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Kindle DX Offers Larger Screen, Native PDF Support

Bucking the trend for ever-smaller devices, Amazon has announced the Kindle DX, a scaled-up version of the company's much-discussed ebook reading device. Along with a larger screen, the Kindle DX provides a native PDF reader, finally making it compatible with the most common digital format for highly formatted electronic documents.

Apart from the larger screen, native PDF support, capability to rotate the screen to landscape mode, and increased internal storage, the Kindle DX is almost exactly like the recently released Kindle 2 (see "Amazon Announces Kindle 2 Ebook Reader," 2009-02-09). Such standard features include 3G wireless connectivity that's built into the purchase price, integration with Amazon's online store for quick purchasing of books, long battery life, and text-to-speech on select titles.

The Kindle DX will be available "this summer" (read, "sometime before September 2009") for $489; it's available for pre-ordering now if you want to get into the queue early. The $359 Kindle 2 remains available. Unfortunately, both Kindles are sold only in the United States at this time, with Amazon blaming the limitation on "import/export laws and other restrictions."

Specs -- The big news for the Kindle DX is, of course, the large E-Ink screen. It's 9.7 inches (24.6 cm) measured diagonally, up from the Kindle 2's 6-inch (15.24 cm) screen. It has a 824 by 1200 pixel resolution at 150 ppi (pixels per inch), and offers 16 levels of grays. In comparison, the Kindle 2 screen offers only 600 by 800 pixel resolution, but at 167 ppi and with the same shades of gray.

The larger screen increases the physical size of the Kindle DX significantly, bumping it up to 10.4 by 7.2 by 0.38 inches (26.4 by 18.3 by 0.97 cm) and increasing the weight from 10.2 ounces (289 g) to 18.9 ounces (535 g).

Although an improvement on the Kindle 2 and original Kindle, the Kindle DX's screen is still rather small - a standard size for a trade paperback is 7 by 9 inches (17.8 by 22.9 cm), giving it a diagonal size of 11.5 inches (29.2 cm). Textbooks are larger yet, often at 8.5 by 11 inches (21.6 by 27.9 cm). However, the overall physical dimensions of the Kindle DX are fairly close to that trade paperback size, which is quite comfortable to hold.

The lower pixel density than the Kindle 2 may make for fuzzier fonts, and the larger screen could be more sluggish to redraw - remember that the E-Ink screen must be redrawn in its entirety for each page flip. We won't know until people have had a chance to compare the two side-by-side in a few months.

Amazon also increased the internal storage of the Kindle DX, giving it 4 GB of memory, up from 2 GB in the Kindle 2. Not all of that is available for user content, with the usable space at 3.3 GB for the Kindle DX and 1.4 GB for the Kindle 2.

Finally, the Kindle DX must have some sort of an orientation sensor, since it can automatically rotate the display from portrait to landscape when you turn the device, just like the iPhone and iPod touch. There's no indication of any other accelerometer-based functionality at this time.

PDF, at Long Last -- The main advantage of the larger screen is that, for the first time with a Kindle, PDF documents will not have to be converted to simple HTML and reflowed to fit a tiny screen. Almost all magazines and many books - particularly technical books, textbooks, and reference works like cookbooks - have significant effort put into their layout, to the point where the content is almost worthless without the layout. That has made the Kindle and Kindle 2 nearly useless for layout-intensive content.

The Kindle DX, however, will be capable of showing full-page PDFs such that they can be read without zooming in, as is often necessary on the tiny iPhone and iPod touch screens. Of course, that will be dependent on the text on those pages - text that may be readable on paper in a large format textbook may still be too small to read comfortably when shrunk down to the Kindle DX's screen.

This has the potential to be a big deal for the Kindle.

Aiding the Industry -- Amazon needs content for the Kindle DX, and to that end has reached an agreement with three leading textbook publishers to make textbooks available for the Kindle DX. The goal, of course, is for students to be able to carry around a Kindle DX rather than a backpack stuffed with heavy textbooks. Not incidentally, it would ensure that every student buys a new copy of every textbook, as opposed to now, when textbooks are commonly purchased used and resold at the end of the semester. Textbook publishers would be insane not to get behind the Kindle DX in a big way if it takes off initially.

The $489 cost of the Kindle DX seems steep for students, but textbooks aren't cheap either, even when purchased used, and students are a captive audience - they must buy the textbooks for their courses. Kindle versions of textbooks could be significantly cheaper than paper versions, partly because of the elimination of printing and distribution costs, and partly by eliminating the "losses" due to sales of used copies. Although details haven't yet been revealed, five universities will be "piloting" the Kindle DX in the next academic year. They include Princeton University, Reed College, Arizona State University, Case Western Reserve University, and the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

The other source for content for the Kindle DX will be newspapers. Amazon has signed deals with the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle to offer reduced prices for long-term subscription commitments. It's not clear what that means just yet, but I do think that the larger screen size will make for a notably better newspaper reading experience, though I can't see the Kindle stemming the flood of red ink gushing from the newspaper industry.

In terms of traditional books, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said that the company has continued to add titles that can be read on the Kindle, starting with 90,000 titles 18 months ago for the original Kindle's launch, 230,000 titles in February 2009 for the Kindle 2's launch, and 275,000 now.

That said, we've been trying for months to make TidBITS available on the Kindle, but have been almost entirely ignored by Amazon. In theory, making our Take Control ebooks available for the Kindle DX should be fairly easy (it doesn't require human intervention), but there's no indication from Amazon yet about how publishers will be able to submit PDF-based books without having them munged horribly by conversion to the limited subset of HTML that the Kindle supports.

Enough Better for the Price? -- At $489, a full $130 more than the Kindle 2, the Kindle DX is quite pricey for a dedicated reading device, and that high price might hurt its adoption rate. People who are happy with a Kindle or Kindle 2 probably won't want to upgrade - there is no discount - unless the lack of PDF support has been a major problem. But the combination of the larger screen and PDF support changes the game. Although Amazon has pushed the concept of reading traditional text-only books on the Kindle (in part because they have no formatting and can thus be reflowed to the small screen easily), I think the Kindle in general is actually more attractive for reading ephemeral content, and the Kindle DX's larger screen and native PDF support open up a wide range of ephemeral content that wasn't previously available.

That's because traditional books have a different sort of cultural significance and value as artifacts. People who like books like them for their very physicality, for being able to lend them to a friend or relative. It says something about a person when they have shelves of books in their house. Between the virtuality of the ebook and Amazon's DRM, it's hard for some of us to be too enthused about buying a book for the Kindle that we can't use in the ways to which we've become accustomed.

But newspapers, magazines, and blogs? They're ephemeral by definition. No one keeps newspapers for reference purposes, and even people who hold on to old issues of magazines seldom refer back to them. People even leave magazines and newspapers on planes and trains all the time, since they have so little value after being read. Blogs are basically the same - although it's nice to be able to access blog postings after the fact, most of the time, once you've read a blog post, you don't need to see it again. (One strike against the Kindle DX is its lack of color in a world where most magazines and many books are now printed in full color.)

Technical books that go beyond the basics of a column of text and a few pictures may in fact have more in common with magazines and newspapers than might be initially apparent. For instance, our Take Control ebooks, which have just enough formatting to be difficult to convert for the Kindle, are ephemeral too, though on a longer time scale than a magazine or newspaper. Newspapers last for a day, or maybe a week, and magazines can be current for a week, a month, or even a couple of months. Technical books like ours are current only until the underlying technology covered changes, which could be anywhere from a week to 18 months. After that, there's little reason to keep them around.

Textbooks have a different sort of ephemerality. Although they presumably are relevant until their underlying field changes sufficiently to warrant a new edition, what's more important is that most students care about them only for a semester or two. And because students theoretically advance beyond the level of the textbook as they progress through school, there isn't much value in keeping old textbooks around.

I could also see the Kindle DX becoming popular for reference works like cookbooks, where it's not so much that the content is ephemeral, but that you don't need most of it at any given time and a search capability is highly useful. A single page is often enough for a recipe, and the Kindle DX is small enough that it could be leaned against a shelf in the kitchen while you cook. Much of this sort of content will be provided by the Web (no word on whether the Kindle DX has better Web capabilities), but there's still a role for reference books.

Alas, Amazon has never been forthcoming with sales figures for the Kindle, so we may never know how successful the Kindle DX is, either on its own or in comparison to the Kindle and Kindle 2. And, as interesting as the Kindle DX is, if Apple were to release a much-rumored tablet-sized iPod touch at a somewhat comparable price point, I think the Kindle DX would fade into the background. After all, what student would buy a Kindle DX over a large-screen iPod touch that could also play movies and run thousands of iPhone apps?


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