First Impressions of the International Kindle from a UK Owner

I've been anticipating the release of the Amazon Kindle in the UK for some time now. I've been wanting it for much, much longer and it finally arrived on Saturday.

My intent here is not to review the Kindle as a device - the "International Wireless" edition is little different to the Kindle 2 that has been on sale for a while now. Rather, I want to comment on the experience of owning a Kindle as, effectively, a US user on permanent holiday in the UK (at least, in Amazon's eyes).

Buying The Device

I ordered my Kindle the morning their availability was announced. It shipped on time and arrived promptly. Amazon pre-charged me for about $60 worth of customs fees, and the package wasn't held up waiting on me to pay customs fees to UPS, as usually happens. Why don't more companies do this?

Unboxing

The Kindle was the first item I've received in Amazon's famous "frustration-free packaging". More power to them for that. A wonderful innovation.

I ordered the Kindle and the basic $30 Kindle cover. The Kindle box contained the device itself, a very long USB cable attached to a US-style socket-to-USB adapter and a fold-out quick-start guide.

For those new to e-ink screens like me, realise that the display continues to show an image even if the device is off. I briefly charged the device and started using it.

In the first use, I was dreadfully disappointed at the device's performance. It seemed glacially slow and frequently missed keypresses. The problem was so bad that I got as far as requesting a replacement device. Some Twitter advice suggested that this problem is common when the device is low on charge, so I charged the thing overnight and all was well.

The Content Story

To some extent, I purchased the Kindle on faith in Amazon's well-known customer focus. I wasn't sure - and it wasn't clear - how all the rights and geographic restrictions would work for someone in my position.

For those who don't know, my "position" is that I am British and live in the UK.

I had a number of open questions as I ordered my Kindle:

  • Where is the content coming from?
  • How do I pay for it?
  • In which currency?
  • What kind of content is available?
  • What about the internet access?

Let's go through these step-by-step.

The content that I can purchase is most of the content on the Kindle Store on Amazon.com. There is no Kindle Store on Amazon.co.uk. I'm purchasing in US Dollars with my 1-Click credit card.

I say "most of the content" because (a) Amazon knows my location and (b) some titles remain US-region only. For example, I can't defile my Kindle with Dan Brown's latest doorstop whilst my device's region is set to the UK.

[Update: I may have mis-remembered this. I believe the book I was thinking of was Neal Stephenson's Anathem which, whilst more of a doorstop than Mr. Brown's latest opus, doesn't provide me the same opportunity for a de haut en bas dismissal of the latest publishing sensation].

In the "Manage My Kindle" section of the site, I can change the region of my device to the US by providing a US address. If I want to actually purchase any US-region content, I have to either provide a US-billed credit card or send myself a gift certificate denominated in US Dollars.

I had already purchased a couple of books from the US store using the gift certificate method to read on my iPhone, and these books synced to my Kindle whilst it was set to the UK region. It seems the geographic restrictions are checked at purchase-time and not thereafter.

The range of content that's available is a US-centric selection. For example, I could not find a Kindle edition of Christopher Andrew's "The Defence of the Realm", a new book about MI5 which is available in the UK but, even in paper form, is not yet available in the US market.

Will this change in the future? I hope so. I'm no literary bigot, but it would be nice to be able to get the same books electronically that I can get from the UK Amazon site.

The remaining, huge, open question is: what happens to Brits who have imported an international Kindle when the UK Kindle store opens? Having watched the care that Amazon takes of its customers, I cannot imagine that we will be left without the option to mingle US and UK content on a single Kindle.

The Internet Story

I love the idea of Wikipedia on the Kindle a bit more than I love the actual implementation. Anyone who grew up with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy cannot fail to be impressed with the notion of an electronic book that has an entry for everything.

The good news is that the Wikipedia access works on an International Kindle in the UK. The general web browser does not, as noted on the country-specific notes on the Kindle.

The irony is that, on my next trip the the US, the Kindle will be my only device with unfettered 3G access to the internet. Could someone hack a 3G-to-USB tethering solution, please?

Whispersync

It's worth noting that there's a small surcharge applied to purchases made when the device region is set to the UK (or 'non-US', I assume). Titles which are free when the device is set to US, cost $2.30 for an international user with the subtitle "includes VAT & international wireless delivery via Amazon Whispernet". I presume this is offsetting the cost of data roaming, in the absence of an actual formal carrier deal in the UK.

Note that, if you set the device region to US on the website and then 1-click purchase free titles for Whispernet delivery, they seem to be free on the website, but end up being charged at $1.99 on your receipt.

If you set the device region to US, then purchase a free title for USB transfer (i.e. get a downloaded file), you genuinely get it for $0.00. I'm not 100% certain, but it would seem that you cannot then wirelessly download a title purchased in this way.

Happy so far?

Very happy so far. I particularly like reading magazines on the Kindle without the high advert-to-content ratio (have you read Wired recently?). I have a few remaining concerns and niggles which, I suppose, will be answered in time, possibly in future devices:

  • What happens to me when the UK Kindle store opens?
  • I wish my wife and I could share a Kindle.
  • It's not easy to manage books I purchase through my business and books I purchase for personal use.
  • The device itself could really use some illumination source. I don't necessarily mean a backlight - a ring of LEDs around the screen would suffice. I just think it's a shame that the device requires a torch when used in near- or total-darkness when a small number of LEDs on the case could give enough light to read.

I absolutely believe the electronic book is the future. I would be surprised, two or three years into the market, if the Kindle is its most perfect manifestation. However, we have seen in so many areas of information storage and handling that convenience massively trumps the richness of user experience.

People who fetishise the feel of paper as a means to dismiss the electronic book simply ignore the arc of technological history. Previous generations venerated the illuminated manuscript, the parchment map, oil paintings, the warmth of vinyl and the gate-fold LP sleeve. All that, however, is another blog post for another day.