How the Amazon Kindle Works

By: Jonathan Strickland & Chris Pollette
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In 2007, the internet commerce company Amazon introduced a $399 electronic book (e-book) reader called the Kindle. The Kindle wasn’t the first dedicated e-book reader device, but it didn’t really have much competition — there wasn’t a huge demand in the market for e-book readers before the Kindle’s launch.

The Kindle took off because it had one big advantage over other e-book readers: Amazon itself. The Kindle enjoys a seamless integration with the retail giant’s online store, which hosts millions of titles in electronic format.

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Because Kindles are wireless, you can access the store without connecting the device to a computer. You can buy a book or subscribe to an electronic version of a newspaper on Amazon and download it directly to the Kindle. Amazon also has a large customer base, which means a big audience for e-books — and lots of publishers and self-published authors wanting to jump into that market. These factors give the Kindle a leg up on the competition.

Why would you want to use an e-book reader in the first place? One reason is that a single e-book reader can hold many titles. The $90 Kindle, Amazon’s base model, comes with 8GB of storage. Although there’s no standard size for e-books, it’s safe to say that that 8GB is enough memory to hold thousands of titles. The original Kindle had a port that allowed users to save titles to a memory card, extending the device’s capacity, but then again it only had 250MB of RAM built in. Today’s models do not have card slots, but you can get the Kindle Paperwhite and Kindle Oasis configured with up to 32GB storage. Amazon offers free online storage for all of its content, so you may have a backup plan if you somehow run out of space.

That memory capacity also makes Kindle readers very convenient for travelers. With a Kindle, you don’t have to worry about packing heavy books in your luggage to keep you occupied for your whole trip. A single Kindle can hold more than enough titles to tide you over. And if you decide you want something completely different midway through your travels (as long as you’re traveling in the United States or a country in which Amazon offers service for its international Kindle), you can always use the Kindle to access Amazon’s store and buy a new book.

The Kindle also has several functions that you may find helpful while reading. You can bookmark a page, highlight a selection of text, type notes or look up words in the dictionary as you read.

Interestingly, the biggest users of Kindles are baby boomers and older people who like the ability to make their book print larger. Millennials and member of Gen Z seem to prefer paperbound books when they decide to read. However, a report from the National Endowment for the Arts said that 44.5 percent of adults in its survey said they read or listened to books in digital formats. Only 25.1 percent said that they read only print books.

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The original Kindle had an off-white plastic casing and an asymmetric, beveled shape, like a closed three-ring binder. It had a rubberized back that makes it easier for users to hold the device. It was 7.5 inches (19 centimeters) long and 5.3 inches (13.5 centimeters) wide, only 0.7 inches (1.8 centimeters) thick and weighed a mere 10.3 ounces.

Since then, Amazon has released many generations and several versions of its popular e-reader. The 10th-generation Kindle, released in 2019, is 6.3 inches long, 4.3 inches wide, and 0.34 inches thick (160 millimeters by 113 millimeters by 8.7 millimeters). It weighs 6.1 ounces (174 grams). The largest model in the lineup, the Kindle Oasis, is 6.3 inches wide by 5.6 inches wide by 0.1 to 0.3 inches thick, (149 millimeters by 141 millimeters by 3.4 to 8.4 millimeters), depending on how much memory is installed. It weighs about 6.6 ounces or 188 grams, again depending on the Kindle’s configuration. It costs $250 for the ad-supported version and about $20 more for the version without ads. The software is the same in both and the ads are fairly unobtrusive.

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The Paperwhite 3G was released in October 2012, and the Paperwhite itself is in its 10th generation as of 2021 (it was released in 2019). It measures 6.6 inches long by 4.6 inches wide by 0.3 inches thick (167 millimeters by 113 millimeters by 8.2 millimeters). It weighs 6.4 ounces or 182 grams for the WiFi-only model and 6.8 ounces (191 grams) for the cellular-enabled model. It sells for $130 for the ad-supported version, $20 more for the version without ads.

The central feature on all the Kindle models with the exception of the Kindle Fire tablets is the electronic paper screen. The Kindle and Kindle Paperwhite have 6-inch (15-centimeter) screens and the Kindle Oasis has a 7-inch (18-centimeter) screen. The Paperwhite gets its name from its display, which is whiter than the base Kindle display. The lighter screen gives more contrast with the text, making it easier to read than the light gray color of the Kindle’s screen. The Oasis also has more contrast than the base Kindle.

There is a Kindle Kids Edition, but it is technologically identical to the regular Kindle. Their screen resolution is 167 pixels per inch (ppi). The Paperwhite and Oasis have almost twice that, with 300 ppi.

All Kindle screens can display images in 16 levels of gray using electronic ink technology. Unlike LCD screens, the Kindle e-reader’s screens aren’t backlit.

The crispness of the electronic ink screens makes them much easier to read in direct sunlight than devices with color LCD screens. The earliest Kindles required you to use a flashlight if you wanted to read in the dark, but now all of Amazon’s e-readers have front-lit screens. A thin sheet of nano-imprinted flattened fiber optic cable distributes the light uniformly over the entire screen, giving the illusion that it is backlit. But since the light is directed toward the screen and not toward your eyes, the Kindle retains its electronic ink advantage of being easy to read. Despite the addition of light, which is usually a big power drain, Kindles keep battery usage at a minimum by using low-powered LEDs as the light source. The basic Kindle uses four LED lights, the Paperwhite has five, and the Oasis has 25.

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Early Kindle models had physical keyboards, but Amazon’s current Kindle models use virtual keyboards on their touch-sensitive screens. In fact, the Oasis is the only current Kindle with physical buttons on its face, and it only has two — one to turn the page forward, the other to turn the page . There is one button on all Kindle models — the power button.

Without physical buttons, many of the devices’ features are hidden while you read. To find the controls, tap at the top of the touch-screen. From there you can go back to your library, change settings such as brightness and font size, and the book’s table of contents.

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Although Amazon has done away with headphone jacks on its Kindle readers, you can pair them with Bluetooth headphones and speakers. That means if you want to use the Kindles’ text-to-speech option or download audiobooks, you’ll need to go wireless.

With the loss of the headphone jack, the only open port on Amazon’s e-readers is a USB port, which you use to charge the device. You can also use it to hook up to a computer. Although you don’t technically require one to use your Kindle, you can use a computer to load books and audio files from other sources and to manage the Kindle’s library. The Kindles come with a USB cable and a power adapter.

The original Kindle also came with a protective book cover, which has a padded section that protects the screen and an elastic band that holds it closed. The Kindle Kids Edition is currently the only Kindle that comes with a cover, but Amazon also has a large selection of accessories for the Kindle, including leather covers and adapters for non-U.S. electrical systems.

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At its most basic level, the Kindle is just a specialized portable computer. It has many of the bits and pieces you’d expect to find in any computing system. It also has a couple of elements that set it apart from your average computer.

Most of the Kindle’s components attach directly to a circuit board. The circuit board acts as the foundation for electronic circuits in the Kindle. Most of the components are inseparable from the board. The various chips on the board include the processor, memory, USB connector and touch-screen interface.

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The Kindle draws its power from a rechargeable lithium-polymer battery. According to Amazon, the battery in the base Kindle can last up to four weeks without recharging, and the batteries in the Paperwhite and Oasis may last up to six weeks. Actual battery life depends on how much you use the light, wireless and Bluetooth.

All versions of the Kindle use a Linux-based operating system. According to hardware hacker Igor Skochinsky, it uses the Das U-Boot bootloader to initialize its OS. Skochinsky experimented with a Kindle and discovered several interesting commands, shortcuts and hidden applications within the Kindle’s OS. For example, he discovered that if you press the Alt key, Shift key and M key while in the Home menu, the original Kindle will open up a game of Minesweeper.

Above the circuit board on most Kindle models, you’ll find the Kindle’s electronic paper screen. We’ll take a closer look at this screen in the next section.

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One complaint some people had about early e-book readers was that they found it difficult to read words on an LCD display. Some users complained that longer reading sessions put too much strain on their eyes. Amazon’s solution to this problem was to use electronic ink technology. The Kindle’s electronic ink screen looks more like paper than an LCD screen. It reflects light in much the same way that paper does.

A company called E Ink in Cambridge, Massachusetts, developed the technology the Kindle relies upon to display text and images. Rather than use the liquid crystals you’d find in an LCD or the ionized gas you’d find in a plasma display, electronic ink actually uses millions of microcapsules, only a few microns wide. Each microcapsule contains a clear fluid and thousands of white and black particles. The white particles carry a positive magnetic charge, and the black particles have a negative charge.

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It’s these positively and negatively charged particles inside the microcapsules that make electronic ink displays possible. An array of thousands of tiny electrodes lies beneath the electronic ink display. When an electrode emits a negative charge, it repels the negatively charged black balls, pushing them to the top of the microcapsule. At the same time, the negative charge attracts the positively charged white particles to the bottom of the microcapsule. When the electrode emits a positive charge, the white and black particles switch places and the screen appears to be blank.

Working together, thousands of electrodes and millions of microcapsules generate the text and images you can see on an electronic ink display. Through precise charges the Kindle can display a range of grays to provide shading in images. You can even adjust the Kindle’s font settings to display text in a larger or smaller font size. The Kindles’ electronic ink screens can also render images but having only 16 shades of gray limits the detail of any pictures. E Ink now makes color versions of its displays, but as of 2021 none of Amazon’s readers use it.

The Kindle uses less energy to generate a page view than a comparable LCD or plasma screen, because it pulls power from its battery only during the initial page generation. Once the image is on the page it can stay there without requiring electricity. It doesn’t require more power until the user changes the page view. This feature is what lets the Kindle’s battery provide power for weeks at a time on a single charge.

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Amazon has released several different models of Kindle over the years, but as of 2021 the model lineup consists of the Kindle, the Kindle Paperwhite and the Kindle Oasis.

The Kindle Kids Edition is very similar to the standard Kindle. It’s a little bigger, at 6.4 inches long by 4.7 inches wide by 0.5 inches thick (162 by 119 by 14 millimeters). Its battery can go up to four weeks before needing a recharge. It sells for $110.

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It includes a year of Amazon Kids+ (formerly known as FreeTime Unlimited) and a cover. It also has what Amazon calls a “worry-free guarantee.” Amazon Kids+ is a book subscription service aimed at children. With it, the retail giant includes the entire Harry Potter book series and the first volume of other series. Amazon says that Kids+ has more than 1,000 books available for free, and if children want to read books that aren’t part of Kids+, their parents will have to buy them in the Kindle Store. Like Kindle Unlimited, Kids+ is a paid subscription, and after the included first year costs $2.99 plus tax, every month.

The worry-free guarantee Amazon offers parents says that if the Kindle breaks, they can return it to Amazon for a replacement at no additional charge. For the younger audience, the company also promotes Vocabulary Builder, which saves a list of the words children look up, and Word Wise, which shows definitions of difficult words as kids read. Both of these features are available on other Kindles as well. Amazon’s Parent Dashboard lets parents control features on Kindle readers and Kindle Fire tablets, such as setting time limits, an age filter, whether or not they can use Alexa or a web browser, and more.

All Kindle readers have the same basic e-book functionality, but the more upscale models have other features readers may enjoy. There is more lighting (four LEDs on the Kindle and Kids Edition, five on the Paperwhite, and 25 on the Oasis). The Paperwhite and Oasis have higher-resolution displays (300 ppi versus 167 ppi). The Oasis’s screen is 1 inch bigger, at 7 inches.

If you want to use Amazon’s cellular service, you’ll need to pick up a Paperwhite or an Oasis. If you think your Kindle may get wet at the pool, in the tub or at the beach, you also need one of those two models. The Oasis differs from the Paperwhite in some subtle ways — you can adjust the warmth of the light, its light sensors automatically adjust to your environment, it automatically rotates the page when you rotate the device, and it has the two page-turn buttons on the front. The Oasis is just a little larger, designed to be held on the side, unlike the others which must be held by the sides or from behind.

Other features include:

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If you order the Kindle directly from Amazon, it will come preregistered to your Amazon account, but if you pick one up at your local store, you will need to register your Kindle to download and sync your e-books.

The Amazon Kindle gives you wireless access to an electronic store that includes millions of books, newspapers and magazines. Amazon provides wireless service without a monthly subscription fee on some devices — you just have to pay a little more upon purchase of the device. The cellular devices also allow for WiFi access to the e-book store but the non-cellular devices are WiFi-only.

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The Kindle allows you to buy books directly from the device. Alternately, you can browse books in the Kindle store using your computer’s web browser and purchase them from your computer. Amazon will send the electronic books directly to your device.

Amazon maintains a subscription service called Kindle Unlimited. The $9.99-per-month membership gives you access to a library of e-books, audiobooks and current magazines. Despite its name, however, Amazon Unlimited does not include most of Amazon’s electronic titles. Amazon claims the service has more than 1 million e-books.

As part of its Prime subscription, Amazon also offers Prime Reading. The service is similar to Kindle Unlimited, but while you do not have to have a Prime account to use Kindle Unlimited, an account includes access to a rotating catalog of e-books and audiobooks and one free pre-release e-book chosen from a list of editors’ favorites. Prime Reading includes magazines and comic books, but you may prefer to use a computer or a tablet like the Kindle Fire series to enjoy books in color.

The files you access with a Kindle are in a proprietary format with the extensions AZW, AZW1, AZW2 or AZW3. These files include digital rights management (DRM) that prevents you from sharing your files with other users. Kindles can handle Audible files (.aax) files, but not MP3s. Amazon also can convert several other types of files into the AZW format so that the Kindle can read them. These file types include:

Each Kindle has a unique email address. You can send compatible files to your Kindle by e-mailing them as an attachment to this address. You can also connect your Kindle to a computer with the USB cord to transfer files.

Every purchase you make from Amazon goes into a special folder called your library. Amazon uses a cloud storage model where the file lives on one of Amazon’s computer servers. That means even if you delete a book from your Kindle to conserve space, the record of your purchase will still exist on Amazon’s servers. You can download the book again to your Kindle for no additional charge.

There are also free Kindle reading apps for many devices, including iPhone, iPad, Android devices and Mac and Windows-based computers, so that you can buy and read Kindle books without purchasing a Kindle.

One advantage to all the available apps is that you can partake of Amazon’s Whispersync technology, which synchronizes the last page you read on one device across all your Kindle readers, including your physical Kindle if you have one or more, so that you can read on multiple devices without losing your page when you switch.

There are also libraries of free e-books available online, many of which are in the public domain. And some public libraries even let you check out e-books and read them with your Kindle.

What if you’ve lost your Kindle, or some unscrupulous person has taken a kindled interest in it and stolen it from you? You should go to your Amazon profile and deregister your Kindle as soon as possible. Otherwise, the thief may use your Kindle to download a library of books on your dime.

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Upon its debut, the Amazon Kindle costed $399. While some critics said the price tag was too high, the demand for the Kindle soon depleted Amazon‘s stock of the device. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos offered an apology to customers. He claimed that the company sold out of its stock in less than six hours. Some web journalists and bloggers suggested that Bezos’ goal wasn’t to offer a sincere apology — it was to drive up more interest for the device.

When the Kindle became available again, the price dropped to $359. Amazon didn’t release sales numbers to the public, leaving many to question exactly how popular the device was. Netcasts such as CNET’s “Buzz Out Loud” would occasionally report on Kindles listeners had spotted “in the wild.” It seemed like the Kindle belonged to the realm of folklore — you didn’t own one, but a friend of a friend did.

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Amazon got a huge publicity boost in October 2008 when Oprah Winfrey named the Kindle as her favorite gadget. Oprah devoted most of an episode of her show to promoting the Kindle. She invited Jeff Bezos to the show to talk about the device, explaining its features to her audience. Oprah also announced an electronic coupon for the device. Nowadays the entry-level Kindle can be had for less than $100, $110 for the version without ads.

Kindle readers usually rank at the top in journalists’ lists of best readers. Amazon’s advantages help fuel this, especially against other companies with similarly equipped e-readers. But the company hasn’t been free of criticism, and the integrated bookstore is often a topic of complaint. Electronic copies of books sometimes cost about as much as physical copies, something that seems unfair to some people. Unlike a physical book, there are very few production and distribution costs associated with an electronic file.

Amazon also got into hot water when it remotely deleted copies of George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” stored on customers’ Kindles. It turns out the publisher that made the books available didn’t have the proper rights. Amazon credited customers the money they spent on the books and apologized for the situation.

The incident brought to light a potential problem with electronic copies of books — a gray area for consumers when it comes to owning digital . Turns out these companies doesn’t own these e-books, they license them. If something happened to the company you bought these books from, the content would no longer be available to you. You also can’t read an e-book you bought via Amazon Kindle on a rival e-reader like Nook [source: Warner].

In 2012, Amazon was accused of terminating a woman’s account and deleting the books from her device, stating that her account was linked to another that had abused its policies. The company didn’t provide much information and gave no recourse for resolution. While this is one isolated incident, it has prompted renewed concern about digital rights management (DRM) [sources: Aguilar, Mosbergen].

But despite criticisms, the Kindle certainly has appeal. Amazon reported in May 2011 that e-book sales were surpassing physical book sales on its U.S. site and reported the same of the U.K. site in August 2012 [sources: Rapaport, Strange]. As of 2017, Kindles enjoyed 72 percent of the market in the U.S. But sales of e-books overall dipped in the 2010s, only to be revived during the COVID-19 pandemic when bookstores were closed. Libraries were also closed, and e-book borrowing skyrocketed.

E-books are still behind print in terms of revenue, but it’s clear that publishing companies and self-publishers aren’t going to quit anytime soon. And the pandemic also gave e-publishing a shot in the arm. When all is said and done, e-books may not obliterate print books, but they’re here to stay. And so is Kindle.

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Originally Published: Nov 11, 2008

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How the Amazon Kindle Works

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