Kindle DX Graphite Review
February 1, 2011
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Kindle DX Graphite provides an excellent reading experience both for ebooks and PDF files such as books and academic journal articles. The primary downside of the Kindle DX for these uses is that it lacks several useful features for notetaking and organizing PDFs, but on the whole this is outweighed by the sheer convenience of this device and the pleasurable reading environment it provides.
Physical Dimensions and Screen Size
The size of the Kindle DX is just about ideal for reading academic papers and books in PDF format. Slightly increasing the screen size within the same physical dimensions would be desirable, but the overall dimensions of the device are about as large as you would like.
By default, the PDF viewer tries to automatically crop any extra whitespace in the margins to fit the document to the screen and maximize the zoom level. Since the 9.7-inch screen on the DX is fairly large, the result is that most PDFs can be read comfortably in portrait mode, which is much more natural than landscape mode. On the smaller, 6-inch Kindle, it is almost always necessary to read such PDFs in landscape mode, which can be awkward.
The page sizes of many journals are smaller than a standard sheet of letter-sized paper, and after the automatic cropping of the PDF margins, the result is a very comfortable text size and zoom level. There are a few cases—in particular, documents with crop marks or page numbers far out in the margins—where the default zoom level is sub-optimal. However, I have found that I almost never have to manually zoom in or switch to landscape mode to read comfortably. The standard full-page zoom in portrait mode is usually just about right.
The Beauty of E Ink
The E Ink Pearl display on the Kindle DX is amazing. The contrast is great and the screen is very natural and easy to read. There is almost never any glare to speak of. LCD screens, on the other hand, are very prone to glare in bright light. At the other extreme, I also find that they can be too bright to read comfortably in the dark, even on the lowest brightness settings.
Another nice feature is that the low power consumption of the E Ink screen means that you can easily read for many days without charging the battery, even with the 3G wireless access turned on. This technology is not without drawbacks though, as refreshing the screen is quite slow. Fortunately it is not so slow as to be distracting while reading, as it is probably still faster than physically turning the page of a book.
A Pleasant and Distraction-Free Reading Environment
The differences between electronic paper displays and LCDs lead to some interesting differences in behavior. In the past I have primarily used electronics with LCDs, such as my laptop and Android tablet, and as a result I have avoided natural light when working because the resulting glare makes it too difficult to read the screen. However, when reading an electronic paper display such as on the Kindle DX, I find myself actively seeking natural light, which tends to improve the overall reading experience.
The Kindle reading environment is also very “quiet” and free of distractions as compared to, say, an Android Tablet or iPad. This, combined with the nice display, are the key distinguishing features of the overall Kindle experience. Tablets are extremely versatile and have many excellent PDF and ebook reading applications, but having been designed with communication and internet usage in mind, they make it incredibly easy to become distracted with incoming email, web browsing, and other apps.
The Kindle, on the other hand, provides you with fewer opportunities to become distracted without leaving you completely disconnected, since it has full 3G internet access and a built-in web browser. You can easily get online when you’re in a pinch, but there is a slightly higher cost in that the electronic paper display and web browser are somewhat slow. This cost is actually quite useful though, because you tend to only use the browser when it’s actually needed to look up something relevant.
Navigation and Organization
The Kindle’s main weaknesses are notes, navigation, and organization for PDF files. Bookmarks in PDF files are simply labeled with the page number; you cannot name them like you can with bookmarks in ebooks. You also cannot take notes or highlight (more understandable) in PDFs. Navigation is also limited: you cannot see or follow links in PDF documents and there is no support for documents with a table of contents.
There are also only very limited organizational features. The Kindle allows you to group documents together in “collections.” Each document may belong to many different collections. However, the only (official) way to organize your files is by manually locating each file and selecting which collections you would like it to belong to. While this doesn’t sound prohibitively difficult, when you are working on a slow electronic paper display with many pages of documents, it can quickly become tedious.
The convenience of automatic periodical delivery is great. However, subscription rates for most newspapers and magazines are currently on the high side. You might consider using Calibre, which can scrape news websites and RSS feeds and generate Kindle-friendly MOBI files. You can schedule this to happen, say, at 6:00 AM every morning. If you have, for example, an online subscription to the Wall Street Journal, Calibre can use your account to download the full contents of the paper every day.
The lack of EPUB support is inexcusable. Nearly every other e-reader in existence supports EPUB, and by deciding not to support it Amazon is clearly just trying to fight a format war. Although it is inconvenient, you can always use Calibre to convert your files to MOBI format for use on your Kindle. However, most books you purchase online will have some sort of DRM protection, which impedes conversion among different formats.
My overall sense of the Kindle DX Graphite is that it is an excellent first generation e-reader for academics. The actual experience for linear reading is great, but one is left with the feeling that Amazon could easily have made it even better by focusing on those navigational and organization details that are important for research and reference use. Since the Kindle DX was presumably designed largely with professionals and academics in mind, these features should have been a priority.
In my opinion, the convenience of being able to carry hundreds of books and articles with me anywhere and have such a pleasant experience reading them outweighs the few lacking features. However, for the price of this device, I do expect Amazon to take this seriously and release a firmware update to improve the PDF handling capabilities and organizational tools.