KindleBasicRatingsThe new $80 Kindle e-reader is flopping with Amazon reviewers, earning just 2.7 out of 5 stars, compared to the ratings of 4 and above for other E Ink Kindles.

A shocking 30 percent of the customer ratings give the basic E Ink model a measly one star, and a mere 20 percent are bestowing five stars.

One of the biggest gripes, after the Kindle’s release July 7, is that the screen background is just too bloody dark.

That, in turn, reduces the contrast, which, with E Ink, is still less than optimal even under the best circumstances.

While just 30 reviews are up as of this writing, the results are so lopsided that they are still worthy of notice, especially when the complaints jibe with my contrast-related hassles with the $80 Kindle so far.

For years I have been calling for optional all-text boldface, a way to increase the perceived contrast for people who need it, but from on down, the company has been deaf despite the obvious benefits. Now Amazon may get payback for its pig-headedness, if the rotten reviews  of the latest E Inker are any indication of future sales. Contrast does count. The question arises of whether Amazon could get away without the bold option if it didn’t dominate U.S. ereader sales. Rival Kobo ereaders offer it.

On top of other problems, Amazon’s promo for the $80 Kindle is at least accidentally misleading some customers and perhaps violating the spirit if not the letter of Federal Trade Commission guidelines in regard to truth in advertising.

The FTC, which I’ll be querying via email, says: “A claim can be misleading if relevant information is left out or if the claim implies something that’s not true.” Amazon asserts: “No eye strain, reads like real paper.” Now compare this to the readability complaints of actual customer-reviewers. I’m saddened. As a booster of inexpensive readers to help close the digital divide, I was rooting for Amazon to get the $80 E Ink Kindle right. All-text bold wouldn’t solve the entire problem. But it would help.

Why the new model is a flop: The photo-vs.-reality factor and more

The unhappiness with the $80 Kindle has arisen partly because many customers take it for granted that Amazon ereaders come with front lighting, a feature of the other models. Wrong! But in context, it’s easy to understand why these ebook lovers would make that assumption.

Alas, the problem goes beyond this. Even when people know that front lighting is AWOL, Amazon’s promotional photographs may  mislead them into into thinking that the screen still will be readable enough. Photos of ereader screens, including the Rothman-taken one below comparing my newly purchased $80 Kindle with my Kindle Keyboard from 2010, tend to exaggerate contrast. Not just to comply with the spirit of FTC guidelines but also to avoid the ill will of disappointed customer, ads for E Ink Kindles should very conspicuously warn about this exaggeration even if it is not intentional (my hunch is that it isn’t).


One partial explanation of the Kindle’s problems might be quality control issues. I have a second $80 Kindle on its way to me to see if a replacement will be easier to read from.

For now, I’m underwhelmed. Significantly, even if the photograph exaggerates the contrast of the newer Kindle, you’ll notice that my ancient Kindle Keyboard actually is more readable in the picture. In fairness to Amazon, I myself recommended the new Kindle for most customers in my “First Look” review—while thinking that the device would be fine for people without the contrast-sensitivity issues I experience. But whether for QC reasons or because people expect front lighting, contrast-related problems seem to be far more common than even I would have expected.

Not everyone is grumpy about the new model, and a customer self-identified as B said: “Light and easy to read,” an opinion shared by certain others. But far more typical are complaints.

So now back to the possible quality control issue. “There were dark lines across the screen, particularly when showing special offers, that looked like ruled paper and were distracting,” wrote Neurodoc. “I was concerned that if there were already problems with the screen out of the box for 1 day, it could get even worse over time.” Neruodoc himself thinks that the dark screens themselves are not a QC issue—that the screens are no worse than on older models—but the above photo suggests that he is wrong. The main argument I’m making here is that as long as we’re talking QC, its absence could be a reason for the dark screens. Amazon tech support as of last night could or would not tell me whether QC was a factor. If it isn’t, then shame on Amazon for knowingly releasing a new Kindle less readable than even a 2010 model without front lighting.

Major letdown for customers: ‘Screen is way too dark’

Whatever the explanation, the new Kindle is a major letdown for many. “Received it yesterday,” wrote PB, “but it’s already on its way back. I loved how small a light weight the device is but that’s about it. The resolution is terrible and the screen is way too dark. I went through the setups with my bed side lamp on but it was very hard to read.”

“I just sent this kindle back because it has no light,” said Harley 1380 in a review headlined “Buyer Beware.”

“For me the screen is to dark to read,” Harley complained. “I read a lot at night in bed and i need a flashlight to read this kindle in a dark room.”

M. King fired back at Harley for not understanding what he was buying: “If you want the option for a built in light, go with the Paperwhite. My guess is that you opted for this because of its lower cost (although I may be wrong on that), but understand that a lower cost generally means less frills…including a built in light. That’s why it’s important to read what you’re buying, especially with electronics. Giving a one star review because you didn’t read the information isn’t really justified in my opinion. Sure, you can remind buyers about the lack of a built-in light. But of course the correct way of informing them has already been done by Amazon.”

“M. King you are right,” Harley conceded. “It was my fault. I did not look at the comparison chart. I have 2 Kindles and both came with built-in lights.”

Then, almost surely speaking for many customers and hence raising issues about whether the Amazon ads might be misleading and of possible concern to the FTC when we consider the product in context, Harley wrote: “I just took it for granted that all Kindles came with built-in lights. When I bought it, it was for the low price and I did not think I needed to compare it at the time. Maybe if they put that it does not have the built-in lights at the top of the page were the features are then i would not of bought it. As far as the unfairly one star, how about 2 stars or how many stars would be fair to you? You tell me. For me Its still to dark to read, I guess if I just read under a shade tree then it would be a good buy, but forget it in a dark room. And im a buyer and i try to always be bewared, but not this time. So again buyer beware or how about buyer be carefully or whats the correct way of letting buyers know about the product before they buy it, because like me they might not check out the comparison chart…”

Ideally Amazon can FTC-proof its ads by (1) more conspicuously calling attention to the lack of front lighting and (2) warning that photographs may exaggerate screen contrast and thus readability. I’m reproducing an Amazon shot below of the $80 Kindle. Studying it, you’d never guess that customers would encounter contrast and readability issues with the screen. What’s more, accidentally or not, the screen looks a lot better than in the above photo I took in a room with typical lighting. Sure, Amazon can respond: “Use the right reading lamp.” But then, its caveat needs be be up front in ads, in the tradition of the “your mileage may vary” language that car makers may use. Top of the page, ideally—just like “no front lighting provided.”Kindleke-feature-techspecs._CB270162580_

TTS interface another disappointment

Another issue is that the text to speech is less than optimal for sighted people. “Unfortunately the text to speech is a disappointment,” said Lannie, “as it can’t be used separately from voice navigation overall, plus I can’t get it to pair with blue tooth in the car.” Laudably, in designing the text to speech, Amazon put the needs of the blind first. But along the way, it forgot about commuters, exercisers and sighted people with dyslexia and other challenges—and a need for TTS. I remain baffled how this generally customer-friendly company can be so callous in regard to such issues as TTS and the need for an all-text bolding option and more typographical choices in general. That is what Amazon should do to offer a truly accessible device.

Meanwhile let me pass on four TTS-related tip for Kindle owners:

  1. Your Echo can play TTS from many and perhaps most books you’ve loaded on your Kindle.
  2.  Also, to repeat an earlier tip, some people, at least, may find the new Kindle and other E Ink devices to be more readable under fluorescent lights. I have.
  3. You can use Calibre to add boldface to nonDRMed books. Of course, a U.S. law against circumvention of DRM will prevent this in the case of “protected” books. Furthermore, this is a hassle for many, especially nontechies on the wrong side of the digital divide. But it’s at least some relief for certain customers.
  4. If you’re cash-strapped and really in need of a basic Kindle with no social media distractions and with a longer battery life than Amazon’s $50 LCD tablets,  you might actually be better buying a $30 used Kindle Keyboard—yes, the model you see in the photo. The apparently superior display isn’t the only advantage. The oldie will come with built-in TTS, even a loudspeaker. Unlike owners of the latest and supposedly greatest basic Kindle, you won’t need a Bluetooth headset or speaker. Back to the future, anyone?

Despite the above workarounds, the related contrast and readability issues are not going away. Come on, Jeff. As a long-time Kindle fan despite the devices’ oft-vexing shortcomings, I’m confident you can do much better. Just look at your own product-review page. 2.7 out of five stars as of this writing? Substandard.

Note: I actually expect the rating of the $80 Kindle to improve, maybe greatly, since people with complaints are often the first ones most likely to write in with reviews. Still, I think enough one-star verdicts exist for me to make my point.

Correction: What would eventually be named the Kindle Keyboard actually came out in 2010, not 2007, and I’ve tweaked the post accordingly. That said, half a dozen years is still eons by tech standards.