What's wrong with the Kindle

The Kindle is an interesting product. It has a very basic low-resolution monochrome screen which is only really useful for displaying text and not much else. Compare this to say an iPad's high resolution rich-color multi-touch screen and it seems like a century old relic. Yet it sells amazingly well. The only real advantage of this screen is that it has no back-light, which is easier on the eyes (or so they say) and uses virtually no power at all to display a static image. This means you can use the Kindle for weeks on a single charge. And after using it for a short while, you kinda forget you're even using an electronic device (except for the giant keyboard down the bottom which screams geek-gadget at full volume, but more on that later).

The Kindle also has free global 3G data access. This means you can connect to the Amazon Kindle store and download books, magazines or newspapers on the go. You can also use it to check and send emails, to Tweet and even to browse the web on a mono-chrome text-only browser. Not bad considering there's no monthly charge for this.

The Kindle is a fantastic device for reading books. The convenience factor of being able to read whatever you want without carrying a bag full of bricks with you all the time, and begin able to just hold it with one hand and flip pages while you're holding on to a train rail with the other is great. Going for weeks on a single charge is also a huge bonus if you travel a lot. But for anything else, like email or newspapers or web browsing or Twitter, the Kindle is far, far sub-par compared to say an iPad, Dell Streak, Galaxy Tab or any recent smartphone.

And here's the problem. The Kindle devotes so much space to the full qwerty keyboard, which is hardly ever used considering the product only excels as a reader. If the iPhone can get away with a virtual screen keyboard, why can't the Kindle? Sure it's not a touch-screen, but you can use the directional pad to select letters (which you do anyway for symbols) from an on-screen keyboard using the directional pad. This is slow in comparison, but most people would only really use this to search for a word or two in the online Kindle store. The current Kindle also allows you to make annotations on any document, which is a cool idea but I think premature for the technology. I think a more useful Kindle would look a little like this:

Thin bezel, 6 or 7" screen, turn-page buttons on both sides so you can use with either hand, and a menu navigation control is all you need. As the technology evolves, include a pen that attaches to the devices which you can use to type on a virtual keyboard or to scribble notes and annotations.

UPDATE: The Kindle 3 has recently been released and is a step in the right direction. The bezel around the screen has been halved, the buttons on the side have been changed to next-page/previous-page on both sides for easy single-hand operation, and the keyboard has been shrunk by removing the number row completely and adding them to the on-screen symbol virtual keyboard (although, if they insist on keeping the keyboard, they should do what mobile phone manufacturers do and have a Function key that alternates between letters and secondary symbols so that you can have letters, numbers and everything else easily accessible).

The new Kindle also boasts a 50% increase in contrast, which I think is much needed. The Kindle 2 is easy enough to read in good light, but at night next to a bedside table lamp it's basically black on gray.

UPDATE 2: Seems I'm not the only one who thinks the keyboard in unnecessary. Gizmodo published this well over a year ago:

This seems like a photo-shopped iPhone qwerty with a touchscreen. Only problem with current touch-screens is they add glare, which is definitely not a good thing for a screen with no backlight.

UPDATE 3: The Kindle is great for reading books because it's convenient, and also because most of the time the eReader version of the books is cheaper than the paperback. Unfortunately, it seems not all publishers have embraced eBooks just yet. Some books are not available in electronic format, and some books are not available in certain regions (especially here in Australia where, as an example, I found it impossible to purchase His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman). This is a bit of a thorn in the experience, but the situation will hopefully improve over time.


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