Amazon’s Kindle: eReader, internet device and cheese slicer

WP_20150113_22_49_26_ProFunny thing happens when you buy a piece of technology that, at the time, seems to be cutting edge. Yet, in just a few short years, it will become obsolete, regardless if it is still useful or not. Such a wonder is the original Amazon Kindle.

Introduced in 2007, the innovative Kindle eReader was an ugly and expensive device.  It languished a bit until Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire show to the device. Jeff Bezos came on and explained the device, Ms. Winfrey had a family explain how much they loved it and, best of all, the device was made available at a substantial discount if you used the magic code from the Oprah show. Each studio audience member also got one for free.  The device took off after that and so did the eReader category. Within a year or two, there dozens of devices available at a wide range of cost, from $99 to $500. 

The original Kindle was all white, used e-ink display technology and had a cell radio and something called Whispersync, which allowed for over the cell-air purchase and downloading of content. It would also keep your device in synch with other Kindle devices, be it a computer or another Kindle.  The cell radio was on the Sprint network and worked reasonably well. You could turn the radio off to conserve power.  Speaking of power, the device sipped the juice very conservatively. One could go weeks on a charge, as long as the radio was off.

The design of the device was unique.  Wedge shaped, it feature this funky ‘elevator’ controlWP_20150113_22_49_01_Pro that you would use to select lines or options. One would ‘click’ the wheel to make a selection.  There were lots of buttons, including a full but split qwerty keyboard and very large next and previous page buttons.

The on device software was fairly complete and featured a very crude web browser (something later Kindles would eschew) and a basic mp3 player that would play music while you read.  The browser, believe it or not, came in very handy during several storms and hurricanes. In fact, at one point during a hurricane in 2012, it was the only way we could get news while we were home. All of the cell phones had run out of battery power, and there was no internet so the iPad was kind of useless. I broke out the Kindle, which was about half charged, and not only caught up on the news, but was able to check the power company web site to see if restoration was near.

Amazon realized, by the time the Kindle 2 came out, that giving away life time service from Sprint was a costly thing to do and made the browser only work via Wi-Fi in later devices.  However, I’ve had my original Kindle since its introduction and STILL have the Whispersync service, even though another company services Amazon along with the grandfathered Sprint devices.

Overall, the original Kindle, while ugly, was a great device. It has since been made obsolete by newer and better devices from Amazon, Sony, Barnes and Noble, Samsung and others but this first device will always have a soft spot in my heart. 

The New Kindle LIneup for 2012

Amazon announced new Kindles as well as updates to existing Kindles.  The current $79 Kindle will get a price reduction to $69 while the Touch and Touch 3G are being replaced by the Paperwhite line. Kindle Fire gets a reduction in price, a bump in performance and memory and several siblings. 

The 9 inch DX is history.

The Paperwhites

kindlePaperwhiteThe Paperwhites have a white background and are of higher resolution. They also are backlit, presumably to better compete with the Nook Glow from Barnes and Noble. The Paperwhites will come in two flavors: WiFi only and WiFi + 3G.  They are $119 and $179 each.

Features include:

  • built in light that is evenly distributed across the whole screen
  • 62% more pixels
  • eight week battery life, even with the backlight on
  • six fonts in 8 sizes
  • feature that will estimate your time to completion, based on your reading speed
  • 25% better contrast

As with the previous generation, the lower end versions have Amazon’s ‘special offers’ which are ads that display on the devices lock screen. For $20 more, you get the ad free version.

Kindle Fire Lineup

The original Fire gets a boost in speed from a faster processor, twice the memory and longer battery life. The processor is now a 1.2GHz processor and the device features 1GB of RAM, making it 40% faster than the original Fire.  Battery life is up to 9 hours as well.

The Kindle Fire HD comes in a 7 inch version and a 9.7 inch version. The HD features a 1280 by 800 hi-def display with a polarizing filter and anti glare technology. Audio has been beefed up and now includes built in stereo speakers, Dolby audio that gives an immersive, virtual surround sound feature. The processor is 1.2GHz with the Imagination PowerVR 3D graphics core.  This thing was, clearly, designed with gaming in mind.

A forward facing HD camera will allow for free Skype (included) video calls. You also get free unlimited cloud storage for your Amazon stuff. Like the Paperwhites, it also features the ‘special offers’ and sponsored screensavers. Unlike the cheaper devices, you cannot turn this off or pay more for ad-free.

kindlefireHDThe software that drives the Fire has been revamped as well. The bookshelf appears to be gone and a more XBOX like feature (From a few years ago) now makes the interface. Items are presented as a scrolling row icons.

Kindle Free Time, another new software feature, is a personalized experience just for the kids.  Essentially parental controls and customized interface, parents can set time limits and restrict the content they have available.

WiFi has been enhanced as well. Amazon offers up two antennae and MIMO, resulting in a 40% increase in performance.

Memory sizes are 16 and 32 gigabytes.There are no expansion slots, though they do include HDMI ports and BlueTooth.

A 4gLTE version is available for $499.

These new devices, coupled with the Surface and the Galaxy Nexus 7 are all sure to give Apple a run for the money. If I were not waiting for the Surface, I’d have to get me a Kindle Fire HD. These are some serious devices.

Mini-review: Kindle Fire

Having already owned two tablet computers, the original iPad and the Pandigital White, 7 inch tablet/reader, I already had formed an opinion on how a tablet should be.  I wanted a second, usable tablet, but not another iPad.  While I don’t have a real issue with the iPad, I wanted something a little smaller, a lot cheaper and just as capable. A tough item to find, no doubt. Price and performance were my main concern, then ecosystem, operating system and ease of use.

Unfortunately, Android is the predominate mobile operating system. Android is one of the biggest turkeys unleashed in the last century.  This operating system is not only fragmented beyond belief, it is slow, unreliable and built upon Linux-a major drawback. Linux is a desktop operating system and that is where it should stay.  Even my favorite mobile OS, webOS, is built on the turd that is Linux.

So, what to get.  My choices were limited. Yes, I could spend a hundred bucks and get another Pandigital or something even worse, like the Maylong. I didn’t want to do that. I took a look at the Nook Color and the Kindle Fire and a couple of other tablets like the Acer Iconia (which is really nice, but more than I wanted to pay) and the Motorola Xoom.  Ultimately, I selected the Kindle Fire.

The Kindle Fire is a 7 inch tablet running some flavor of Android that has been wrapped up in Amazon’s nice user interface.  Amazon has done a nice job covering up the goop that is Android’s native look and feel.  And, good thing too. The native look and feel is disjointed and very inconsistent. It is worse than the old Macintosh OS or Windows 2.1. And that’s saying something.

The Fire contains 8gigs of storage, of which about 6 is free for your use.  But, there’s a gotcha: only about 2 gigs are available for apps.  The rest is devoted to content. This was a mistake that Palm made with the early releases of webOS. However, apps are pretty small, so this should not be an issue for most people

The device looks a lot like the RIM Playbook.  Indeed, they were both built by the same company and probably share the same innards as well.  The Fire lacks an SD card slot and an HDMI connector.  The only connectors it has are for the earphone jack and a USB connector for power and to transfer files.

The Fire is rather speedy and the animations are smooth.  Wi-Fi performance is good, with 802.11n connectivity (it will also do b and g.)  Battery life is great, just shy of the iPad at about 8 and a half hours, depending on your use.

Whispersync is there, though the device is Wi-Fi only.  After I registered the device, all of the material I had purchased for my first gen Kindle appeared on my bookshelf. Tapping a book initiated a quick download and off I went.  Even the magazine I subscribed to showed up. One also gets 10gb of Amazon storage, so anything you buy through Amazon is available in the cloud as well.

Navigation is very intuitive and easy to use.  In fact, no printed manual was included. An e-version is included, but you don’t need it. Amazon’s UI is super easy to navigate.

My big complaints come from the use of Android and not so much the hardware, which is pretty nice. No, the operating system is where the Kindle Fire falls flat. Android still needs to mature, but the version on the Fire is adequate for what it is used for.  The included Facebook ‘app’ is not really an app, it is more like the mobile Facebook site wrapped up the browser.

All in all, the Kindle Fire is well worth the $200 it cost and even more so if you already had a Kindle and lots of content.

It certainly LOOKS much nicer than the first gen Kindle that I own, which looks more like a wedge of cheese than a high tech e-Reader.  Still, at least that original Kindle had a secondary use: a door jam.

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Pandigital Novel: worth it?

Until the Samsung Galaxy Tab came out, the only other real competition to the iPad was the Pandigital Novel eReader.  The Novel is a 7 inch Android based tablet that runs a custom front end that is geared toward making the device an eReader. 

The Novel comes preloaded with a browser, eReader software, Barnes and Noble bookstore, a couple of games, a few bookmarks and an audio/video player. 

The first thing you notice about the device is its smallish size. It is almost too small.  It is a handsome device, sleek and thin (but not as thin as that other device.)  Unfortunately, as soon as you turn it on, you notice its biggest weakness: the touch screen.  It is bright and vibrant, but almost not very sharp.  Again, compared to the iPad or even my Palm Pre, the screen is the weak link.  The touch aspect is also on the weak side, but a firmware update improved it tremendously.  Which reminds me, they took the time to put a card in the box telling you about the firmware update but couldn’t actually perform the update?  Really? The update did not go smoothly either. In fact, I thought I had bricked the device but it just needed to be reset.  Here, again, is a fail:  NO WHERE on the Pandigital site did it tell you how to handle any kind of problem.

The speed of the device is weak as well but passable.  Reading a book on the device, in low light, is actually OK and the speed is adequate for this purpose.  There is a day reading and a night reading setting that adjusts the screen accordingly and it does help.

The availability of a dozen or so newspapers, many magazines the Barnes and Noble bookstore make this an attractive device.  Since it features a color screen, magazines, especially, will look good and the size, though small, works well.  Like the iPad, one will grow wary of holding the device for more than a few minutes.

The quality of the audio and video are about what you might expect:  usable but barely.  You would do well to use headphones and keep the brightness turned about midway.  Resolution is OK, but not great.

There are a couple of major drawbacks that might deter you from purchasing the device.  The first, like I already said, is the screen.  The second is Android.  Why?  Well, this thing is running an old version of Android and does not have the Android store.  You can, however, ‘hack’ the device to get apps on there and, in fact, there is a bare install of Android on the Pandigital site that is open. You void your warranty by installing it, but, really, the thing can be had for way under $150 so you aren’t losing much.

Overall, it is an OK device.  For the money, however, you could do much worse. On the plus side, it is easy to hold, nice looking, has adequate speed and is a fair to decent eBook reader. On the negative, the screen is the weak link.  The on-screen keyboard, while better after the firmware update, still lacks precision and the version of Android is out of date and lacks access to the market.

For under$150, it is worth taking a look.  It is NOT an iPad, but, then again, the iPad costs three to four times more. Shop and compare.  The Novel will stand up nicely to other similarly priced devices, but falls flat when compared to iPad, Kindle or Galaxy Tab.

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