With the, Amazon is hoping that a device it launched during the George W. Bush administration can be its next big thing again.
Amazon doesn’t shy away from flashy ideas, whether it’s a delivery drone, or a conversation with virtual assistant Alexa. But this week, Amazon started selling its Kindle Scribe, a refreshed version of the E Ink reader first launched back before Amazon even had a mobile app.
The Kindle Scribe isn’t futuristic. It isn’t semi-sentient. It doesn’t even have color. Its big update: In addition to reading, you can write on it now too.
But by rejuvenating the low-frills Kindle, Amazon is hoping to give you new reasons to experience the centuries-old joy of reading. The first Kindle launched the same year as the first iPhone, and in the decade and a half since, our personal devices have grown smarter, faster, flashier — and now exert a greater influence on our mental well-being. Swimming against this tide, the Kindle Scribe’s mission is unglamorous. It’s engineered to help you get deep into tasks undermined by most internet-enabled devices: attentive reading and note-taking.
“We’ve expanded the world of what customers can do but still kept this idea of a sanctuary where people can get into the content and not be distracted,” Kevin Keith, Amazon’s vice president of product management and marketing, said in an interview.
The Scribe’s real advance may simply be that Amazon, the world’s fourth biggest company by market value, is making it.
Kobo, reMarkable and Boox E Ink tablets from smaller makers already offer writing as a feature, and some have large formats with screen quality nearly as good as the Scribe’s. But none let you mark up Kindle books, and some don’t even support the Kindle app. With the Scribe, Amazon has opened up its vast and popular library to your scribbling.
Adding a new sparkle to the Kindle experience makes sense, given that Amazon says its customers buy more Kindle books than physical books. And there’s a large potential base of future Kindle users who already use Amazon’s e-reading app, considering that the Kindle app has been downloaded more than 326 million times globally since 2012 onto Apple and Android devices instead of Kindles, according to data.ai, a market analytics company that tracks mobile apps.
Chris LaBrutto, a principal product manager at Amazon, said Kindle users were already creating a “Cliff Notes” version of their Kindle books with highlights and typed notes. Adding a stylus to write on the Scribe elevates that experience, letting readers get more actively engaged, LaBrutto said.
The question is whether, after 15 years of rising smartphone addiction, gadget buyers like you are longing to return to reading and writing in shades of gray.
E Ink’s fans like its limitations
First sold as part of e-readers in the mid-2000s, E Ink screens have earned devoted admirers from readers of all genres. The displays render text and graphics in gray scale with tiny, charged capsules that turn either black or white in response to negative or positive electric signals. They draw far less power than a traditional tablet, giving them battery lives measured in weeks instead of hours.
You can also read an E Ink display in direct sunlight and avoid shining blue light into your eyes, because it isn’t backlit. That immediately appealed to Nick Price, a security engineer in Portland, Oregon, who’s used a number of Kindles with E Ink, as well as a Boox e-reader.
“I found it was a lot easier on my eyes in the evening when I’m trying to go to bed,” Price said of his first Kindle’s screen.
For aficionados, the simplicity of the devices are the point. In addition to eliminating bright colors shining from screens, E Ink devices typically don’t offer the entirety of the internet, a massive distraction from focused reading. That was the appeal of the reMarkable 2, an E Ink tablet with a stylus that came out in 2020, said Andrew Loeb, an English professor at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, who wanted to be able to focus on his reading and note-taking.
“For the same price, you can get an iPad,” he said, but that would defeat the purpose. “If I have an iPad, then I’ll do other things with it.”
Writing on an e-book is a logical next step when trying to capture the experience of reading from paper. Loeb uses his reMarkable 2 to mark up student’s papers, solving a problem he faced at the beginning of the pandemic when his classes went remote. He also likes to use it to read articles and take notes at meetings and conferences. The tactile sensation of writing on the tablet adds to the experience, he said.
E Ink that engages the senses
With devices like the reMarkable to compete with, Amazon aimed to make the Kindle Scribe a high-end writing experience.
The Scribe’s distinction is its combination of upscale features. Its realistic writing experience coupled with a 10.2-inch screen with sharp, 300 ppi image quality bring together aspects of a variety of well-liked e-readers.
Amazon sent me a test unit so I could get a feel for it myself. I found the stylus captures the papery pleasure of writing, rendering a sharp line immediately. The screen has just enough texture to elicit a satisfying scritching sound as you write.
That experience was the result of intense effort, according to LaBrutto and Tim Wall, a principal industrial designer at Amazon. It involved fine-tuning the texture of the screen, the sharpness of the images and the immediacy of the writing experience.
With an E Ink display, “you’re not actually writing on the surface that you’re writing on,” said Wall. “Everything below that lens, that surface, is additive.”
The team focused on microns of distance between the top layer of the display and all the components that needed to be sandwiched under it along with the E Ink. They also focused on microseconds of latency, or how long it takes the line to appear after the stylus makes contact with the screen.
Amazon says the Kindle Scribe is geared in particular to reading nonfiction. The large display sharply renders charts and graphs in gray scale and fits more text on each page. In addition to sticking notes in Kindle books, you can mark up PDFs and Microsoft Word documents. Adding handwriting also makes sense for nonfiction, as research has shown it improves learning compared with typing notes.
Highlighting and marking directly on a PDF helped me absorb information from a dense legal brief, for example. Reading a nonfiction book in the Kindle App, I went right into highlighting important names and dates, as well as creating a running commentary with both handwritten and text-based sticky notes.
(I’ll be returning the Kindle Scribe test unit after this story is published, at which point I’ll go back to the Kindle app on my phone — where I won’t be able to access my handwritten notes. I can download them separately as a PDF. But my highlighting and text-based notes created on the Scribe will remain for me to see in my Kindle phone app.)
Writing on the Kindle book involved more steps than writing directly on the PDF did, something. The Kindle team made this design choice to leave pages uncluttered, Keith said. It also means readers can adjust their font without disrupting the location of their notations on the page, he added.
“One of the things customers love about Kindles is it being distraction-free,” he said.
If the Scribe succeeds, this simplicity will keep you inside Amazon’s universe, without the gadget needing a dash of color, let alone the ability to fly like a camera drone or roll and dance like a home robot.