Since the release of the iPad, fans of the e-book have debated about the future of eReaders. Is the future represented in the glossy touch-screen LCD of a tablet or the eminently readable, but obsequiously plain eInk screen?
If the talking heads at Kobo and Barnes & Noble are to be believed, the answer is both.
Kobo fired first with the announcement of their new Kobo eReader Touch Edition. It features the same 6-inch eInk screen that has come to be the industry standard, but instead of relying on buttons to navigate the fields on-screen, it sports a new infrared technology that allows users to swipe pages, highlight passages, and take notes all using a slick touch screen interface.
Barnes & Noble quickly followed up with the announcement of their own. The new Nook also utilizes that brilliant infrared technology to power its touch interface. Like the Kobo reader, the new Nook is shorter and slightly thicker than its predecessors. The eInk display also reportedly has 80-percent less “flashing” when turning pages, and sports a number of interface improvements, such as the ability to tell how many more pages are in a given chapter.
On the periphery are features like battery-life and storage size. Barnes & Noble is making a lot of noise about how their new batteries can hold a charge for two months, but those claims seem spurious at best. The Kindle is still the market leader in terms of native storage, with 3 GB standard, but both the new Kobo and Nook sport slots for SD cards, so power users can add as much as 32 GB — good for, oh, about, 32,000 books.
Of course, this wouldn’t be too much of a coup unless these new entrants were competitively priced, and they are indeed. The touch-screen Nook is debuting for an eminently reasonable $139, and the Kobo comes in slightly cheaper at $129. Compare that with the comparable third-generation Wi-Fi-only Kindle, which sells for $139 ($114 if you don’t mind seeing ads instead of Agatha Christie’s face on your screen saver), and it becomes clear just how drastically the landscape has changed.
The brand recognition alone will continue to buoy the Kindle until they can counter with their own touch-screen model, but in a world dominated by smart phones, it’s hard to underestimate the familiarity and novelty that lies within the touch interface. It’s easier to see now why the plucky folks at Kobo were so confident that they could survive the bankruptcy of their partner Borders. And for their part, Barnes & Noble can continue to pride themselves on putting out a superior product, even if their market share so far lags behind their determination.
Bookworms may soon find reason to reacquaint themselves with their local libraries after Amazon announced a new program called Kindle Library Lending on Wednesday. The fledgling program would allow customers to borrow community-owned copies of e-books from any of 11,000 participating libraries in the ‘States, and read them from the comfort of their Kindle or device equipped with a Kindle app.
Heavy readers like Christian Orlov are already enthusiastic about the prospect. “I grew up practically living in the library, but it’s hard to justify lugging around hard-cover books since my wife got me the Kindle, says Orlov, a 27-year-old grad student at American University in Washington D.C. “Free is free though, and if I can go back to lending, I’ll have to try and find my library card.”
Amazon is working with Overdrive on the project, the biggest digital content provider for libraries in the country, which lends some weight to the endeavor. According to OverDrive’s Blog, Kindle customers will be able to take advantage of its existing infrastructure and library of content, so if your local library is already an OverDrive partner, you can take advantage.
Borrowed books will work the same as store-bought books, with the ability to sync across devices, highlight text and make side annotations, traditionally a no-no in library books. If a user opts to purchase a book or lend it for herself again, those notes and highlights will be there waiting.
A Proven Model
While Kindle Library Lending won’t be operational until “later this year,” that’s no reason to shy away from library e-book lending in the interim. Other ereaders like the Barnes & Noble Nook , Sony Reader and the Kobo eReader already support lending from the OverDrive network, thanks to their native support of the ePub file format. OverDrive always offers an app for mobile users of the Android, Blackberry, iOS, and Windows Mobile platforms.
The Kindle faithful don’t have to stand out in the cold either. As we covered back in February, sites like Books For My Kindle allow you to take advantage of the Kindle’s nascent lending capabilities to swap books with strangers. The options are limited as is the lending period, it’s true, but when you consider that most libraries only purchase a single copy of any given e-book, it’s still not a bad option.
For intents and purposes, it appeared late last year that Amazon was going to forever alter the ebook landscape when it announced that it was going to finally match Barnes & Noble’s biggest feature trump card – ebook lending.
Unfortunately, much like Barnes & Noble’s extremely limited lending service, Amazon restricts book lending to just fourteen days per book. Even worse, users can only lend out one book at a time, and each book can only be lent out a single time before the loaning feature is disabled for it completely. In Amazon’s version of reality, books are simply antisocial, sticking to your bookshelf after the horrible trauma of being lent out one time for a period of no more than two weeks.
Lending books on Amazon.com is a fairly simple affair. Simply go to your account page, click “Manage Your Kindle” under Digital Content, and click through your list of purchased titles looking for those elusive “Loan this book” buttons. It’s not immediately clear to me whether my collection of books is a representative sample, but only about one in three or one in four books actually featured this option, which seems to indicate the publishers haven’t given the full go-ahead.
Of course, the reasons for the restrictions on lending are obvious. Digital books lend themselves as well to file sharing as movies, music and television, so by instituting a more liberal lending policy, ebook publishers would essentially be inviting people to set up elaborate lending networks, totally circumventing the need to purchase copies of the book in the first place. In the real world, we call such sinister institutions libraries, but one can understand why Amazon wouldn’t want these replicated in the digital space. There’s money to be had, after all.
Since this is the Internet we’re talking about, people have still managed to set up a work-around. A site called Books For My Kindle opened up a few months ago, which connects users with books to lend and users looking to borrow. When you register, you set up a list of books in your account that are available for lending. Users are then able to search for books they might want to read in the database, and the site allows you to make a connection so somebody can borrow your book and vice versa.
The site depends quite a bit on the good will of all parties involved. Member ratings act as the sort of currency that keeps the site moving, and ratings are predicated on the notion that you’re going to give loans as often or even more than you receive them. Does it work as well as loaning actual books? Of course not, but it takes a severely hampered feature and renders it somewhat useful, and for that alone I have to endorse it.
The ebook world has been abuzz in the last week or so, after Apple made the controversial move of rejecting a Sony Reader Store app that would have allowed users to purchase and read ebooks from Sony on their iPhone or iPad. Apple defended the decision, citing existing app store policy that says intra-app purchases have to be routed through the Apple store, so that Apple can charge their 30% toll charge. Cue Internet outrage.
While the policy may remain unchanged, this would certainly represent a monumental shift in the way that policy is enforced. Right now, users of both the Barnes & Noble and Amazon apps are able to purchase books on the iPhone and iPad, albeit in an indirect way. Instead of actually purchasing them from within the app, they are directed to the Safari web browser, where they can then purchase them via the web. It’s not the most elegant solution possible, but so far, it’s worked.
If Apple, attempting to leverage the popularity of their devices, decides that this is all of a sudden a violation of the rules, it wedges both Barnes & Noble and Amazon between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, a 30% cut off the top almost totally negates their margins for any books purchased on an iOS device.
On the other, both companies have been actively promoting the cross-platform nature of their ebookstores, which allow you to start reading on your Kindle and pick up where you left off on your phone, PC, or other supported device. That is a feature and a promise that they would have a hard time backing away from now without losing a lot of good will with customers.
B&N and Amazon aren’t left with terribly many palatable choices. They could bend over and take it from Apple and write it off as a cost of doing business. They could abandon Apple platforms entirely. They could even try to skirt around the requirements by just burying the option to buy books within the app somewhere hard to find. It’s hard to say at this point.
Speaking personally, I’ve grown rather fond of reading Kindle books on my iPad. Based on the number of people I routinely see reading books on their iPhones on the train to work, I’d wager a guess that others feel much the same way. Whatever the fallout from this, all the companies involved would do well not to disturb the status quo too much, lest they cast aside the good will they’ve spent years building up.
Since their debut in October of 2010, games on Amazon’s Kindle have absolutely taken off. Starting with a simple slate of three word games meant to test the mettle (and vocabulary) of Kindle-owning bookworms, the offerings have ballooned to incorporate a much wider range of game-playing fare. While I am of the personal opinion that offering games dilutes the power of the Kindle as the one device where one can read without distraction, some of these new entrants are compelling because they at least appeal to one’s intelligence.
Panda Poet from Spry Fox
For all their virtues, the first round of games on the Kindle were essentially variations on board games or flash games we’d all played millions of times before. Panda Poet stood out to me as an essentially new experience, which was a big part of its charm. Panda Poet charges you with using letters on a grid to form words. When you create words, you are given points and those letters are absorbed into your panda, making her ever larger. The wrinkle is that letters have a limited shelf life, and if they expire, they turn into skulls which block the growth of your panda.
While basic to begin with, the scoring allows for a lot of strategy and forethought. Scores are determined by the total letter score multiplied by the square of however many letters are in the word. So if your letter score is 20 and the word is seven letters long, your score for that round will be 20x7x7x7x7 or 48,020 points. You’ll find yourself quickly trying to maximize your multiplier while also fending off those dastardly skulls. It’s a deep game punctuated by the inclusion of comically cute pandas, but more than anything, it just works.
Triple Town from Spry Fox
As my first non-word-based Kindle game, I was initially skeptical about whether Triple Town would be able to hold my attention. It’s a puzzle strategy game where players are tasked with building a city by matching three square tiles of the same type into ever-expanding degrees of complexity. Three grass tiles become a flower, three flowers turn into a bush, three bushes into a tree and so on. Things get tricky when enemy barbarians and wizards start appearing and compromising the flow of the game board.
Triple Town winds up feeling like some combination of chess and connect four, and can be played simply in a matter of minutes or with great care for several hours. It’s quite unlike anything you might play on a smartphone, since its simple interface seems to be more of a response to the Kindle’s limited output ability, but it has its charm for all that.
Slingo from Gameblend Studios
The only mindless game I’ve tried thus far is Slingo, a port of the old internet favorite. It’s a combination of slots and bingo. You’re given a bingo card full of numbers, and given a number of pulls, just like a slot machine. If any of the numbers that come up on a given spin match the ones on your card, you get to mark them off. There are bonuses and wild cards of various sorts, but the crux of the game is just trying to get a Slingo.
Unlike the other offerings, which actually manage to stimulate your brain so you don’t feel quite so bad about not reading, Slingo is for the most part totally brainless. The only time player input actually seems to matter is in the last four spins or so, each of which cost a certain number of points to perform. It’s a risk-reward calculation, betting on whether the outcome of said spins will be worth more than the points it takes to buy them. It’s an addictive game, to be sure, but it’s precisely the sort of game I don’t want distracting me from reading.
This year, more people than ever have finally put aside their hang-ups about ebooks and jumped on the Kindle bandwagon. While Amazon has been characteristically coy about what that actually means in terms of numbers, what it really means is that more people than ever are looking for gifts for the Kindle owners in their lives.
While this is an area we’ve been fortunate to have covered before, the introduction of the slimmer Kindle 3 means there is a whole new generation of accessories to ponder over, and for that, we’re here to help.
I’m not usually a big fan of ordering a first-party case. They are usually the first ones on the market, and thus, offer the fewest frills at a premium price. A pleasant change in this trend has come from Amazon this time around with their Lighted Leather Cover, which integrates a flashlight seamlessly into the body of a standard leather cover.
While cases that make use of LED lights are nothing new in themselves, what makes this one especially cool is that it actually draws power from the Kindle itself, totally eliminating batteries from the equation altogether. They’ve figured out a way to direct power through the proprietary hinge system, reducing any potential bulk completely and adding considerably to the devices nascent “cool” factor.
It’s an extremely solid product from design to execution. The one real slight is that its $59.99 price tag is nearly half the cost of a new Wi-Fi only Kindle at this point, but you’d probably be paying that much anyway if you were to purchase a light and a cover separately. And to be honest, I was too dazzled by the choice of seven pretty colors to really care that much about what it cost. I think you’ll have much the same experience.
Having been a Kindle owner for years now, I like to think I have an evolved taste for the kind of hitches and habits that emerge after extended periods of ereader use. There was a period at first where I enjoyed using my biggest, bulkiest Kindle covers I could, because I wanted the one that protected my investment best, plus all the cool little features they could offer. That’s no bluff either, we tried out a case you can throw in the swimming pool.
After a while though, a curious thing happens. From what I’ve seen, most people tend to start becoming Kindle nudists, of a sort. Instead of using their Kindle in a case or cover, they start to use it bareback. It almost feels like a new gadget when you’re accustomed to the cover, all smooth-backed, light and skinny. It’s an ereader experience the way it was originally intended, and I have to recommend it in most cases.
Of course, hardy as the Kindle is, you still need something to prevent it from scratches and such when getting from one place to another. And for that I recommend the minimalist approach of the BUILT Neoprene Sleeve. It’s a ridiculously simple little carrying case that prevents incidental damage in transit, while also being small enough that you don’t feel like you’re carrying extra luggage, as with other covers. For Kindle nudists, it’s an essential.
Of course, I recognize that not everybody is a Kindle nudist, at least not yet. There are a lot of people out there who would much rather their case have as many features as possible, instead of a boring minimalist design. Few cases overdo it in quite as classy a manner as Tuff-Luv with their Multi-View case.
Built for the user who prefers his Kindle to be practically impervious to bullets, the Tuff-Love cover is big and bulky, giving an added sense of security to those who might be afraid of dropping and breaking their investment. You can also forget about ever losing the thing, because the case doubles the size and weight of the Kindle 3.
It’s not for nothing though. In addition to simply protecting the Kindle, the Tuff-Luv case features “integrated Multi-View stand feature technology.” Or, in plain English, you can prop it up in two different reading angles. If the one you’re shopping for does a lot of hands-free reading and is prone to dropping gadgets down the stairs, you can’t do much better than the Multi-View.
Amazon has taken the wraps off a couple of new developments that are sure to please Kindle owners. The first is that Kindle periodicals will soon be readable on all of the platforms Amazon endorses. Owners of the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch will now have another option when it comes to picking up the latest magazines and newspapers. Much more important, however, is the announcement that Amazon is instituting a lending feature for the Kindle.
Straight from the discussion board: “Second, later this year, we will be introducing lending for Kindle, a new feature that lets you loan your Kindle books to other Kindle device or Kindle app users. Each book can be lent once for a loan period of 14-days and the lender cannot read the book during the loan period. Additionally, not all e-books will be lendable – this is solely up to the publisher or rights holder, who determines which titles are enabled for lending.”
As exciting as this is for the Kindle faithful, the first question that came to my mind was – What tricks can Barnes & Noble possibly have up their sleeve to get out from under this one?
In addition to featuring the Nook in Barnes & Noble retail stores, B&N also inked a deal that would put Nooks into Best Buy stores across the country. Amazon inks deals to get the Kindle not only in retailers Best Buy and Target, but they’re a default app on Verizon phones.
Barnes & Noble pioneered the LendMe feature, which allowed users to lend books to friends for 14 days, reflecting the common practice of book owners. Amazon has now, finally, trumped that with the announcement of a lending feature of their own.
The Nook still has a number of little tricks not yet matched by the Kindle. It allows for the use of SD cards for expanded memory, permits the use of the cross-platform-friendly ePub file format, and sports that nifty LCD screen for navigation.
Is that enough to overcome the Kindle’s advantage in book quantity, price, hardware, and brand recognition? Time is running out for Barnes & Noble’s erstwhile eReader. Here’s hoping they’re able to breathe some new life into the brand with the introduction of Nook Color.
Amazon has had quite a bit of success expanding the Kindle Store beyond the confines of the Kindle proper and spreading it across just about every computing and mobile platform available. Utilizing Whispersync, users can move from one device to the next, never losing their place, and always reading where it is most comfortable to them at the time. It’s an extraordinarily potent selling point for the mega-retailer.
The latest platform in Amazon’s sights is none other than the web browser. They have debuted a new feature called “Kindle for the Web,” which enables users to read the first chapter of a book in their web browser, without the time-consuming process of downloading it on their computer or Kindle-enabled device. One simply clicks on the “Read first chapter FREE” button on a corresponding book’s page, and the user is whisked away to a simple browser interface.
While the utility of such a feature is fairly obvious, Amazon is pushing it as a way for affiliates to help promote books. Participants in the Amazon Associates Program can actually embed these samples into their websites, earning referral fees when readers purchase them through their sites. More than a convenience for users, this new program appears to be a low-cost investment in self-promotion. For authors, it’s an easy way to give fans a snapshot of their new works, while also generating small chunks of additional revenue.
While the experience of reading a sample in one’s web browser is simple and tactile enough, the holes in the program as it exists are somewhat glaring. The beta officially launched on September 28, but to date, the number of books that actually offer use of the feature is extraordinarily small. Few, if any, of the books in the Kindle Bestsellers sported the feature. This makes one wonder how affiliates are going to make any money if there isn’t enough content to push.
What’s more, why is Kindle for the Web restricted to short samples anyway? Google Books has millions of books completely accessible online, indexed and searchable. When you compare that to the clumsier, feature-barren offering Amazon is serving up, it’s hard not to feel like they could have put in a better effort.
Of course, this is only a beta, and it’s less than two weeks old, so Amazon has to be given the benefit of the doubt. At least, for now.
Games on the Amazon Kindle were something of a foregone conclusion. First there was the software development kit they released to developers at the beginning of the year. Then there was the news that the Nook, Amazon’s biggest direct competition, would be offering games. This is the direction the eBook work has been moving in all year, so it was only a matter of time.
So it was really no surprise when Amazon quietly debuted what they have so far called “Kindle Active Content.” Purchased on the Amazon Store exactly like a book, these games show up right alongside your books in your main menu, just with a little “Active” sticker next to them. We ran the first three games released through the gauntlet, and here are our impressions.
Every Word from Amazon
The basic gist of Every Word is that you’re given a list of seven letters and tasked with coming up with as many words from those letters as you can within the two-minute time period. In order to progress from one round to the next, all you have to do is find one of the words that utilize all seven letters. The game lasts just ten rounds.
It’s essentially a Kindle-native version of the classic flash game Text Twist. While amusing for a little while, the easy nature of the game makes the lasting power of the game highly suspect. Since it’s a free offering, it’s hard to argue with the value, but it’s not going to hold your attention for very long.
Shuffled Row from Amazon
Shuffled Row is an interesting take on a Scrabble-type game. You have to see how many words you can make from the 60 letter tiles in the game. Letters appear one by one on your row, every few seconds or so. Once the row fills up with nine letters, the first letter in the row is put on a timer before it disappears to make room for a new one. Scoring is done by the difficulty of the letter, with words four letters or longer getting hefty bonuses.
The timer makes the game extremely tense, and there’s an element of risk and reward involved, since you can either make short words with the few letters on your row or wait until it fills up to try and go for a massive x7 bonus. This is a game that you can really play for a while.
SCRABBLE from EA Mobile
There are many imitators and derivatives, but there is only one SCRABBLE. The first game developed for the Kindle in Amazon’s partnership with EA, SCRABBLE is basically exactly what you’d expect. You have to place lettered tiles on the game board to try and string together the biggest point totals, utilizing those all important double and triple score spaces to maximize your output. It’s easy to get into and impossible to master.
While SCRABBLE represents the most robust game on the platform so far, it fails to deliver the bells and whistles one might expect for a $4.99 game. While you can play solo, against the AI, or do a pass and play with a friend, there’s no option to play over the web with another Kindle owner. This is what 3G is made for! Still, it’s a solid first effort, but only true SCRABBLE nuts need apply.
When Amazon announced the new model of the Kindle, they succeeded at hitting most of the major selling points one would expect from an iterative development in a product line. The new Kindle is more compact – 15 percent lighter and 21 percent smaller. The screen is improved – the contrast has been upped by 50 percent and the page refresh speed has been bumped up a notch. It now holds more books – the on-board storage has been doubled to 4GB. And most importantly, the price was dropped – a 3G version is available for $189 and a new Wi-Fi SKU comes in at $139.
While simply reading this list of facts on a press release is enough to convince most that Amazon has ushered in across-the-board changes, I wanted to actually hold it in my hands before signing off on it. Fortunately, I was able to get my hands on one of the new models, and I came away quite impressed with what it had to offer.
Besides just getting smaller, the new Kindle also has lots of little changes that long-time Kindle 2 owners can quickly pick up on. All of the ports and buttons have been consolidated from their haphazard placement on the Kindle 2 and moved to the bottom of the unit. The power slider, the mini-USB port, the headphone jack, and the volume button are all now easily accessible from the bottom of the unit. The face buttons have also undergone a minor revision, with the rocker having been replaced with a more convention directional pad. The home, menu, and back buttons have been moved from the side and are now flush with the keyboard, and the page turn buttons have a different feel to them.
While the change in topography was a bit jarring after developing such a deep level of comfort with the Kindle 2, the tactile feel of the new Kindle is an unabashed success. The Kindle 2 has never seemed bulky to me, especially after a considerable amount of time with the heftier iPad. It seems positively obese, however, once you’ve spent some time with the new Kindle. This thing seems purpose-built for lying on the beach, holding it with one hand and your thumb on the next button. It’s small enough and light enough that you’ll never feel the need to change position.
The screen also delivers on its promise. You won’t really notice the increased contrast or page-turn speed unless you’re really a stickler for such things, but where you will notice it is with the new web browser. The old version was clunky and slow, and the slower refresh rate made it almost impossible to use even for simple tasks. The new Webkit-based browser is about ten times faster, replete with full image support and the ability to zoom in on different parts of the page. Much of that speed comes from the new back-end, but the screens ability to quickly render changes adds some horsepower to the overall package.
In the end though, I have to temper my uniform praise for the new Kindle by saying that there’s little reason for owners of the Kindle 2 to spend the money to upgrade. The Kindle 3 improves on many of the things that has made the Kindle 2 the best dedicated eReader on the market, but in the absence of any real game-changing additions to the hardware, an upgrade simply isn’t necessary. That doesn’t mean it’s not still attractive. I’ve already spoken to several Kindle 2 owners who, based on a brief interface with the Kindle 3, plan to purchase one for themselves and give their Kindle 2 to a friend or loved one as a gift. (In which case we suggest reading our guide on how to successfully part with your Kindle.)
We recommend you at least try and track one down for yourself. You may find yourself falling in love.