I realized recently that I had not used my Amazon Kindle (Kindle 3, or now Kindle Keyboard) in more than a month, despite the fact that I read books every day. In fact, I found it buried under some physical books, battery dead, and then charged it, forgot it again for another month, and discovered it dead again.
As an HCI advocate, avid reader, and someone who initially enjoyed the Kindle a lot, I want to examine some of the reasons I drifted away from it. I think there are five key reasons, which I’ll discuss in turn.
- Multiple books & tactile
- Random access
- Content pricing
Multiple books & tactile. I usually read multiple books at a time, and the Kindle doesn’t fit that very well psychologically. True, you can easily navigate from the current book back to the home menu, select a different book, and pick up right where you were reading earlier. But the psychological problem is this: the book will look exactly the same as the one you were just reading. There is no tactile, olfactory, kinesthetic, or any other sense that you have changed your reading material and returned to another place. This reduces the psychological effect of having switched gears, which is a bit of excitement every time I set down one book and pick up another. You also lose the sense of place within a book (the differential weight of pages on each hand, the sense of location within the text, etc.) Thus, the Kindle pulls strongly for reading one book at a time, which I don’t do.
Notes. I often take notes as I read, and the Kindle is not good for that. True, you can select the menu, insert a note, and type it on the miniscule keyboard “ but going back to those notes later is tedious at best, and in fact only once have I reviewed notes that Iv’e taken. In a physical book, there is a sense that marginal scribbling is a creative act in some way. Indeed, I’ve seen scholarly libraries where margin notes were the primary value. On the Kindle, it feels like notes are an afterthought that exist to check off a feature list, not something that actually works well.
Random access. Closely related to the notes issue, there is no good way to skip around in a Kindle book. The physical nature of printed books is extremely helpful for both memory and search. One may recall, for instance, I saw that chart somewhere around the middle and it was at the top of a page, and a quick flip through the pages will reveal it. Likewise, reading often needs a quick flip-back-and-return to locate some fact (now who is Charlotte again?) before continuing. The Kindle is terrible for that. Partially offsetting this is that one can do a text search; but I suspect the need to find a particular word or phrase is less than the need to do quick page-throughs and reviews.
Layout. The Kindle layout is great for fiction and general non-fiction, but not very good for technical materials such as books about statistics and programming. At any given time, I’m usually working my way through a couple of technical books, which I prefer in print. (Besides the layout problem, technical books also pose issues for note-taking and random access, as described above.)
Content pricing. Finally, Kindle has not yet nailed its pricing model. Amazon seems to be apologetic about this, with notes on some titles proclaiming that the price was inflated by the publisher. For my part, I often see things like this: printed technical book is $40 while Kindle is $35. Ouch. In that case, I get print because it adds a lot more value. What I’d really like, however, is a bundle option: Kindle = $35, print = $40, print + Kindle = $50. I need the print edition for all the reasons noted above, but would like to add a Kindle edition for convenience. But that’s not worth an additional 80-100% of the print edition price. I’m guessing that publishers insist on this, and don’t want a bundle model because someone could buy the bundle, sell the print copy, and keep the Kindle copy at a discount. But come on! My guess is that such behavior (a) would be rare; (b) would be more than offset immediately by market gains; and (c) would increase overall readership and loyalty which has downstream bonuses.
Positives. Of course there are many positive aspects of the Kindle. In particular, the form factor is nicely engineered for a compromise between size and comfort; text is crisp and easy to read; the price is amazing; the availability of content is enormous; and the portability of one’s library is delightful. I won’t rehash those in detail, but they are the reason I bought one to begin with, and why I enjoyed it so much for the first couple of months.
Conclusion and recommendation. If you read a lot of fiction or general non-fiction (history, etc.) that proceeds linearly through a text, then it’s a no-brainer: Kindle is great. If, however, you read mostly highly formatted or technical works (statistics, science texts, cookbooks, art, etc.) then Kindle is mediocre to poor. And if you want PDF support, then it’s downright terrible (except perhaps for the DX, which I haven’t tried).