While it’s possible that next year will be even bigger, this seems to be the year of the eBook. There were a plethora of new eBook readers announced at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, and a bunch more have been announced since then. There’s not really a lot of variation among the readers themselves, but the competition is going to help drive down prices to the point where the cost of the hardware is no longer the biggest factor in a buyer’s decision making process.
Perhaps an even bigger reason to call this the year of the eBook is that virtually all of the main retail channels for book sales are now supporting eBooks in a big way. Amazon and Barnes & Noble both have their own dedicated readers, while Borders has teamed up with several different manufacturers.
One of the most important developments in this whole situation is the fact that these companies have realized that it’s ultimately the software (that’s the eBooks themselves in this scenario) that brings in the money. So instead of trying to do everything they can to tie you into a specific piece of hardware, they have gone out of their way to make it as easy as possible to use the software wherever the user wants. All of the big retailers have all made apps that allow you to read their eBooks on other devices besides the dedicated readers.
For example, Amazon offers a Kindle application for the iPhone, iPad, and other devices. Barnes and Noble has a similar reader app for Nook-compatible eBooks, as does Borders. While each of these vendors have encoded their eBooks with their own flavor of DRM (Digital Rights Management), they’ve gone a long way to allow users to read their eBooks anywhere they want.
In particular, owners of Apple’s new iPad device are in eBook Heaven, with the ability to read Amazon’s Kindle eBooks, Barnes & Noble NOOK eBooks, Apple’s own iBooks, Border’s eBooks, and more. Not to mention the wide variety of dedicated magazine applications that offer up concurrent E-releases of current magazines.
Leading The Pack: Amazon Kindle
Just over two years ago, Amazon debuted the first version of their Kindle eBook reader. This wasn’t the first handheld eBook reader on the market, but it offered several innovations over previous portable eBook readers. However, it ultimately wasn’t the hardware that was the real big deal. The real paradigm shift came on the software side of things. Previously, most eBook systems offered mainly a variety of reference titles and “classic” novels that didn’t have to be licensed because they were old enough to be in the public domain. However, Amazon was able to leverage their position as one of the world’s preeminent book sellers to broker a wide variety of content deals with publishers. As a result, from day 1 they were ready to offer a huge library of current titles in just about every genre, including many titles from the current bestseller’s lists.
More than anything, the Kindle represented the first time an eBook reader was capable of offering a reasonable selection of books that people actually wanted to read. With all due respect to the classics, most people are looking for the next release in the Twilight series, not Treasure Island. And what’s more, bestselling titles were offered at paperback prices while the physical version was still available only in hardcover, giving avid readers a chance to recoup some of the Kindle’s price.
I looked upon the Kindle with great interest when it first came out, but several factors prevented me from buying one right away. Price was an issue, of course. But the biggest factor was the fact that Amazon was an online-only retailer. The actual experience of reading on the Kindle was the most important part of this whole equation, and there was no way to try it before buying! I had to know how the device was going to feel in my hands, how the screen was going to look, and most importantly, how the experience of reading books on Kindle would compare to reading paper books.
Yes, there were other eBook readers available at retail that I could go check out in person. But at the time, they all used a regular LCD instead of the Kindle’s “e-ink” display, which was purported to be much more clear and readable.
I wanted to believe in the basic idea of eBooks, but wasn’t sure if the Kindle was where I needed it to be, or if I needed to wait another generation or two.
While I was debating my purchase, Amazon released the next-generation Kindle 2. The hardware interface was a bit more streamlined, and the operation was a little faster, but mainly it was not all that much different from the original machine. So I was still unsure.
Here Comes Nook
As it turns out, the thing that finally got me to buy a Kindle was the introduction of the Nook from Barnes & Noble. Other than having a secondary screen where some of your user interface choices are displayed, the Nook is very close to being essentially the same hardware as the Kindle 2. Both units were about the same size and weight, and had the same size screen. And ultimately, the software isn’t that much different either. Not in the broad strokes, anyway.
However, there’s one important difference with the Nook. While the Kindle was sold online only (at the time), the Nook was going to be available in each store of the massive B&N chain. If not anything else, this meant I’d have a chance for a hands-on experience before laying down any cash. Looking at the Nook would answer a lot of questions about the Kindle.
Unfortunately, when B&N put these huge “Nook COMING SOON” displays into the stores, they didn’t actually include an operational Nook in the equation. At least not at first. But then in mid-December while picking up a stack of new magazines, I noticed a line of people at the Customer Service desk. They were all waiting for a chance to try out the fully operational Nook that was now on display. So I got in line and had a look myself.
The Nook turned out to be a very nice device in most respects. The main screen was very readable, and the secondary color touchscreen also looked pretty good. However, while the hardware looked good, there were several things about the software that ended up pushing me towards the Kindle.
First, the Nook’s user interface seemed a bit awkward and inconsistent. The design seemed like it didn’t really quite know how to make the most of a touch-screen system. The screen real estate was under-utilized. Last, the system seemed slow to respond to my input, and also seemed to buffer the input. So I’d press something on the menu, wait a bit while nothing happened, then I’d press again, and the system would eventually end up processing both times I’d hit the screen. Ultimately, I learned to be more methodical. I’d tap the screen, wait for it to finish, then tap again as needed. That worked better, but underscored the slow response time.
I was last in line to look at the demo unit, so I had a good 10-15 minutes to try things. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the Nook would probably be a really nice machine some day, after a couple of software upgrades.
At this point, I didn’t know for sure if the Kindle’s software would be any better than the Nook, but I hadn’t really heard anything too bad in any of the reviews I’d seen, and at least my concerns about the hardware had been put to rest. So I decided to take the plunge and ordered the Kindle 2 a few days after checking out the Nook. It arrived a few days before last Christmas.
I decided that the only really fair test of this new device would be for me to go cold turkey with regards to paper books. At least for fiction, since I’d already determined that things like computer books didn’t work on this smaller screen size. So I put aside the stack of paperbacks awaiting my attention and bought several new titles on the Kindle.
One of the reasons I waited to buy the Kindle was that I was concerned about the size of the screen. I wasn’t really worried about the sharpness of the text, because I knew that the screen resolution was about 4x as many pixels per square inch as a typical computer monitor. But I was afraid I would find the screen size to be too small. For a long time, I thought I’d only be happy with the larger Kindle DX, with its 50% larger screen. But the higher price of the DX was just a bit too much for me to jump into without having had a chance for a hands-on demo.
When I got the chance to try out the Nook, which has the same size screen as the regular Kindle, I decided the screen size would not be a major issue. Actually, for reading fiction, the screen size of the Nook and Kindle is just about perfect. At the smallest text size, the screen is quite readable, and holds about 95% as much text as a page in a typical paperback book. And it is just small enough to fit into my pocket.
However, for non-fiction, especially things like computer books, I definitely wish the screen was bigger. As a general rule, any non-text content seems a bit too small on the regular Kindle. The same is true for many non-standard bits of text, like source code listings in a computer book. This also applies to many documents stored in the Adobe PDF format, since the current version of the Kindle software offers no capability to zoom and pan around the page.
The main issue that I have with the screen is that I wish it had greater contrast. Instead of a true black text on white paper look, you get a dark grey text on a somewhat lighter grey paper. However, I do have to say that the screen is quite readable and I’ve never noticed any particular eye strain when reading, even after an hour or two.
The main variable with battery life depends mostly on how much you use the 3G radio. The main reason to use 3G is so that you can sync your reading progress with other Kindle software/hardware, and for when you want to do shopping/browsing from the device itself. For general reading, you can turn off the 3G radio to conserve battery power.
My experience is that with the radio on, from a full charge you can expect the battery to last a good 5 days or more. It charges via USB with the included cable in a couple of hours, so as long as you pay at least a little attention to keeping the device charged, it should rarely be a problem.
Given how good the battery life is, it’s a shame they didn’t put a big solar cell on the back… you’d never have to plug it in then!
The User Interface
The hardware side of the Kindle’s user interface is just about perfect for me. The layout and operation of the various buttons is just fine, with one exception. The left side of the screen includes buttons for “Next Page” and Prev. Page”. The right side has a button for “Next Page” but no “Prev. Page” button. We do get a “back” button which SOMETIMES does the same thing, but not always. I think we’d be better off with symetrical buttons for next/previous.
The Kindle’s software user interface is a mixed bag. Operating the menus is mostly easy and intuitive. But I felt like they took the easy way out with the main listing of books. Everything is shown in one long alphabetically-sorted list. You have a couple of different sorting options and some very basic filtering, but it really is the bare minimum. As long as you’ve only got a small amount of content, it’s not too bad, but as the list grows to several pages, I find myself wanting more options for organizing everything.
We should be able to assign each book to a category or attach keywords, and then define viewing filters based on whatever boolean combination of categories or keywords you want. If I want the main listing to show only books tagged with “SCIFI” or only books tagged with both “SCIFI” and “STARTREK” I should be able to do that. Furthermore, I should be able to define and save different filter sets so that I can switch back and forth quickly.
Shopping for books on the device itself is something of a mixed bag. Overall, if you’re looking for something specific, finding it is fairly simple. However, if you’re wanting to browse around without a specific title in mind, then to be honest you’re better off using your computer and web browser.
Oh, there is a built-in web browser, so technically you could browse the Amazon website that way from the device itself, however, I had mixed results using it, and Amazon refers to it as ”beta” so for now I would not consider that a mainstream solution.
One nice feature of the Kindle setup is the ability to download samples of books so that you can read a chapter or two before buying. This only works when browsing the Amazon website, however — you cannot download a sample from within the store browser on the Kindle device itself. Otherwise, this is a great feature. The only real downside here is that when you’re done reading a sample and decide to buy the book so you can continue reading, the price of the book is not shown. You have to exit the sample and do a fresh search to get the price. Personally, I would have made sure that the price was shown prominently EVERYWHERE the user has the option to buy the book, but apparently the Kindle’s designers either disagree or they managed to overlook this idea.
The whole eBook thing still has some rough corners but it’s off to a good start. I would say that the biggest problem right now is the fact that there is a lot of content that isn’t available in eBook format yet. There are many reasons for this, such as the fact that there are still a number of publishers who haven’t gotten on board with the idea of eBooks in general. And even with the publishers that ARE offering eBooks, there’s a bunch that still haven’t wrapped their brain around the idea that eBooks don’t really follow the traditional publishing business model.
The other big problem has to do with pricing. I don’t mind paying $9.99 for a brand new release that’s otherwise only in hardcover, but asking me to pay $7.99 for an eBook when the paperback edition is the same price is just wrong. Especially when it’s some title that’s been out in paperback for years and years.
It’s not the huge kind of wrong that prevents me from buying ANYTHING, but I have to say I’d buy a crapload more older titles if the prices made more sense. But I’ll get into that in another article, another day.