Amazon Kindle pros and cons, a techie’s perspective

Introduction

After months of thinking and internal conflict with self, will publish the details in a post soon, last month I purchased an Amazon Kindle Paperwhite e-reader. Within weeks of actively using/experimenting with it, gained some interesting experience which is worth sharing.

Disclaimer: points discussed in this post are the mixture of objective and subjective matters of a techie’s perspective whose happened to be a strong free/open-source fan/advocate.

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite

Little background

Personally, I have read numerous reviews from different perspectives in regards to not only Kindle Paperwhite but also other models prior or after owning one. Found most if not all somewhat superficial, or the comparison is done between having an actual book and a Kindle from a book lover, passionate, or worm’s point of view. While there is nothing wrong with the available reviews, I thought it would be beneficial to provide a review from a different angle which mainly focuses on software features rather than the end user feeling or the product physical characteristics.

It is worth nothing to mention that having a Kindle or any e-reader does not make one start reading books all the time.

Pros

Kindle in overall, Paperwhite in specific has many positive points which almost all can be found in any review. Therefore, here I briefly mention each.

  • It keeps your focus, thanks to its limited functionality

  • It does one thing and it does well, Unix philosophy

  • Has unbeatable battery life that lasts for a month

  • It has the right physical dimensions and nice feeling material texture

  • <3 the E Ink display

Cons

Now let’s discuss the shortcomings of the Paperwhite or more accurately Kindle in general. To be more structural, I first list down all the points that I could think of and then discuss each point in its own separate section.

  • Still is easier to use mobile as it is more accessible

  • Working with Amazon account has some learning curve

  • It is a huge disadvantage that cannot access to Medium content straightforward

  • Many software inside of Kindle is proprietary and closed source

  • Excessive user restrictions

  • Proprietary AZW format

On portability

This is not a disadvantage on its own, though, it is a fact that requires attention. Otherwise, it can be quite frustrating that a newly purchased device cannot be fully utilized as a buyer’s expected.

Despite having the right dimension and weight, still is much easier to carry a phone around instead of a Kindle Paperwhite. This can be seen as a new habit that one has to form over time. Let’s be honest, we all are addicted to our phones and if we will be limited to carry only a single thing in our pockets, that would be our cell phones. Additionally, carrying a Paperwhite in jeans’ pocket can be somehow uncomfortable.

On learning curve

This point is also not directly related to the device itself, however, anyone owns a Kindle ultimately has to interact with the Amazon site. For instance, to remove documents from an account or to whitelist an email address.

I have to admit that I pretty much hate Amazon interface. It is not user-friendly and confuses the consumer with information overloading. Useful menus are not easily accessible for a novice and numerous advertisements take away concentration.

Besides that, there is no seamless mechanism available to transfer personal documents to a Kindle device except via cable connection to a computer. Even though sending documents to the device email address solves the issue partially, it still is unintuitive to use especially when it comes to whitelisting an email address or removing documents permanently from the Amazon account.

One may need to spend some time to familiarize self with the process and know how to access the different sections of the Amazon account.

It would have been awesome if Amazon created a separate interface that was not polluted with too many information that is barely useful for a Kindle user.

On lack of useful integration

Here the “useful” term can be very subjective. From my standing point, (1) a useful integration is defined as a way to deliver content of publishing platforms, at least the most known ones, to a Kindle device. (2) Or as a way to trigger the end user to engage in more reading by being able to access to information needs.

The second definition can be applied to any platforms and not be limited to the content publishing platforms merely. For instance, for one, integration with Goodreads is essential in order to have more engagement with the Kindle E-reader.

One obvious integration that is missing from Kindle is Medium. Medium is an awesome content publishing platform that its popularity is increasing every day. Many useful articles are published to Medium on daily basis and it is a loss that there is no seamless integration to Medium available to access the contents in Kindle devices. Personally, I do strongly believe that the demand for having Medium integrated with Kindle is high and unfortunately, there is no official option available. At the time of authoring this article, only two unofficial alternatives lurking around that allow accessing to Medium contents on Kindle devices.

The first and far the most apparent option is to open Medium in the forever lasting experimental built-in browser. Yes, it is doable but the speed is as slow as snail. The bright point is all the activities such as bookmarking, text highlighting if successfully can be done without frustration, is stored in your Medium account, therefore, accessible anywhere, anytime at your fingertips.

The second approach uses either IFFT or p2k.co (Pocket2Kindle) to deliver contents to Kindle. Underneath, both rely on Pocket platform. Both IFFT and p2k.co work by whitelisting email addresses that send the content to a Kindle device. This means that a user only requires saving Medium article(s) to own Paper account to have it delivered to his/her Kindle device.

In the free p2k plan, subscribers can have an option to schedule batch delivery on daily basis, or onetime whole delivery with 20 articles limitation and be bearing some delays. Immediate delivery is only available for paid users.

IFFT, by contrast, requires more configuration works, yet provides a greater degree of flexibility and is less limiting compared with the p2k free plan.

Personally, I chose free p2k over IFFT because (1) The p2k content delivery is not limited to Medium only. Any content or web page saved in my Paper account can be delivered to my Kindle. (2) Delivered articles are archived hence not polluting my Paper account, yet keep them accessible at no time.

The second approach might look quite tempting and ideal approach. Tough it has a huge drawback and that is lack of syncing between highlighted text in Medium and those in a Kindle device. This is the most bothering point because having highlighted notes everywhere regardless of having Kindle around or not is a huge winning point and without it the usefulness of reading Medium articles in Kindle is questionable.

One might suggest installing Kindle application on phone or tablet to access highlighted text saved on Kindle Paperwhite at any device or even open them in a computer browser. While this is correct, still highlighted notes are not automatically synced to Medium and be accessible to the public. Yes, it is highly possible to share with friends and/or known people by human intervention but it is quite impossible to keep them in sync automatically with a Medium account. As a result, the only option left is to sync each and everything manually or give up on syncing and sharing.

On proprietary software installed

Even though Kindle heavily uses free/open-source software packages and utilities underneath, any additional components built by Amazon is kept closed source and proprietary. One simple example is their e-book format and specs, discussed in the next point, or their UI. Additionally, Amazon does not release any SDK for Kindle, yet there are many passionate people that managed to hack their Kindles, see links below:

https://github.com/DylanHamer/DebianKindle

https://www.reddit.com/r/unixporn/comments/6a4whs/kindle_debian_on_my_kindle/

https://www.linux.com/answers/how-open-kindle-e-reader-linux

It may surprise you that due to GPL license, thanks to RMS, Amazon is obligated to openly release any changes made to GNU tools and Linux kernel. You can find a list at this link, though the instruction is quite outdated. This indicates that Amazon does release their changes on GPL licensed software reluctantly. The details of each package used by Amazon in Kindle will be discussed in an upcoming post.

Amazon created lots of buzz by announcing the release of their Kindle source code and used a legal obligation in a smart way as a marketing strategy to get more user base.

On user restrictions (AKA no help to your neighbors)

It is (almost) not straightforward approach to open a downloaded e-book from Amazon offline in a computer due to .azw or .azw3 formats which are modified proprietary version of open .mobi with DRM (Digital Rights Management). That means purchased e-books are restricted and locked to each device id which is registered automatically with the user account of the Kindle purchaser. This is regardless of owning an actual physical Kindle or not. Purchased e-books usually are delivered to your Kindle application (Android, iOS) or Kindle device and only easy to open and read from a browser if you are on your computer. This strongly restricts/violate users’ rights. For instance, I may want to download my e-books in Pdf and borrow it to a friend to read who is not very familiar with the technology, or I may have a desire to convert it to HTML and read it via the terminal of my Pinebook or do whatever I want to do with it.

Yet Amazon provides a way to lend your purchased e-books to another person for only 14 days via email. This is better than nothing obviously but it enforces the other party to sign up to Amazon, another smart approach to get more user base and what if one intends to lend a book to a person who has no active internet connection at the moment or for a longer period of time. Does s/he lend the book twice (not sure even it possible).

Another ridiculous limitation is once the owner lent the book to someone else via email, s/he no longer has access to it, this might be due to nonsense DRM. For instance, to experiment with the functionality of loaning a book, I lent it to myself again by sending it to another email address of mine and now have to create another Amazon account to read the book which I am not interested and not going to do that. Hence neither I can reject it nor can accept the book for 14 days.

I interpret the restrictions as vendor lock-in, Amazon is too afraid to let users download contents in a readable format on a contrast of Google Play Books.

On proprietary file format

It was explained in the previous section that Amazon uses its own proprietary format (.azw and newer version .azw3). It is interesting to know that years ago Amazon decided to purchase open .mobi format and since then made some modifications which the most notable one was adding evil DRM and released its own new property format which is known as AZW. This means that there is no specification of this file format is released and/or available by the contrast of open formats such as .epub, .pdf, and previously .mobi. Hence, no one is able to implement it or know how it works. This is highly limiting when it comes to conversion. Despite the fact many online and offline tools available for file conversion from one format to another still, there is not much of luck to convert .azw files to other formats properly. Even with successful conversion there is not much of luck in opening the converted file content without breaking DRM. This is was I usually call cluster F…

Verdict

Kindle is a great e-reader and causes addiction to some extends. Awesome E Ink screen provides a great and sweet reading experience especially when e-books files are in Amazon format. The hardware dimensions are suitable and it is quite lightweight. Overall, nothing concerning on hardware.

On the other hand, the provided software is highly limiting at least from a pro user’s perspective. Lacks integration with some content publishing platforms, such as Medium and ridiculous proprietary file format with DRM is a nightmare for any free software advocate.

Final recommendation — purchase a Kindle if you, like me, cannot stare at a computer, tablet, or mobile screen for a long time and have a reading habit.

P.S. Prior to purchasing a Kindle I did research on other e-reader brands but sadly none is able to provide a good hardware as Amazon does, especially on screen quality. However, if one day a company shows up that happens to produce e-readers equipped with free/open-source software that has as great E Ink display as Kindle does, I will be more than happy to buy one regardless of the price and software functionalities and willing to throw away or donate my Kindle Paperwhite.

Happy reading


Also published on Medium.

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