Thursday, July 29, 2010

Amazon announces the new Kindle

I will admit that I was rather unexcited at rumors that a new 6" Kindle would be shipping in August. The Graphite DX had just shipped without introducing any new features beyond its undeniably improved screen. I was prepared for the worst: the new Kindle would likewise have the same form factor and firmware, with only the 'graphite' color and improved screen to recommend it. Ho, hum. Let 'em try to sell me a new Kindle!

Given this attitude, I was completely unprepared to resist pre-ordering a new Kindle 5 minutes after reading about it (it took me that long only because I had to boot up my computer)! As it happens, the improved screen is just one of the improvements, and does not even outrank some of the others in my estimation. 

I've separated the hardware and software improvements, as the latter could potentially pertain to K2 and DX owners via a software update and are worth noting for that reason.

Hardware improvements:
  • 50% better contrast 
  • 21% smaller body, 15% lighter, retains same 6 inch reading area
  • joystick replaced by more ergonomic array of buttons
  • storage is doubled
  • up to one month of battery life
  • quieter page turn buttons
  • improved keyboard operation
  • Next/Previous buttons on both sides for full ambidexterity
  • numeric keys are gone, but apparently DX-like entry is possible (ALT+a top row letter) as well as from SYM table
  • built-in Wi-Fi, free access at AT&T hotspots
  • hinge system can power a reading light integrated into the cover
  • a built in microphone (to be enabled by a future firmware update)
Software improvements:
  • proprietary waveform/font technology for faster page turns and sharper letterforms
  • improved PDF reader with dictionary lookup, notes and highlights, ability to adjust contrast, and support for password-protected PDFs
  • new WebKit-based browser should be faster and easier to navigate, includes 'article mode', zoom options, improved navigation 
  • Voice Guide to assist menu navigation
  • select from among two serif typefaces (Caecilia and a condensed Caecilia) and a sans serif
  • Expanded script support for text display: Cyrillic, Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), Korean, Japanese. Finally!
  • Lowest price yet! ($139 for the Wi-Fi only model)
  • the 'header'/status auto-hides after the first page viewed! more screen real estate. MENU key reveals it temporarily.
  • Oxford English Dictionary has been added (for a total of 2)
  • progress indicator for downloads
  • no-fee downloads when Wi-Fi is used
  • Kindle access to Audible audiobooks in Kindle store (using Amazon or a linked Audible account), downloadable over Wi-Fi
It's really a fantastic upgrade, and will keep me Kindling kontentedly for the foreseeable future. Given this round of font enhancements, surely the font-hackers can declare victory and go back to reading books instead of hacking the fonts now?

I purchased the Wi-Fi only model and will use the $50 saved on a cover with built in reading light. There is no 3G coverage where I live, I have Wi-Fi at home and at most of the places I travel to regularly. In addition, I'm planning to get a Droid X, which (for a fee) will let you share its 3G connection with up to 5 registered Wi-Fi devices. Since I already wanted that capability for connecting my laptop to the internet, the Kindle can come along for no additional charge.

Regular readers will understand that I always have critical things to say as well. This is no exception!

What is still missing:
  • support for PDF reflow (useful with properly tagged PDFs) and PDF links (for navigating Table of Contents, etc.)
  • apart from the additional script support, no internationalization features (non-English menus, keyboard entry, dictionaries)
  • no automatic orientation detection like the DX (I'd pay maybe $5 more for this)
  • no support for directly navigating the NCX TOC (identical to ePub TOC) text, as opposed to the HTML-based TOC that is usually inline with the text (as in print editions). Currently books that have one of these just use it to enable efficient chapter to chapter navigation, and display of marks in the progress indicator to show distribution of chapters. But the Kindle Previewer application allows direct navigation of the NCX TOC, which can have more than one level to improve navigation efficiency. I'd like to see a feature added that would pop up the NCX TOC (say by ALT+T), it would highlight the chapter/section you are currently in, and allow you to navigate directly to another chapter without having to jump to the HTML TOC and navigate that (very inefficiently I might add).
  • no support for library borrowing. Given Kindle's dominant market share, which is likely to only increase as a result of the new Kindle, it is time for Amazon, Overdrive, and library professionals to work together to add support for Amazon DRM and formats to library systems and to Kindle software. I believe MOBIPocket DRM is supported in some libraries, so it shouldn't be that hard to add at least Amazon MOBI DRM to the mix. Amazon could add Adobe DRM unilaterally to enable this, but they won't, probably because of licensing fees and the complexity of having to support more than one DRM scheme, when one is already too many. In any case it is not Amazon's job to provide content to library patrons, that's the library's job (along with the system developers and content aggregators who serve them).
  • a better way to navigate to document hyperlinks (for endnotes, chapter navigation, web addresses, etc.). As it is, you have to stumble over all the non-hyperlink text by nudging the joystick (or whatever it is called now) around. I'd like to see a mode (ALT+joystick? ALT+enter?) to navigate directly to the hyperlinks on a page. Even if I'm the only one who would know about this feature and use it...
  • no support for Adobe DRM and therefore no ability to read books from non-Amazon ebook retailers that use Adobe DRM (B&N, Borders, Sony). As long as Amazon's selection and pricing remains as good or better, I don't much care about this. One can always use any of a number of devices (PC, Mac, Blackberry, Android, iPhone etc.) for such material. I'd rather see DRM go away completely (the subject of a future blog article).
  • pan/zoom of ebook images. on a 6" device, you can't get sufficient zoom to read many maps and charts, even if the image resolution is sufficient to show the detail.
  • STILL no built in ability for custom screensaver images? Or maybe it was not worth of inclusion in the press release. I think I did read somewhere that the latest Kindle software updates were successfully overlaying screensaver hacks, which might be good enough.
It would be nice if some of the software improvements - especially the font enhancements - trickle back to earlier models in the form of firmware updates. Why not?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Font Enhancements in the Kindle 2.5 Update

It seemed like a long wait for the 2.5(.2/.3) update to post on Amazon before I could finally see it for myself. Fortunately, I remembered to take screen shots of some text samples before that, so I could make some detailed comparisons of the font refinements. In retrospect, I wish I would have authored my own sample so I could compare bold, italic, small caps, superscript etc. styles, but at least I have this! I've created some side-by-sides for each text size, with my comments. The screen captures in this case were taken when displaying at 500-800% in Photoshop, so each original pixel is represented as a monochrome square 5-8 pixels on a side. I'd be happy to share my PSD file (with each screen capture stacked on its own layer, making it easier to overlay comparisons), but I guess I can't do that here. If you have a suggestion about this, let me know.

Text Size 1 (smallest):
The letterforms and resulting spacing are unchanged as far as I can tell for the default style. I can overlay before and after shots exactly, and they match pixel for pixel (Before and After, respectively):

However, when displaying text with a size attribute applied (e.g. titles/section headings), Kindle seems to select from one of the larger text sizes, which have been enhanced (subtly, but the serifs on "E" are cleaner and the crossbar on "A" is all black instead of half gray):

Text Size 2:
Here we start to see the first real changes. The horizontal strokes and serifs are darker (note the vowels 'a' 'e' 'o' especially), dots in 'i' and 'j' are completely black and clear, periods are darker and crisper, the base serifs on letters like 'i' 'I' 'f' are symmetric, whereas before they were not. This results in slightly tighter letter spacing for some combinations (e.g. 'if') and a more pleasing 'rhythm':

Text Size 3:

Again, we see improvements along the lines seen in Size 2:

Text Size 4:
...and again, same thing in Size 4, though the differences are getting increasingly subtle and less significant ('g' 'o' and 'm' look better, though the i-dot is arguably a regression).
Text Size 5 and 6:
I could detect no changes to any of the characters used in my sample. The only attributed text I had in my sample (title text) looks slightly different, but not significantly so.

Yes, they did something to sizes 2, 3, and 4, and I would pronounce it noticeably 'better', particularly in sizes 2 and 3. And at least the text without attributes (bold, italic, size etc.) in sizes 1, 5, and 6 is exactly the same as before. It seems unlikely that they can improve this particular font beyond this (I think this is at least their second attempt to do so). 

Readers with specialized requirements (or preferences) will unfortunately have to continue to hack in an alternate font. 

I would recommend that Amazon either supply one or two alternate fonts (some sans serif font in particular) or better yet, make it possible to drop in a replacement without hacking, since they will never pick the right one for everybody. And for extra credit, provide an option to override Topaz fonts (though the results of this will not always be pretty, given there could be several embedded fonts in use). And in case I haven't said it yet today, they need to add display support for Unicode, or at least for Cyrillic, Chinese/Japanese/Korean, which as hacks have demonstrated, can be used without any other software changes (we'll worry about readability and text entry of those some other day...).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A review of the Kindle 2.5 update

Amazon recently delivered a much anticipated update for the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX:
Having had the 2.5 update for a couple of days now, I must say I'm underwhelmed:
Collections. Nice, but it has an unfinished quality. I have gotten used to having only 40-50 items at any given time, using only the modest organization feature that was (Show Books/Personal Documents/Subscriptions/All Items). With this update, this feature was inexplicably removed.
To achieve the same 'minimalist' experience I enjoyed before with no additional overhead, I now have to create Collections for everything and maintain them, and use the Collections view only. There are more navigational clicks involved to get to the things I'm reading than before, and the appearance of Author/Title/Most Recent is far more cluttered than before, since they list EVERYTHING. In short, they have Harshed My Zen (TM)!
They really need to have some builtin, zero-maintenance 'smart' collections modeled on the ones previously implemented as Show options: Personal Documents, Subscriptions, Books (using the same criteria used previously for the Show options). I would also add New Items and Samples, that do the obvious thing. Maybe Unread (when current position is at the defined start), Read (when current position is on the last page), and Started (when position is not at start or end). Let users hide these builtin Collections if they don't find them useful.
Viewing by Most Recent First, Title, or Author preserves the decidedly non-minimalist jumble of page after page after page of content that people complained about in the Great Folder Uprising of 2009, now with the added insult of having to look at Collections mixed in willy-nilly. What the heck is a Collection's Author, anyway? What's the point of showing Collections on any of these views (well, at least Author or Title)? 
To me, the current implementation fails to deliver us from clutter, introduces navigation inefficiency, and saddles us with the overhead of having to Collection-ize each new item as we add it, lest chaos win out (as it no doubt will).
Some automatic categorization to replace the feature they removed (as previously described) would add a little polish, and mollify me somewhat.
And I'd like to be able to set one of the Collections I've created as a default for my HOME view, so I can efficiently select from the handful of things I'm actively interested in at any given time, return to this list easily, and return some Zen to my Kindle.

It will be interesting to see if Amazon cares to polish the feature some more in response to user feedback.
PDF pan/zoom. Nice, but it makes me wish all the more for a similar feature to pan/zoom images contained in the ebooks I actually purchase from Amazon (what a concept!). As it is, the K2 screen is not large enough to view many images, maps, illustrations and scanned-in tables (Kindle's MOBI format's underlying XHTML dialect has very weak table support, virtually unusable). I realize many pre-DX titles didn't include images with sufficient resolution to zoom at all (I think the tools/process used for authoring Kindle content even reduced the resolution to fit K2 if you weren't careful!), but if higher resolution is available, I want to be able to see it!
PDF viewing is still nowhere near as complete as on competing devices: no PDF reflow (reducing the need to Zoom), and more crucially, no support for PDF navigational links. I want PDF annotation, too, but first things first. As it is, almost any device that can view PDFs is better at this than a Kindle. The irony is that Amazon licenses the Adobe Mobile Reader SDK for the Kindle. Why don't they use it just a bit more?
Password protection (so called). This is the first implementation I've seen in years where your password appears in clear text as you type it, instead of '****'. Better make sure you're alone before waking up your Kindle! And all you have to do is plug the Kindle into a USB port to achieve full access to the contents. Of course the DRM content is and always was protected, but personal documents with personal information, y'know, the stuff that actually needs protection in the event of theft? Totally unsecured.
New Fonts. The increased sharpness is nice, some people may find the bigger sizes useful, but while they were at it, couldn't they have added full Unicode support? The version of 'Caecilia' (Kindle's default font) I have on my Mac has this; why not Kindle's? And I would have put in a smaller text size as well, though that would have required careful tuning to keep it sharp (once I have my reading glasses on, I'm equipped for TINY ).
Facebook and Twitter posts. Totally cool. I'm going to be using it, Friends and Followers.
Popular Highlights. Totally cool, once I discovered the option to suppress display of them when I don't want distractions.
Last but not least:
Full title display on item lists when item is selected. Give that programmer a bonus!
Unfulfilled Promises. Where is the voice-assisted navigation they announced? why can't the item list text be made larger? Why don’t they fight for TTS on all books? What does Amazon have against people with visual impairments? What about the K1 owners, who paid $400 for their more primitive device and paved the way for Amazon's current success?
Kindle Hacks blocked, but requirements not obviated. With this update, Amazon briefly made it impossible for people to hack their Kindles, but have done nothing to address the principle reasons people feel the need to do that:
  • Desire to customize the screensaver images (maybe I find the Jules Verne image offensive..)
  • Replace the Kindle default font with something more readable (some people's eyes can't handle serifs apparently).
  • Replace the Kindle default font with something that has better Unicode support (for Russian, Chinese etc.).
  • Modify the screensaver timeout period
If they want to stop people from hacking by 99% overnight, that's pretty much the complete laundry list of features they need to implement. The engineering effort would be trivial compared to what it takes to prevent hacking altogether, would reduce customer support costs, and it would delight many, many Kindle users. 

20 June 2010 Update:
Okay, there is sort of a smart Collection called 'Periodicals: Back Issues'. As the name suggests, it is supposed to collect back issues of things you subscribe to. Apparently this does not apply to 'Amazon Daily' - the only thing I currently subscribe to. I have a trial subscription going as of today, we'll see if it does something with that.

30 June 2010:
I've regained most of my Zen since the update: not sure where I picked up this idea, but I have padded out my list of Collections with dummy collections, so that there are exactly 10. This puts my subscriptions/newsfeeds and unclassified, new items on page 2, which I can get to with Next Page. Out of sight, clutter begone!
I've even worked out an efficient way of cycling through the items in my Current Reading collection, by hitting the Back button to get back to the collection list to read something from the 'next' item I'm reading (whereas using Home one first has to navigate into the Current Reading collection, then down one or more times to pick the next item). After Back, the item I was just reading moves to the top of the list, and the currently selected item becomes the next item to read, so that only one click suffices to transition to the next book (once the stack is initialized properly). Thus I'm able to reproduce digitally one of my favorite reading techniques for working through several books at once: I used to keep a stack of books next to my bed, read from the one on top, and when I needed a change, shove it to the bottom of the stack and grab the one on top to continue reading.