Kindle DX: An e-reader for scientists and engineers
While I was off at WWDC last week, my new toy arrived: the Kindle DX. The Kindle is an electronic book reader from Amazon.com that uses an E Ink display and has an always-on data connection via Sprint's cell phone network.
So far, I'm finding it to be an extremely useful device, with a screen that works very well for many types of documents, including scientific papers and technical manuals. The Whispernet data connection is really cool and provides a strong differentiator for this reader versus others on the market right now.
Before I get too far into things, I should disclaim that I'm a huge fan of Amazon.com. I have an Amazon Prime account, my website runs on Amazon's EC2, and I even have an Amazon.com credit card. They have always provided a great shopping experience, but what really sets them apart is their excellent service. The people at Amazon are always a pleasure to talk to, and in all cases they've been able to resolve my issues quickly.
When Amazon first unveiled the original Kindle, I was intrigued, but the small screen size made it unusable for the type of documents I wanted to carry with me: scientific papers, technical notes, and reference manuals. Reading novels and other Kindle-formatted content is great, but that's not the primary reason why I want an e-reader like this.
The Kindle DX changes this by offering a much larger screen (a 9.7" diagonal vs. 6") that has a higher resolution, and by natively supporting the PDF format. Now it's possible to read all of those PDF documents that I have on my laptop (most of them organized within Papers).
My first impression when I took it out of the box was that the Kindle DX is smaller than I expected. The device's overall profile is less than that of an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper, with the screen being further recessed inside of that. The Kindle is only a little thicker than a ballpoint pen.
(I should apologize in advance for the odd color balance of many of these photos. My older Olympus camera really has a problem with fluorescent lighting.)
These dimensions, combined with the light weight, make it very comfortable in my hands. It's also easy to slip into the side pocket of my laptop bag for carrying around with my MacBook Air. I had purchased a Compaq TC-1000 tablet PC off of eBay for reading electronic documents a couple of years ago, but gave up on it because of its bulk and weight. It was too unwieldy to haul around at the same time as my primary laptop, so I had to choose one or the other. The laptop always won out.
While seeming a little too small at first, I think Amazon got the size just right. The screen is large enough to display detailed content, yet the Kindle is still portable enough to take with you everywhere.
One of the key items that sets a device like the Kindle apart from a tablet PC is the use of E Ink for the display. When I'm talking about E Ink here, I'm specifically referring to the display technology from E Ink the company (which was recently acquired for $215 million). This technology relies on small colored spheres which relocate within a cell in the display when charge is applied. If dark spheres end up near the surface, that area turns black. These spheres stay in place until their cell is activated again.
This unique process allows for a screen with text and graphics that look like they were printed on. The display only consumes power when elements are switched, so for applications requiring few display refreshes this can lead to extremely long battery life. However, current E Ink displays cannot do color (I saw some early prototypes of color displays at the Flexible Electronics conference last year, but they still have quite a bit of work to do) and they don't refresh very quickly. This set of advantages and disadvantages makes E Ink displays ideally suited for displaying static text and figures.
Unless you've seen one of these displays in person, it's hard to describe how one of them looks. The most common comment I hear is that people think there's a decal left on the screen, until they realize that that is the screen. The Kindle DX has a very high resolution display (1200 x 824) for its size, which leads to sharp text and vector art. It's also one of the few readers on the market with a display larger than 6 inches diagonal. The one disappointing element to the display is the grey background of the display, which cuts down on the contrast of the text. Some of the next-generation E Ink displays that I've seen seemed to have a much lighter background, so future Kindles should be better in this regard.
In my opinion, it's a great display for reading, but to test that I needed to try some actual documents.
The reason I purchased the Kindle DX was to read and have handy many of the PDF versions of my manuals and other documents. The Kindle DX handles PDFs natively, unlike its smaller cousins. Once you connect the Kindle to your computer via its USB cable, it shows up as a standard USB mass storage device. You just need to copy your PDFs across to the Kindle's /documents directory for them to show up on the device (you can even organize them within subdirectories if you want). The Kindle DX holds about 3.3 GB of documents, which should let you carry around a very large library of material in something the size of a single magazine.
I tried a bunch of complex PDFs on the Kindle, and all of them rendered flawlessly. The images below illustrate various documents, including a research paper, a page from my Ph.D. thesis, a spec sheet from a microelectronic component, and pages from Apple's Human Interface Guidelines. The text and vector art are sharp and clear, but text that was already in small print within two-column research papers might be difficult for people with poorer eyesight to read.
Unfortunately, the only way to zoom in on a PDF is to rotate the device into a landscape mode, which widens the PDF to fit that orientation. It would be very nice if Amazon were to add a portrait zoom function in a future firmware update.
PDFs are text-searchable, which works surprisingly well with the little keyboard at the bottom of the device. That's one thing you won't get in a normal printed book. Additionally, you can bookmark locations and give names to those bookmarks, which is very handy for quick reference in larger manuals.
Overall, I'm very happy with how it handles PDFs and I think that others with similar needs will be too.
As a side note, the high-resolution artwork of famous authors and classic works that appears on the screen when the device is put to sleep is beautiful. Little touches like this really make you feel like you are holding the successor to Gutenberg's press in your hands.
Native Kindle documents
While not the primary reason for my interest in the Kindle DX, Amazon has assembled an impressive e-book service for the Kindle. Kindle books can be purchased at Amazon.com or through the Kindle's Whispernet connection directly. A large selection of books are available right now, and it sounds like they are working hard to make many more available.
The books themselves are constructed using an HTML-based structure and Amazon has taken an App-Store-like philosophy towards hosting and selling books written by individual authors. One of the more interesting bits of information from the announcement of the Kindle DX was that for books with a Kindle edition, 35% of the total sales for those books were for the Kindle editions. Given how many books Amazon sells and how few Kindles there are out there, that's a lot of e-book sales per Kindle.
They do a good job of trying to hook you into buying books by letting you download the first few pages of each. If after that initial taste you find that you need to read the rest, it's simple to purchase the full book. Prices are pretty reasonable, with each book available at a discount compared to its hardcopy. Books can be synchronized between Kindles and even with the Kindle iPhone Application.
Searching for words within a book is handled even better than for PDFs, with results appearing in an ordered list with surrounding text for context.
Text notes can be added anywhere within the text, although it's a little cumbersome to move the cursor to exactly where you want to place them. Text can also be highlighted by selecting words or pages. As with PDFs, you can make bookmarks with custom titles for quick access later.
It's worth mentioning that the Pragmatic Programmers have started making their titles available in DRM-free Kindle formats (.mobi files). If you purchase the electronic version of one of their books (or one of the books in their innovative beta test program), you get both PDF and Kindle versions. They have an outstanding stable of books, they treat their authors very well, and a program like this shows that they are well ahead of the curve as publishers. The Kindle books I used in my initial tests were all ones that I had purchased from them, instead of the Kindle Store.
The Whispernet that the Kindle DX uses is provided through Sprint, with 3G speeds coming via their EVDO network. A map of Sprint's coverage area can be found here, which shows a large area of the U.S. not being covered. I'm not sure, but I believe that the Kindle DX also has the ability to work on the normal Sprint PCS network, which might extend the coverage area a bit from what's shown in that map. Here in Wisconsin, even my hometown of Waupaca has EVDO coverage, so I've been able to get access everywhere I go.
The Kindle Store is nicely laid out and is tied into your Amazon account, so it provides you with relevant recommendations and makes it easy to find the books you're looking for. You can read the description for books, check out reviews, and download the above-mentioned book samples to give you a taste of the work. After testing this out for the last few days, I can see myself making good use of the store, especially as they add more obscure titles that may not be available in print.
You can also use the Whispernet data connection to access other online resources. One of the neat options on the Kindle is that you can start typing a word or phrase and select to search Google or Wikipedia right from the device. A limited web browser will appear, which can be configured to show content in either a traditional mobile format or as a desktop-style page. If I didn't have an iPhone always with me, this would be a killer feature. As it is, the larger, easier-to-read display may draw me away from the iPhone for reading certain pages on the go. However, given that you never have to pay for cell network access with the Kindle, I can't help but think that web surfing access will be cut off at some point in the near future.
I also ordered the leather cover for the DX, which is a little pricy at $49.99. When attached, it makes the Kindle look and feel like a nice leatherbound notebook. The cover uses magnetic latches on the front and back to hold it in place, which is a nice touch. I haven't decided yet if I will use the cover for day-to-day transportation of my Kindle.
The Kindle DX looks to be just the kind of electronic reader that I've been waiting for, but it does have some shortcomings. The first, and largest, is that it is only available in the U.S. right now. This was upsetting to my European colleagues at WWDC. Hopefully, Amazon will work out the content or wireless data deals that are holding up the international distribution of this device.
Even with a 9" diagonal, scientific papers in PDF form that use small print and two columns of type might be difficult to read. It would be nice to have an option for zooming in on a PDF that didn't require rotating the Kindle itself. The grey background of the E Ink display leads to a lower contrast with text than a pure white would, but that's a function of current display technology. It still is very legible and is much easier on the eyes than a backlit LCD.
Finally, many people might find the $489.00 price to be a little high for them. Knowing the technology that's inside one of these devices, and accounting for the free Whispernet data connection, this seems like a very good price to me. It's hard to find a comparable product, with the iRex iLiad Book Edition being the closest. It has only an 8.1" E Ink screen and a $599.00 price tag, all without the free cell network connection that you have on the Kindle and the backing of a company like Amazon.
For me, the Kindle DX appears to be the ideal device for carrying around reference material at work, or for reading papers and books while sitting down by the lake. The Whispernet networking is a great addition, and would be a killer feature by itself if I didn't already have an iPhone. Only time will tell if the Kindle lives up to its promise, but it looks good so far.