Thoughts on the Kindle’s 5-way controller

There’s a very interesting thread at the official kindle forum talking about the 5-way controller -

there are so many things the 5-way must do over the lifetime of a Kindle: menu selections and highlighting happen many times per Kindle session.

Both of these involve multiple clicks per occasion. Has anyone found the 5-way to be an Achilles heel, wearing out and becoming sloppy?

The discussion focuses on whether the 5-way is ‘delicate’ and the Achilles Heel of the Kindle. There are actually a lot more aspects to the 5-way controller so let’s dive in.

5-way as the focus of the user experience

In a way the 5-way determines the user experience. Consider all these different actions -

  1. Moving to a book.
  2. Selecting a book.
  3. Using the Menus.
  4. Highlighting.
  5. Finding the meaning of a word.

The 5-way is the main element of the user experience for all of these and for countless other actions on the Kindle. Almost every dialog and menu requires using the 5-way controller multiple times.

The 5-way Controller’s Strengths

The 5-way conveniently provides directional movement and an ‘Enter’ button in one control. It’s placed relatively conveniently (more on this below). It’s soft and moves easily. It has some amount of ‘give’ to it so it’s very comfortable to use when it comes to the actual feel of it.

You can also use it while holding the Kindle with one hand.

It’s an elegant solution to a lot of different requirements. It’s obviously not as convenient as a touchscreen would be – However, given the limitations it does very well and it’s quicker to respond than most touchscreens.

If you consider the competition the Nook uses an awkward, separate touchscreen and actions involve way too many steps. The Sony’s touchscreen is on the eInk screen itself and is thus very convenient – However, actions again take a lot more steps than they should.

Flaws of the 5-way controller

There are obviously some downsides -

  1. The first flaw is that it’s easy to move it in the wrong direction or to go left or down instead of clicking.
  2. The second flaw is the placement. A Mirasol prototype had a layout with a 5-way type controller right next to the keyboard and that would be ideal. Currently, you have to move all the way from the keyboard to the 5-way and back. Also if you hold the Kindle so that the next page is conveniently at your thumb you have to actually move your hand a bit out-of-the-way when you use the 5-way.   
  3. The third flaw is that it’s a little too small and not raised enough – pressing the 5-way and moving using the 5-way are both intricate operations.

There’s obviously the possibility that perhaps there’s a more fundamental flaw i.e. the need for a touchscreen. Well, let’s consider whether a replacement is needed.

Is a replacement needed? Would it be ideal?

One possible replacement would be having 4 direction arrows (up, down, left, and right) and an enter button. This would eliminate the problem of pressing by mistake or moving in the wrong direction. However, this becomes a bit unwieldy. It needs more space and there isn’t much left given there is already a physical keyboard. It also requires more movement and would be slower.

So not only is the use of 5 separate buttons instead of the 5-way inelegant it might be impossible given the lack of available free space.

The other option that springs to mind is having a touchscreen instead of the 5-way and it’s worth considering. The biggest advantage with a touchscreen is that you can quickly jump to any place on the page. There’s also a certain coolness factor.

The downsides are that touch screens respond slower than physical buttons do and that you have to move your hand to the spot you want to touch. It’s a lot more physical effort to physically move your hand/finger to the spot where a word is on the screen (as compared to using the 5-way). A touchscreen without another form of movement also rules out one-handed reading. You simply couldn’t highlight while holding the device with one hand. With the 5-way you can.

We’re left in an interesting position – While the touchscreen is possibly better than the 5-way it also has its downsides.

The case for keeping the 5-way controller if/when the Kindle gets a touchscreen

If/when the Kindle gets a touchscreen there’s a strong case for leaving the 5-way as it is (and if possible moving it next to the keyboard) -

  1. The 5-way allows for one-handed reading.  
  2. The 5-way allows for shortcuts like ‘Left’ for delete, ‘Right’ for more information. 
  3. 5-way responds faster than a touchscreen would.  
  4. 5-way is a lot less effort. Consider using a Menu – Press the Menu button, then press the item you want on the screen. With a 5-way it’s right next to the Menu button and you don’t have to reposition your hand.
  5. You get a lot of functionality per square inch. It’s 5 buttons rolled into one.

Basically, the 5-way is the focus of the Kindle user experience for good reason. Hopefully, even if/when a touchscreen comes to the Kindle , it stays that way.

4 Responses

  1. Where is it and what is it? I fins nothing on my Kindle Fire that could be remotely called a Five Way.

  2. I have a Kindle Touch and cannot find a 5 way controller to delete a book. Where is it? If it is not available, how do I delete a book that I have read and don’t want to keep

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