Amazon Kindle International: clunky proprietary formats, woefuel e-book store and US-centric design make for an unappealing device

Amazon Kindle International: clunky proprietary formats, woefuel e-book store and US-centric design make for an unappealing device

After its high-profile launch in the US, we've been forced to wait two years for the Amazon Kindle to land on these shores.

With Christmas looming, Amazon has decided to simply ship us the US "International" model, with just a USB cable, instead of a dedicated charger and free 3G connection to the US Kindle Store, ensuring any books you buy will have plenty of "z"s in them.

That's assuming you can find them in the first place. Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel is in there, but there's no Peter Carey, Philip Roth, Iain Banks or Cormac McCarthy.

That's not to mention sales heavyweights such as Stephen King, Dan Brown (for better or worse) and even JK Rowling. The fact that any books you do manage to find could be 40% more expensive than they would be in the US is an added insult.

This wouldn't be so bad if Kindle owners were besieged with alternatives, but echoing Apple's iTunes lock-in, the Kindle uses Amazon's proprietary AZW format, which is supported by only one retailer: the Kindle Book Store. On the bright side, Amazon's finest does support Mobipocket and TXT files, at least allowing you to download free eBooks from Project Gutenberg and its ilk.

You can also crowbar PDFs, DOCs and RTFs onto the device by emailing them to the Kindle email address supplied when you register. Amazon then converts these documents into AZW files, which can either be emailed back to you and loaded manually using a USB cable, or sent wirelessly to the Kindle at a cost of 99¢ per megabyte.

The process takes around ten minutes, and Amazon warns that PDFs may not render properly, although we've not experienced any problems in our tests. However, we refuse to applaud Amazon for adding an aggravating extra step to a process that should be simple and straightforward.

These flaws are all the more infuriating because the Kindle's hardware is staggeringly good. The keyboard offers a handy way to search and add notes to books, and the little joystick can be used to highlight text, navigate menus and bring up definitions of words from the Oxford American Dictionary.

We're particularly amused by the text-to-speech feature, which veers from being mildly useful one minute, to doing impressions of HAL having a heart attack the next.

More relevant is the 1.4GB of usable storage and a 532MHz ARM processor that ensures the Kindle moves faster than a cheetah being shot out of a cannon, although it tends to get bogged down when dealing with image-heavy PDFs.

However, the pick of the technological litter is undoubtedly the 6in E Ink screen, which renders in 16 shades of grey. It's hard to explain the difference this makes without seeing it in action, but it softens and deepens the picture immeasurably.

Ironically, the screen's ample charms would have been most apparent when displaying pictures in newspapers and magazines, but unfortunately, the Kindle won't actually download these because we live outside the US.

Amazon informed us this was to keep the price of subscriptions down, but we suspect it has more to do with the company avoiding excessive data charges until it can sign a deal with an Australian network provider - any data downloads are via AT&T global roaming. Either way, it hobbles the Kindle horribly.

Which sums up our feelings towards the Kindle as a whole. The Kindle feels like a device whose brilliant hardware has been short-changed by Amazon's thwarted ambition.

Had the store offered a wider selection of titles, or the device not been so totally dependent on it, the Kindle's Performance rating would be up there with that of its Features & Design.

As it stands, we find ourselves waiting on Amazon once again, and we can only hope it doesn't take another two years to iron out the problems.

Amazon Kindle International
3 6
Excellent hardware that’s let down by the Kindle Store and the irritating proprietary format on which it depends.
Features & Design
Value for money
• Amazon:
6in, 800 x 600 EInk screen; 2GB capacity; 7500 page turns (3G disabled); supports AZW, Mobipocket, TXT; 1yr RTB warranty; 135 x 9.14 x 203mm (WDH); 289g
This review appeared in the January, 2010 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine

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