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I’ve been comparing the VOD services offered by Amazon and Netflix. Both services definitely have value but for someone comparing them, its important to know the key differences.

I used my PS3’s Netflix Streaming disc to check out the Netflix service and used Panasonic’s Vieracast on my TV for Amazon’s VOD: both using the same network connection via wired ethernet.

Interface: Netflix has really figured out a great way to show your queue (on the PS3 streaming disc) and show selected movies available for viewing. This looks almost like the cover flow on an iPod. As long as what you want to watch is in the selection Netflix shows, the interface works well. However, I couldn’t find any way to easily search for movies or go beyond the few shown on screen. Way around this is to add to your queue on a PC before starting things up on the PS3 disc.

Amazon’s interface is not that smooth. Buying a new episode required getting an additional “key” from amazon. But once you had the material on your list, Amazon interface was a breeze, easily utilizing the remote for pausing, forwarding etc. However, I preferred netflix’s approach of showing where you are forwarding to rather than going back or forward by minutes without knowing where you would jump to on Amazon.

Content:

Amazon is a clear winner on this. Netflix has a lot of older, less popular titles and some badly encoded (low quality) starz streams while Amazon has the latest available content and typically what you really want to watch is on Amazon.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that the cost difference is HUGE. Netflix charges as little as $9 a month for unlimited access to their database of streamed content, while Amazon charges individually. $1.99 for a TV episode, $2.99 in HD, $3.99+ for a movie etc. These can add up very quickly. So as I said before, both services have a place in the overall value landscape.

Video Quality:

Amazon at least during my tests came out as clear winner. There was almost no buffering and the experience was just like watching HD TV. Netflix buffered and the actual content seemed to be more compressed, coming out slightly grainy. I’ve tested out Netflix before using a laptop connected to a TV with Heroes and been very impressed with the quality. But high quality content like Heroes or Dexter is few and far between. Starz where you will find most of the things you want to watch on netflix seems to deliberately lower the quality making the content grainy.

Panasonic has still not incorporated Netflix into Vieracast for 2009 model TVs, which is unfortunate. They do have a box labeled “coming soon” but no indication of when Netflix will actually make that transition. Panasonic, get on it!

Look forward to hearing your thoughts on either of these services or any other alternative VOD services you use (except Comcast: long story but Comcast has so many billing errors [some might even be deliberate] that the user experience is miserable).

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Amazon recently acquired the New York based start-up Touchco, which was working on a revolutionary new touch screen technology at the time. Coming right on the heels of the iPad announcement, it’s easy to assume what this means for the Kindle: potentially color and a touch screen.  If Touchco’s technology is what it was promised to be, this could also come at a relatively low-cost (apparently the touch screen technology only costs about $10 a square foot and is remarkably power efficient as well). In addition the technology can distinguish between finger touches and pen marks, which may lead to a device that incorporates handwriting recognition as well as gestures.

There’s one catch. As of last year Touchco was a small company with a technology that seemed promising but not quite commercial yet. So, how soon can the benefits of the acquisition be realized? The iPad as we know will be in the hands of consumers in about 60 days.  It’s important that Amazon not give up the momentum that it has built-in the e-reader space and allow the iPad’s ebook marketplace to take market share.

This depends on how Amazon plans to use the acquisition and Touchco’s technology. If Amazon was already working on the next generation Kindle at its Cupertino based Lab126, and is really looking for some final touches and people from Touchco, we could see a new product relatively soon. Lab126 which introduced us to the Kindle and has played a significant role in revolutionizing the e-reader market, has been recruiting aggressively over the last few months. This suggests that something big is definitely in process.

If I were to make a guess though, I would guess that Amazon was not working on the touch aspect and this is an attempt to get up the curve quickly there. Unfortunately, that would put the development of a touch screen based Kindle at least an year away (likely longer).

I think from Amazon’s perspective, it’s important to get this right. We’ve seen what poorly implemented touch screens can do to the reading experience with the Sony reader. I for one am interested to see what the new device looks like. Lab126 has several former Palm and Apple executives in its ranks, so they should be able to come up with something that competes with Apple’s world class industrial engineering and user experience focus.

Amazon is probably also working hard to improve its Kindle for iPhone app to work on the iPad. Although the app should work as is, almost with no changes at all, it’s important that the company focus on the demands of a big screen. Users are unlikely to be happy with the current blog, magazine and newspaper reading layouts when they have flashy competing apps on the iPad. Amazon must come up with something like what the New York Times did with the great Times Reader app which is an amazingly cool way to show newspaper content on a computer screen.

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I wanted to write a couple of words about my experience with Amazon VOD on my Panasonic Viera Cast TV.

I used an HD episode of Dexter to test things out and came away very impressed.  Obviously, I’m connected to the Stanford network which I’m sure has a lot more bandwidth than most home connections do, but even then Amazon delivered pristine picture quality that I could not tell apart from OTA HD delivered to my TV. The sound quality was great too. Viera Cast did change my color/display settings on the Panasonic G10 a little bit but I was able to manually tweak it back. I wasn’t super happy to see that the “THX”, “factory configured” display settings were not available for Viera Cast videos.

The user interface for Amazon on Viera Cast is not amazing but it’s functional enough, with links to my video library and previous purchases available.  The reason I decided to check Viera Cast out now was because I was told that Netflix was now available on Viera Cast. Unfortunately it appears that at least as of now, there is NO viera cast Netflix support for pre-2010 Panasonic TVs: hopefully this will be remedied very shortly with a firmware update, fingers crossed!

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In a surprising move, Amazon has dropped the price of the bestselling version of it’s Kindle reader (the Kindle 2) to 299. The K2 is already available at the new lower price through Amazon.com. My guess is that this is an attempt to preempt aggressive moves by cheap readers like Cool-er, BeBook, and the Sony Reader. At $299, I think the Kindle with built-in wireless delivery capabilities presents a compelling proposition.

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I wrote about my impressions of the Kindle DX here. However, I didn’t get to test two things properly: Manga and Magazines.

Manga

Manga works really well on the Kindle DX (although there is the occasional crash). I used one of my old Rurouni Kenshin images for this test. I zipped the folder containing the pages (which are individually in .jpg format), created a folder called “Pictures” in the Kindle DX directory and copied the zip file over there.

The DX immediately showed the name of the image folder at the top of my document list. You can actually make a folder in “Documents” and copy the images there too, it still works (i.e. without a picture folder).

Don’t forget to hit “Alt-z” to force the DX to rescan the folders for images.

First the bad: it’s a little slow, some pages can take some time to refresh and in full screen mode about half an inch of the page at the bottom is hidden. The go to beginning feature although shown, does not work. So if you go through say a hundred pages and want to get to the beginning, there really isn’t a way to do that unless you are willing to page through all hundred pages painfully. When I tried to do this and pressed page up rapidly, the Kindle DX went back to my home page and showed me the dictionary as the only document I have! Thankfully after a couple of restarts and then connecting to the computer again all of my documents and books reappeared on the Kindle. Note that this did not happen under normal usage and so I think crashes of this type are rare (as long as you are patient).

The good: the DX screen size is almost perfect for reading Manga. Images render well and are very readable (no scrolling around). As I mentioned above the bottom .5 inch is eaten up in full screen mode (you can scroll down to see this), but in my test the only thing I was missing was the border of the page and the page number, so it was fine.

Sorry about the poor quality of these images (they were taken with the iPhone camera):

Magazines

Unfortunately magazines have not changed much from the Kindle 2 versions. Yes, the screen is larger but it just means you have more text on the screen. I haven’t seen any real “Optimized for DX” magazines yet. Amazon’s magazine interface (just like the newspaper one that I commented on in my prior review) is not great. Most articles have been reduced to just text. In my mind a pageful of text is not a great reading experience. I do have to add that I only tested one magazine (Forbes). I’ve seen other reviewers who’ve looked at the New Yorker and said the same.

So there is a lot of promise in the DX hardware but the software is not really taking advantage of it right now. The screen of the DX would be ideal for displaying magazines just the way that the paper versions look, although I don’t know what impact this would have on bandwidth use and Sprint’s network.

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UPDATE: IF YOU READ THIS POST, PLEASE ALSO READ MY UPDATED THOUGHTS HERE.

Amazon shipped the DX two days ago and I received mine yesterday. These are my impressions based on just about a day of usage.

First, this is my first electronic reader, it’s also my first experience with e-ink. My first thought as I looked at the screen was wow, the screen is very crisp and clear (much clearer than my photographs below show). Images render beautifully, and look great on the screen, although everything is in shades of gray. Amazon ships the Kindle with the getting started instructions “frozen” on the Kindle DX screen since e-ink requires no power to maintain what’s on the screen.

Hardware

The screen size (9.7 inches) feels perfect for just about any content. The fonts can be made large enough to be very comfortable for anyone, even if your sight isn’t perfect. The screen resolution looks good, and text is very readable even for downloaded PDFs (more on that later).

The DX is not particularly light. It probably weighs a little more than the weight of two regular one subject notebooks. For one handed use, it works but it’s not easy to hold with one hand for long unless you lean it on your arm. I can see why some users who don’t need business documents, textbooks or newspaper content would prefer the smaller (6 inch) Kindle. The buttons which are now on just the one side of the Kindle DX shouldn’t really bother anyone in my opinion as it can easily be rotated around (screen rotates automatically like on the iPhone). I found myself often using my left hand (even though I’m right handed) when I was using the DX with one hand (with it leaning on my arm).

The device is very thin and the official Amazon cover doesn’t add a lot of additional heft to it leaving a device that looks about the size of a notebook (slightly thicker with case, slightly smaller footprint).

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The Kindle DX slides easily into the hinges of the cover (a additional $49 purchase from Amazon). The hinges hold the device solidly while the cover snaps shut firmly using magnets. On previous versions of the kindle, there were complaints of the kindle cover opening accidentally while in a carry bag. The DX cover’s magnet should stop this from happening. The cover itself is made of leather but doesn’t look that great from the outside. It is however very functional and the interior is comfortably lined in suede which is perfect for one handed reading. I would avoid covers in the market that don’t use the hinge system and instead use loops at the four corners.

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The keyboard at the bottom of the DX that Amazon hopes students will use to make notes, is probably the worst part of the Kindle design. The keys are tiny and not very easy to press. It feels like a blackberry keyboard but with awkward spaces inserted in the middle.

Hopefully Amazon will come out with some sort of keyboard accessory support for this that will allow a better portable keyboard to be fixed to the USB port (might be wishful thinking).

The other new hardware feature is the auto rotation of the screen. The DX ships with this set to automatic by default. One of the first things I did was to change this to manual. The DX screen switching on auto, can be very trigger-happy. Based on the preferred reading angle, it’s easy to change orientation unintentionally. However, this is corrected with one press of the “Aa” button and a couple of moves of the five way “joystick” control.

Usage

One of the main features that I wanted to try out on the DX was the ability to view business school cases in PDF form. I connected to Stanford’s webapps and downloaded a few cases. Amazon gives two ways of transferring personal documents to the Kindle.

a) Email it to Amazon and it will be delivered wirelessly to the Kindle (costs 15 cents a megabyte – could be about a $1 per document or significantly more based on the size of the file).

b) Connect via the provided USB cable and just copy the file over (similar to copying files onto a standard USB drive).

I used the second option which is what I think I will be doing once classes start in the fall. It was very straightforward. When connected via USB, the Kindle cannot be used to read unless you “eject” the USB drive. If the USB drive is ejected it will continue to charge while you read.

When connected via USB, folders can be created on the Kindle to organize the content. However, these folders do not appear on the device itself. For example I created a folder called “Stanford Cases” but as shown in the images, this didn’t affect the organization of the documents on the screen. Hopefully a firmware update will add support for folder display that will make it easier to navigate through documents. In its current form if someone did have the 3,000+ books that Amazon says you can carry on the DX, finding a book from that library could be difficult.

PDF versions of cases display perfectly on the device, with even the smaller fonts being very readable. Without measuring scientifically it looks like in portrait mode the PDF’s are shown at about 80-85% of full size. The DX does not support zooming of PDFs, however there is a feature which essentially is a fixed zoom. When the orientation is changed from portrait to landscape the size of the uploaded PDFs looked just about 100% of printed size (see images below). This can be used as a zoom to enlarge any tables or charts that are printed in smaller font.

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Newspapers

Newspapers display really well on the device. I subscribed to trials of both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times (pictures in the gallery below).  Waking up in the morning to have the newspapers automatically delivered to the Kindle is a great experience. Although the articles themselves are displayed well, the interface for newspaper display leaves a lot to be desired.

[EDIT: Andrys a reader of the blog pointed out that the Kindle does allow random access to articles by going through the section list and browsing through a list of snippets in each section.] The section list page needs to be refined to look more like what the current Times Reader application from the New York Times looks like. i.e. a real cover page, rather than just a list of section names article snippets. The current system works but looks boring and for the price (about the same as the print version or even more expensive in some cases), consumers will want more.  The system currently requires subscribers to go through each article one by one rather than jump first select a section and then browse through a list of news snippets rather than using a graphically laid out page, before jumping to an article that looks interesting as most readers typically do. I don’t plan to subscribe permanently to either newspaper in the current incarnation. [EDIT: although the convenience of the online delivery is tempting.]

Textbooks

Amazon is yet to launch the textbook store for the Kindle. However, there are a few texts available already. I decided to try out one that was labeled “Optimized for Kindle DX.” Unfortunately, this turned out to be a particularly poorly done e-book with low resolution images (unlike other “optimized for DX” books that I tried). Although the book was quite usable (and also priced at about a third of the price of the paper version), the low resolution images that the publisher had utilized took away from the reading experience.

I will post more details on the textbook experience once Amazon launches the textbook store fully (expected before the fall) and business school texts start to appear online.

Web Browser:

The Kindle DX includes a basic web browser. Within the menus of the browser is a new desktop mode that displays full versions of webpages (when it works well, similar to a regular desktop browser).  I found the basic web browser usable but quite primitive. [EDIT: A reader Andrys pointed out that the basic browser on the Kindle is usable for most simple tasks such as googling something, looking at a non-graphics heavy wikipedia page, looking up a review etc.] The bandwidth available seemed really low as well (I’m wondering if Sprint/Amazon deliberately throttle the badwidth usage on the browser to keep network costs down. The desktop mode is very slow and not particularly reliable. The browser froze and restarted my kindle when I tried a graphics heavy wikipedia page using the desktop mode. The DX browser is meant for occasional / emergency use only, at least in its current “experimental” form. [EDIT: I just had my second Kindle reboot while trying to look at this blog page using the kindle in desktop mode.]

[UPDATE: I’ve found that the web browsing experience can vary a lot based on Sprint’s coverage. I did some wikipedia browsing today with some relatively heavy graphics as well but did not run into any problems and the pages loaded surprisingly quickly.]

[Update: PDF Reader Limitations

I tested the DX with a newer PDF book today (it was in Acrobat 8.x and contained many maps, images) and the Kindle failed to render most of the pages correctly. The book opened but a lot of the 3D graphics / maps did not show up and a warning appeared at the bottom of the DX saying: “Some elements on this page could not be displayed.”

I reprinted the file as Acrobat 6.x and the file works like magic, graphics, maps and all.

So, despite my initial thoughts, it looks like there are cases that PDFs don’t display correctly on the Kindle (although in my experience this is not the norm).

Additionally, on one PDF format book that I tried every other page appeared in a smaller font (not filling the page), this was corrected when I changed to landscape mode but reading in portrait became difficult. The contrast on the same book was fairly light as well.

I’ve added my thoughts on Manga and Magazines here https://srilankangsb.wordpress.com/2009/06/15/kindle-dx-manga-and-magazines/.

]

Text to Speech

The text-to-speech feature in its current form is not very good. The Adobe Acrobat read aloud feature (on my PC desktop) works much better and can be listened to. The Kindle version is really bad at pausing at the right places.

Conclusion

Despite the drawbacks that I cited above, I really like the Kindle DX. The reading experience is very good and the convenience of purchasing books via Amazon’s Whispernet service, pretty much anywhere, anytime is amazing. The DX’s size is perfect for case studies, scientific documents etc. and the lack of zoom should really not bother users because of the landscape mode that’s available. Although missing a few important features (like a better keyboard) this device provides a great platform for textbook and newspaper distribution. However, to utilize both these features requires first, waiting for the Kindle textbook store to launch (should be within the next month or so), and second, a better designed cover page for newspapers.

Questions from the Kindle Forum:

Does Text to Speech work on unconverted PDF? No, I would have been very surprised if this worked.

When you turn an unconverted pdf to landscape, how big do the letters get? It zooms by about 15-20%. The end result is about the same as what the PDF looks like when printed on letter sized paper.

Is the web browser better than the K2? I haven’t used the K2 but the Kindle DX has a desktop mode (with support for Javascript) as noted above. However, this mode crashed my kindle and I wouldn’t buy this version of the kindle hoping to use it as a browser. It’s slow, rather buggy and not a great experience.

How are the Speakers? Good, on text to speech, loud enough to fill a small room (similar to speakers found on smaller laptops). I haven’t tried them with music though, just with text to speech.

How comparable the screen size is to a page from a normal size hardcover book. I like reading books in hardcover, rather then paperback. I just wonder if the DX’s screen size is almost identical in average hardcover page size, appearance, etc? Very similar to hardcover book reading. I would say page size is almost identical to the typical hardcover but can probably show a little more text with the margins reduced (this can be changed using the Aa menu). The appearance of the text I think is even better than the regular hardcover page since the page is completely flat and the contrast is very good.

Does it creak? I shook it around a bit but couldn’t hear it creak, can’t say I tried too hard though 🙂 Feels very solid to me.

Does the text disappear with the sun? No. I found it very readable in direct sunlight. The only time it is difficult to read is if you have a light right behind you that is reflecting off the screen into your face.

Is the background/foreground contrast OK for comfortable reading with small size fonts? The contrast is just perfect and looks like the text is etched on the surface of the kindle. Reading small fonts is very easy. The display seems to be very high resolution as I can read the text even at the smallest font size without seeing “jaggies.”

Does it crash a lot? The only times it crashed on my so far is when I tried to view a graphics heavy wikipedia page with javascript enabled. Seems quite stable otherwise.

How difficult/cumbersome is it to have the navigation buttons on only one side, and to have to switch back and forth when using the keyboard to annotate? I found it very easy to use. I like to hold the kindle on my left arm and turn pages with the left as well (by putting my hand behind and around the DX), this works fine. The joystick works correctly in any orientation so if you wanted to turn it around and page turn on the left that will work well too.

The keyboard to annotate is a bit of a pain to use. The keys are small and stiff. I haven’t gotten used to the spacing yet.

I’d love to see some screenshots of how Mangle looks/works on the DX. I can only imagine the big screen would be even better for manga? I think Manga will look great. For an example of the image displaying abilities look at the screenshots from Akiko below. Sorry, I couldn’t transfer any manga to it to test out. I thought pictures look beautiful, like penciled etchings.

[Update: I’ve added my thoughts on Manga and Magazines here https://srilankangsb.wordpress.com/2009/06/15/kindle-dx-manga-and-magazines/.]

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Does the DX properly scrape PDF metadata? Doesn’t seem to. It showed the titles on the cases I uploaded as the file name. PDFs display perfectly though.

Do 8.5 x 11″ documents seem “too small”? They don’t. I didn’t realize that it was smaller until I put the DX side by side with a printed version. In landscape mode you don’t see a full page but 8.5×11 documents look almost 100%. However, in my experience the portrait mode was perfectly readable as well.

Did they add folders? Unfortunately not. You can create folders on the drive in the USB mode to organize things, but they will not show up as folders on the kindle.

Are math fonts in Wikipedia articles readable with the Kindle DX, including the subscripts in equations? For example, could a student read and understand the article available here?


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_­theory

Yes. In desktop mode the link above displays perfectly including all formulas subscripts etc. However the browser is slow and not very reliable in this mode.

Are math fonts in pdf articles readable with the Kindle DX, including in articles with very narrow margins?

Yes. fonts show up perfectly and PDFs work just the same as they would on your desktop. I was amazed by just how good the readability was. I didn’t try narrower margins than my cases below but I think it will be fine.

Is the print darker then a K2? I don’t have a K2 to compare but the print looks very dark and is a pleasure to read.

How is the cover? See my comments on the cover above. It works, uses up a minimum of space and the magnetic latch and the hinge lock system are great. Leather: not so nice.

Does it have a back light? AH. No.

Is it comfortable to hold and read (both landscape and vertical)? It’s not super comfortable for using one handed, but the increased screen size adds a lot of comfort to the actual reading. I’m glad I went with this size although sometimes I find myself wishing it was just a little lighter.

How many font sizes are there? 6, the largest one is gigantic! default is the third size.

Any new screen savers? Hmm, unfortunately don’t know since I don’t have a K2 but I really like the screen saver.

How well does it handle complex, multicolumn PDF’s? Very well, no problems at all.

What about images in PDF files? They display fine.

Are they large enough to see, is there a way to enlarge them if needed? They are large enough, but the only way to enlarge is by switching to landscape mode.

Most importantly, is highlighting and annotation possible in a PDF? Unfortunately not.

Can you zoom and pan on them? Just switching to landscape mode may not be enough magnification for image based PDFs and some charts/graphs. Unfortunately not, switching to landscape is the most you can do. Any PDF designed to be “printed” on letter size paper should be ok though.

How’s the contrast? Very good. It’s a pleasure to read.

Does the dictionary work on an unconverted pdf? No. There is no curser on PDFs. Only thing you can do is search through them or bookmark pages.


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It’s official, the Kindle DX (or the newspaper / textbook kindle) is shipping on the 10th of June, at least mine is. I just received an email from Amazon that my delivery date changed from some time during the summer to June 11th.

We now have delivery date(s) for the order you placed on May 06 2009 (Order# 102-2084715-XXXXXXX):

“Kindle DX: Amazon’s 9.7″ Wireless Reading Device (Latest
Generation)” [Electronics]
Estimated arrival date: June 11 2009

Could this have been spurred by recent announcements of competitors like the Cool-er Reader? I think it could be. When Amazon said Summer ’09, I didn’t expect it to be this soon. What could be a bigger factor is Google’s announcement today of wanting to get into the digital publishing business. Amazon has a leg-up by getting into this first but its not insurmountable I think. Especially for someone like Google who could throw a lot of content into the picture.

Anyway, I’m excited!!

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