A Look at the Kindle

Yes, it runs Linux. Yes, you can hack it.

The Kindle has been out for a year now, and Amazon has had plenty of time to work out any kinks in the software and hardware. It should be a rock-solid device, right? I decided to find out. After spending some quality time with the Kindle, I now can say the answer is mixed. Some things work great on the Kindle, but other things just don't, and some of those things probably never will work right (until Kindle 2.0, that is).

The good news is that the Kindle is readily available. Early on, it was perpetually out of stock on Amazon's Web site. Some critics claimed the shortages were self-inflicted, and Amazon claimed demand was simply “overwhelming”. Whatever the reasons were, they have been overcome. You want one delivered tomorrow? Done.

The Kindle comes in a very attractive package that resembles a book. Inside the box, you get a USB cable, a power brick, a manual, a handsome carrying case and the Kindle itself.

Figure 1. The Kindle comes with everything you see here.

After performing my solemn duty as a man and a geek of throwing away the manual, it was time to get the Kindle up and running. The first order of business was to plug it in and charge it up, and then, get some content on it. Thankfully, charging takes only a couple hours, and you can use the Kindle while it's charging.

Connecting the Kindle to your computer is as easy as connecting any other modern electronic device via a standard USB cable. The Kindle shows up as a removable device, like most cameras and thumbdrives. If you have an SD card plugged in to the SD card slot, it also shows up.

Figure 2. This screen appears on the Kindle while USB is plugged in.

First and foremost, the Kindle is defined by its screen. The E Ink display immediately sets it apart from LCD and CRT displays. The best word to describe it is steady. I can stare at it for hours without my eyes growing tired like they do with LCD displays. Yes, it is only black and white with a few levels of gray, but for something designed for reading, it is ideal, or nearly so. The current generation of electronic pager displays isn't perfect—the blacks aren't truly black, and the whites are more of a light gray—but it's pretty close.

The Kindle is powered by a PXA255 XScale processor and has 256MB of internal Flash memory (with 180MB available for books and other content). Under the back cover of the Kindle is an SD card slot, the reset hole and the battery.

Figure 3. Ports on the Bottom of the Kindle

Navigation on the Kindle is handled by the Prev Page, Next Page and Back buttons along either side of the Kindle and by a clever scroll wheel, which functions as the Kindle's mouse replacement.

Figure 4. The Kindle is small and light.

The keyboard on the Kindle is cramped. The keys are too small, and they require too much force when pressing them. It works though, and the typing needed is minimal, so I can live with it.

All documents on the Kindle behave more or less the same. There's no scrolling; instead, you page through the text. You can change the font size and use the scroll wheel to look up words in the built-in dictionary or follow links to other places in the document. You can bookmark a page by moving the scroll cursor to the top of its track and virtually folding down the top-right corner of the page. You also can add notes to the text and highlight passages by drawing boxes around them.

Figure 5. You can change the font size to whatever you like.

The Kindle's Features

One of the earliest complaints leveled against the Kindle was that it is tied to Amazon.com and its storefront. Along those lines, the two most common fears were “If my Kindle loses its memory, will I lose all my books and have to buy them again?” and “Is Amazon my only source for content?” The answer to both of those questions is no.

Amazon keeps a record of all of your purchases and lets you re-download them at any time. You also can back up your Kindle files on your computer. The Kindle is well integrated into Amazon's bookstore, but it is not tied to it. Several eBookstores have eBooks for free download or purchase, including ManyBooks.net, WebScription, Mobipocket.com and many others (see Resources).

Mobipocket is the originator of the Mobipocket eBook format. It was purchased by Amazon in 2005, so it's not surprising that the default format for Kindle eBooks is Mobipocket. Amazon adds DRM, unfortunately, to the otherwise Mobipocket-formatted eBooks it sells through Amazon.com and the built-in-to-the-Kindle bookstore. True to the real intent of DRM, this does little to stop piracy and everything to punish and annoy honest citizens. But, and this is a big one, the Kindle reads unencrypted Mobipocket files just fine. All of the sites listed above offer books in Mobipocket and other formats. My favorite of the bunch is ManyBooks.net, because it specializes in public domain books—meaning the books available for download on its site are not only free, they're also free (if you know what I mean).

One of the Kindle's neatest features is its wireless capabilities. The Kindle cannot connect to your Wi-Fi network, but it doesn't need to. Instead, it uses a built-in EVDO modem to connect to what Amazon calls its Whisper Net, but in reality, it's just Sprint's CDMA network. There is no charge for using this network, even for Web browsing. Instead, the costs are rolled in to the price of the Kindle itself, and the books, magazines and services you buy from Amazon.

Actually, I shouldn't include “services” in the above list, because right now, the only service Amazon charges for is its document-conversion service. You can e-mail Word, HTML or image documents to <yourname@kindle.com>, and they are converted and sent directly to your Kindle for $0.10 each. There's also a free version where you can e-mail documents to <yourname@free.kindle.com>, and you'll get a link to the converted document sent back to you (getting it onto your Kindle is your responsibility). The yourname part of the e-mail can be set and changed at Amazon.com in the Manage Your Kindle section.

I tested the conversion functionality with several documents, and I tried both the no-cost and regular services. There wasn't any difference in the time it took to convert the documents. The only difference was that one was sent to my Kindle automatically and the other arrived in my e-mail and had to be transferred manually to my Kindle.

My first test involved sending some .pdf files for conversion. The text converted fine, but I lost the graphics, some of the formatting, internal links and the .pdf's table of contents. I can't be too upset about what failed though, as .pdf isn't an officially supported file format. With all the PDF documents I have, it's nice that it works, even with some limitations.

I also tried sending over .gif, .jpg, .odt, .ods, .doc, .xls, .rtf and .html documents. The .html, .rtf, .gif, .jpg and .doc documents came through fine, but the translation service did not recognize the OpenDocument or Excel documents.

By default, this service converts and sends to your Kindle only documents sent from your primary e-mail address as configured at Amazon.com. You can add additional e-mail addresses.



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Awesome photos o

Kindle Case's picture

Awesome photos of the kindle 1 - it looks so old when you compare it the latest Kindle 3 - looks kinda clunky now.


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