Kindle 3 is a good first attempt

Giving my girlfriend a Kindle for Christmas was the carrot in a multi-pronged strategy to avoid needing more bookshelves (the stick being “I will start giving away your books” and my contribution being to archive books I’ve read (or return the many that aren’t even mine). This therefore required that I stocked it with books before she got her hands on it, which in turn was all the excuse I needed to play with the thing.

My lazy solution was simply to download all of Feedbooks; I wrote some scripts to make this actually lazy, rather than brain-numbingly dull. In the process I found that while the Kindle is nice to hold and great to read, it struggles to cope with a large collection of books (even though the nearly 3,000 volumes of Feedbooks only half-filled its 4Gb memory), and is woeful as a research tool. And, of course, Amazon’s first-mover-evil surfaced early.

Here are the problems I had:

  1. Amazon’s own store doesn’t seem to contain free books. I think it’s poor form not to give people a straightforward choice of free editions of out-of-copyright works. The Kindle may be a loss leader, but at £109 it’s still not cheap. Feedbooks, rather than integrating easily into the Kindle, like, say, a 3rd-party software provider into Ubuntu’s Software Center, provide a catalogue which itself is in the form of a book, doesn’t automatically update, and offers a list ordered only by title. In other words, it’s useless; one is better off using the built-in web browser to search the online catalogue…

  2. …or better, another browser, since the Kindle’s is woefully slow (and I don’t just mean the screen update). It’s just about usable, and hence useful in an emergency, but is no good as, for example, an online research tool to use in parallel with the books you have downloaded, although…

  3. …offline search is awful too. With just the few ebooks that come loaded on the device, it was slow; with the thousands of books I loaded, it simply locked up the device, even when trying to search in the manual, presumably already indexed. The Kindle seems to index its contents in the background, but even now, over a week later, search doesn’t work. The only effective navigation is by a book’s table of contents, and, to choose which books to read, the user-definable collections, though…

  4. …collections are a pain to set up for many books, as you have to select each book manually; there is no way I have found to select a range. (Fortunately, I was able to define collections programmatically, but this will be beyond most users.)

In summary, it’s a lovely device, but the software is rather toytown. Amazon could improve it (and indeed, the 3.0.3 firmware update, at the experimental stage when I checked, claims, vaguely, “performance improvements”), but given that their main interest is in selling books and Kindles, I’m not hopeful that it will happen before the next hardware iteration; whether it happens at all depends on competition, and there should be plenty of that, to go by the number of other ebook readers.

Reuben Thomas, 3rd January 2011

Last updated 2011/01/03