The Amazon Kindle has only relatively recently made it to the UK, with our US brothers and sisters enjoying the device for some time. As we've been looking at our disconnected ebook readers on this side of the pond and scratching our balding pates, US Kindle owners have been laughing through their macchiatos. We've been living with the Kindle for several months now and here's what we think.
Starting with the basics, the Amazon Kindle Keyboard, or the International Edition, is a 6-inch ebook reader measuring 203.2 x 134.6 x 9.1mm. Like the other devices we've reviewed, it features a 600 x 800 pixel E-Ink display, meaning you get the benefits of long battery life and a natural reading experience that doesn't strain the eyes like a backlit display might.
With the likes of the Apple iPad promising to be all singing and all dancing, the humble ebook reader might look a little bland. True, but they are tools for a task and that task is reading, for which we've always said that E-Ink is a good medium. Page turning requires a refresh of the page and the Amazon Kindle isn't as slow as some, but we've never had a problem with that.
The Kindle itself is well designed and constructed, feeling like a quality device in the hand. The brushed metal back looks and feels great in the hand, although we slapped it straight into a leather cover and have left it there ever since. The white plastic front of the Kindle has a Mac look to it (from a few years ago) with tight fitting buttons.
Down the left-hand edge of the Kindle bezel you get page turning buttons Prev Page and Next Page, whilst on the right-hand edge you get Home, Next Page, Menu, Back and a small clickable joystick, which can be a little fiddly to use. Across the bottom is a QWERTY keyboard, including the likes of numbers, symbols and so on.
In terms of connections, you'll find a Micro-USB on the bottom and a 3.5mm jack on the top, next to the power switch. A volume rocker resides on the right-hand side should you be using your Kindle to listen to MP3 music. There are also speakers on the back of the Kindle, so you can listen out loud, which might be fine for podcasts, but not for music.
The real story, however, is the wireless connection that the Kindle gives you to Amazon's store. Amazon call this Whispernet, which sounds like some sort of gossip super highway. It then syncs content via a process called Whispersync. Essentially this is an embedded 3G connection which comes as part of the device, with the costs rolled into the price you pay for the Kindle.
Your Kindle is very little without the accompanying account on Amazon, and UK users will find they are diverted over to Amazon.com when it comes to researching and buying the device. You'll find thereafter that your Kindle has an American bent: you'll be buying in dollars and you'll find that you are offered magazines and papers that are predominantly from the US or have a heavy international feel, so you can't get the Surrey Comet.
Dive into the Kindle and the interface is rather simple. Perhaps a little too simple, with the Home page being a plain list of content. But the Kindle isn't a simple device. The wireless connection means you can manage your device direct from your Amazon account, which helps to tie the thing together more than some devices where you simply buy content and transfer it.
Adding content to your Kindle can be done through several avenues. You can search the Kindle Store through the device itself, and it will download, so it can be operated without needing a computer. You can browse the store online and send the content to your Kindle, or you can download it to a computer and transfer it.
It sounds great, but you don't get access to everything on the Amazon bookshelves. Far from it. You only get access to those Kindle edition books on offer, but you do get to take a sample, so you can read a little and see if you want to buy it. There is a healthy selection and whilst we couldn't find every book we wanted, we've found the same problem with other ebook stores. This is an issue that is going to occur whilst publishers decide what they are happy with and release ebook editions to retailers, and while retailers decide what ebooks they'll stock.
Where the Kindle is restricted, however, is that you are confined to Amazon's eco system. Whilst Amazon is a huge retailer, you don't get the freedoms you do elsewhere. The device doesn't support the more common EPUB format, so if you download a title from somewhere else, you won't be able to use it on your Kindle. Equally, once you've bought your content, you won't be able to move it to another device, because Amazon uses its own file format and it's DRM protected, as is most paid-for content.
You don't get to take advantage of shopping around for a cheaper book, like you can with other devices, so you are left to pay Amazon's prices. That also means you'll be paying for content that you can get elsewhere for free, to consume on any device you like.
But not so fast. You can view your Kindle content on the PC, iPhone and BlackBerry, with a Mac version promised soon too. These are actually standalone applications giving you access to the Kindle world, but will let you access the content you already have on another device, which helps take the sting out of this closed world. You can be sitting on the delayed train, fire up the Kindle app on your BlackBerry and start reading where you left off on your Kindle the night before, which is brilliant and a distinct advantage of having a connected reading device.
Books are not the only content you get access too. You can subscribe to a range of magazines and newspapers, although the selection is limited. You get a trial period of 14 days on this content and it's well worth having a look. Reading a broadsheet newspaper on a 6-inch screen is not a great experience and not one we could get accustomed to, but you get to browse by sections and then click through to the text, so it feels like a serious reading experience, rather than a browsing news experience.
We trialled the London Evening Standard, which will cost you $9.99 a month for a subscription, but is handed out for free on street corners in London. Of course, there is an argument that you'd be much better off browsing the Internet and viewing news stories online, where you can pretty much get everything for free.
One thing we didn't like was the layout of the Kindle Store accessed through the device. You can use the keyboard to search, which is great, you are then presented with a list. Click on a title and the Buy button on the next page is instantly highlighted. If you are a little fast with your presses, or a little impatient, you'll find you've bought the book by mistake. You then get an option to cancel the purchase, which is fine, but a better design could avoid this.
The US Kindle offers blog subscriptions and basic browser access, but this isn't available to customers in the UK. Basic MP3 support is offered through the Experimental section of the menu, although you have to manually load in this music and you don't get to view track listings or anything else, you simply start and stop playback.
The keyboard means you can search easily, you also get dictionary support, and bookmarking. You can also highlight text and clip it, perhaps to refer to later if you find something particularly notable.
Battery life with the wireless turned off is as you'd expect from an E-Ink device, giving you a couple of weeks of reading. With the wireless on, however, you'll find the battery quickly drains away - so when you don't need it, turn it off.
The Amazon Kindle is a great quality device that currently offers a unique service. Wirelessly connecting to the bookstore and letting you get your content is certainly a simple approach, with that added advantage of letting you browse content on the website to send to your Kindle, as well as reading on your iPhone or BlackBerry if you want to.
For those that want to top-up their reading material on the move with having to hook-up a PC, then the Kindle is a great device.
The downside is a closed system, with limited support of external material. Designed as a reader of Amazon's content, it's handling of other file formats is rudimentary. These things may change in the future, with rumours already circulating of a new browser and an MP3 viewer would be an easy addition.
Take the Kindle because you always buy from Amazon and you are happy with their content, or you'd love to be able to walk out the door with your edition of The Telegraph already on the device. If you are happy to shop around and connect your ebook reader to a PC, then you might find the open format support of rival devices offers a better solution.