Kindle DX is the true heir to the Kindle throne, but whether Amazon's ebook kingdom is growing or shrinking depends on the next wave of books—textbooks. In the meantime, bigger screen, cool new tricks...
I know now I have a love/hate relationship with Kindle. The drive of Amazon to make this unlikely little thing a star is inspiring in a world where most companies just go around copying each other. Amazon has, from the beginning, delivered on so many of promises of e-readers—cheap books delivered instantly to a lightweight screen that's easy on the eyes and stays powered for days on a single battery charge.
The Kindle 2 that hit this spring was a disappointment, nothing but a Kindle 1 with a more predictable design and some novelty tricks.
The DX, arriving just months later, solves real problems of the first generation. Internally, it has native PDF support, which allows for reading of the vast bulk of formal business literature, not to mention a bazillion easy-to-download copyright-free (free-free!) works of actual literature. Externally, the DX's larger 10-inch screen makes it better suited to handle the content, not just PDFs, but textbooks, whose heavily formatted pages would look shabby on the smaller Kindle's 6-inch screen.
The DX also has an inclinometer, so you can flip it sideways or even upside down. I didn't know what that was for at first—but I do now.
The DX is not-so-secretly the smartest thing Amazon could do to show academic publishers it was time to green up and get with digital distribution. But it's a real "if you build it, they will come" strategy, because although Amazon has announced that it "reached an agreement" with the three publishers who account for 60% of textbooks sold—Pearson, Cengage Learning and Wiley (but not Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)—we haven't seen any actual textbooks distributed to Kindles yet and, more upsettingly, we have no idea how much they will cost or what weird rights issues may be involved in their "sale."
So while we're sitting here, DX in hand, waiting for the real reason for its existence to come to fruition, it doesn't hurt to talk about it as a reader for regular books, right?
I am currently a little over halfway through Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, a heavyweight champ of a book, even in paperback, that sits on my chest each night, restricting my breathing until I have no choice but to fall asleep.
As you can see from the scale shots below, the DX weighs about half as much as the paperback, a real load off my chest. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) As Kindle lover Chen is apt to point out, the Kindle 2 is just half the weight of the DX, but I counter with this lazy man's factoid: Even using a slightly larger font, I can see the equivalent of two and a half Kindle 2 pages on a DX screen. It is, in fact, a better reading experience.
When it comes to PDFs, the Kindle DX lives up to its unambitious promise: There they are, in the menu, the minute you copy them from your computer to the Kindle via USB. What won't show up are .doc, .docx, Excel spreadsheets or any other text-based pseudo-standards from the Microsoft people, and no images either.
The good and bad thing about the PDFs is that they appear squarely in the DX's 10-inch rectangular frame, "no panning, no zooming, no scrolling," as Amazon's bossman Jeff Bezos likes to say. This is wonderful when you have a PDF like my free copy of Bram Stoker's Dracula. It's presented in a big clear font and saved to PDF, meaning I can't change the font size, but I don't want to either. The trouble arises when you have something like the HP product brochure below. Damn thing was meant to be seen on a computer, with full-color graphics and the ability to zoom in on the fine print. As you can see, some print is so small, the Kindle's slightly chunky E-Ink screen resolution can't render it legibly.
That's when I found that you really can zoom.
Remember I mentioned that inclinometer, that orients the screen horizontally or vertically depending on how you hold it? It's not terribly useful for Kindle books, which are meant to look great in vertical (portrait) orientation. But when you're looking at a PDF, and you can't read everything, tilting the whole deal 90 degrees gets you a bit of a zoom. How much? If you think about it, that's a little over 20%, not a lot, but a bit of a boost when you need it. The PDF support is so convenient, but means I especially miss the SD card slot from the first Kindle. It would make life with the DX a far sight easier.
So the screen is bigger, but perhaps still not big enough, at least for the text books and businessy documents. I'm happy to say that it's finally reached the minimum required size for recreational reading, which is what most people will be buying it for anyway.
I haven't got a lot to say about the newspaper industry that the Kindle will allegedly save, except that Kindle newspapers don't look or feel anything like real newspapers, so they may disappoint a few old-schoolers out there. You don't even get a fat front page of options pointing in all directions, but instead, incomplete tables of contents segregated by section. I am glad for the newspaper distribution on Kindle, but only in the same way that I am glad for the faxed New York Times cheatsheets they hand out at resorts that are too far from mainland USA to get an actual paper on time. Seriously, if this is somehow more accessible than reading a newspaper on a laptop, I'll eat my hat.
The same goes for the text-to-speech that publishers are all frightened of. Sure, computer-generated voices are getting better, and the precedent set here might eventually shut down some voice-talent union, but in the meantime, their jobs are safe: I can't imagine how anyone could listen to more than a paragraph. Apparently neither can Amazon: In the Kindle DX, the speech controls are buried, and you have to memorize a keystroke combination to get it working.
The DX also doesn't give any new hope for E-Ink as a sustainable platform. The many people who bitch that color is king are not wrong, exactly, but color E-Ink is puke-tastic and far from cheap. Monochrome E-Ink may look nice by the light of your nightstand lamp—and thank God Amazon hasn't gone and mucked it up like Sony did with that PRS (more like POS)-700—but it's still too slow to leaf around the way you would a serious work of literature. (My best example of this is still Infinite Jest by the late great David Foster Wallace. I was surprised to discover that it's actually finally available as a Kindle book, every glorious footnote intact albeit cumbersomely hyperlinked. I have always assumed it would be more daunting on a Kindle than in book form, but now that I have a chance to find out, I'll have to get back to you.)
Unless E-Ink gets cheaper, faster, bigger and more colorful all at once, it's doomed. The iPhone is an all-around worse system for book readin', but way more people have iPhones, so it could beat Kindle by sheer momentum. And Mary Lou Jepsen's Pixel Qi company is working on a new LCD screen that—like the OLPC XO screen she was instrumental in devising—will run on less power, be easy on the eyes in natural light, and have optimized modes for both black-and-white and color.
The hope for the current Kindles is that these boring old black-and-white textbooks we keep hearing about appear on the horizon like an army of indignant Ents. Give every college kid a DX and the chance to download half their texts to Kindle, and all bets are off.
So what happens next? Well like I said, we wait.
Best ebook reader to date
Native PDF support
Larger screen means (almost) everything is easier to read
E-Ink screen is easy on the eyes and battery efficient, but makes pages slow to "turn" and does not come in color
Textbooks would be ideal, so let's see the deals
$489 price tag is steep
No zooming means some PDFs will be unreadable