Kindle: A Little Spark – but not setting the world on fire yet…

I wanted to give the Amazon Kindle a fair trial before I wrote about it, rather than just jumping in with a collection of first impressions.

What’s a fair trial? Well, reading at least one whole book on the device would do for a start.

There are good things about the Kindle – some very good. And there are bad things, too – some very bad.

Can you read whole books on it? Yes, if you’re prepared to put up with some discomfort and learn to work around some of what’s worst. I wouldn’t hail it as a breakthrough in onscreen reading. But it’s not a total bomb either.

First impressions are of a very cheaply-made white plastic toy. And why would I ever want a keyboard on a book? It takes up space which would have been better used in making the screen bigger, thus reducing the number of page turns (which are one of my main gripes about all of the eInk reading devices to have appeared over the past year or two – more on this later).

The Kindle looks a lot better and feels a lot more substantial once it’s cradled in its leatherette cover; it looks and feels like one of those nice Moleskin notebooks.

It’s easy to get started. Plug it in, and away you go.

I happened to be somewhere that was out of range of Amazon’s Kindle-supporting network – which meant I couldn’t use it to buy a book. So I used my laptop to go online to Amazon.com and buy “Born Standing Up”, the autobiography of comedian Steve Martin.

I bought the book, but it didn’t download to my PC and into the Kindle through the (supplied) USB cable, as I’d expected. So I took the Kindle in the car when I went on a shopping trip to a nearby town. Lo and behold! As soon as I switched it on, it woke up, connected to the network, and automatically downloaded the book I’d purchased earlier. I’m sure if I’d been in network range the experience would have been even better…

You’d expect Amazon to do a good job of creating an excellent book-buying experience, and they didn’t disappoint.

This is hands-down the best eBook buying experience I’ve seen yet.

Reading the book was very jarring, especially in the beginning. Page turns are horrible, as a result of the eInk technology. Every time you turn a page, the screen flashes a negative image first (white text on a black background) before settling to the correct black-on-white. Not only that, but the huge page-turn “paddles” down each side of the book are far too easy to hit by mistake, causing unwanted and distracting page turns.

I’ve heard the views of colleagues who have used similar eInk devices and say you get used to the “flashing pages”, and they “just disappear” as the process becomes familiar, but I don’t buy that.

When you turn the page of a paper book, in most cases you’re holding a unit of meaning in short-term memory; any distraction at that time interrupts your ability to flow smoothly through the content.

It’s not just the flashing that’s the problem; the page turns take far too long – especially if there’s a graphic or photograph on the following page. I’d like to see a reading research project look at this and its effect on reading speed and comprehension.

eInk has been promising both faster refresh rates and support for color for many years. I don’t know about color, but I suspect that on refresh rates, the manufacturers have run up against a solid wall in the shape of the laws of physics.

I’m sure you all know the principle on which eInk operates: the screen consists of a layer of millions of tiny balls which are black on one side and white on the other. A static charge is applied to line up some of the balls with black facing out, the rest with white facing out – and you get “black” text on a “white” background.

Problem is, that while this may look like an “electrical process”, in reality, it depends on mechanically turning the balls. And no matter how hard you try, you’re bound to hit physical limitations caused by the laws of inertia and friction.

Maybe I’m wrong, but this looks to me like a technology that’s not quite good enough, and can’t be made better – unlike other screen technologies, which continue to improve.

While I’m on the subject of graphics, Amazon has done an especially poor job of displaying graphics and pictures on the Kindle. It supports too few levels of gray. Photos look like the kind of gray blur you used to see on computer screens 20 years ago. Reproduction of the photos in the Steve Martin book was uniformly awful.

There’s another really fundamental flaw I hate about the Kindle screen. It’s meant to show black text on a white background and look like a book. In reality, it reads more like 90% gray text on a 30 or 40% gray background.

Contrast – known as a result of reading research to affect both reading speed and eye fatigue – is poor, unless you’re reading in sunlight or bright light indoors.

As an experiment, I held up a paper book alongside the Kindle. In the same light conditions, the paper book had far superior contrast. And don’t even think of trying to read your Kindle, Sony Reader or other eInk device in low light – it can’t be done.

All that said, you CAN read a whole book on it, if you’re prepared to put up with these faults. But why should you have to, when you can do better? I would much rather have read Steve Martin’s book on my cellphone. Even the photos, though smaller, would have looked much better.

I know the iRex Iliad, another eInk-based reading device, does a better job of pictures, and I expect the Sony Reader does too. If Amazon had paid the same attention to its display software as it clearly paid to the book-buying software, the result could well have been better.

Maybe this will improve in subsequent versions.

Reading isn’t simple. It’s a hugely complex task – a really stressful workout for our eyes and the muscles which control them. The book evolved over 550 years to make this as low-impact as possible.

In some respects – buying books, being able to carry your whole library around, etc – the Kindle looks like a step into the future. In others, it’s worse than the past. But as I said earlier, it’s not a total bomb. I’ll probably read more books on it. But only if I can’t find versions for my cellphone…

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