“Where’s the light?” asked Carly as I showed her the $80 Kindle ereader that had arrived just half an hour before.
“No front light,” I explained. “This is the basic model.”
The good news is that in some ways the new $80 Kindle E Ink basic ereader is much more than basic. At 5.7 ounces and 6.3″ x 4.5″ x 0.36″, it’s lighter and smaller than every other Kindle except for the $290 Oasis, and the Kindle’s Bluetooth can transmit text to speech even if it comes with a serious catch. Screen resolution is only 167 pixels per inch, compared to 300 for other models, but it’ll do.
I see major K-12 and library potential here if Amazon will just make a few improvements beyond the color choice of black vs. white (I chose the latter).
The bad news part is the usual one in our household for Kindle E Ink devices. I don’t know what the contrast ratio of the six-inch screen is, but for my wife and me, the view is wanting by the standards of LCD devices and front-lit Kindles. You may disagree. Carly and I are both baby boomers with contrast-sensitivity issues, a condition suffered by more than a few seniors. But the problem is not limited to people our age. If nothing else, think of K-12 kids with contrast-sensitivity issues piled atop dyslexia or another challenge. Their brains will have to work harder than ever to process the information.
If Amazon wanted, however, it could mitigate the perceived contrast problem with an all-text bold option. When I tried the $80 reader in a kitchen with bright fluorescent lights and called up an all-bold copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, the view was actually acceptable. Notice the difference between the bold and no-bold photos? The editions of The Count aren’t the same, but that should not matter in terms of the point I’m making. Also keep in mind that the lighting for the nonbold shot was better, and that photographs can exaggerate contrast–that’s what both photos do. See another, more meaningful contrast comparison between bold and no bold, using the Paperwhite and the Oasis.
Again and again I’ve pointed out that Kobo ereaders offer a variety of built-in typographical styles, including all-text bold. Are Amazon’s programmers so backwards that they can’t do the same? Same for the company’s so-called interface experts? Would a menu page for advanced typographical options be that much of a challenge to include?
I went on to test the text to speech, available via Bluetooth, as opposed to the need for a plug-in sound card, the case with the add-on TTS for the latest generation of Paperwhite. The Kindle’s Bluetooth worked just fine with a Vizio soundbar. However, I found the included female voice to be cruelly annoying. The pitch was too high, the speech too robotic—a stark contrast with Amazon’s better voices and especially with the “Peter” voice offered by Acapella.
Hear the voice for yourself. While I found it to be insufferable, you’re welcome to disagree. Maybe “Sali,” or whatever her name is, would be just right for little kids. I’m not so sure about adults.
Regardless of the voice’s shortcomings, at least as I perceived them, I’d hope that blind people would appreciate this feature. But as a sighted person I have reasons other than the almost-prepubescent voice to hate the basic model’s TTS. It’s a hassle to switch back and forth between TTS and none (too many screens). Furthermore, I had to double tap to make menu selections and found this to be distracting. Blind people should count most of all, and the double tap option and the rest should be there for them. But Amazon really, really doesn’t give a squat about other people who want or need TTS. While in general Amazon is customer-centric, that description certainly doesn’t apply here. Just where the devil is a mode for sighted people with vision impairments?
More than ever, I’m rooting for Hillary Clinton to win and for the composition of Congress to change dramatically, so that federal regulation comes back into fashion. Amazon is begging for it. It should be criminal, criminal, criminal not to offer different TTS modes for blind people and sighted people with their own special needs. Why isn’t this omission a crime? D.C. needs to kick ass. Jeff Bezos is deaf to pleas from me and others.
Just by way of the very existence of the $80 reader with TTS, Amazon has unwittingly shot down the arguments of industry lawyers who claimed to the FCC that TTS would be too expensive to include in E Ink devices. Now the FCC needs either to stand up for sighted people with vision impairments or else write a memo to Congress recommending the modification of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act to reposition the Kindle as an “advanced communications service.” Then maybe we’ll finally get sufficient typographical choices and TTS for all—as opposed to letting Amazon’s marketers prevail over the needs of people with vision impairments.
Am I angry? I’d be irrational not to be. At the same time I won’t let Amazon’s callousness toward people with my particular needs prejudice this review in a nasty way. The $80 Kindle may be terrific for you. It isn’t just small, light, well built; it’s rich in features such as page flip and vocabulary-building capabilities, so perfect for kids. Furthermore, like other E Ink machines, this one won’t keep you awake at night after exposure to blue light (in this case, hardly a problem when there is no built-in illumination of any kind). It lacks the multimedia distractions of cell phones and tablets. What’s more, you’ll enjoy access to what is by far the best inventory of ebooks of any retailer—with so many prices more reasonable than those of rivals. And, yes, this one has a Web browser through which you can download books directly. I believe Amazon’s claim of batteries lasting weeks. Also, the memory of 4GB can hold thousands of books.
If Amazon can address the font and TTS issues and ideally knock a few dollars off the price in time, this model could excel in general as a K-12 and library device, just as I said earlier. So here’s a conditional recommendation even if the conditions have unavoidably made up most of my post. My goal here is not to hurt Amazon; rather, to give it some tough love. This is not an issue of shareholders vs. nonshareholders. If Amazon follows my suggestions, which would cost next to nothing to implement when we consider the Kindle’s sales volume, the company will be still more competitive in the ereader market and make Jeff Bezos and friends more money.
Tip: As soon as your new basic Kindle arrives, see if a software update is available. Home > Gear > All Settings > Three Vertical Dots on the Right> Update Your Kindle. It one isn’t available, Update will be grayed. I myself found an update awaiting me.
Related: Sighted? Want to use Kindle text to speech? TTS Subversion 101 tips, my tips for owners of recent Paperwhites. Probably the tips apply to the new basic Kindle as well.