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December 28, 2007

Kindle – Web Browsing Reviewed

Amazon downplays use of the Kindle for web-browsing; the browser is listed under “experimental” in the device’s main menu. There is a warning that the browser is most suited to viewing web sites which are mainly text.

But there is a huge attraction to using this browser despite its limitations: reasonably fast Internet access using it is free anywhere that Sprint’s EVDO network is available. Pretty useless outside the US but very useful at many places domestically including most airports and urban areas.

Moreover, turning on the Kindle and checking it for flight delays or travel directions is much easier than turning on a computer. Because it uses cellular technology for access, Kindle works well in moving cars and trains. Of course, you’re supposed to turn its radio off (which is easy to do) while on a commercial flight.

I tested Kindle by using it in a hotel room to do most of the things I would ordinarily do on my computer (which goes everywhere with me). Quick result: it IS useful but with some annoying limitations. I’d much rather use Kindle than a 3G mobile phone to access the web – even disregarding Kindle’s huge cost advantage over phone access to the Net. I’d rather use my computer than Kindle – again ignoring cost – except when I just need quick access to a specific bit of information like a plane schedule and the computer has not been booted up.

Web access with Kindle is much more like web access on a mobile phone than access on a computer because Kindle’s screen is too small to show highly graphic pages when the pages have been formatted for a computer-sized screen. However many popular web sites including the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, much of Google, Facebook, and most airlines have versions of their sites which are especially formatted for mobile phones and/or PDAs. Most of these sites recognize that they are being viewed on a small screen and automatically present their mobile-formatted versions to the Kindle browser. These are great to use on Kindle because it has a bigger screen than most mobile phones albeit without color.

Here are the things I tried and the results: flight status was the greatest success; email the greatest failure.

Checked flight status and schedules on US Air, Delta, and United: US Air and Delta automatically switched to mobile formatted views and worked very well. To use United from mobile devices, you need you know the URL www.ua2go.com.  The usual site does NOT work correctly at all on Kindle or my phone nor is the switchover automatic. The mobile site is not full-featured but it is usable.

Wikipedia: Works fine so long as Kindle is NOT in “advanced mode” with JavaScript turned on. Graphics hard to see (you can’t magnify them) but text is good.

Google Search: Google has a mobile version which is pre-bookmarked on Kindle. Search works well but the usefulness depends on what website you go to and how well it is supported by Kindle.

Google Maps: The mobile version of the site is great for getting text directions; doesn’t support maps in a meaningful way. You can use Kindle to display a map from the standard Google site but the black and white map is hard to see and can’t be scrolled or zoomed. Looking up restaurants etc. in a neighborhood works well.

gmail: Hard to signon to and only marginally useful because you can only enter one long line of text into a message. You can read your mail here but probably won’t enjoy it.

NY Times and WSJ: Mobile versions of sites displayed automatically and were quite usable. Saved portfolios are accessible if you have a wsj account.

Twitter: You want to tweet at m.twitter.com when using Kindle. It works.

Facebook: m.facebook.com does the trick.

Looking at my blog: Sites with sidebars (like Fractals of Change) are annoying on Kindle and other mobile devices. If the sidebar is on the left. You have to scroll through all of it until you get to the meat of the blog in the center column. At that point, it formats well and is readable. Note that if you pay to subscribe to a blog rather than just looking at it free in a browser, the sidebars are eliminated and this problem disappears.

General shopping: Don’t do it except on sites which have a mobile format.

Cursor Control: Not wonderful. You use a wheel to move a silver bar up and down the right margin and press it in to select a row. If the row has multiple links, buttons, text fields or other selectable items, a menu appears from which you choose which item in the row you actually want to select.

Typing: Also not wonderful. Instructions suggest curling your fingers around the device and typing with your thumbs. The keyboard is bigger than that on most mobile phones but I can’t find a way to avoid pressing the page forward and back bars which extend far down the side of the device while grasping it. Needless to say, paging while trying to type something on a site screws things up. The enter key terminates input into a text box so multi-line entry seems to be impossible.

Cookies: supported.

Bookmarks: supported.

History: supported but apparently just one page which is a shame given that it’s hard to type in URLs.

Javascript (a feature of many web pages): supported only if you turn it on in settings. I never found this helpful and sometimes it seemed to break pages until I turned it off.

Bottom line is that Kindle browsing is both cheaper and in many cases better than browsing on a mobile phone. If you’re already carrying the Kindle to read books (and carrying less books), you haven’t added to the load in your equipment bag.

It is inferior to browsing on a computer and useless when much typing is required – don’t think you can blog with or answer your email it but you can twitter. Using to get specific information in a hurry from mobile-formatted sites is helpful both because it powers up quickly and the browsing is free.   

Also see this post for a review of Kindle as an e-book reader.


update: Kindle – Does It Provide Free International Internet Access?

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