Review: Amazon Kindle International Edition

Posted by Minnaar Pieters 14 Jan 2010

Once in a while a game changing product comes along that makes you rethink conventions which are pretty much hardwired into our routines. This is immediately apparent in the consumption of media – be it music, movies or print. With the dawn of the internet our consumption of these have been altered dramatically.  Take for example music – 20 years ago, music was a much more valued form of media. People purchased albums, with beautiful album artwork, and there was a much more grandiose feeling to buying an album from your favourite band. These days, the feeling is somewhat cheapened, and the average consumer is very much aware they are paying royalties for the music, rather than for the actual physical product which we like to own. After all, many people buy CD’s and almost immediately rip the disc for use on their media player of choice. Movies are going a similar route – with the ease of use iTunes, and the advent of cheap broadband, the idea of having to buy a DVD is also very quickly becoming old news. Its only natural to imagine this mindset changing idea to books and print media.
 About two weeks ago Amazon sent me a review unit of the Kindle International Edition and I have to agree it is definitely a game changing device. Instead of rambling on about the bigger picture – I will stick to explain the hardware, and also how it fits in with everyday life of someone who does read enough to warrant the purchase of a Kindle.

The Kindle arrives in cardboard box, but still manages to exude some class. Amazon packages the Kindle in packaging that in no way looks cheap (its almost like they want to remind you where books come from). There is quite a good unboxing experience. Inside the box you will find the Kindle, its short introductory manual, and its USB cable with a US plug on one end. Why Amazon chose to ship the international edition with the US plug is beyond me. This is the first of many reminders that the International Kindle is primarily focused on the US market, despite what the name might tell you.

The Kindle itself is quite a handsome device. The front of the device is bright white plastic (which I thought would get dirty, but it did not), with a small keyboard at the bottom. The rear of the device is covered by brushed aluminium. It is a quite a sleek device, solid and easy to hold in your hand. You can see the designers worked hard at the ergonomics – the weighting of the device is perfect – even holding it at weird angles while reading is easy.

At first glance when unboxing the Kindle you tend to think that there is some type of sticker on the display to tell you the device needs to be charged before use. Welcome to the e-ink display – even when the device is off, the display is still showing content. In fact, the only time this screen uses power is when it changes pages. Although the display is only black and white, it is great to use. Text is crisp, with great contrast. The great part is that your eyes never tire from reading on the device like with a computer or cellphone screen. It should be mentioned that the e-ink display has no form of backlighting, and one needs to use a bedlamp to read at night. Greyscale images look great as well – I loaded up some textbook PDF’s with colour rich images, and the Kindle renders them in greyscale very clearly.

Another side effect of the e-ink screen is the great battery life. Despite its sleek body, the Kindle lasts for a long time between charges. In the past three weeks I charged the device twice. And that is after a lot of use, including browsing Wikipedia and trawling the Kindle store wirelessly for books. Wish cellphones could have this kind of battery life.

The Kindle has a small qwerty keyboard which is primarily used to make notes within your books, and also to enter things like URL’s into the web browser, or to search for books in the Kindle store. You switch the Kindle on with a small slider switch on the top which is also right next to a headphone port. You use the headphone port for listening to text to speech in books (which sounds remarkably good) and also for listening to mp3’s, should you choose to do that.

Seeing as it is a reading device, you want to first see what books are available in the Kindle store. While there are a massive catalogue, there are many books missing from the South African version of the store – this can obviously be blamed on licensing issues, but it is still not great news (however it did improve somewhat in the time I had the Kindle).  Still, the books that you do find in the store are substantially cheaper than buying them at the bookstore. Just looking at the top 20 books, most are about 30% cheaper than Exclusive Books prices. For example, Freakonomics is $9 on the Kindle, and about R140 at Exclusive Books. Some books are even cheaper, for example books from the Twilight Saga which go for $7, which go for R150+ in at Exclusive books (no I did not buy, just compared prices...). So financially some books do make sense to buy on the Kindle. In fact, this past Christmas day, Amazon sold more e-books than real books, so clearly there is some success in this model.

Should you choose to load up your own PDF’s, you can simply plug in your Kindle to your USB port, and drag the PDF file to the documents folder. I tested it with some more complex textbook PDF’s, and it rendered perfectly on the screen. Text was somewhat small with the PDF, but you can change orientation of the screen and read the text in landscape form for an easier read.

The other major complaint for the international edition is the lack of proper web browsing on the device. Currently the International Kindle can only browse the Kindle store, and the fountain of knowledge, Wikipedia. While its nice to read books, I would think that a major portion of Kindle users want to browse sites (although you can pay for Kindle editions of magazines and newspapers). So far, the international edition does not support this. It is pretty easy to understand why – the cost of data. Amazon had to go and make deals with a lot of international wireless GSM providers, and needless to say it can get very expensive if you allow everyone to browse whatever they want on the device. After all, you do not pay data costs on the Kindle (although it might be included in the book prices).

And herein lies the biggest problem with the Kindle – it has so much potential, but only if you live in the US. First off, international users pay a slight premium, and then we also have to pay import duties, and then it is limited once we receive it. This is not on. Sure, there exists hacks to make the International edition fully featured, but not every Kindle user will be aware of this (you basically change your billing address to a US address on Amazon’s site, and low and behold, you can browse what you want on the device…). The one piece of solace I do find is that all its major problems are software based – Amazon can easily change all these policies with a software update.

Physically the device is almost perfect – for frequent readers the device is compact, the screen is easy to read and battery life is wonderful.

However, over time you learn to look past the limitations I mentioned, the device becomes a great companion. As someone who likes to read, I churned through books at a amazing pace with the Kindle. The ease of quickly choosing a book, and downloading it right on the spot is pretty great. The books are quite a bit cheaper, and they become more of a impulse buy. All in all Kindle is almost like a anti-convergence device – you realize it does only a few things, but those few things it does very well.

So would I recommend the Kindle? Yes, but to certain people. The device is ideal for people who travel a lot, and yes (obviously) people who read. But obviously anyone who has kept up with the internet in the last few weeks would know there is shadow being cast by a device we haven’t even seen – the Apple Tablet/iSlate etc. We have to see what Apple comes up with – and if the Kindle does stand a chance…

The Kindle is available directly from Amazon for $259.
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I am a R&D Analyst in Stellenbosch South Africa who has a immense passion for all things tech related. I embrace technology, open source and web standards, and I participate and contribute to the social web.