The Kindle Experience

… kind of sucked for me.

There are many reasons to be dissatisfied with the Kindle, even before you get it out of the box. I’m not a fan of DRM in any product, but it feels particularly unwelcome and obtrusive in the case of ebooks, as well as being utterly pointless.

Then there’s the pricing, which seems ridiculously high for a few electrons even when you’re paying less than the cost of the dead tree edition, but is particularly galling in the many instances where the Kindle edition is more expensive, particularly as for most people it’s likely to be seen as the most inferior format.

It’s the publishers who tend to get a bit of an online kicking for this, however as Charles Stross observes, Amazon is also to blame for the pricing. The online retailer actually licenses the right to publish an ebook from the original publisher, setting the price point themselves and prohibiting the original publisher from selling the book in ebook format at a lower price point anywhere else.

Finally, there’s the argument that books as objects have intrinsic, aesthetic merits in their own right. The smell of the pages, the feel and heft, etc. – recently highlighted in Penelope Lively’s “bloodless nerds” comment. I’m something of a bibliophile myself, so I’m partial to position, however my passion for books is actually the main reason I decided to buy a Kindle. I simply own too many of them – I’m still paying for storage a year after my last move, and that’s mainly books – and so for the last year I’ve been actively trying to prune my collection down to nice editions of my favourite books, key reference works and stuff I’m nigh on certain I’m going to want to read again at some point. At the same time, this has made me reluctant to make new purchases I’m fairly certain I’ll only want to read the once, and then have to drop off at the local Oxfam. The local libraries have been useful in this regard, but I read a wide-range of material, and I like to skip around sometimes, putting stuff aside for a while and coming back to it later – not a good habit if you want to avoid late fees.

The Kindle certainly addresses the space issue. It’s slim, compact, weighs less than a chunky paperback, and sits unobtrusively on the coffee table or sideboard, occupying the same dimensions regardless of whether its memory is swollen with literature or a virtual tabula rasa. Cost, as noted above is still an issue, however there’s usually at least some small saving to be made buying the Kindle edition, and whilst having a physical book to show for your purchase is usually seen as being an advantage of the dead tree edition, as I’ve explained, it’s the other way round for me with most purchases.

There were other, more surprising things to recommend it as well. Free internet access anywhere you can get a 3G signal. I already knew about this, but didn’t realise quite how much I’d end up actually using it. Once I discovered Instapaper, it became my preferred way of consuming articles from my daily round-up of RSS subscriptions. The Kindle’s browser is pretty shit, true, but sometimes all you need is GMail and Wikipedia, and realising you’ll never be separated from either no matter what city in the world you find yourself in feels profoundly awesome and empowering (although I’d still probably need a sat phone at my parents’ house). Fuck you, roving mobile data charges.

The Kindle’s whispernet functionality also allows for seamless integration with Amazon. It’s pretty amazing to be discussing a book you’ve never heard of with someone, and to find, purchase and download it before the conversation has even finished. You start hemorrhaging cash all over the place, of course, but it feels like productive, worthwhile spend. It’s also the case that many public domain works have free Kindle editions, so you can hoover all the classics you’ve been meaning to read, but always found something more vital to spend your money on instead.

It’s not terribly user-friendly. The controls are clunky, awkward and feel antiquated. A number of people tried it out at the office and it was amazing how many of them initially just assumed it’d be a touch screen device. The screen is good for reading text off, and that’s about it. As a product, it doesn’t feel like it has a terribly long shelf-life – that something will be along imminently to replace it.

I could forgive all that though. What really annoyed me was I owned it just two days before it packed up and died. Producing it from my rucksack on the tube, eager to read the next chapter Richard Herring’s How Not To Grow Up (of which I was 20% of the way through), I flicked the on switch, and watched as the screen began to resolve, only to suddenly freeze. No attempt to reboot having any effect. Scrolling through the one-star reviews on Amazon I found this isn’t an infrequent occurrence, and rather a common issue that goes back to their release. Kindles are really quite fragile, it would seem.

Amazon’s returns policy was also annoyingly over-complex. I needed to return it in its original packaging, which of course I’d already thrown out (remember the whole lack of space thing). And whilst they’d pay for the return, they’d only do so via DHL, who I’d have to arrange pickup with myself. DHL could give me a day, but not a time, or even any indication of whether it might be an am or pm. As such, I ended up having to pay for postage and packing myself rather than take a day off work.

So yeah, I came out of it feeling a little burned, to be honest. And whilst when it works its a nice little bit of kit, as I said above – it doesn’t really feel like they’re going to be around for long. Naturally, I lasted about a fortnight and then bought another one. So far, this one’s last a week, but I still flinch slightly whenever I turn it on, which doesn’t really recommend it. And whilst the positives still stand, the shine has also worn off on them, and I’m more aware than ever of the negatives.

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