Top 10 Amazon Kindle irritations

Amazon's popular e-reader is a terrific tool, but it's not perfect. Here's what drives one reader batty about the device.

Amazon's new Kindle

Amazon's new Kindle

I've have a Kindle 3 for a month or two now, and I can confirm that it's a thing of beauty. The ebook revolution might not necessarily start here, but momentum is certainly building.

Alas, the Kindle 3 is not perfect. There are some clever design touches but if the designer had presented the Kindle to, say, Steve Jobs, then it would have been hurtled back in the direction of the designer's head. It's a good product, but it's not a great product. I find myself wishing things were just a little different here and there.

Here are my top 10 Kindle 3 annoyances:

1. Only One User

The Kindle is a personal electronic device, just like a cell phone or an iPod. But it's far more sharable than either of those two. For example, my partner wants to read an ebook I'm just finishing off, and I intend to lend her my Kindle when I'm done. I'll just switch to a dead tree book until she's finished. But it would be nice if she could have her own account on the Kindle, with her own bookmarks/last page read setting. This way, if she saw the Kindle lying about while I'm not at home, she could pick it up and read any ebooks on the device without messing-up my reading.

Yes, Kindles are dirt cheap, but not yet cheap enough for every family member to have one.

2. Where Are the Apps?

A Web browser is built-in, which is about as good as it can be, but I anticipated finding a calculator, a notepad application, maybe a simple calendar, and perhaps a to-do list. None are present. None would stretch the Kindle either. The Kindle might have an e-ink display that prefers static rather than dynamic content, but I can easily imagine how these apps would function, even if there was occasional flashing and blanking of the screen. I could live with that.

Of course, the next question is: Where's the app store? I hear there's an SDK toolkit out there, making it easy for programmers to create new stuff, but where's the interface allowing users to put apps onto the Kindle, and manage them?

3. Dictionary for Single Words Only

Looking-up words in Kindle's built-in dictionary is stunningly useful for an illiterate such as myself. All the user needs to do is move the cursor to the word, and a definition pops-up instantly. However, it's impossible to look up phrases of two or more words without manually searching the dictionary --which involves temporarily closing the current book and opening the dictionary app.

For example, looking up the phrase "drawing room" is impossible; Kindle would simply give the definition for "drawing". Even hyphenated words are ignored, despite the fact the cursor jumps past the hyphenated phrase as if it's a single word.

4. Kindle Hates Covers

Buy an eBook or download your own from Gutenberg and, once you open it, you'll be taken to the first page of the first chapter (or the prologue, if there is one). Great! Or maybe not. I love books. Because of this, I want to see the cover art before getting started on the novel. I want to see who, if anybody, the book's dedicated to. I want to see how many chapters there are. Hell, I even want to take a look at the verso page (i.e. the copyright page).

Don't worry, Amazon - I'll skip through these if I want to. But don't assume I want to ignore them. Of course, I can get to them using the Go To option on the menu, but that's a pain. Show me the full majesty of a book as soon as I open it! And why aren't the covers displayed on the Home screen? Instead, all we get is a dull text list. The Home screen could be so much more beautiful.

5. This Is Progress?

Kindle displays two toolbars. The one on the top shows the name of the book, along with the battery life and wifi/3G signal strength. The one at the bottom shows the progress through the page, as a percentage and as a "Location" figure (equivalent to page numbers). The top toolbar disappears as soon as you advance the page. The bottom one never disappears. It's showing important information, for sure, but its inclusion reminds me that I'm glaring at a computer-based ebook reader. I'd like to forget about all that and immerse myself in the book.

There's no way to turn off the progress display. In fact, taken as a whole, the Kindle 3 has remarkably few configuration options.

6. Only Two Fonts?

You can choose between sans-serif and serif fonts, and both are very readable. But why aren't more fonts built-in? I imagine this is a frustration for ebook creators too, especially those who design textbooks. I'd like the freedom to be able to choose between, say, five different serif fonts to find the one that works best with my eyes.

7. The Free 3G that Isn't Free

"Free 3G Wireless!" boasts Amazon in its Kindle advertising. This would be wonderful if true. The delivery of books over 3G is free if you buy books from the Amazon Kindle store. They're beamed to you wherever you are via Amazon's Whispernet service. If you send your own books to the Kindle via Whispernet, you'll be charged 15 cents per megabyte. Sending files is done by sending the ebook as an email attachment to a special email address Amazon gives you.

Yes, you can transfer books for free using the USB cable, and, yes, you can send the book to an alternative email address Amazon give you that will only send the file when you're using wifi (and therefore for free). But the fact remains that the "Free 3G" isn't actually free. If you intend to use your Kindle to do little more than read Gutenberg titles, and rarely if ever buy anything via the Kindle store, then the 3G model is a waste of money.

8. Global Font Choices

If I'm reading a book that has an odd layout, perhaps one with pictures, I might choose to alter the size or spacing of the text to make things more readable. This is done easily using the text-size controls. However, any changes in font settings are applied globally, to all books.

Why can't each book have its own settings? I might choose to read a textbook with a small font size, for example, but choose to read a novel with larger text to make it easier on my eyes.

9. Take Me Home

The important "back to base" Home button, which brings-up a display of your ebook titles, should be at the top of the keyboard, so it's nice and accessible. Instead, it's buried on the bottom row of keys, to the left of the Back key, and to the right of the text-size key.

The primo top-right position on the mini keyboard is occupied with the Menu key. This is undoubtedly important, but switching the Home and Menu keys would make a lot more sense.

10. I've Lost My Page!

Unless you're missing a few fingers or have a Harry Potter ability to Accio! inanimate objects towards you, every time you pick up the Kindle you're going to hit the page turn buttons. They're right in the middle of the Kindle, duplicated on both sides of the unit, exactly where your fingers want to grip the device. Fitting a flip cover to the Kindle helps avoid this somewhat but perhaps surprisingly the Kindle doesn't come with one out of the box.

I've yet to find a way of comfortably holding the Kindle so that I can tap the page turn buttons comfortably. After a few hours' use my fingers begin to ache. Again, a flip cover helps give some additional purchase, but those buttons are just in the wrong place.

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Keir Thomas

PC World (US online)
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