Kindle for iPhone: Disappointing. Yet Still Amazing.

By  |  Wednesday, March 4, 2009 at 7:01 am

kindlesplashFirst the bad news: In multiple ways, Amazon.com’s new Kindle reader for the iPhone and iPhone Touch falls short of being the ultimate iPhone e-book application. It fails to replicate all the major features of  a $359 Kindle device. It’s on the rudimentary side in certain areas. I found one or two instances of issues that were either quirks or outright bugs. I’d love to see a book reader for iPhone that was as polished and functional in its own way as the phone’s iPod software–and this isn’t it.

Despite everything, it’s a delight to have Kindle on the iPhone. What makes Kindle Kindle isn’t software as much as it is content–240,000 books’ worth of it, by far the largest collection of e-books ever assembled. Getting access to those books on a phone is by far the biggest deal in content for Apple devices since Apple itself added moves and TV shows to the iTunes Store. And given that there are far more iPhones and iPod Touches on the planet than Kindle devices, this could be a bigger moment for electronic books than the introduction of the Kindle in 2007 was.

The basics of Kindle on the iPhone are pretty much what you’d expect: You read books a page at a time, flicking through them with your thumb. You read in a full-screen mode that maximizes real estate for words, but tapping the screen gives you a pop-up interface with tools for bookmarking, changing text size (there are five options), and the like. [UPDATE AFTER HAVING PLAYED WITH KINDLE FOR IPHONE A BIT MORE: Having to swipe your thumb to flip pages is kinda uncomfortable, and you do it a lot when reading–I wish that you could turn pages by simply tapping.] And for the first time, Kindle books appear in real black text on a real white background rather than the Kindle device’s grayish E-ink display:

Kindle Without Interface

kindle-with-interface1

Typographically, iPhone Kindle “pages” have reasonably crisp type, but there’s no hyphenation, which occasionally leads to ungainly justification with way too much white space, as in the line “realistic-looking cloth rabbit” below:

Kindle Justification

Overall, the wonderful public-domain book reader Classics shows it’s possible to do more elegant type on an iPhone:

Classics

On the plus side, photos that look terrible on the Kindle 2’s 16-shade E-ink screen look dandy on the iPhone:

Kindle Photo

You can buy new books on your iPhone in a pinch, but only by browsing plain old Amazon.com in Mobile Safari–it hasn’t been optimized for iPhone, and the Kindle app itself suggests you do your buying on a computer or a Kindle. A feature called Whispersync syncs your bookmarks across all devices you read books on–a practically mandatory task if you own a Kindle device and an iPhone, since it lets you pick up reading on one device where you left off on the other. And, of course, you get access to any books you bought previously on a Kindle device. But magazines and blogs I’d subscribed to on my Kindle 2 didn’t travel to the iPhone.

In fact, it’s not clear whether you can get magazines, newspapers, and blogs on an iPhone at all–when I tried to subscribe to the New York Times in Mobile Safari, the Amazon site promisingly made reference to sending it to an iPhone:

Kindle Times

But then it asked me to select a specific Kindle to download it to–and Kindle for iPhone wasn’t an option. And Amazon’s press release for Kindle for iPhone makes no reference to anything but books being available. (Too bad–it would be cool to be able to have the Times or The New Yorker downloaded to an iPhone for reading in unconnected places like airplanes.)

Also confusing: When I first launched Kindle for iPhone, books I already owned were in an “Archive” section, with thumbnails of their cover art:

Kindle Archive But when I downloaded them to the iPhone, some of them inexplicably lost their pretty covers:

Kindle Covers

And some filled the iPhone’s screen while others were mysteriously undersized:

Kindle Race for Perfect

Kindle Honey

(I’ll try to get answers from Amazon on the glitches I’ve encountered, and will update this review as relevant.)

Kindle for iPhone is also missing a few Kindle 2 features that some folks might pine for, including highlighting (I did notice that highlights I’d created on my Kindle showed up on the iPhone) and note-taking, the ability to search, and a built-in dictionary. And it’s no stunner that the controversial text-to-speech book-reading feature is nowhere to be found.

I’ve spent most of this piece picking nits, and yet I’m still excited to be able to buy and read honest-to-goodness mainstream books for reasonable prices (usually $9.99 and under) on a device I have with me everywhere I go. The fundamentals are in place, but this app is bursting with the potential to go much further.

I’m not sure if this first pass at Kindle for iPhone is on the basic side because:

1) Amazon rushed it out the door and has grand plans to make it better and better, until it’s just as ambitious as the iPhone’s software for listening to music and watching movies and TV shows;

2) It thinks that nobody’s really going to do all that much book reading on an iPhone, and therefore the app doesn’t need to be very fancy;

3) It’s intentionally dumbing down the iPhone app to prevent it from discouraging people from buying $360 Kindle devices.

But I very much hope that option 1) comes closest to explaining the company’s motivations and plans…and that 3) is way off base. (Which it probably is–the full-blown Kindle’s larger screen and vastly better battery life make it far better for serious, extended reading; I think the existence of a good Kindle for iPhone is more likely to boost Kindle sales than to depress them, and I’ll bet Amazon agrees.)

[UPDATE: Here’s a grid comparing some major pros, cons, specs, and features of Kindle 2 and Kindle for iPhone.]

More to come, including comparisons of Kindle for iPhone with other iPhone e-book options, such as Shortcovers, which launched last week…

 
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19 Comments For This Post

  1. 500CardGame Says:

    Good review

  2. Alan J. Porter Says:

    I posted a lengthy review of the Kindle 2 on my blog last night and then found out about the Kindle for iPhone this morning. Downloaded it and took a quick look.

    “Disappointing” is not the word I would use. Simply put, it’s “awful.” As someone who has spent the last twenty years in the online content delivery business, it is one of the worst presented eBook applications I have ever seen.

    I posted a quick addendum on my Kindle review this morning – http://tinyurl.com/aerhux

  3. Michael Long Says:

    Amazon really needs to ask themselves which business they're really in: Selling Kindles, or selling books.

    Adding the iPhone (and other devices) leads me to believe that they're primarily interested in becoming the world's largest ebook retailer, as adding the iPhone just increased their customer base from a quarter-million or so to 10 or 12 million potential users.

  4. Stefano Says:

    Good review! Were you really up at 5:21 am taking screenies of your iPhone? haha

  5. Ben Hallert Says:

    This review falls remarkably short by failing to mention Stanza, the most popular eBook reader for the iPhone/iPod Touch platform. Stanza incorporates almost all of the features you request (including the tap to turn pages) and more.

    How can we take this seriously when that’s missing? It’s like writing an article about operating systems and failing to mention Microsoft.

  6. Harry McCracken Says:

    Ben: I know and like Stanza, and as I say at the end of the review, I’m going to come back and compare Kindle for iPhone to other options (including Stanza). However, I think Kindle has a huge advantage in terms of content–if you’re interested in recent, mainstream, commercial books, nobody else comes close to what Amazon offers.

    –Harry

  7. David Moffitt Says:

    the typography is GHASTLY

  8. Bridgett Says:

    Not to mention that if you enlarge the text on the iPhone you get every bit of three or four sentences on the smaller screen. And I would agree with your point #2 in that people just will not do a lot of reading on the iPhone. I think it would be good in a pinch when you’re stuck in traffic…

  9. Eric8199 Says:

    I love the Kindle app for iPhone, and have been waiting impatiently for it to be released. And to be honest, I already wanted a Kindle, and using the app actually makes me want one more, despite the fact that I have to spend $360 on something that I already have for free.

    I wish that I was still in college and could justify the need to spend $360 on an electronic book. haha.

    Love the app…would love to see more improvements, but really, what do you need? You can now read over 240,000 books on an iPhone…what more could you want? If the screen is too small for you, buy a Kindle. The app isn’t for everyone, but MANY will love it.

  10. Niko Says:

    *sigh*

    Great review, but… yet another US-only application. Congratulations to the Digital Media distributors for yet another pointless and moronic geographical limitation. And they wonder why people turn to torrent sites.

  11. Mika Says:

    I like how the iPhone will allow us to access more and more content without having to do with overloaded websites – Stanza and Kindle for ebooks, PozBook for travel Guides, deezer and lastfm for music and youtube for videos – it’s gona be great!

  12. sherrie Says:

    I am what you would call a “heavy reader”. I am one of those people who will buy a 700 page paperback and have it read within the next 36 hours. It makes books fairly expensive, especially when the public library can’t afford to keep up my habit. 😛

    Anyhow – I got the Kindle for iPhone last night and a book off Amazon. I have to say I’m fairly pleased. Even the battery life is fairly decent. I’ve read half of “A Meeting at Corvallis” by SM Stirling since about midnight last night solely on the iphone. I finally did have to plug it in, but so far so good. I like the flick-pages and the simplicity of the interface.

    So far, two thumbs up – and im happy to report i can now buy new releases for 9.99. 🙂

  13. Michael Says:

    I hate to say it, but ebooks suck. The Kindle for the IPhone suck too. There’s nothing wrong with the hardware, it really boils down to economics. I can buy a real book, and enjoy it, OR for the same price, I can buy the ebook version, which I can’t loan out or give away and I have to read it on a little screen??

    ebooks should be cheaper than regular books, in much the same way that buying a CD on amazon’s mp3 store is cheaper than buying the same music on a CD. The ebook doesn’t have a production cost — there are no special printing presses, no vats of ink and no reams of paper needed. Until they are cheaper than regular books, ebooks are going to remain a niche product. If you can give people an economic incentive to abandon paper, then I bet you’ll see people doing it in droves. Until then, the kindle store is just a rip-off. Less functionality, itty bitty screen, same cost a real book… it just doesn’t add up.

  14. Josh Rose Says:

    I could be wrong, but I wonder if the cover image bug is actually the disparity between the cover shown on the Amazon site, and the actual cover/first page that ends up within the eBook itself. I have noticed this on the books purchased for my first generation Kindle: they often do not have the same “cover” within the book file as on the site, sometimes simply appearing as a plain first page.

  15. BAE Says:

    Hmm…. 🙂

  16. Frederick Mixell Says:

    I totally agree with you the iPhone Kindle application did fall short of my expectation but at the same time it was just amazing to have an ebook reader on my phone. That is very very convenient! Visit My Website

  17. Leslie Says:

    I absolutely love the Kindle app for the iPhone. Since I’ve never owned a Kindle and don’t see it happening unless the price drops drastically, I have nothing to compare it with. It’s amazing!

  18. iphone app reviews Says:

    So, why would Kindle decide to launch this on iPhone. Is it to drive folks to purchase a Kindle? I would think not, because the screens are fairly different and the experience is not the same. Although that may be part of the reason, I think the bulk of the reason is that they didn’t want some other e-reader coming and stealing their thunder. I see this as defensive marketing.

  19. Andrea Says:

    I absolutely love my Kindle iPhone app! I was thinking about getting an actual Kindle, but didn’t want to have to carry around yet another device. The Kindle iPhone app is only for books. While I wish I could get my New Yorker subscription on here as well, I’m satisfied with at least lightening my load by not having to carry around whatever book I’m reading at the moment. I am able to purchase books through Safari, although it’s obviously easier to do while logged onto a PC. The text is easy to read and the pages turn quickly with either a swipe or a tap. While I am sure the Kindle provided a more realistic “reading experience,” this app does what it says and will allow readers to read through books comfortably. The text size is adjustable and the sepia feature makes reading on the iPhone more visually comfortable. I definitely recommend this app. I do hope Amazon makes improvements in the app going forward, but as it stands, it’s a really good app.

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