Killer eReader features vs real difference makers

Let’s consider the Kindle 3 and its list of ‘killer’ features –

  • 20% faster page turns, up to 1 month battery life, double memory (4 GB), eInk Pearl screen, Voice Guide, WebKit Browser with Article Mode, sharper fonts, choice of 3 font sizes, better PDF support.

How many of these are actually difference makers?

It’s the same with the Sony 350 and its list of killer features –

  • Light weight, touch screen, multiple formats, books from multiple sources, paper-like display, 2 weeks battery life, carry 1,200 books, freehand highlighting.

Do these features really make a huge difference?

The ‘killer features’ advertised by eReader makers sometimes mean very little. We want to find the real difference makers.  

Killer Feature Vs Real Difference-Maker

A real difference maker is the eInk Pearl screen. It makes the eInk Pearl eReaders much better than every other eReader and it applies to almost every single eReader owner. It also helps that it’s a significant difference i.e. 50% better screen contrast.

A real difference maker is a feature that improves the reading experience and/or the eReader ownership experience significantly and does it for over 80% of eReader owners.

Two ‘killer’ features that don’t matter much are the Voice Guide and the Double Memory. Yes, the Voice Guide is critical for blind readers and it’s important as it gets the NFB to stop their lawsuits – However, it isn’t a difference maker for everyone else. Double memory is nice for people who want to carry more than 1,500 books on their Kindle – However, how many Kindle owners fall into that category? It’s safe to assume that over 80% of Kindle owners don’t really care whether they get 2 GB memory or 4 GB memory.

In all the buzz about killer features we miss out on some actual difference makers.

The hidden difference makers

There are features that aren’t being promoted as killer features (or at all) that are real difference makers – the lighted kindle cover, the placement of page turn buttons and their ease of use, the choice of default font(s), the ease of getting books (except Amazon no one really promotes this), the learning curve.  

Take 60 second downloads – Everyone who doesn’t have an eReader with wireless downloads thinks it’s not even a worthwhile feature. However, for Kindle 3 and Nook owners this feature is absolutely indispensable. It’s a difference maker in multiple ways – It makes buying and getting books easier for readers and it gives readers the ability to buy a book the minute they hear about it.

Not only does it help readers it helps Amazon and B&N too –  readers make more purchases and they buy their ebooks from the eReader’s in-built ebook store.

Categorizing Features as Difference Makers vs Marketing Fodder

Let’s walk through a list of eReader features that get a lot of attention and see which ones are the real difference makers. We’ll also add in some unheralded features and see if they make the cut.

The eInk Screen + eInk Pearl

The eInk screen is perhaps the single biggest difference maker.  The eInk Pearl screen is also a real difference maker.

We live in a world where the NY Times likes to claim eInk and LCD are not very different. However, the benefits of eInk are indisputable – less power usage, easy on the eyes, very similar to print on paper, doesn’t use power except when repainting the screen, readable in sunlight.

eInk Pearl manages to be a difference maker by improving screen contrast 50% – That’s enough to make older versions of eInk relatively unsatisfying.

The eInk screen is definitely a big difference maker and the main stream media’s attempts to attack it are a sure sign of how dangerous it is to LCD screens.


Here are the supposedly huge benefits of having a touch screen – you can flick the page for page turns, the user interface can be made easier, you can scribble notes, you can highlight, you can tap a word, it’s cool.

A lot of it is hype – a button is actually more convenient for page turns and the difference when it comes to adding highlights and notes is nowhere as large as people think.

Yes, if you’re a student and you really want to scribble in the margins and use a stylus for highlights it’s nice to have touch. However, a nice keyboard is far more useful for adding notes than a touch screen – especially as long as there isn’t handwriting recognition.

Perhaps 20% of people consider this a critical feature and it sounds good and it adds marketability – But it’s a useless feature for 80% of users. It doesn’t even make that huge a difference in the user interface. The time and effort difference between moving around a cursor and moving your entire hand is not very much.


Color is another supposed super-killer feature.

Here are the use cases for Color on an eReader –

  1. A few use cases where you want color for textbook illustrations and graphic illustrations.
  2. A bunch of use cases related to reading comic books and graphic novels.
  3. 10,000 use cases that have nothing to do with reading.

The typical argument that 100 million people want color eReaders doesn’t really explain the truth – These people don’t want a reading device. Once they get color they’ll want video, and then they’ll want games, and then they’ll want multi-touch, and then they’ll say they’re buying a tablet instead.

Color is the absolute worst feature eReader makers could focus on. It’ll just make it seem that they’re trying to become tablets and it does little for 90%+ of eReader owners.  

The Page Turn

This includes the speed of the page turn (which gets a lot of attention even though it’s now faster than a physical book page turn) and the effort to do a page turn (which gets zero attention).

This is almost as important as the screen because every single eReader owner will do hundreds of page turns in every book she/he reads.

Reading at Night

This is a feature that gets a lot of attention because it’s an obvious eReader weakness – eInk requires external light while LCDs have a backlight.

This isn’t a huge difference maker for people who don’t read at night and for people who don’t mind using a bedside lamp. However, for people who want a light source that won’t affect their partners or want something that comes with the device it’s a difference maker.

Let’s assume it’s a difference maker for 25% to 50% of people.

Well, the Kindle Lighted Cover addresses reading at night beautifully. It draws power from the Kindle 3 so no worrying about batteries and it’s not a bother to your partner and it’s less tiring for the eyes than a backlit LCD screen.

Whether or not you think being able to read at night without an external light is a difference maker we now have an eReader capable of this.

The Ease of Getting Books

We tend to prefer things that are easy or right in front of us or easy to get.

Consider the different levels of commitment required in these 3 scenarios –

  1. With physical books you get dressed, get into your car, go to the store, and buy a book. You are also restricted to buying the books they have in the store.  
  2. With an eReader that doesn’t have wireless downloads you go to your computer, search the website for the book you want, buy it, download it, transfer it to your ereader, and then read. You can’t really get a book if you’re outside your home – Will you really download Sony Reader Software to a Cafe PC? Perhaps you could carry your laptop with you.
  3. With Kindle 3 and Nook you browse the store on your eReader, buy a book, and get it in 60 seconds.  

Not only does Sony not realize how difficult it is to get books on an eReader without wireless it also doesn’t have a good range of books or good ebook prices – It’s doing it’s best to make it painful for readers to get the books they want.

If you have a Sony put aside your personal liking for it and ask yourself – If your Sony Reader allowed you to download books wirelessly would you refuse and instead use your computer?


Here we’re considering the combination of text to speech, the Kindle 3 Voice Guide feature, and the two super sized fonts. Accessibility = Letting Blind Readers and low vision readers read.

Text to speech is a very valuable feature by itself and a difference maker for commuters, people who like audio-books, young kids, students, and auditory learners. However, we aren’t considering it – we’re considering accessibility.

For blind readers and low vision readers Accessibility is probably the single biggest difference maker.

For everyone else Accessibility is a feature they probably feel good about having on their eReader – but it makes no difference to their reading experience.

It’s telling that Accessibility didn’t arrive until Kindle 3 and that no eReader other than Kindle 3 and the Intel Reader (which is built specifically for blind people) has accessibility features. The iPad has accessibility via its Voice Over feature but we aren’t considering it here.

WebKit Browser with Article Mode

The Browser by itself is a useful feature – However, the Kindle 3’s free 3G Internet and the option to use faster WiFi of your own (or from a free WiFi hotspot) makes this feature stand out.

It’s nothing like your desktop or laptop browser. However, you do get – email, reading rss feeds (through something like Google Reader), reading most sites. You can check up on the news and sports scores and the weather.

For probably 25% or more of people it’s important enough to be a difference maker. However, it’s not a difference maker for everyone.

Ability to do more than Read

For people who don’t read much this is a huge difference maker. It’s a very strange argument –

The ability to do more than read is a super important eReader feature because we don’t really read enough to justify a dedicated reading device.

I’m not going to buy this dedicated ebook reading device until it adds stuff that makes it better for playing games and watching movies than for reading books.

Well, then don’t buy one.

Kindle 3 and Nook and Sony Reader are for people who read books and want a dedicated reading device.

Which are the real difference makers?

Well, in my opinion, these are the real difference makers –

  1. Important to 80% or more of readers – eInk and eInk Pearl, page turn speed and ease, book range, book prices, ease of getting books, ease of use, space for a few hundred books and an archive feature, early ebook availability, good value for money.   
  2. Very important to 50% or more of readers – ePub/openness/ability to use multiple stores (1 or more of the three), reading at night, long battery life, light weight, compact size, eyes not getting tired, organization options like folders, library books, ebook store and ebook downloads being accessible internationally, annotations, sturdiness, permanent access to books.   

Here are the features that are pretty important but not difference makers –  

  1. Hugely important to at least 10% of readers – not having DRM,  Accessibility, lots of memory and/or a memory card slot, replaceable battery, PDF support, multiple format support, looking pretty, sharing, resale of ebooks, a way to get all books free.
  2. Quite important to 25% or so of readers – ability to check email, choice of fonts, the prettiness of the default font, readability in sunlight, custom screen savers, games or Crosswords or Sudoku, free public domain books, text to speech, support for international languages, good Browser with Free Internet access, WiFi.

Finally, here are some of the supposed ‘killer’ features that are actually irrelevant to reading –

  1. Hugely important to people who don’t read – ability to do more than read, color, touch, being shiny, other people buying it in big numbers, coolness, being $50 or free, all the books being free, being much cheaper than any multi-purpose device.

The Kindle 3 has most of the features that make the first two lists (the ‘difference maker’ lists) – That’s why it’s #1. It’s focused on reading and that is the real reason it has most of the features that are the real difference makers.

If you compare the Kindle 3 with the Nook and the Sony Reader it’s easy to see that B&N has done a good job of focusing on the real difference makers and Sony still thinks it’s selling Walkmans.

16 thoughts on “Killer eReader features vs real difference makers”

  1. For the iPod Phone (and iPod Touch) the “killer” app is the App Store. The App Store is the single, compelling feature that made these devices easier to use and operate versus their competition.

    That’s a good list (above), but I really do think that for Amazon, the “killer” app for their Kindle line (and for the Nook as well) is their instant downloads. The convenience of being able to instantly download a preview of a book is an invaluable step towards making the sale. Amazon has taken much of the disappointment out of the book-buying equation: it’s now easier than ever to check it out before you buy. I would buy far less titles if I had to purchase them virtually sight unseen, download and install them

    The convenience factor is Kindle’s killer app. And Switch is absolutely right: those that diss it are those that don’t have it. They don’t know how great it is…

    1. Instant downloads are definitely the top killer feature in my opinion too.

      Do you think the Kindle App Store (when it arrives) could become the ‘killer’ app for the Kindle?

      1. I’m not sure about the Kindle App Store, because I’m not certain how Amazon is hoping to target it, nor is it clear how easy apps would be to use on the Kindle.

        Along with that, will a Kindle App Store water down the stated goal of Amazon in having the Kindle be a single-purpose device, the best eReader available?

        I really liked the short essay I downloaded, “How McDonalds Got Its Groove Back”, which discussed how McDonalds restaurants were able to turn around their downward slide a few years ago by focusing on the their customers and core competencies, versus trying to keep up with and counter the competition.

        If Amazon forgets their clearly stated goals and starts trying to make the Kindle be everything to everyone, a la the iPad, then I think the Kindle is in trouble.

        If, on the other hand, the real purpose of the Kindle App Store is for some future, multi-use device, then it could do for Amazon what the App Store did for Apple.

  2. Excellent analysis.
    Now, I have an idea that I think would be a killer feature/app for Kindle/Amazon:
    If I buy a “real” book from Amazon (DTB), wouldn’t it be nice if Amazon then let me download the Kindle version at no charge?

    I believe that a relatively small percentage of readers would want both, but for those that did see the advantage of being able to obtain Kindle “rights” to an Amazon-purchased book, this would be a huge, difference making feature. Neither the author, publisher, or Amazon would lose money under such an arrangement; in fact, it would most likely result in increased sales of books. Amazon isn’t as interested in selling Kindles as it is in selling books, and today, most DTBs are more expensive than the digital version (although that gap is closing rapidly).

    1. Yes, this is a really good feature. However, it’s up to the Publisher. Amazon could start doing this for independent authors and Encore books – that would certainly put pressure on publishers.
      The downside is that a few Kindle owners would do this and sell the dead tree book and give everyone a bad name.

      Note: changed the email address typo.

  3. I have both a Kindle 3 and a Kindle 2. Have just returned the Kindle 3 for the following reasons:

    -Navigation much easier with joystick. Made many selection errors with new button system. A pain.

    -I found “new Web” software bothersome. Initial screen was always too small to read requiring immediate extra step of magnifying at least twice. Old web software requires far fewer keystrokes to navigate.

    -Really missed the number row. Leaving it off was probably to save space but once again it causes extra key strokes if you want to enter numbers.

    -Advertised improvement in screen contrast (50%) not my experience. It is better, I’d put it at 10% in my case.

    -Page navigation buttons much smaller and more difficult to use. One again obviously required by space saving consideration but results in less ease of use.

    =- In summary, Kindle 3 did not show enough improvement to me to justify replacing Kindle 2 at $189.

    For me the killer improvement feature will be ability to access my local library e-book collection. Every other ebook reader and both my mac and windows machines can and I’d sure appreciate it if Amazon would join in.

    1. Share your feelings about the missing number keys.

      Have gotten used to the new keys and the page turn buttons. Have the graphite Kindle 3 and the screen contrast is pretty big for me.

      1. I feel that the keyboard layout of the Kindle 3 is adequate, but as an industrial designer, it could have been done better, and I really miss not having dedicated number keys, even though this is my first Kindle.

        The five-way controller is so tightly grouped with the Menu and back buttons that it’s easy to inadvertently push the wrong button. It would have been better if they could have installed a joystick “nub” in the middle of the keyboard as the IBM Thinkpads used to do, and used the area where the five-ways is for a dedicated 10 key numeric keypad, small, but easily accessible.

        I think eliminating the numbers was a move that they’ll regret later and that will reappear on future models.

      2. Oh, and as regards page turns, they’re blazingly fast for me, as fast or faster than paper. The flashing negative image no longer bothers me.

      3. Though, I read somewhere if you hold down the alt key you can use the top row of the keyboard for numbers (haven’t received my Kindle yet). That’s only one extra keystroke. Hopefully it wouldn’t take too long to memorize which key is which number. Or maybe someone could sell a clear strip of something with numbers on it that you could stick on just above the keyboard?

        1. Yes, however it makes things pretty complicated. Instead of just typing ’16 candles’ it becomes Alt, Q, Alt, Y, candles. Plus you’re always wondering whether y is 5 or 6 or 7.

  4. I will add that another difference maker is Amazon’s excellent reputation for customer service. That is one of the primary factors that made me very interested in a Kindle and why I’m not the least bit bothered by being in a semi-walled garden and only making my purchases through them. I already purchased most of my paper books exclusively through them and they have done right by me for years.

    Of course I would like things to be cheaper. I would love for Prime to not cost so much each year.

    But I have never once thought I was being taken advantage of or being given a raw deal.

  5. kindle will need an itune like software which allow us to organisation our library and do syncing. This will lock in alot of ppl who can’t be bothered going to a different company to sort our their collection

  6. Excellent analysis, as always on this blog.

    The short section on why colour readers are neither wanted nor needed deserves greater prominence and, perhaps, a blog of its own.

    As someone who owns both a iPad and a Kindle, I am often challenged to defend my purchase of the latter, given that I already read e-books on the former. I am met with looks of wild disbelief when I say that I would forgo the iPad long before i would consider being without my Kindle. Why? Simply because I spend far more time reading that I do on all that other stuff.

    I sincerely hope Bezos can be resolute in his position that Kindle is a device for readers, and nothing else. Less, in this case, really is more.

  7. I still maintain that color is an important reading feature. Not for reading your average novel, of course, but for more picture-laden books – children’s books, cookbooks, etc – and for magazines, newspapers, and comics, all of which are legitimate forms of reading that don’t work especially well for me on the Kindle at present. It would also help with web content if Amazon decides to care about that, but I don’t think the present Kindle design is very conducive to web use anyway.

    It’s not -the- most important feature, by any means, or I would likely be reading on a color-capable device, but I’d like to see it in the next revision or two of the Kindle.

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