Review: Amazon Kindle for iPhone
Reaction amongst iLounge readers to Kindle - Amazon.com's dedicated eBook reader, based on a black and white e-Ink screen and persistent wireless technology - has been decidedly mixed: some readers told us that they have embraced the Kindle hardware as a replacement for carrying around paper books, while others have opted to hold out for a color-screened, possibly simplified alternative. Today, with the release of Kindle for iPhone (Free), which despite the name does work with both iPhones and iPod touches, both groups will see their previously-held positions tested; this free app lets iPod and iPhone users duplicate the book-reading functionality of the latest $359 Kindle device, wirelessly downloading and synchronizing the same eBook content Amazon's customers have already purchased online.
Conceptually, and given the recent high-profile launch of its second-generation Kindle hardware, this is only a little short of stunning. It suggests that Amazon is more concerned with selling books and popularizing the proprietary Kindle eBook format than selling its own hardware—at least for now. And it makes more sense when you consider that Amazon is one of the leading sellers of iPods, as well; whether you’re using an iPod touch, an iPhone, or a Kindle device, all roads can now lead to the Kindle book format.
The Basics: How Kindle for iPhone Works
At slightly under 3MB, Kindle can initially be downloaded by iPhone users without the need for a Wi-Fi connection or iTunes synchronization, and loads with a straightforward request for your Amazon login credentials. So entered, the application does two small but impressive things: first, it registers the iPhone or iPod with Amazon, letting the company’s Kindle download servers know that your device is entitled to share whatever books you’ve already purchased. Then, it tells you what’s currently in your book library and ready to be synchronized. As with the Kindle hardware, actually bringing a book over to the iPod or iPhone is basically effortless: you touch the titles in your Archived Items list that you want to read, and seconds later, they arrive on the device—assuming that it’s connected to the Internet.
Notably, Kindle hardware customers are basically guaranteed a wireless cellular-based downloading connection anywhere in the United States thanks to a subscription free tie-up between Amazon and Sprint, which will continue to operate until and unless Sprint’s network gets folded. iPod touch and iPhone owners can download—but notably, as discussed below, not purchase—books directly from the app, and thus Amazon, over similarly speedy Wi-Fi. iPhone users can do the same over both EDGE and 3G cellular networks, though downloads take more time. The same test book that took 7 seconds over Wi-Fi required 15 seconds on 3G and 1 minute on EDGE; your speeds may vary based on the actual speeds of your local Wi-Fi, 3G, and EDGE networks. Once a book is transferred, it sits permanently on your iPod or iPhone, waiting to be read wherever you may be, and does not require additional downloading while you’re on the go.
What you get when you’re done downloading depends more on the book’s publisher than on the Kindle app itself, though there are consistencies from book to book. Amazon presents most book text in Caelicia, a serifed font that can be scaled to one of five sizes, the smallest squeezing roughly 26 lines of text on the iPhone screen, with around 8 words per line, and the largest size around 14 lines of text with roughly 4 words per line. In other words, you can expect to see nearly 60 words per “page” with the largest font size, and around 200 on the smallest. It’s your choice; we found the smaller size entirely readable, with the app presenting all text in a black font against a white background. We did note that a non-serif font does appear in some books, but the user has no control over font selection, only size.
The Pros: Better Display and Interface Tech, Color Images + WhisperNet
This is the point where hard-core Kindle hardware fans and iPod/iPhone fans may diverge significantly in their appreciation of this app. Amazon’s Kindle hardware has been based off of 6-inch e-Ink screens that have as their primary asset extremely low battery consumption, as well as a black-on-light gray presentation of text that serious fans swear up and down is wonderfully suited to reading books. Except in the dark. Kindles have no backlighting, so if you’re interested in reading at night, you’re supposed to buy a miniature light to keep the screen externally illuminated or read with the lights on. And the e-Ink screens have rendered photographic and artistic content poorly by any modern standard, offering dithered grayscale versions of images that might as well have appeared on decades-old handheld devices. Again, Kindle fans suggest that they don’t care.
For those who do care, the iPhone and iPod touch handle Kindle books differently. First, they’re entirely readable in the dark thanks to Apple’s strong backlighting, and to our way of thinking, a superior experience even in better-lit surroundings due to the ambient light sensor. Immediately after the application’s release around midnight, we downloaded sample books and began to read them in a pitch black room on the iPhone’s screen. The device’s form factor, combined with simple swipe gestures to turn pages and a single tap to bring up a menu with font size changes, dog ear-style bookmarking, a table of contents, and a content scroll bar, made it ideal in every way but screen size for reading even the 320-page book we downloaded.
There are no off-screen buttons to worry about; it all just works effortlessly through the touch interface, including links to pages, which are represented in blue. All that’s conspicuously missing is the ability to pinch-gesture one’s way to a zoomed view of the page, but that’s Amazon’s choice.
There’s another way in which the iPhone and iPod touch outperform Amazon’s own hardware. Some of the same photos and art that appear in black and white on the Kindle are rendered in color on the iPhone and iPod touch—the quality and quantity again depend largely on each book’s publisher. In one sample book we downloaded, Artie Lange’s Too Fat to Fish, images that appeared in a “photo insert” were rendered in color, while images that appeared in-line with the main book text appeared in black and white. They were not capable of being zoomed in on, and ranged from dreary in color to seriously artifacted by comparison with the vivid, saturated images the iPhone and touch are capable of displaying, but they’re better than what the limited grayscale Kindle hardware displays.
Unfortunately, since Amazon’s Kindle format ignores traditional pagination in order to let users change font sizes, the Kindle app doesn’t always pair in-line photos with the text that’s supposed to accompany them; it’s a minor though potentially confusing issue. Then some books, including a sample food and recipes book we downloaded, have no imagery at all. They are as amateurishly presented as plain text files dumped into a primitive handheld, but that’s more the book’s publisher’s fault than Amazon’s.
Also of note is Amazon’s “Whispersync” technology, which enables Kindle hardware and/or software users to synchronize their most currently read pages from their books across multiple devices. It works seamlessly to guarantee that the book you start on one device resumes at the same page when you have the same book on another device; we tested it across two iPhones and an iPod touch, and the correct pages were always preserved from where we’d left off, as were the bookmarks we added. A circular arrow icon on each Kindle app’s on-screen menu lets you automatically skip ahead at any time to the furthest place you’ve reached with any of your devices, identifying which one got you to that end point before you commit to switching sections. It’s smart stuff, and so long as your device is on some sort of wireless connection, it can communicate back and forth with Amazon’s servers to keep other devices on your account up-to-date.
The Cons: Purchasing, Images, U.S.-Only, and Non-Book Content
But there are some wrinkles. Most notably, Kindle for iPhone does not enable you to make book purchases directly from the iPhone app itself; instead, you’re directed to Safari, which requires a separate Amazon login and provides a comparatively weak interface for making purchases. We’ve loved Amazon’s iPhone-optimized web pages in the past, but for Kindle purchases, it seems obvious that—for now—you’re much better off doing your selection and buying on a computer.
The Kindle app also is clearly a step or three behind where image handling is concerned. It does a mixed job when it comes to synchronizing book covers, switching between what appear to be true covers in one view and interior covers in another, sometimes displaying “No Image Available” for books that clearly have one or the other images to display.
As noted above, images inside the books can look pretty mediocre, and their layout may not correspond with the original design of the book, issues hugely apparent in trying to read books such as eBay Photos That Sell and New Dimensions in Photo Processes. It’s obvious that Amazon’s proprietary format is evolved from a text reader, rather than devolved from full-fledged books.
Two final issues relate to the app’s current limitations. As with the Kindle hardware, the app is currently available for U.S.-based users only, as are the downloadable books. This contrasts with eReader and Stanza, existing iPhone and iPod touch book reading applications that don’t rely on Amazon’s proprietary format and also aren’t bound by geographic restrictions, a Kindle sore point for our editors based outside of the United States. Moreover, non-book content—magazines, newspapers, and blogs—sold by Amazon for display on the Kindle hardware is not available for viewing through the Kindle app.
To Amazon’s partial credit, the company’s online store denies attempts to even purchase these publications if you don’t have a Kindle hardware device to read them with; the iPhone and iPod touch don’t appear as supported options, so you can’t accidentally buy things you can’t actually view. However, due to an unusual error message from the Kindle downloads section of Amazon, claiming for magazines and newspapers that no iPhone or iPod touch is registered, users are left to figure out for themselves that only books are supported. For now at least, this feature omission provides users with even more reason to just visit the free web sites of these publications instead, assuming that they have a network connection to do so; their downloadability and—if Amazon handled it properly—preserved original graphic designs and layouts would be reasons to consider paying for individual downloads or even subscriptions.
Overall, Kindle for iPhone offers U.S.-based users much of the same eBook reading functionality of Amazon’s dedicated, expensive Kindle hardware without the hassle of carrying around an additional and arguably primitive device. At this stage, the only question book-loving iPhone and iPod touch users will have to ask themselves is whether a bright, colorful, touch-driven 3.5” display is a better conduit for their reading needs than a dim grayscale Kindle screen surrounded by 50-plus buttons. We’d bet that for a $359 savings, virtually anyone would say yes: Kindle for iPhone isn’t yet all that it can be, but it delivers so much of the core Kindle experience—minus direct purchasing and plus a backlit color screen—that the idea of electronically purchasing Amazon’s eBooks suddenly makes a lot more sense than it did 24 hours ago. That’s a win for Amazon, and certainly a win for iPhone and iPod touch users, as well.