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


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 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."

Join the Conversation


  1. Why on earth would you call a product Kindle when so many frustrated users will be too tempted to call it kindling?

  2. man, i really WANT this to succeed. i’ve been a fan and customer of amazon since the early days. the lack info about mac compatibility has me regretfully putting this in the “no, not yet” pile, though. maybe the 2.0 will be the one i want.

  3. Franko, if you look at the amazon site, you don’t need a computer at all to use this.

    Display: 6″ diagonal E-Ink® electronic paper display, 600 x 800 pixel resolution at 167 ppi, 4-level gray scale
    Size (in inches): 7.5″ x 5.3″ x 0.7″
    Weight: 10.3 ounces
    System requirements: None, because it doesn’t require a computer

    Also gizmodo has a sort of faq going, where they show the kindle showing up as a regular USB mass storage device in finder.

  4. For $400 dollars you could visit the One Laptop per Child site, buy a small form, wi-fi laptop for yourself and a child in a developing nation.
    Also, get a year of Hotspot from T-Mobile and a $200 tax deduction. Perfect e-book and more.
    P.S. The black and white option is legible in bright sunlight outdoors.

  5. This is so disappointing. what is so hard about making a good ebook reader? It seems like every company that makes one purposefully cripples it.

    Everybodys list of what a good ebook reader should be is pretty much the same and has been for years;

    -no drm. this is a dealbreaker.
    -must read (or at least be able to run third party software that reads) all existing ebook formats prc, lit, rtf, txt, html, pdf
    -must be less than $150, or alternatively have free content
    -removable media (SD card, flash, whatever)

    Basically all i really want is a PDA with an epaper display. not even a good pda; it doesn’t even have to run anything other than ebook reader software. SO a crappy pda with epaper display and a decent amount of removable memory.
    All these things exist, and are separately used in devices that are pretty cheap. But nobody wants to put them all together in a useable fashion. The only part that might possibly be why its so expensive is the epaper. But i keep reading articles about how cheap it is to manufacture, so what gives?

    I can afford $400 for an ebook reader, but i cant justify $400 for an ebook reader. I really desperately want a good e-ink ebook reader, but i just can’t justify spending that much money when there are quality alternatives (like paper books)

  6. I have had an ebook reader from for a year and a half. It’ll read just about anything in txt doc etc once its gone through the FREE converter online. It was $125 and with a 2gb card holds over 200 books. I’ve filled it with hundreds of free books from and project gutenburg. It doesnt have e-ink or play mp3s but as an avid reader it works great for me.

  7. “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.”

    This is the second story you’ve repeated this claim that a quick read of the support page or the manual would have clarified.

    It also supports non-DRMed Mobipocket and PRC natively.

    The way to go with this is a) buy it from Amazon, b) never buy content, period from Amazon. Obtain non-DRMed content, convert to non-DRMed Mobipocket, transfer via computer.

    You can also convert from PDFs to Mobipocket (again, non-DRMed).

  8. BTW, one other thing…from reading the manual, the Kindle will allow you to wirelessly download non-DRMed Mobipocket/PRC files on any web page.

  9. Why do I need a special (expensive) and limited device to read ebooks that I can only buy from Amazon? I already have a laptop, iPod, Palm PDA and scores of ebooks, many of them in DRM formats that are apparently incompatible with that used by Kindle (even though Amazon now own one of the ebook vendors I use – Mobipocket). And many of the non-DRM ebooks I already own are in eReader and PDF formats, which once again Kindle doesn’t support…

    My laptop, Palm PDA and iPod do much more than the Kindle, have colour screens, the laptop and Palm connect to the real web and charge nothing extra to view blogs or newspapers. They all allow me to sync my content with my laptop and use it as my main content repository, aside from the iPod they support WiFi and Bluetooth n/w (worldwide) instead of just one 3G system limited to the US only.

    The problem with ebooks is NOT the readers, it’s the DRM, multiple incompatible file formats, limited choice of titles and high cost of each title (the one’s still in CR I mean). And the attempts by all the ebook vendors to lock customers into one online store for all their ebook purchases. Kindle doesn’t really address any of these problems (aside maybe from the price of their new titles) and it tries to make several of them worse!

    The solution: ONE file format (probably PDF) for all ebooks from all publishers. No DRM. Available from many online retailers, on many smart phones, music players, PDAs, PCs, etc. Available from many web-based stores at an average price of about 50% of a paperback.

    Publishers – wake up or die (slowly) as your aging dead tree customers shuffle off this coil and are replaced by “generation screen” who won’t buy anything printed on paper at any price.

  10. I have a Sony reader, and am perfectly content to buy e-books. Problem: Sony’s store has poor selection.
    Aha! Amazon is selling e-books, I say. So I go over to Amazon and look at the e-books.

    I have sent Amazon a nice note pointing out this shortcoming.

  11. “The way to go with this is a) buy it from Amazon, b) never buy content, period from Amazon. Obtain non-DRMed content, convert to non-DRMed Mobipocket, transfer via computer.”

    If you’re going to do that just get a Cybook Gen 3 from Bookeen.

  12. the thing is, the mobipocket converter is windows only. no mac love. that’s what makes it a deal-breaker for me. i want to port my existing PDF library over to my ebook reader. i think the kindle has a lot going for it, but no mac love is the deal breaker for me.

    1. Franko, it works on Macs just fine. You don’t sync it from a computer in general, and when you do, it just shows up as a regular USB mass storage device.

  13. At the risk of echoing #5 (Anthonys82), I’ll also slap my forehead and ask why it’s so hard for anyone to get this right.

    Gimmie an e-ink screen, a USB mass storage profile and/or an SD memory card slot, power from commodity AA batteries, and decent support for HTML, ASCII text, PDF files, and perhaps MP3 playing, and I’d be on-board immediately.

    I don’t have the skills, but I’d happily throw in a couple of hundred dollars to pay somebody to work on a free-as-in-beer design for an eBook reader that doesn’t suck. I suspect other people would be willing to throw some cash that way, if a qualified party stepped up to do the design work.

  14. “In all the Kindle feels much like the very first iPod, where the promise can be seen but barely through the many flaws”

    What major flaws? If I recall the original iPod was pretty exceptional. They essentially nailed the entire UI, look, feel, brand, and experience right from the start. Sure they’ve refined it over the years as technology has improved, but the earliest iPods had a huge impact and rightfully so.

  15. As a vague sidebar, I have a Nokia 770 which I got for cheap from Expansys in the UK earlier this year. There is an ebook reader called FBReader for it which has been developed for Maemo, which is the FOSS distribution system, and the combination is reasonably usable. That with an e-ink display would be good utility tool. If anyone from Nokia is reading – here’s a use for the Internet Tablet.

  16. I find the lack of WiFi disturbing.

    EVDO is a horribly overpriced way to move bits, when adding a WiFi connection (and not charging transport charges for WiFi data) would make it vastly more appealing.

    $2 per RSS feed? That means my web browser’s RSS stream would cost $40-60/month and growing! F-that.

  17. Joel, or anybody with firsthand experience, is there any security on that email address? If the address got out, could malicious parties send files to Kindle addresses, incurring charges against the Kindle user’s will? That was one of my first thoughts with them using an email address for charged services.

    And I’ll second Anon’s (#14) comment that the first iPod was a compelling product. I still have and use a 2nd gen iPod that’s as usable and awesome as a 5th gen.. it just doesn’t do video or color. Which is fine for me. And the only difference between a 1st and 2nd gen is storage capacity and the wheel controller. (Spins on 1st gen, doesn’t on 2nd gen.)

    1. @dculberson: You have to put a white list of authorized email addresses in Kindle. It won’t accept files from any random email address.

      As for the original iPod, yes, the pieces for mass market success with in place, but it still had weird snags like Firewire/Mac only, low capacity, difficult file management (although better than pretty much everything else out at the time). Obviously, they muddled through. 🙂

      The main difference between the Kindle and the iPod is that at the time everyone had CDs to be ripped or MP3s already on their drive. They just needed some way to make them easily portable.

      Kindle, on the other hand, doesn’t have a huge library of books for its users to access for free; or if they happen to have a lot of unrestricted DRM-free eBooks, Kindle doesn’t easily support the format.

      I think someone will get there soon enough. It might even be Amazon.

  18. This technology will only work if it attracts a mass audience big enough to swamp the competition — and I don’t think that will happen. It doesn’t offer overwhelming advantages over its competitors. Its persnickety format requirements will be frustrating for people who are already into e-books and audiobooks, and will want to transfer titles they already own to the Kindle. Non-techies are also going to have problems coping with its requirements, unless they limit themselves to buying new books from Amazon.

    Somebody’s going to make this work, but at this rate I don’t think it will be Amazon.

  19. this thing is kinda like the iPhone: it will be an expensive doorstop by this time next year…
    give me a pda/mobile running linux and foss any day

    yawn, next…

  20. This thing reminds me of the RCA-branded Rocket ebook (reb 1100 if you care to google it). While the reading device itself had an inferior screen, it was similar to this device in many ways – it sold major books via online sources (barnes& and powells, I think) as well as the RCA book store (which didn’t need a computer – it could be accessed from the device itself); those books were tied using DRM to a single device (technically, I think it was to a single user, since you could reregister any device); it also was really difficult to put your own content on it, and could really only read text or html files. Some enterprising hackers found converter tools, but none were great.

    Unlike the Kindle, the REB1100 had no wireless – instead it had a built-in modem that it used to call the mothership to download newspaper subscriptions and purchased books. And there’s the rub. The mothership went bankrupt, and with it away went the online book shelf, the ability to buy new content, and forcing me to use a cumbersome process for putting free content on the device. Oh, and when my REB 1100 dies, I can’t reregister a new device, so all my purchased content goes away too.

    My expensive experience with the REB 1100 has made DRM the deal breaker for me. If I could simply buy a new device and keep using my books on it, I wouldn’t worry about it (since that is what makes the reader valuable anyway). I fear the Kindle is making all the same mistakes regarding DRM, and even a couple of new ones by locking me into the store. Now, I don’t think will go under, (and RCA didn’t go under) but I can see that if this device flops, they could close the Kindle section or at the very least not produce any new content for it. And then I have the same problem with it that I would have with my REB 1100.

    I guess that’s a long way of saying “buyer beware”.

  21. On their demonstration video they tout the ability to read your favaorite magazines downlaoded and ready to read by the time you wake up.

    Who wants to read Time in black and white?

  22. Has anybody had any experience with the iRex iLiad e-book reader? I know it is expensive, however it seems to address all the here mentioned difficulties and problems. I was debating getting one.

  23. I have a Kindle on order.

    Like any device it will have good and bad features. I’m not sure I understand the zeal to perceive only negatives.

    In particular, yes … periodical content carries a fee, but doesn’t it anyway? Another Kindle owner I know subscribes to the WSJ. It’s downloaded to his Kindle and he reads it on the train to work. WiFi won’t work for that, it’s convenient, and it is one step toward saving some trees.

    The blog fees are a little hard to understand.

  24. Kindle is a great device. I will save money by downloading free books from project Gutenberg. Sure I will still have to pay for new books if I want but there is a lifetimes worth of reading on PG all free and easy to download.

  25. I dont think any of the fees are hard to understand really. I mean, I would no more go and buy all of the books i already own through the kindle store, than i would subscribe to absolutely periodical and blog i read through the kindle store. What i do, is buy the books i cannot do without, and subscribe to the content that is most frequently updated. I think the blog subscription fee idea is very smart on their part, and when compared to the amount of blogs i think most people will hold active longterm subscriptions to through their service, its a great way for them to pull that much more capital, without totally breaking their customers.

    I do not see getting what i want on my kindle as being a big problem, as the formats that are not directly supported by amazons conversion stuff, are almost all convertible with 3rd party software to the formats that are.

    The browser sucks, but if you put forth the effort, you can make just about all unparseble content viewable by means of mobile browser portals. Its all a little bit hackey, but these are things i could not possibly expect amazon to make easy for everyone, and still expect to make money off of this endeavor. They have not put much effort into making them impossible, which is where i draw a good bit of my comfort in having purchased this device from them. I can get the device to do most of what i want it to, that amazon would probably rather me not get it to do, with only a little extra effort.

    I do however think the huge upfront cost, in proportion to my assumption of its production cost, to be pretty ridiculous. I also do not understand why the device has been scarcified. Maybe they are trying to limit its adoption until they are positive that they will continue supporting it. It certainly doesnt help them pay for the EVDO, nor does it help them reduce the cost of the device so that they can continue doing so without the benefit of the initial hype associated with the kindle. The simple fact that most discussion of it both began and ended last November has me a little worried about my purchase, but seeing as few people have really been able to get their hands on one since then, I can see why.

    All in all i think, that if amazon continues to grow the content available, and eventually starts producing enough of these things to meet the demand for them, that i will have made a good investment. It hasn’t paid off yet, but if the conditions above are met, it probably will very soon.

  26. I received my Kindle today and I have to say “NO” to the haters. This is a killer reader. Here are some pros and cons:

    1. The reader response time is excellent and the display is crisp and clear.
    2. The interface is extremely intuitive and well-designed.
    3. Shopping in the Kindle store is extremely easy and relatively fast
    4. Page and menu navigation are easy and well thought out.
    5. The mp3 player works very well so audio books would be great as well
    6. In general it’s a great design in perhaps not the most beautiful package.
    7. Great non-skid backing

    1. The keyboard can be a bit slow to respond while shopping.
    2. It’s a tad uncomfortable to hold without the book cover but I’ll manage.
    3. Pricey

    All things considered, I’m extremely pleased with the Kindle. The device is already registered and it is ready to go as soon as you unpack it.

  27. Joel, the $360 (cost at the time I write this) covers 24/7 wireless. Note that with cellphones like the iphone you can easily pay $60/month.

    It has the surprisingly decent web browser (if you have it on Advanced and Javascript where that’s needed but on Default where it’s not) which lets you read most blogs easily but you have to be on the wireless while doing so, which means your battery charge is used up faster while using the wireless access.

    Also, with the power adapter (if you’re home and want to use it in another room while web-browsing) means there’s no limit on how long you can do this in a session.

    The $2/mo. average for a blog or for a weekly magazine is pushed info that you can read at anytime without having to be online.

    Newspaper average cost is $10/mo., some at $6.
    The $14 one is NY Times WITH full Sunday edition, normally $4/wk at the stand for that Sunday edition. On the Kindle I tend to order the Sunday newspaper (single copy only) for 75c.

    I saw an interesting Newsweek at the store but it was $5 so I just downloaded that edition for 49c to read at my leisure.

    All newspaper and blog things are free, sure, on your computer, but you’re often away from your home, or prefer not to be on the computer. It’s good to have all that reading available when waiting in lines somewhere or relaxing at a cafe or on a long train commute.

    Re the financial throttle – we can directly download free books from and from (directly to the Kindle) because Mobilpocket prc files are read natively on the Kindle. There are MANY stores now with Kindle editions or prc or mobi editions that the Kindle can read.

    At any rate I use the wireless a lot and I go direct to web sites to do it.

    Re PDFs I’ve been sending those to my address (no charges yet though officially it’s 10c each and also almost instant).

    I lost a manual to my P80 digital piano and got it from Yahama in pdf format, sent it to my Kindle address and I had it right away *and searchable* and easily readable too. Always on the Kindle.
    I needed the manual because the function keys are not that easy to program and now I will always know where my manual is.

    I now have on there (and on an SD card too) lots of reading I’ve wanted but now I can read each when the mood hits, wherever I am.

    I also get the NYTimes Latest News (news only) two or three times a day. I was at dinner when the VP debates were on and after dinner, I was showing how the Kindle works and saw that my NYTimes had already been downloaded and they had a liveblog of the debate plus a full report as part of the news. That’s not bad for $2/mo.

    I was able to show them several websites at the time too.

  28. All the texts at Poetry In Translation ( downloadable in .mobi format for the Kindle. All texts are free for non-commercial use. Major poets translated include Baudelaire, Catullus, Chaucer, Dante, Lorca, Neruda ,Ovid, Goethe, Rilke, Rimbaud, and Virgil.

  29. I now have on there (and on an SD card too) lots of reading I’ve wanted but now I can read each when the mood hits, wherever I am.

    I also get the NYTimes Latest News (news only) two or three times a day. I was at dinner when the VP debates were on and after dinner, I was showing how the Kindle works and saw that my NYTimes had already been downloaded and they had a liveblog of the debate plus a full report as part of the news. That’s not bad for $2/mo.

    I was able to show them several websites at the time too.

  30. The way to go with this is a) buy it from Amazon, b) never buy content, period from Amazon. Obtain non-DRMed content, convert to non-DRMed Mobipocket, transfer via computer

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