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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Amazon’s Kindle, where buttons are a premium feature

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

I’ve used almost every Kindle model since the first one, and almost every book I’ve read in the past decade has been read on a dedicated Kindle reader. This is why Craig Mod’s piece, Reconsidering the Hardware Kindle Interface, resonated with me: I’ve got skin in this game.

Amazon’s intransigence with the Kindle interface has always baffled me. In the early days it tried lots of different kinds of user input—a strange scrolling selection bar, a four-way directional control, a chiclet keyboard—before allowing itself to be seduced by the touchscreen. Mod’s complaints are largely about the fallout of that seduction, and they’re good points, though they may not go far enough.

Amazon hasn’t offered real, physical page-turn buttons on any mainstream Kindle model for years now. You can get them in the high-end Kindle Oasis, which I use, but not on any lower-end model. (Mod mistakenly refers to the “weird non-buttons of the original Oasis,” but he means the Kindle Voyage, which has squeezable areas—they didn’t move, but sensed pressure—for page turning.)

When did the touchscreen become a boring commodity feature and physical buttons a fancy, high-end luxury? When Amazon introduced touchscreens to the Kindle, it kept around a button-only model at a lower price point. But at some point touchscreens became available to everyone and the buttons went away. It was a colossal mistake.

As Mod points out, the Kindle has the simplest of core functions: It displays the text of a book, and the most common user gesture is to turn the page:

But the hardware Kindle? Oh, what a wonderful gift for Amazon designers. The Kindle is predictable! We know what we’re getting on almost every page. And the actions of the user are so strictly defined”Š—”Šturn page, highlight, go back to library”Š—”Šthat you can build in hardware buttons to do a lot of heavy lifting. And yet! Amazon seems ignores (to lesser and greater degrees depending on the device) how predictable a hardware Kindle is.

Turning the page with a physical button—you can rest your finger on the button and just click when you want to see more—is the simplest (and in many ways, most fulfilling) interaction you can have with a Kindle. It sure beats picking up your finger, holding it over the text of your book, and tapping to advance a page.

Mod’s complaint about the lack of discoverability in the Kindle’s menu system brings up something that I’ve seen firsthand with members of my own family: It’s entirely non-obvious that to get access to additional Kindle functions, you have to tap in an area at the top of the screen. (A tap there will display an icon bar with many different options, including the option to go to the home screen.) Mod’s solution is to add a physical Home button to the Kindle, and I agree that it would improve the usability of the device.

The Kindle home screen itself is kind of a disaster. Amazon redesigned it a few years ago to be more visual, with book covers and convenient areas in which Amazon can attempt to sell you more books. I turned this display off, instead reverting to the simple list view that is largely unchanged from the original Kindle interface way back when. (Amazon added ludicrous check marks to the interface to indicate which books are stored on your device and which ones are in the cloud, even when your list is filtered to only local books. Fantastic.)

And then there’s the Kindle’s typography, which continues to baffle me. I have a Kobo Aura One reader and the typography on that device is noticeably superior to the type on any Kindle I’ve owned, including the current top-of-the-line Oasis. Typography is essentially what the Kindle is all about; why is it so mediocre?

What I’m saying is, Craig Mod is right—Amazon should embrace hardware buttons, which can augment the experience of a touchscreen. But that’s not enough: A rethink of the entire interface, top to bottom, would probably be beneficial.

In the meantime, I still do love the Kindle and think it’s the way to go if you read a lot of books. The Kindle Paperwhite is still my choice for the best Kindle you can buy, but be warned: At $120 it’s not quite premium enough to include page-turn buttons, so you’ll have to tap the screen every time you want advance your book.

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