Amazon Kindle eBook Review (Verdict: Confusing, Expensive...but Promising)

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Someday the Amazon Kindle will be worth your money.

Having used the new eBook reader from Amazon for a few hours, I'm happy to report that it manages to accomplish its major goals ably.

The ePaper screen is slightly smaller than that on its primary competitor, the Sony Reader, but is still quite legible and roomy; ePaper has a long way to go before it replaces ink on paper, but it's comfortably on the right path. The always-on, no subscription data connection, powered by Sprint's EV-DO network (or a slower network where the fast EVDO connection is unavailable) heralds the future of no-fuss connected devices. Its store, built right into the device, works simply and quickly. The hardware, while ugly—it looks like a Star Trek shuttlecraft once piloted by Mr. Bill—is comfortable to hold and use.

It's just too damn expensive.

Worse, the $400 premium just to get the Kindle reader isn't the last fee you'll pay. I'm not talking about paying for eBooks from Amazon, which are priced typically at $10 or less, but for the additional fees tacked onto the data—the words—that are pushed down to the Kindle automatically. Subscribing to a blog via the Kindle service costs $2 a month. Newspapers run around $15 a month. All for information currently available for free via the web and RSS syndication, not from copyright violators, but straight from the publishers themselves. (Boing Boing is also available via Kindle's blog service. We are also available on the web.)

The reason, I suspect, for the nickel and diming from Amazon is the always-on EVDO connection. While some of the cost that must be paid to the wireless carrier are surely cooked into the initial price of the Kindle, the costs tacked on to content subscriptions are an attempt to recoup charges Amazon will incur from Sprint over the life of an active device.

There's nothing inherently wrong with spreading the cost of the wireless subscription over separate subscriptions. In some ways it's similar to the "cafeteria" plans that some customers have been asking for from cable vendors for ages.

Yet two problems arise with this model in the Kindle: first, it puts a financial throttle on the amount of content one can reasonable afford to put on the device. I'm an edge case, perhaps, but I read several hundred sites a day, with thousands of posts and stories. I could easily spend hundreds of dollars a month to get that content pushed to my Kindle—the same content I get for free today.

The issue, of course, is monetization of the content. Amazon can't afford to incur the data costs from Sprint if every Kindle could download unlimited RSS feeds. If it doesn't allow straight RSS, it must provide ad-free content feeds from its partners. And if it doesn't allow ads in the feeds, it needs to pay the content providers somehow. Hence, subscriptions.

Hence, a mess.

(You can access the web using the surprisingly okay "Basic Web" browser that ships with every Kindle and enjoy all the web sites you care to read, no subscription cost, no per-minute fees. But you can't cache all those stories for reading later—you'll have to read them live via the EVDO radio. You can, however, download books, which means there's a great wealth of already extant books to be downloaded for free, provided they're in a format Kindle understands.)

Second*, it confuses the "baked in" nature of the "no monthly fees" claim from Amazon. There are monthly fees to use all periodical content. There are free 14-day trials for most, but after that you'll have to pay to subscribe.

File formats
In my very limited testing, it seems Kindle supports two types of text files natively**: .TXT files, or "plaintext" files, like those generated by Notepad, vi, and other common text editors; and .AZW, the proprietary format used by content download from Amazon. Other files formats, including Microsoft Word, can be read by the Kindle, but only after going through a conversion process from Amazon that involves emailing your document to a special @kindle.com email address. Users pay $.10 per file for conversion if they choose to send it directly to their Kindle via EV-DO—there's that Sprint cost creeping back in again—or nothing if they choose to have the converted file sent back to their original email address, where it can then be transferred to the Kindle via a wired USB connection.

PDFs are another story. PDFs are not supported on the Kindle nor the conversion process from Amazon. Considering how widely PDF is used for academic texts, presentations, and eBooks, it's a real failing. Even more so because the Sony Reader handles PDFs amply, if not perfectly.

The Kindle is not completely locked down, though, despite the use of DRM for eBooks downloaded from the Amazon store. Should you be willing to tinker with file converting programs, it is possible to get most electronic text onto the Kindle. It should have been easier than it is—Amazon needs to add more native format support to the Kindle, or at least a robust desktop conversion tool to .AZW.

It's got promise
Should you buy a Kindle? If you buy a lot of books from Amazon, perhaps. The Kindle's predominant lot in life is to serve as a vector from Amazon to you. It does this extremely well. The screen is readable, and the big flappy buttons that make it look so awkward also make it pleasant to turn pages. The interface, based around a scroll wheel, is well thought-out (even if the click-down motion on the slick scroll wheel is sometimes slippery).

The selection of content is limited, but should increase in time. I searched for five different authors before finding one who had a book for sale on Kindle, although I will cop to looking in a niche that some might call elfy. The book I decided on was $7 on Kindle, $10 in paperback on Amazon. (Although $2.50, plus shipping, used, which is how I most commonly buy novels.) That's a decent price, I suppose, but I can't lend a Kindle book to a friend, nor take it with me to other devices.

In all the Kindle feels much like the very first iPod, where the promise can be seen but barely through the many flaws. I expect that Amazon will stick with the platform, smooth out some of the snags, and make it less financially treacherous to navigate its content.

Although I can hold a $400 eBook reader in my hand, it only feels truly valuable because I have a $7 book inside that I want to read. If Amazon can find a way to lower the barrier of entry on either side of the platform—a cheaper Kindle, or free content—it may then be worth wider consideration.***

* Yes, I was still going.

** There is still some confusion on these things, but those are the only two files that worked natively for me in my initial testing. It is possible I did something wrong, but I can't imagine what.

*** I liked Core77's closer, about seeing the Kindle "in the history books. Or the history Kindles."

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