Amazon's Kindle sleeker, faster, but not perfectly user-friendly

Amazon's Kindle 3G
Amazon's Kindle 3G

E-books have come a long way since the debut of the Kindle just three years ago. According to Amazon, e-books are now outselling hardcover books in its Web store, and company CEO Jeff Bezos has predicted that sales of digital books will outpace those of paperback books within a year. Amazon doesn't disclose sales of its Kindle, but the online retailer says the device has been the top-selling item in its store over the past two years and analysts estimate that it's dominating the market.

Hoping to catch some of the Kindle's fire, companies such as Sony, Barnes & Noble, Apple and numerous startups in the past two years have updated their own e-book readers, come out with new devices or developed e-book reader applications for smart phones or tablets.

Amazon recently moved to extend its lead by updating its lineup. The new devices -- there are three models -- are thinner, smaller and lighter than before and cost significantly less. Amazon also claims that the device's screens are much improved, with 50 percent greater contrast than those of the previous versions, and that they refresh -- switch from one page of text to the next -- faster than before. In addition to the standard Kindle 3G and the extra large DX model, Amazon has also introduced a new entry-level model that connects to the Internet via Wi-Fi but not a 3G cell phone connection.

I've been testing out the midrange Kindle 3G, the $189 model that includes both Wi-Fi and 3G antennas to connect to the Internet. The changes address some of the shortcomings of earlier Kindles, most notably that they were bulky, pricey and slow. You can't fit the new Kindles in your back pocket like a paperback -- not that you'd necessarily want to -- but they're nearing that size. The $139 price for the entry-level Kindle isn't yet to the point where it's a no-brainer purchase -- but it's nearly there.

While turning digital pages on the new Kindle still isn't instantaneous, it happens much faster than before. You no longer have to wait a full beat or more to see the next page.

And the new screen is probably the closest thing to text on paper that's out there.

These improvements add to the many compelling features Amazon had already built into the Kindle and its e-book system. Amazon offers a large selection of for sale, some 670,000 of them, including nearly all of the top best-sellers. Kindle users can download those books directly to their devices, using the Kindle's built-in connection to Amazon's e-book store. And owners of the top two Kindle models can download books in a wide variety of places, such as the beach or at a park, thanks to the 3G wireless antenna and connection that's included in those devices' price.

One of the things that's made the Kindle even more attractive lately is Amazon's move to develop Kindle reader applications for the latest smart phones and tablets as well as for PCs. Amazon has developed software that keeps those various e-readers in sync. So you can start reading a book on a Kindle device then switch over to a smart phone, tablet, PC or Mac and pick up where you left off.

All that said, though, the Kindle still has significant shortcomings. For example, its screen is great to look at, but only as long as you don't try to do anything with it or compare it with screens on more versatile devices like the iPad.

After having had a touch-screen smart phone for more than two years and spending months with an iPad, it was annoying not to be able to simply touch the Kindle's screen to select titles to read, turn pages or zoom into text. The four-direction pointer button works to navigate around the screen, but not well and not instantaneously as a touch-screen would.

The Kindle's e-ink monochromatic screen works well in bright light, unlike the LCDs on phones and tablets. But Amazon still hasn't built in a backlight, so it's difficult to read in low light. A new case for the device includes a reading light, but the case costs a whopping $60, nearly half the price of the entry-level Kindle.

And while a great technology for text, e-ink is by its nature a poor option for photographs, illustrations or video. That's not a big deal if you are just reading novels, but it makes a big difference if you want to use an e-reader for kids' books or nonfiction works with full-color illustrations or videos.

The Kindle has other shortcomings beyond its screen. While it's great for reading , it's a frustrating device to use for other digital content. If you want to read a newspaper or magazine, for example, Kindle forces you to get a subscription.

As a newspaper writer, I'm all for charging for our content, but the Kindle version of newspapers or magazines is typically less than you'll find -- for free -- on those newspapers' or magazines' websites.

The Kindle also now has a Web browser, but it's frustrating to use. Text isn't sharp and it's difficult to zoom in or click on links.

The other big problem with the Kindle is that Amazon has restricted the types of e-books that you can read on it. Most of the rest of the industry, including Apple and Barnes & Noble and many libraries, has standardized on a format called ePub. Not the Kindle.

What that means is that the only store through which you can buy books for the Kindle is Amazon's. While you can import books in certain other formats, most notably Adobe's PDF, the lack of support for ePub means that you generally won't be able to comparison shop for e-books and in many cases, you won't be able to use the Kindle to read e-books you've checked out from your local library.

Still, there's a lot to like about the Kindle. For reading aficionados, it's close to a must-have device. For the rest of us, it's definitely worth a look.


• Troy's rating: 4 out of 5

• Likes: Brighter screen, quicker refresh rate, smaller size, lower price

• Dislikes: Monochrome screen poor for anything but text, doesn't support popular ePub format, frustrating Web browser

• How much: $189. (Other models available for $139 and $379)

• Web:

Explore further

Amazon releasing Kindle software for Android

More information: Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Reach him at twolverton(at)

(c) 2010, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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User comments

Oct 21, 2010
So, what does the $379 model do over the others?

How come you rated the product 4/5 stars when there are so many negatives mentioned, especially the proprietary e-book format? Were the positives that much better than the negatives?

Oct 21, 2010
There are 3 models I have the cheapest at $139, the $189 includes 3G so you dont have to be near a wireless hot-spot, the $379 is for the much bigger DX model and can convert the open format ebooks to the amazon format very easily but not the other way.

Loved the line " you don't try to do anything with it or compare it with screens on more versatile devices like the iPad." this argument was lost 10 minutes after I tried using my iPad for reading an ebook. The iPad is awesome in many ways but not as an ebook reader.

Oct 22, 2010
Agree with Boznz and HYC. The kindle is FAR superior to the iPad as an ebook reader for all of the reason they mentioned. Additionally the time on a single charge is measured in weeks on the kindle vs hours on an iPad.

That said color would be a nice feature and it looks like Qualcom has the technology.

I hope Amazon jumps on the Tech, because it looks very promising. Qualcom is supposed to have devices out in Q1 of 2011.

Oct 23, 2010
I've never used any online books or readers.

It's been several years since I read a novel of any kind.

I used to read them to a fault, to the point of neglecting the rest of my life; Like as much as a few hundred pages per day, or more in some cases.

I guess I'm getting behind the times, as I really don't even know how these services work any more.

I wonder how many books you need to read with a Kindle before it "pays for itself" compared to buying the same book in paperback form?

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