EXCLUSIVE FIRST LOOK: Amazon Kindle — in Australia!

It would be an understatement to say that we were excited to be given a first look at the new Amazon Kindle for international markets. In the face of impending competition from major competitors like Barnes and Noble and Apple Amazon has busted the Kindle out of its United States-only shackles and released it to Australia (and other countries around the world).

When it goes on sale October 19th it will set you back $US279 which converts to a very favourable $AUD304 presuming the current exchange rate holds up. Add an estimated $30 – $45 shipping and you’ll be looking at a $350 Christmas present which isn’t cheap but given it is a genuinely innovative device packing a 3G mobile phone (for data) an MP3 player an e-ink screen and 1.5GB storage it’s really pretty good value.

The large screen Kindle the “DX” model will continue to be available only in the USA.

What’s particularly interesting about it though is that Amazon appears to be providing its “Whispernet” — the wireless network used to deliver content to your Kindle — using global roaming. That is to say: it is rumoured that international Kindles have an AT&T SIM card in them and use global roaming wherever you are in the world. We were unable to confirm this because we weren’t shameless enough to pry open the very-short-term-loan first-in-the-country Kindle (and given its iPod-style case construction we would almost certainly have damaged it had we done so.) However if it is the case the obvious advantage is that you can travel with your Kindle and download books at no extra cost regardless of where you are. That’s certainly a more ‘bookshop’ like experience than a mobile phone or a laptop can provide.

The Kindle menus also don’t give anything away about the network the device is connecting to — it just gives you signal strength and a “3G” indicator. If it is indeed using global roaming that would have some advantages even in Australia because it may mean you would be able to connect at any time to Optus Telstra Vodafone or 3 depending on which had the best signal strength. (However AT&T and Amazon may have set the device to only connect to one network in each country as part of a specially negotiated global roaing rate.)

The reason Amazon can afford to pay global roaming fees is that it knows most of the content you will be accessing on the unit will be paid for though Amazon — and Amazon keeps a hefty portion of all Kindle book purchase fees. “International” users will also pay about 20% more per book than US-only users to cover the global roaming data fee.

Another downside of this global roaming model is that the web browser functionality of the Kindle is blocked on the international model even though the menu items and links throughout the operating system — and indeed the browser itself — still exist. Hopefully that will change; it would be nice to think that Amazon is working on negotiating local deals with carriers in each country but there doesn’t seem to be an way to access the SIM card in the device.

But that’s enough about how the Kindle connects to the net to download content — here are the pictures of the international Kindle and our first take on it.

[#PAGE-BREAK#First look at the Kindle#]

Above: The international Kindle in the flesh showing a sample book cover. The big distinction between the e-ink screen on the Kindle and an LCD screen is that the e-ink doesn’t require any power to display an image — just to change images. So the image remains on the screen while the device is switched off.

Above: you slide a switch on the top of the device briefly to turn the Kindle on. It’s all very iPod-like.

Above: does the back of the Kindle remind you of any iDevice?

Above: the home screen of the Kindle showing books and newspapers you’ve downloaded as well as the Kindle manual and a personalised letter from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. That was nice of him to think of us. (On another note it’s a brave company that puts the manual for the device on the device that the manual is for… but the basic reading functions of the Kindle are so easy to use it works for us!)

Above: the Kindle has a physical QWERTY keyboard for easy input. The five-way controller on the right hand side is used to move around the screen (there’s no pointer but you can move between buttons/fields and move a cursor through text.)

Above: One of the first things you notice about a Kindle is how amazing its screen is under bright light. This pic shot in bright sunlight shows how good the screen is. In fact the brighter the light shining on the screen the more contrast you get — just like real paper.

Above: the e-ink screen ‘resets’ itself by inverting the colours — so each time you turn a page on the Kindle it goes black momentarily.

Above: the e-ink screen is not pure black-and-white — it can show grayscale too. As you can see here it’s pretty decent.

Above: you connect the Kindle to a computer or charger using a micro-USB cable which connects at the bottom of the Kindle.

Above: both the left and right sides of the Kindle have a “next page” button and the left side also has a “previous page” button. (On the right side it has a “Home” button instead of a second “previous page” button.)

Above: the stereo speakers on the back of the Kindle let you listen to it read books to you out loud using its inbuilt (somewhat robotic) voice as well as MP3s you’ve transferred to the device. There’s only 1.5GB memory though so the Kindle won’t be replacing your iPod any time soon.

Above: connecting to “Whispernet” didn’t always work for us — but we only encountered this error once or twice.

Above: the Kindle main menu — you simply call it up by pressing the ‘menu’ button when you are on the home screen.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Reading a book on the Kindle#]

Above: reading a book on the Kindle — in this case the Kindle operating manual. Note the handy progress bar down the bottom that tells you how far through the book you are. They’ve even reinvented page numbers.

Above: the menu items while you’re reading a book are what you’d expect and pretty much emulate the physical book-reading experience.

Above: this page of the Kindle manual was interesting — it suggests that if you delete a book you’ve purchased from Amazon for your Kindle you can download it again later. If only Apple were that forgiving with the iTunes Store.

Above: this page is interesting too. You can email yourself documents at your Kindle’s email address and Amazon charges you a per-document rate to send it on to the device itself. We wonder what happens when spammers get hold of that email address — unless Amazon has good policies around this it could be expensive to receive spam.

Above: when you’re reading a book you can adjust the font size or turn text-to-speech on.

Above: if your eyes are really really bad the font size can be this big…

Above: or if you have bionic eyes it can be this small.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Buying books over Whispernet#]

Above: the homepage of Amazon’s Kindle store. It makes good use of your previous purchases to make recommendations for Kindle books you might like. Because we had previously bought the movie L’ennui from Amazon it recommended a book on the joy of spanking for us. Well we can see the logic behind it and really given the range of books Amazon carries these days it could have been worse.

Above: you can browse books by categories…

Above: … and view the top sellers in each category.

Above: you get a sort of ‘mini Amazon.com’ page about each book. And then it’s just a matter of clicking on ‘buy’.

Above: scarily the Kindle already had our credit card details which it had sucked out of our Amazon.com account. Once you’ve chosen which credit card to use it is associated with the Kindle’s one-click-purchasing capability. It’s concerning that there doesn’t appear to be a way to put a password on the Kindle to prevent unauthorised downloads if you lose it (but we’ll update this if we find out that you can.)

Above: the ‘experimental’ features homepage. Unfortunately the web browser is not available on international Kindles at this stage. Whether you’d really want to browse the web on a browser that Amazon says is best for pages that are ‘mostly text’ is another matter.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Getting your morning newspaper on Kindle#]

Above: as print newspaper sales plummet many newspaper publishers around the world are partnering with Amazon to provide newspaper subscriptions direct to Kindle. Unfortunately none in Australia are yet.

Above: we thought we’d check out what papers were available in the UK.

Above: the page for The Times in the UK — you can take a 14 day trial subscription free of charge (which converts into a paid monthly subscription if you don’t cancel it) or buy editions single copies at a time.

Above: we opted to buy a single copy of The Times.

Above: about 30 seconds later The Times appeared on our homescreen.

Above: you can browse a newspaper by sections. When you go into a section you don’t get an index of articles which was interesting; it just goes straight into the first article and then you can skip to the next article if you want to.

Above: Microsoft will open its own shops. How about that — The Times is a bit behind the times. Nonetheless this is what a newspaper article looks like on the Kindle.

Above: if you move the cursor through the text while you are reading an article the Kindle will give you a definition for any word you stop on. Handy for those articles about global foreign policy and you haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about when they say ‘unilateral’ ‘bilateral’ and so on.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Something your printed paper can’t do#]

Above: now here’s something you really can’t do with a print newspaper — search it.

Above: searching for ‘Kindle’ seemed like an appropriate test given how much news there is at the moment on the release of the Kindle to the world.

Above: oops you can’t do it on a newly downloaded newspaper on the Kindle either. It needs time to index the content first.

Above: speaking of search here’s the Kindle’s main search screen. We thought we’d look for ‘Sydney’ since that’s where we are.

Above: despite having a web search option the web browser is locked off to international users.

Above: a search of the Kindle store for ‘Sydney’ — again returning some very suspect results based on our past purchasing history. Still you can’t blame Amazon for using the data available to it to tailor search results — even if it does make for an embarrassing result in your review of its flagship device! 😉