Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Kindle Keyboard

If you’ve been anywhere near civilization, you would surely know by now that Tablets have taken the computer world by storm. Our own review of the Sony Tablet S found that they can’t replace your primary mobile computer, but they do a pretty good job of making several tasks traditionally performed on a Notebook computer, redundant. With all this hullaballoo about Tablets taking over portable computers, why does anyone need e-Readers? You definitely do not want to take your Notebook computer, Tablet, smartphone and an e-Reader along with you on every trip you make. It sounds like just another device to complicate our already-complex, tech-strewn lives. The main reasons that people still buy and believe in e-Readers is the eye-strain, or the lack thereof. If you’re an avid reader, and you try reading a fictional novel of 500+ pages directly from a backlit LCD/LED screen such as a Notebook computer or a Tablet, your eyes are going to scream from sheer agony. An e-Reader, because it uses something called “E Ink”. Electrophoretic Ink does not use a backlight to display onscreen content, unlike LCD/LED display units. This reduces eye-strain to a great extent, and provides for displays that are perfectly readable in bright light. Unfortunately, much like any book, E Ink displays cannot be read in the dark; you definitely require ambient light to read from an E Ink-based screen.

The Kindle Keyboard from Amazon is an e-Reader that uses an E Ink-based display. There is no doubt that the Kindle, with its low price and ease of use has been a significant reason for the growth in e-book adoption over the past years. However, when Amazon came out with the first version of the Kindle in November 2007, few imagined that it would change the face of publishing as much, and as quickly, as it has in the four years since then.

How does the Kindle, and its accompanying ecosystem, stack up in an Indian context? What can a user expect from the device? Does Jeff Bezos’ tweet-length vision of "every book ever printed in any language in under 60 seconds" hold up here? We got to play around with a Kindle Keyboard (also known as the Kindle 3) for some time, and our thoughts await you past that “Read more” link.


Purchasing a Kindle in India

Amazon Kindle Store - screenshot

There are many methods available to buy a Kindle in India. The simplest and safest method would be to head over to the Amazon Kindle Store, ensure that “India” is selected in the “Your Country or Region” drop-down box at the top-right section of the page, and then select the Kindle that you want to purchase from the “Buy a Kindle” section. Don’t be fooled by the cost shown; Amazon will add International Shipping charges and custom duties while checking out. The Kindle Touch, which at $139 should be close to Rs. 6,900/- or so, works out to Rs. 9,700/- after including shipping and customs. the amounts will differ for different models – please scrutinize your final amount before you complete the purchase during checkout. (For more details on purchasing and using the Kindle in India, you can refer to the More info links at the end of this article) Once you’ve successfully placed the order, it takes a few days for Amazon to deliver the Kindle right to your doorstep. When that happens, you can really touch and feel the …



Kindle Keyboard - Base

When you pick up a Kindle, the first thing that strikes you, more than how incredibly thin and light it is, is how comfortable it is to hold. The slightly beveled edges make it easy to pick up and hold naturally and easily, even with just one hand.

You then notice how slim and how light it really is; pictures such as the one of it next to a pencil, while impressive, still don’t do justice to reality. You have to hold it to experience it. While there are thinner phones out there, you can’t help but feel that this is the right thickness for a device of this sort – any thicker and it would be difficult to comfortably hold for an extended time; any thinner and it would have to be made of a much sturdier (and consequently more expensive) material. That being said, the plastic that the Kindle is encased in feels a little … cheap. While the slate grey colour (which Amazon calls graphite) is very pleasing to the eye, the plastic itself feels a bit flimsy, and was one of the few disappointing parts of the Kindle.

Kindle Keyboard - Slim

The power switch and the volume rocker buttons, along with the standard 3.5mm microphone jack and microUSB data transfer port are all on the base of the Kindle, giving the top edge of the device a clean and unbroken line. The power switch is a sliding button, very similar to those on the early iPods. When you turn the device on or off, it glows for a second with a pleasantly dark-green backlit LED, and is the only hint of colour on an otherwise monochromatic device. The lack of an AC Adapter is glaring in today’s world where almost every device comes with its own means of charging from a wall socket, but the Kindle can charge through the provided USB cable, so it is not too much of an issue.

6 Keys 1

The QWERTY keyboard below the screen is one of the two major differences between the Kindle Keyboard and the 4th generation Kindle which was released in 2011. These keys have a slightly rubberized texture and are comfortable to use, having a decent tactile response. However, after a few attempts, it becomes evident that typing is not what the Kindle was meant for – but more on that later. The Kindle’s main purpose is to be able to display e-Books well, which brings us to…


Display and reading

1 Front 02

The most important part of an e-book reader – the display.

The Kindle uses a display technology that is called E Ink Pearl, which can “render 16 shades of gray to simulate reading on paper”. As discussed in our opening paragraph, E Ink does not use a backlight. This means that, unlike most mobile phone screens, you can read it even in full sunlight, but you cannot read it in the dark. (Just like a real book!). This also means that you can read for long periods with little or no eyestrain compared to reading from a desktop or laptop monitor, which begins to feel like staring at a tube light, after sometime. There is no doubt that this is as close an experience as you can electronically get, to reading a printed book.

Also, while conventional electronic devices consume power to keep the display going, what’s unique about e-ink is that the screen consumes power only when you refresh the display (i.e. turn the page), and otherwise literally no power at all. This results in battery life of up to two months. To us, who have to charge our smartphones practically every day, this near-immortality seemed incredible at first (and still does, to be honest). How can it run so long? It just does. The background of the text on the display is not pure white, but is close enough to be comfortable to read off.

The pixel density on the display is good enough for individual pixels to be near-indistinguishable, but it’s not stellar. Photographs are displayed in impressive clarity, but in grayscale. The Kindle uses screensavers to highlight this to great effect – when you switch the device off, rather than go blank, the screen shows random portraits of famous (as well as not-so-famous) authors. A neat little trick from Amazon that not only gives the device a little personality, but also showcases the capabilities of the screen.


Software, Interface, Text input

5 Page Turn

Navigating the pages of a book on a Kindle is easy to get the hang of, and easier to get used to. Most of the non-reading navigation of the Kindle is, however, much more tedious. In a world where we have become used to touch-based interfaces, scrolling down a list of books or menu items, one by one, with press after press of the little D-pad at the corner of the device seems strange and anachronistic - no doubt the reason why Amazon has come out with a Kindle Touch, for the 4th generation of the Kindle. However, considering that, unlike a tablet, the Kindle is meant for just one function (i.e. reading books), it is understandable that the interface is pared down to just the bare essentials. Once you get used to it, it seems simple enough. Books are organized in “Collections” - the equivalents of folders in Windows – and you can create multiple Collections to organize your files.

The Kindle can handle multiple formats, though the native, proprietary Kindle format or the mobipocket reader files (*.mobi) are best suited for it. It can also read PDFs, though unless the PDF document is optimized for the Kindle (in terms of font size and margins), it can be near impossible to read. You can customize the reading experience to a large extent – you can modify the font size (eight options), the typeface (three options – regular, condensed and sans serif – all of which are clean and pleasing), the line spacing, and even the number of words per line.

Kindle Keyboard - The Keyboard

The width of the keypad layout is such that you need both thumbs to type; and since the keypad is near the base of the Kindle, it’s slightly difficult to hold and balance the device while typing. Also, the keys are laid out in a not-very-ergonomic rectangular grid, and you will have to keep looking at the keypad and back at the screen to keep track of what you’re typing. The typing experience requires more cognitive attention paid to it than typing on a regular keyboard, so don’t imagine that you will be churning out long bits of prose on your newly-purchased Kindle anytime soon; the keyboard is meant to quickly jot down short notes, and can’t be used for much more.

The forward and backward page turn buttons, however, are perfectly positioned. They are understated and blend into the device very well, and seem to have been consciously designed to be difficult to inadvertently push, however you hold the device; but simultaneously to be easily accessible to your thumbs. These buttons are present on both the left and right sides of the screen, making e-books easy to navigate whichever hand you prefer to hold the Kindle with. A solid bit of human-machine interface design, and we like it. The Kindle Keyboard is more than comfortable to read from, but not so much to type on. And to read from it, content needs to be loaded onto it using the methods discussed below…


Content for the Kindle

1 Front 01

There are three ways of getting your e-books/audio books onto the Kindle:

1. USB data transfer: If you have your own collection of books that you want to move to your Kindle, simply connect the Kindle to your main computer via USB. The Kindle shows up as an external drive, and you can transfer the files as you would to any other drive. Easy, fast and hassle-free.

2. Through Amazon: Whether you have the 3G or the wireless version of the Kindle, you can connect to Amazon and register your device. Once you do so, you can login to your Amazon account and purchase e-books through the Amazon website. e-Books purchased in this manner are automatically delivered to your Kindle, and get downloaded in the background, without interrupting your use of the device.

Our Kindle connected easily enough to the Wi-fi hotspot, and seamlessly synced the files that we had bought from Amazon. Most books did take a little bit longer than Bezos would have us believe with his “every book within 60 seconds”, but not by too much; and we’re not complaining.

3. Through email: You get a custom @amazon.com email id when you register your Kindle, and any file you send to this email ID will get downloaded to your Kindle.


Which Kindle is right for you?

Amazon Kindle - Comparison of the Models

Amazon currently sells four Kindle models that are available to Indian customers – the Kindle (4th generation), Kindle Touch, Kindle Keyboard 3G (this review is of the third-generation Kindle Keyboard, without 3G) and the Kindle DX. If the cost of the Kindle DX is prohibitively expensive, then we’re left with three choices. We would definitely not recommend the Kindle (4th generation) to anyone; for around Rs. 1500/- more, you get double the storage capacity (4 GB), double the battery life (60 days) and the ability to playback MP3s or Audiobooks.

There is also a less evident change in the software as well: the Kindle 4 does not refresh the whole screen every time the page is turned; it only refreshes those ink droplets that have changed from the previous display screen, and does a complete screen refresh only after every five page turns. This means that there is a progressive deterioration (barely noticeable, but noticeable nevertheless) in text sharpness on each page turn, till the screen does a full refresh. Amazon claims that this partial-refresh results in faster page turns and longer battery life, but it is our opinion that neither benefit was essential – the Kindle Keyboard has fast enough page turns, and impressive enough battery life – and the trade-off is definitely not worth it.

If your choice boils down to the Kindle Touch vs. the Kindle Keyboard 3G, you’ll have to make your final decision based on personal preference – do you want a smaller, lighter, touchscreen-enabled device or a larger, heavier device with a Keyboard and 3G (which works in India, as per the mobile indian)? We’ll leave you pondering that question as we move on to our…


Final thoughts

Kindle Keyboard - Book size comparison

The Amazon Kindle is a great e-Reader. And e-Readers themselves are an excellent way to replace a mountain of books (if you have one) effectively – with near-zero eye-strain, less weight, re-usability and so on. There are a few aspects that could do with some improvement, but Amazon with its fast release cycles, improvements and constantly dropping prices are on the right track.

Although the Kindle series of devices from Amazon are great devices, are they the right devices for you? If you’re the kind of person who reads more than a few online articles per day, you might start considering a Kindle. If you’re the kind of voracious reader who devours 500-page novels in a few hours, then we’d seriously suggest that you purchase a Kindle. The Kindle is comfortable and easy to use, and the convenience it offers in terms of making it easier to carry your reading material around makes it a definite must-have alternate device for serious readers.

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