Hands on with Amazon's Kindle Cloud Reader
Amazon’s new Kindle Cloud Reader, announced Wednesday and available now at read.amazon.com, is a Web-based interface to Amazon’s Kindle ebook store, complete with the ability to read books within a web browser. Using HTML5 and related technologies, Kindle Cloud Reader isn’t just for browsing books when you’ve got an Internet connection: It can even store books on your device for offline reading.
I’ve been a Kindle customer for a couple of years and have a lot of experience with using physical Kindle hardware as well as the Kindle apps for iPhone and iPad; here’s a hands-on look at where the new HTML-based Kindle Cloud Reader shines and where it lags behind the Kindle iPad app.
It works on your computer, too
Coverage of the Kindle Cloud Reader has largely focused on how it behaves on the iPad—and with good reason. But it’s important not to miss the fact that Kindle Cloud Reader works on Safari and Chrome, too. That means you can read Kindle books on pretty much any Mac or PC. (Kindle Cloud Reader doesn't work on the iPhone.)
That’s great, but if you’re going to do a lot of reading on your Mac, you’re probably better off downloading the free Kindle for Mac app, since it offers many more text and formatting options. On a desktop browser, the Kindle Cloud Reader lets you choose from five different margin widths and five different font sizes; the native Mac app offers 12 different font sizes and something like 20 different margin widths.
Still, Kindle Cloud Reader seems like a great option for people who are using a shared computer, perhaps at a school computer lab, since it gives you access to all your Kindle books without having to install any software.
Installing the web app
It’s hard not to view the Kindle Cloud Reader as Amazon’s attempt to find a way onto the iPad in a way that bypasses Apple’s restrictions on app development. Recently Amazon’s Kindle app was updated to remove a link to the Kindle Store because Apple mandated it; the only financial transactions allowed within iOS apps must use Apple’s purchase system, which Amazon can’t use due to the financial model of the ebook business.
As Steve Jobs himself has said on many occasions, Apple offers two pathways for developers to put content on the iOS—via the curated App Store experience and via the completely open world of HTML5-based web apps. With the release of the Kindle Cloud Reader, Amazon is now doing both.
One of the advantages native apps have is that they’re easy to find: Launch the App Store app, type Kindle, and in a few seconds you’ve downloaded and installed the Kindle app on your iPad’s home screen. Adding the Kindle Cloud Reader is a bit more complicated.
First, you have to open Safari and visit
read.amazon.com. Amazon will ask you to log in with your Amazon.com user name and password, and then you’ll be prompted to authorize an increase to the amount of data Amazon can store on your iPad—essentially carving out 50MB of space to download books for offline reading.
At this point, the best thing to do—and I’m surprised Amazon doesn’t actually step you through the process—is tap the Share icon in Safari’s toolbar and choose Add to Home Screen. This will create a new Cloud Reader icon on your iPad’s home screen, complete with custom icon. Tap on it, and Kindle Cloud Reader will load again—this time without any web-browser interface trappings. (It’ll even show up in your list of running apps when you double-tap the home button.) Unfortunately, you’ll need to log in to Amazon.com again and authorize the offline data storage a second time.
Compare and contrast
Though the home-screen icon and lack of browser chrome makes the Kindle Cloud Reader feel like a native iOS app, there are still some notable differences.
Everything in the web app is a little slower, a little less responsive. But it’s still a remarkable emulation of the app experience. Like the native app, there’s a home screen full of book covers—by default the Kindle app shows you the items on the device; the Kindle Cloud Reader shows you all the books available to your account. Scrolling through the book covers is not as smooth as scrolling in the native app, nor does it feature the intertial-scrolling effect that gives scrolling in an app that extra something. Taps are sometimes not registered, or are registered much later than you’d expect.
To read a book in the Cloud Reader, just tap on its cover art; while tapping in the Kindle app will download the entire book to your device, the Cloud Reader web app will start loading the book over the Web and display it right away. To store a book locally on your device in the Cloud Reader, you must tap and hold on its cover, then tap “Download & Pin Book” from the resulting pop-up menu. To see all books that have been downloaded, you tap on the Downloaded tab at the bottom of the screen.
The reading experience in the two apps is quite similar, but here there are some notable differences, too. In both interfaces, you can tap on the screen in order to toggle the display of various reading controls, including text settings, a link to the book’s table of contents, and a slider that lets you jump anywhere in the book. The web app displays the black bar at the top of the iPad’s screen at all times, showing you the time, your battery status, and wireless connectivity, while the native app only displays that information when you tap to reveal the various page controls. The web app displays most of its menu options via a toolbar that drops down over the top of the page, while the options on the iPad app fade in seamlessly over blank space.
The text options are more limited in the Cloud Reader app: you can choose from five text sizes, while the iPad app gives you six to choose from. (Both apps let you choose from black, white, and sepia color schemes.) Most of the books I read in the native Kindle app feature justified text, but some of the books in the Cloud Reader app appear to display with a ragged right margin. One book I tested, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, appeared justified in the native app and ragged-right in the web app, which I really can’t explain. The native app can show book text in two separate columns when you rotate the iPad into landscape mode; the Cloud Reader will only show you a single, wider column.
In the native iPad app, you can tap or swipe to change pages. The same gestures work on the Cloud Reader web app. The only difference is in what happens as you make those gestures: the iPad app shows an animation of one page sliding away and another sliding in (and in fact, moves the pages right under your fingers if you choose to swipe from one page to the next). The web app offers no such animation—the new page just appears.
Amazon allows Kindle users (in both its iOS apps and on its dedicated Kindle devices) to highlight passages in books and make notes about the text. You can even opt to see passages that were highlighted by other readers. The Cloud Reader doesn’t support this feature, though its toolbar features a button that lets you view any notes and marks you made elsewhere.
I noticed some lag and delays in the Cloud Reader app as I used it, especially when moving from chapter to chapter. It appears that the tool is doing some very clever things with caching and rendering portions of a book, perhaps one chapter at a time.
In general, the web app reading experience is pretty good. If I didn’t have the native iPad app to compare it to, I’d declare it good. But it’s not as responsive or smooth as the native app.
If there’s one place where the Cloud Reader has it all over the native iPad app, it’s in buying books. Even before Apple demanded that Amazon remove the Kindle Store button from the Kindle app, buying books on the iPad was a suboptimal: you still had to use Safari to navigate through the standard Amazon.com website until you found the book you wanted to buy.
On the home screen of the Cloud Reader there’s a Kindle Store button, but it doesn’t do what the old iPad app did. Instead, it opens a Kindle Store interface right within the Cloud Reader. This isn’t the Amazon.com website for PCs: it’s designed with a tablet in mind, right down to a row of swipable book covers at the very top. You’ve got quick access to various book lists, and there’s a search box to find any other book you’re looking for.
And here’s the best part: Once you decide you want to buy a book, you tap the Buy button. That’s it. You’re already logged in to Amazon.com, so if you’ve got 1-Click ordering turned on, tapping Buy will immediately purchase the book. One more tap and it's open. It’s instant gratification on a level that users of the Kindle store on the iPad haven’t gotten before.
It’s a shame this sort of experience can’t be integrated in the native iOS version of the Kindle app, but Apple has made it clear that it won’t allow that, so here we are.
Now Kindle users have a choice when it comes to the iPad. The native Kindle app found in the App Store is smoother, faster, and offers more flexibility. The Kindle Cloud Reader, at least in this first iteration, shows some of the limitations of relying on Web technologies. No, it’s not as good as the native app—but it’s still pretty good, and will undoubtedly get better. And when it comes to buying books, its attractive and integrated Kindle Store is vastly superior to the no-help approach forced on Amazon’s native app by Apple’s App Store guidelines.
I can’t really recommend that Kindle users on the iPad dump the native Kindle app for this new Kindle Cloud Reader—at least not yet. Certainly most non-technical users are going to keep searching for the native app in the App Store and installing it from there. But the Kindle Cloud Reader bears watching: It shows that while native apps have the lead for now, web apps are coming on strong.
[Jason Snell is Macworld’s editorial director.]