crashing unfortunately, Web Browser. You can buy books directly on the Kindle, via a separate (far more functional) process on the Kindle - just select the book you want, and it’ll either download over 3G, or when you’re next in a Wi-Fi spot, it’ll download it then.
The 3G is free - you don’t have to pay to use it. It also, as far as I can tell, isn’t restricted to just the Kindle Store - Before buying my Kindle I used someone else’s for a small period, and I’ve seen him check email, use Facebook, all over the 3G connection. Which makes me think, that if you can afford the extra £40, it might be worth it, for an ‘always on’, free, internet connection. Whilst the Kindle certainly isn’t optimised for using on the internet, you could use it, for example, to do basic Google searches, look up cinema / theatre times etc, etc - basically pretty much everything you can do on a smartphone, only without the additional cost.
The 3G connectivity, also comes in useful, if you plan on reading the same book, on multiple devices. At the time of writing, Amazon have produced Kindle apps for i-Devices, Blackberrys, and I believe Android devices. What that basically means, is that you can read upto a certain point, on say your computer, then open the same book on a Kindle, and it’ll jump to the point where you left it, on the computer. Left your Kindle at home, but got an i-Device? The same principal applies. The Wi-Fi only version also allows you todo this, but you need to be in a Wi-Fi zone, for this to work.
In terms of the review of the device itself - I think that’s about it really. In terms of the battery, Amazon claims the Kindle can run for 1 month off a single charge, with Wi-Fi & 3G switched off. If you switch them on, the battery life drops to 10 days. I transferred a few books across to my device on December 1st, so I’m gonna try not to plug it into my computer until next year, to see exactly how long the battery will last.
The Kindle itself comes with a USB cable, a USB to Mains adaptor, so you can charge the device from a regular plug socket, and a basic instruction booklet. There isn’t any software needed - I plugged it into my computer (Windows 7 32bit) and it recognised it without any problems, and mounted it as a removable drive.
As mentioned previously, Amazon do supply a variety of ‘apps’ for the Kindle, including a Kindle For Windows e-reading app - Personally, if you purchase a Kindle, I wouldn’t recommend using it. Instead, download and install a programme called Calibre (Website), which is an e-book reader, that’ll happily sync content to and from, your device, as well as handle any re-formatting that’s needed (more on that later).
One lil gripe that I have - and I can understand why this is the case, but none the less, it’s annoying - there aren’t any page numbers on the Kindle. At the moment, for example, I’m reading Wil Wheatons’ Just a Geek. According to the Kindle Store, it’s 296 ‘pages’ in length. However, when reading on the device - it doesn’t tell you which page, you’re on - just the ‘location’ and percentage. At the moment I’ve read 82% of the book, and I’m currently at locations: 3193-3201. Which is fine, however, how that translates to the physical book, I haven’t got a clue.
Granted, it’s not the end of the world - after all, what if you want to reference something from the paperback edition of the book, but the other person only has the hardback? I’ve read online some people saying it’s a nightmare for students who’re reading study material via the Kindle, as it prevents them from accurately citing their sources - though again, I’ve personally never felt the need to cite page number, when writing anything. Still, it might irk some people, so I guess it’s worth mentioning.
In terms of accessories, a small market has emerged around the kindle, for items such as covers, sleeves, and screen protectors (pretty much, the same things that already exist for mobile phones). Personally, I think the Amazon covers are obscenely expensive. The covers range from £29.99 upto £59.99. Fortunately, other companies have produced covers, which are more affordable. I currently don’t own a case for my Kindle - I’m still looking into which version would be appropriate. so until then, daft as it might sound, to store my Kindle, I wrap it in Bubble wrap, then pop it into a felt pencil case. It probably wouldn’t survive in my bag, but for keeping around the house, that works OK.
I think that’s about it, in terms of reviewing the actual device. In short (inb4 word count joke) I think the device is pretty brilliant - easy to get to grips with - both figuratively, and literally, due to the way it’s been designed. It’s super easy on the eyes, and unlike more ‘complicated’ devices, this one does what, ultimately an e-book reader should do - allows you to read books, with the minimum of fuss. I’d highly recommend it…
If only it was that simple. You see, whilst the device itself might be a little bit fantastic, sadly, in my opinion, the same can’t be said of the market that the Kindle (and devices such as the Nook) are designed to ‘serve’ - the e-book market.
Book Pricing: e-Books vs Physical Books. Format Wars, and why Amazon are holding the market back.
Maybe it’s just me, but I expected e-books to be somewhat cheaper than their physical counterparts. One thing I’d hoped todo prior to writing this, was to try and develop an understanding of, on average, exactly what percentage from a book sale goes where. For example, what percentage goes to the author, the publisher, the distributor, the retailer etc, etc. Whilst I didn’t quite get around to doing that (I hope to eventually, then perhaps revisit this, and revise it accordingly), from what I understand, the actual physical production cost per book, is around £3.
So it stands to reason, therefore, that e-books should be around £3 cheaper, right? You could argue that Amazon should make a slightly higher profit on e-book sales, then they do on hardback sales, due to the fact that they do provide a free 3G system, for those who want it. However - they’re saving money on not having to mail out the physical copies of books.
Whilst Amazon haven’t revealed their profit margin on the Kindle (which is understandable), it’s estimated that they’ve sold at least two million units. That’s a lot of money, which combined with the profit Amazon makes from their main business, makes me think that a £3+ discount, on e-books isn’t too much to expect.
Before typing this up, I had a look at the top 10 selling Books, on Amazon.co.uk. Amazon, after all, are ‘selling’ the Kindle as the perfect device for all readers - be they casual, or people like me, with a book collection that numbers four figures.
The (Current) Top 10 selling books on Amazon.co.uk would set you back £95.95. Assuming an approx. £3 saving per book, you’d expect the e-book versions to clock in at around £65 right?
Unfortunately, of the Top 10 books on Amazon, at the time of writing, only five of them are available from Amazons’ Kindle store. Now, to be fair to Amazon, this is perhaps the worst time of the year, to do this comparison, as there are a lot of ‘image heavy’ books propping up the book charts, which, I’m gonna assume, aren’t available on the Kindle, due to them not really being viable reads.
So, let’s do a direct comparison. The five books that are available on the Kindle vs their physical counterparts.
Physical Books: £41.60
Nope, that’s not a typo. I didn’t get the figures the wrong way around. The e-book versions, without any physical production, or distribution costs, would cost you almost £10 more, than their physical counterparts.
Pretty strange, right? Effectively, at first glance, Amazon are slapping people who’ve paid £100+ for their books, with an additional premium. Amazon are quick to point out (both to reporters, and actually on individual book pages), that a lot of the e-book prices are set by the publisher, and they can’t influence it. They’re also quick to point out that e-books, unlike their physical counterparts, are subject to VAT (which is absurd, though true).
Here in the UK, we currently pay 17.5% VAT, on ‘non-essential items’. Physical books are considered essential items (rightly so), and so they’re VAT Free. From January next year, the VAT rate rises to 20%. A 20% premium, on an e-book, when you’ve already paid for the reader (and paid tax on it), is a bit of a slap in the face, and something that the Government could immediately get rid off, if my understanding is correct
[Via The Tax Payers’ Alliance: “…The EU agreed that member countries could reduce their e-book VAT on “any similar physical medium that predominantly reproduce the same textual information content as printed books” come January 2011…” Whilst the legislation doesn’t allow for countries to offer e-books completely, tax free, it does allow them to be offered at a reduced VAT rate of 5%]
At this point, I’d imagine any hardcore e-book devotees, will probably be jumping up and down screaming about RRP. It is indeed true, I’ll happily acknowledge, that when you compare the Kindle prices, to the RRP, then you’re talking significant savings.
I’ve just popped over to Amazons Kindle Best Seller Page, which highlights eight Kindle books, each of which has ‘significant’ savings when compared to their physical counterparts - anywhere from 19% (The Help, by Kathryn Stockett), all the way upto 66% (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, by Steig Larsson).
Indeed, a quick bit of maths, using Amazons’ numbers, shows that you’d save over £40 buying the Kindle versions. Which kinda flies in the face of the set of numbers I quoted earlier, with regards the top 10 selling books of that hour, being more expensive, than their respective e-book versions.
The reason? Amazon are basing the Kindle savings against the RRP for the physical books. Amazon doesn’t sell the physical books at their RRP - they sell them for less.
Rather than go through every book on Amazon, I’ll use the book with the biggest saving - Peter Mandlesons’ The Third Man, which, Amazon are saying is £12.51 cheaper, on the Kindle, than the hardback. Here’s how the actual numbers workout:
Kindle edition: £12.49
Hardback RRP: £25.00
Hardback (Current Amazon Price) £12.25
So suddenly, that £12.49 saving, becomes an additional cost, of .24 The same is true of most of the books. If amazon actually displayed the prices compared to the price they’re selling their physical books at, as opposed to their RRP. The e-book devotees, can cry all they want - numbers don’t lie.
Then, there’s the format wars. For the purpose of this ‘thing’ (I don’t wanna call it an essay, as that immediately implies a degree of worth - like I said up at the top, really this is just a stream of thoughts, initially on the Kindle itself, but expanded in scope, to include the whole industry) I’ve only focused on Amazon, for two simple reasons:
The Kindle is an Amazon exclusive device, produced, marketed and sold, by them,
90% of all the new releases I purchase (Pre-Kindle) come via Amazon. It’s only usually if I’m out and about, and notice a book that I’ve forgotten to pre-order, that I’ll buy a book from somewhere else (at a rough estimation - I’d say 5 - 8% supermarkets such as Tesco | ASDA, and, sadly, 2% from Waterstones).
However, Amazon aren’t the only people in the e-book market. Sony, Barnes & Noble, Tesco, Waterstones - etc, etc. It seems almost everyone has an E-Book store. And, as was the case with VHS / Betamax, or MMCD vs DVD, or HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray, these ‘rival formats’ aren’t automatically, compatible with each other.
The Kindle, for example, will read the following formats:
Kindle (AZW), TXT, PDF, Audible (Audible Enhanced (AA, AAX)), MP3, unprotected MOBI, PRC natively; HTML, DOC
Which is fine. Except the Sony e-book won’t read .MOBI files. It uses a format called .epub. Notice epub on that list No? That’s because the Kindle doesn’t support .epub files.
Fortunately, it’s not as bad as it first seems. Earlier on, I recommended a piece of software to go with the Kindle, called Calibre. Calibre, will convert e-books into a format that your device can understand. So if you’ve purchased an e-book in .epub format, you can, eventually, get it onto your Kindle, though the formatting does sometimes look bit ‘iffy’ (it’s my understanding, that you can manually edit the files, to make it look better)
Personally, I feel as if If I’ve made an argument for getting the Kindle, then done my best to destroy it. Like I said in my review of the device - it’s great. I’d happily recommend it. It’s just that the whole e-book market, to me, seems a bit ‘smoke and mirrors’. Of course, you don’t actually have to give Amazon, or anyone else, a penny for books…
There are 1000s of books available, for free. Amazon have a wide selection of classics in the Kindle store, that are completely free to download. They’re mostly the same books that the Gutenberg Project offer, just formatted for the Kindle. In fact, from my pov, the main factor for picking up a Kindle initially, was because I want to re-read ‘the classics’ next year, and having done the maths, it worked out cheaper to buy a Kindle, and then download, from Amazon, the free editions, than it would to buy the physical books. But there’s also, as I’m typing this, the proverbial white elephant, hovering, it would seem, over my shoulder.
The Kindle is a pirates dream device.
I’m not even gonna sugar coat this. I was, to say shocked, is a bit of an understatement, at the ease with which you can download ‘pirated’ copies of books, for the Kindle (and other devices). Want to read Tony Blair’s biography, for example, but don’t’ wanna shell out £11.25 for the hardback, or £6.99 for the Kindle edition (proving that there are some books, that are cheaper on the Kindle). No probs, head over to your local torrent site, and in sixty seconds, it’ll be there on your Kindle, ready to read, for free.
Not sure what you wanna read? No probs, there are torrents with 1000s of books (and not out of copyright, free books, either), just waiting to download, and copy over. Now I’m not one of these people who runs around screaming for people who torrent tv shows, to be shot on sight. On the other hand, lest anyone think I’m some pirating so-and-so, I have a film collection that’s cost me around £20,000 / $30,000. As for how much I’ve spent on book over the years - While it isn’t anywhere near that kinda money, it’ll still be in the £1000s range. As, I’d imagine, it probably is for most people who’re Kindle owners / considering purchasing a Kindle.
But still - the ease with which people can download ‘pirated’ books onto these devices, is quite surprising. It’s not like downloading a film, and needing to convert it to burn onto a DVD, for example, it really is an idiot proof process.
It makes me wonder, if the reason for e-books being priced so highly (due either to Amazon, or as they insist, at the behest of the publishers), is because they know how easy it is to get the books for free.
If that’s true - if that’s really how the publishing industry, Amazon, and other manufacturers, are thinking, then I think they’re bound to repeat the errors of the music industry (and the film industry are doing at the moment). Copy protection on CDS, DRM on Music, Region locks on DVDs - all these things didn’t stop people getting the content they wanted.
Indeed - I know people who use their Kindle the same way they’d use a library. If there’s a book they want to read, but aren’t sure about buying, they’ll torrent a Kindle version of it, then if they like it, buy the book - either in a physical format, or a e-book.
As for me - I love my Kindle. And now I understand the market that it’s at the head off, I’ll still happily purchase content for it. What I don’t currently know, is what I’ll do with ‘long running’ series that I read and collect. I own 24 Michael Connelly books, all in hardback. Come next year, when his latest book is released - will I pick it up for the Kindle, or a Hardback? In all honesty, given the current pricing structure - I’ll more likely than not, buy the hardcover.