I love my Kindle, but it drives me crazy
I guess I should’ve known that my relationship with the Kindle was going to run hot and cold when I bought the original model and then returned it a couple of weeks later. I was ready to step into our inevitable ebook future—but the first Kindle was so bad that I couldn’t justify keeping it.
A year later I bought the second-generation Kindle and kept it. The last book I read before my Kindle arrived was Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, a thousand-page hardcover tome that weighed in at 3 pounds. The Kindle was so much lighter, and more convenient, and I never looked back.
Since then I’ve bought the third- and fourth-generation Kindle models, handing down my old ones to family members. I read far more now than I did before I owned a Kindle, and it’s all down to the convenience of having books and newspapers with me wherever I go.
And yet, Kindle is endlessly frustrating. So while I wait for my new Kindle Paperwhite to arrive, allow me to present my list of grievances as an enthusiastic yet frustrated Kindle user.
List of grievances
Whispersync: Amazon’s Whispersync feature is clever. It keeps track of your place in a book and syncs that across devices, so you can stop reading on a Kindle device and then start back up on your iPhone or iPad, and it won’t skip a beat. Here’s the maddening part, though: What it keeps track of is the furthest page you’ve ever been on.
Occasionally I read a book with footnotes placed at the back, which throws Whispersync for a loop. But a more common problem crops up when someone else in my family wants to read a book I’ve already read: Since I’ve read to the end, Whispersync is no help until I open that copy of my book on all my devices, navigate back to the beginning, and then go to the Amazon website, find the book in question, and choose Reset Furthest Page Read. (I was happy to discover that option exists, but it would probably be more useful if it were available on the device and in the apps, and if opening a copy of the book that was still set to the end didn't completely wipe it out.)
No updates: When a publisher prints a paper book, that’s it. If the book has errors, the publisher can fix them for the next edition, but the existing copies are out there forever. The Kindle ecosystem is an all-digital, almost-always-connected world, yet it has been designed as if those E Ink bits were made of real ink. That’s bad for more-timely material that might benefit from updates, and it’s especially bad when a fresh ebook edition is rife with errors.
I once bought a new release only to discover that something terrible had happened during the creation of the digital version of the book. Letters, words, and even whole sections were missing. It was unreadable. A few weeks later I received an email from Amazon indicating that the publisher had fixed the problem. (I had no way to tell how much of that delay was due to the publisher and how much was due to Amazon’s slow-grinding bureaucracy.)
Here’s what I had to do to update a book to a new version: Receive an email from Amazon saying my book had an update, which asked me to reply via email with the word “yes” (!!). Then I deleted my old book, losing any notes or highlights I might have made, and redownload it. Or, alternately, you can go to the Manage Your Kindle page to check whether a book has an update, and then select Update from there.
Maybe I’m spoiled by all the auto-updating software on my computer and mobile devices. But it shouldn't be this tough to update a book—and notify readers that an update is available right from their e-reader.
Weird, weird interface: With the arrival of my (touchscreen) Paperwhite this week, I’m saying good-bye to the original button-based interface of the Kindle. And I do mean original—in five years Amazon has done little to improve the software of these devices. I’ve mastered all of its quirks now, but occasionally I’m reminded of how strange the interface of the "classic" Kindle can be to the uninitiated.
Clicking on a book opens it, so how do you delete it? Not by pressing the Menu button, which never gives you that option. If you select a book in the main menu and use the right-arrow button, you can see a detail view of the book that includes a 'Remove from Device' option. Power users know that you can select a book and use the left-arrow button to bring up a 'Remove from Device' option immediately.
Deleting an item from the main screen reveals a bug that has lurked in the Kindle software forever: When you delete an item, your selection ends up two items down from where it was. If you’re trying to delete a bunch of items (the software offers no batch-delete command), it’s like playing a game of Frogger. Your selection keeps hopping around the screen. Nobody at Amazon seems to care; the software feels largely abandoned. Guess that’s why the Kindle 5 is so cheap.
The five-year experiment: Amazon still refers to the Web browser on its E Ink Kindle models as “experimental.” What’s that about? It’s a basic browser that I try to avoid using (though it does work, if you’re desperate), and really, it’s there only to let you log in to Wi-Fi access points that require you to enter login information via a webpage. But where is this experiment going? Nowhere, apparently.
Forced justification: The text of all Kindle books is “force justified,” meaning that with the exception of the last line of a paragraph, all the words that fit on a line spread out so that the rightmost letter of the rightmost word sits exactly on the right margin, creating a solid cylinder of text.
Some people love justified text. I hate it, especially on computer-based text displays with either no hyphenation or hyphenation controlled by software. Inevitably books end up with lines where the words just don’t fit right, and a force-justified line suffers from giant gaps between the words. It drives me crazy, and I have no way to turn it off.
No ePub support: Every ebook reader in existence seems to support the ePub format—except Kindle. Lots of DRM-free ePub books are out there; I’d like to put them on my Kindle without having to turn to a tool such as Sigil to do an ePub-to-Mobi conversion.
Apps should be better: This isn’t quite a Kindle reader concern so much as a Kindle platform concern, but still: Amazon’s Kindle apps on other platforms should be better. The iOS version isn’t bad, but it doesn’t look as good (or function as well) as Apple’s iBooks. And the Android version is not good at all, especially when you compare it with the version that runs on Amazon’s own Kindle Fire tablets.
DRM, lending, and transfer: This problem isn't exclusive to Amazon, but it is worth mentioning. You can’t transfer your books to another user, as you can with paper books. You can lend a book to another user, but only with some books and only once and only for seven days. And the vast majority of the books you can buy via the Kindle store are locked to your Kindle account via copy protection (publishers can opt out, but few do), so you can’t read them on unsupported devices or lend them to friends.
I’m hard-pressed to find areas where I prefer the world of paper books to ebooks at this point, but the lack of a free resale market and the inability to lend a book to a friend really bug me. (Though I have to give a point to Amazon for supporting Overdrive, which my local library uses to lend out a relatively small catalog of ebooks. It’s not great, and librarians are not thrilled about the current state of affairs, but at least it’s something.)
Stiff upper lip
Okay, so that was a lot of complaining. I do really love my Kindle and enjoy the experience of reading ebooks. Never again will I abandon a book when I’m nearing the end because it’s just too heavy to bring with me on a trip for the small amount of reading time left in it. I’m reading more, and enjoying it more, now that I’m an ebook user.
I just wish the experience was better. As Amazon rolls out fancy new Kindle hardware this fall, I’m hoping that the company invests some time into improving Kindle device software and back-end services too. It’s a good service that could be great.