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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Death of a Kindle

So my Kindle died completely after being taken out in the cold last week.  I'm not sure the Sony Reader would be any better.  They are honest in their documentation (i.e., honest in that "buried in the PDF owner guide you get only after you've purchased it" kind of way that Amazon also is) in giving the operational temp for the PS 700 as forty-one degrees, which is more in line with when I started to see my Kindle start to misbehave, so I'm not sure their screen will do any better if it's in your briefcase while you wait ten minutes for a cab at the airport on a cold day.  I'm pasting below the letter I am mailing today to the heads of Amazon and the E Ink corporation in Cambridge that makes the electronic ink "guts" for the Kindle and Sony Reader.

The bottom line on all of this is that if you are thinking of buying one of these things you need to be aware that your outdoor use -- i.e., the whole "portable" thing -- might be limited for as much as six months of the year if you live north of the Mason Dixon line and in or east of the Sierras/Rockies etc.  And regardless of where you live, you may not be able to take your Kindle or Reader out of your house in December, January and February because even a 10-minute wait for a cab at JFK or Logan just might kill it.

Mr. Jeff Bezos, Inc.

1200 12th Ave. S., #1200

Seattle, WA  98144-2734

Dear Mr. Bezos:

I am extremely disappointed with the inability of the Amazon Kindle to handle cold weather.  I feel very strongly that you need to encourage your partners at E Ink Corporation whom I am copying on this letter to develop a technology that is more robust in colder weather.  More important, I think your marketing of the Kindle needs to be much clearer in stating that the device will be impaired at temperatures below 45F, and will break down, die and become a paperweight below 25F.

I first noticed as far back as October that my Kindle started to suffer functional impairment in the low 40s.  After twenty minutes outside, the Kindle would refresh with both pages visible for a brief period of time instead of cleanly flashing from one page to the next.  Once it warmed back up indoors, functioning returned to normal.  Since my assistant has a Sony Reader, I’ve been able to compare his PRS-700 specs which are at least honest in saying that their device functions from 41-95 degrees while the Kindle documentation claims a 32 degree minimum operating temperature which I would not consider to be correct.  E Ink has to do better.  A portable reading device should be portable and usable at lower temperatures.

In any event, I found out only after I purchased my Kindle that it wasn’t like my cell phone or an iPod and that I was going to have to have more old-fashioned paper reading for almost half the year to deal with outdoor reading in normal NYC temperatures from late October to late April.  

So come November, I stopped use of my Kindle outdoors during colder days.  This was a real and unexpected limitation on my ability to use the device.

But then I found out when I had my Kindle in my backpack while on a long walk during a wintry evening that the battery became so chilled that it wouldn’t take a full charge for two days.  It was cold, but not as cold as the Kindle’s alleged storage temperature of 14 degrees.  So then I realized the hard way that I would have to keep the Kindle in the part of the backpack that was up against my back instead of in the organizer pocket that was most exposed to the cold weather.  Again, this is a serious limitation on the Kindle’s usability that I find out only after I’ve purchased the machine.

And then last Thursday I took the Kindle with me on a family trip to Hartford on the coldest day of the year.  I tried very hard to tend to the Kindle’s needs.  I didn’t read it outdoors.  I tried to keep it in the warm part of my backpack while waiting for a bus from downtown to my hotel or walking a bit to the hotel.  I believe I may have had it in a pants pocket for a 5-minute walk each way from my hotel to an old-fashioned book store when the temperature may have been near the 14 degree storage temperature.  Maybe I shouldn’t have.  I went to turn on my Kindle that night in the hotel and could tell even before  I turned it on that something was wrong.  It wasn’t dust in the pointer window on the right of the Kindle but rather the dead remnants of the pointer, and the Kindle screen was no longer usable or functioning.

Yes, it was very cold.  But you know what?  It gets cold in the United States for large parts of the year.  Here in NYC we’ve had 12 days in the past month when the low temperature has been within ten degrees plus or minus of your storage temperature.   It’s been weeks that the high temperature’s been at or below the 40 degree mark when the Kindle stops working well or the Sony Reader would say not work at all.

Another Kindle owner came up to me at the the theatre on the 11th, temps between 26 and 32 in NYC, and told me she’d left hers in the car.  What if she’d left her Kindle in the car during a show a few days later when the high temp was only 18?

What if somebody came out into the cold at LaGuardia last Thursday and had a five minute wait for a cab while their Kindle was in a pocket or carry-on?

What if somebody came out of their office in Chicago last week with a Kindle in their attache and was waiting several minutes for the El?  The average January low in Chicago of 18 is perilously close to a safe storage temperature for the Kindle.

Or was on the platform in Braintree waiting for the red line to Boston with a Kindle in their pocketbook?

Seattle is much more temperate, but even there the past week the Kindle would be off limits or impaired for use to your own employees waiting for Sound Transit at the Bellevue Transit Center to whisk them downtown because the morning temp woulds be in the low 40s. 

I’m glad that Amazon will be sending me a replacement Kindle, but I’m not much glad beyond that.  It’s common sense that you don’t use electronic devices in the rain, but it isn’t intuitive that the Kindle won’t function correctly below 45.  It’s certainly not intuitive that you take the Kindle at your own risk from your home to the office or on a five minute walk to the gym if it’s one of those cold days that we get a few of each year in New York City and much more often than that in other parts of the country -- Minot, Minneapolis, Boston, Chicago, Detroit.

Now that I’ve had a Kindle, I don’t want to go back to being without, but I am extremely upset that I wasn’t able to make an informed decision on buying an expensive gadget that can be used on only a limited basis for as much as 6 months during the year when the temperate might dip into the low 40s or below, and might die if I put into my gym bag on a bitter cold day just to take five minutes from my apartment to the gym.

All best wishes,


cc:  Russell J. Wilcox, E Ink Corporation


Maria said...

Is it battery related? Can it be fixed? I can understand the battery dying, but not the whole machine.

Do keep us updated.

The Brillig Blogger said...

It all has to do with the limitations of the electronic ink technology from E Ink in Cambridge. As mentioned, the Sony specs say 41 Fahrenheit for operating, which realistically should hold for the Kindle as well. The battery is fine. The electronics that run the thing are fine; can turn on the Kindle and do whatever I want, except that the upper right quadrant of the screen is blank, to the left of that there are bar-code like lines, the images linger from turning it on so that in the parts of the screen that still "work" you have the ghosts of the last three things you did. And then there's the pointer/slider on the right that you use to select menu options, which is defunct. I can move it up and down and if I'd memorized exactly how many turns of the wheel it took to do something I can do it. Except of course that the screen isn't working.

Nope, it all comes down to the hidden limitations of the E Ink technology, which have been kept hidden behind a screen of secrecy lest we find out that The Stuff Doesn't Work In The Cold.

Maria said...

Ah, screen technology problem. Thanks for clarifying--and as you pointed out, it's bogus. Cell phones work in the cold and don't go capoot.

Very interesting. Thanks.

RobertJSawyer said...

I'm so sorry, Joshua.

On the flipside, I have an iRex iLiad -- also an e-ink device -- and despite all the claims that one can read it outdoors, in fact the screens on iLiads (in particular) are notorious for malfunctioning in bright sunlight; no one on the iRex forum (last time I'd looked) had figured out whether it was the brightness or the associated heat, but either way, it's a problem.

I'm actually not convinced that e-ink is the solution; I suspect an other technology will emerge that has the same positive attributes but doesn't fail the way e-ink does (ghosting, slow page turns, etc.).

Anonymous said...

I have left my Sony Reader PRS 500 at -18 Degrees Centigrade (Celsius) (about 0 Def=grees Farenheit) for about 3 hours. It was packed in a thin plywood box in my otherwise empty small light backpack.
After returning to hotel I had to charge it after a very brief use, but it remains in perfect working condition.
Sony Reader PRS 500 features one of the first e-ink screens (slightly older version than Kindle or PRS 505)

Rebekah Mills McDaniel said...

So I guess if you want to use a Kindle you have to live in L.A.? Kind of a shame, since I don't think anyone in this town actually reads anything that doesn't start with FADE IN.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for letting us know about the Kindle. I was just about to buy one and it is -15C here.

If it it any consolation, the poor mite should recover in a warmer environment (It is just an electronic component foible, most boards are only rated down to -5C. Unless for medical or military purposes.)

That is, if it has not yet been thrown against a wall. ;)

Anonymous said...

My condolences. The death of a Kindle is tragic. Living in the Northeast, I did take note in the manual to keep the Kindle out of freezing temperatures, but nevertheless nearly committed homicide by leaving it in the car in the freezing garage overnight. I snatched it from the jaws of death; slow screen; did a reset. But didn't realize it could be kaput if I were reading it outside. If I lived in New England and knew this, I actually don't think I would have bought it. But I'm in PA and, well, I love my kindle. And aren't all great creative types tempermental.

Anonymous said...

There are discussions on the Amazon Kindle forum about use in cold weather.

Apparently, not operating in the freezing cold is a limitation for electronic devices in general, and not just for the Kindle.

And some people (Mark R. Whitney in particular) have methods for preparing electronic devices for the cruel, cold outside due to living in the mountains.

LDZPLN1 said...

I can sympathize with you on this topic. I left my 12 day old Kindle in the pocket of my car door for a few hours while the temperatures here were between 5 and 23. I thought about it at the end of the day and brought it inside. The next day when I turned it on, I had a screen similar to what you describe - top 2/3rds is wallpaper and the bottom 3rd is barcode-like. Amazon is being kind to replace it, but considering that I haven't even had this one 2 weeks, it shouldn't be having this problem.

Ruth O'Leary said...

I'm glad it's not just me - I'd come to the same conclusion with my new Kindle (I've been using it, or trying to, at railway stations when it;s been about -4C (don't know in F, sorry) and it's rubbish, but I thought maybe I was imagining it. Apparently not.

Gabrielle said...

Thank you so much for this information. My Kindle has been malfunctioning lately, and I had suspected it was temperature-related. Apparently, my jumping into a cold car with my Kindle in my purse and driving 20 minutes to work can make my Kindle inoperable. I was thinking of getting some of those Hot Hands to keep it warm. ;)