Repair News Articles from the Tech Industry
November 3, 2010
Kindle 3: e-book readers come of age
During a stint in California, I once wandered into a ramshackle San Diego bookstore and began browsing the back shelves in search of dusty treasures. After some time, the owner—who appeared to be an aging hippie—popped up at my side like an apparition, giving me a terrific start. He talked at me about his store. "I don't sell books," he said, leaning uncomfortably close. "I smell books." To prove his point, he took a volume off the shelf, pulled it to his nostrils, and inhaled deeply, lovingly, bibliophilically—the book as bong hit.
He shoved the book at me; I rocked politely forward, took my polite whiff, and politely agreed that it smelled wonderfully bookish.
"The smell tells you so much," he said, before proceeding into a disquisition on the odiferous nature of aged paper, damp covers, book mildew, ink, and binding glue. I eyed the exit.
He gave me a business card. "We don't sell books, we smell books," it said. This guy took his motto seriously.
Smells like plastic
Though his approach bordered on the creepy, the bookseller was onto something: the physical qualities of books matter. Or do they?
The Kindle and its cousins strip a book to its words. Gone are most formatting choices, typesetting preferences, font choices, paper thicknesses, cover stock decisions. Books are no longer artifacts.
The nature of the digital world, you say? Not quite. When people ditched their CDs, they lost album art and liner notes, but those were never a part of the actual listening experience. The music bursting from headphone and speakers was still music, was the same whether it came from a disc or a download. When the liner notes vanished, the songs remained the same.
But with books, one handles the artifact constantly during the reading experience. Losing the feel of that wonderful paper in the old Oxford blue-backed hardcovers means losing a part of the reading experience. My booksmeller would be (and, somewhere in California, probably is) aghast at the sterilized world of the e-books, every word stripped of its tangible context.
The nearest analogue might be newspapers, about which it's certainly possible to wax nostalgic (the ink smudges on my fingers! the rustle of the turning pages!). Yet I haven't read a "real" newspaper in years and don't particularly miss them. And despite the complaints about losing out on the physical experience of album art and liner notes (complaints heard since the vinyl era), digital downloads appear to have won. Movies are halfway there.
As one of the resident old-school bibliophiles at Ars, I've been asked to review Amazon's newest Kindle revision, to live with it for a while and to review more than the hardware. Now that standalone e-book readers like the Kindle have hit mass market prices (the new WiFi-only Kindle is a mere $139) and have turned into high-quality reading machines at last, the question is what's lost and what's found in the move to e-books?
Or, to put it another way, does it really matter that I can no longer smell my books?
This won't be an exhaustive review of the hardware. Now three generations in, the Kindle's recent changes are excellent but incremental; read up on our Kindle 1 and Kindle 2 reviews for more background on the device.
But it is worth putting the third-gen Kindle into some historical perspective, then saying a few words about the key improvements in this newest version. There's a reason we're using the Kindle 3 to look more broadly at the issue of e-books and their implications, and it's because the device really is ready for primetime at last. When I was reviewing things like the iRex iLiad and the early Sony Readers a few years back, they were almost novelty devices. Content was limited, contrast wasn't great, page turns could take more than two seconds, the whole page had to refresh every time a change was made, and they had no wireless access. Also, they were expensive (the iLiad came in at a whopping $699, though it did have a touchscreen).
Still, they had e-Ink. This was revolutionary—text looked like it was physically printed on the display, not merely lit up with pixels, and the screen burned no power once a page was set. (The Kindles take terrific advantage of this feature by showing high-quality art on the screen when they sleep.) Back in 2007, I described the effect as "something extraordinary. The screen doesn't wash out under bright light (though glare can be an issue, as it can with glossy paper), you can still view it perfectly from the most extreme of angles, and the text has the kind of detail that can be hard to replicate on screen. At the smallest size, it is possible to detect a slight blurring around parts of the letters, but 'medium' and 'large' modes are nearly indistinguishable from a book page without peering closely at the screen."