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Early analysis of Amazon's Kindle DX: E-textbooks

Amazon has launched its new large-format Kindle DX. Here's a summary of its strengths and weaknesses as an electronic textbook reader.

Peter Glaskowsky
Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.
Peter Glaskowsky
4 min read

This is the third part to my early analysis of the new Kindle DX large-format e-book reader. In the first post ("Early analysis of Amazon's Kindle DX: Overview") I discussed the physical and software features of the new device. In the second post, "Early analysis of Amazon's Kindle DX: E-news", I described the limitations of the DX for news reading.

The textbook market represents an even greater challenge for the Kindle DX. There's a lot of variety among textbooks. Some textbooks will work well enough on the DX's display, but most, I think, will not.

Kindle 2 and Kindle DX side by side
The new Kindle DX is larger than the Kindle 2 with over twice the screen resolution. Amazon.com, Inc.

I think the key issues here are how each textbook is used, and what kind of illustrations are present in it.

Textbooks that are fundamentally like collections of stories, such as those in sociology, history, and literature, will likely be most suitable for use as e-books. These texts are read sequentially, so that the reading ratio (the time spent reading vs. the time spent finding the next thing to read or waiting for the display to update) can be high, and they can usually be written so as not to rely on complex color illustrations. (Though complex color illustrations are still valuable, and the Kindle DX doesn't support them.)

Texts for the natural and formal sciences will not work so well.

A biology textbook without color is almost inconceivable, except that if you have a Kindle, it's pretty easy to see how that works. Just download the sample for the Kindle edition of Steven Daniel Garber's "Biology: A Self-Teaching Guide".

Right up front, you'll get a hint that all may not be well. The e-book includes a disclaimer: "Due to the nature of digital conversion, some of the images included in this e-book may lack the detail and clarity of the originals."

And indeed, that's true. Much of the fine detail that would be visible in a printed copy of this book is lost here. Remember, textbooks are commonly printed on offset presses with more than ten times the linear resolution of a Kindle display.

And even if a reader were willing to zoom in to see the fine detail on an illustration (and if the Kindle DX allows it, which the earlier Kindle models often don't), the lack of color is utterly crippling. Biology textbooks rely on photomicrographs of cells in which subtle color gradations are essential to understanding the cell structure.

Perhaps some of these figures could be replaced by line drawings carefully crafted to communicate the same facts without relying on color, but some photographs are irreplaceable.

And line drawings have their own problems. I downloaded the Kindle sample version of "History of the Ancient World" by Susan Wise Bauer and looked at the book's maps on my Kindle. Some are fine, but many have notations that are virtually illegible at a normal reading distance, to the point where I can be sure that 50% more linear resolution isn't going to help enough.

For math, science, and engineering, I think the Kindle DX will also be inadequate. I remember studying these subjects, and what I remember about using the textbooks is frequently flipping back and forth through the pages to compare new material to old and find the applicable explanations and formulas when answering review questions at the end of each chapter.

The Kindle DX simply doesn't support page flipping. Backing up twenty pages takes two seconds with a paper textbook, but most of a minute on a Kindle.

Amazon has made deals with several major publishers to bring texts to the Kindle DX, and with several major universities to support the DX in some classes next fall. These are encouraging announcements, but these are just experiments, not evidence of the DX's suitability.

I'll be interested to see whether Amazon, its publishing partners, and these universities initially limit themselves to the low-hanging fruit in history and literature classes, or go after some of the more challenging courses.

Ultimately, I don't think any e-book reader is really the right answer for educational use. The better solution is to adapt textbooks and other educational materials such as exams to notebook computers, which can support more types of content (including full-motion video) and provide valuable interactivity.

And the even better answer, in the long run, is to develop systems that are even more tightly focused on education, with long-life batteries, rugged construction, and specific software and hardware features that aren't generally found in laptop PCs. I've been studying this problem for a long time (since I was in college myself!) and if there's interest, I'll go into more detail in a future post.