The New Kindle Update Is Welcome, but Could Amazon Go Further?

Just catching up to Kobo would be a good start

Key Takeaways

  • The Kindle has a new home screen and swipe controls.
  • The swipe gestures aren’t what you think they are. 
  • E-readers have been around for years, but have barely changed.
Someone reading on a Kindle e-book reader while having a coffee.

felipepelaquim / Unsplash

The latest Kindle update brings some radical changes to Amazon’s e-reader, but only highlights how little Amazon seems to care. 

Kindle software update 5.13.7 revamps the home screen and brings swipe gestures to the user interface. It’s the Kindle’s most significant software revamp in years, but in the end, it does little more than rearrange what was already there.

That’s not to say that the changes aren’t welcome. It’s just that Amazon could do so much more. Why do e-books still mimic paper books so closely? Where are the new features?

"I feel as though for Kindle a big improvement could be the edition of color," book blogger Ashley P. told Lifewire via email. "Many of the books I read have beautiful, eccentric covers, and would love to have these covers displayed on my Kindle—especially as I take bookstagram photos of them. It's better than the always plain black and white."

The 5.13.7 Update

The 5.13.7 update, available now and rolling out automatically over the next few weeks, has two big changes. The first is a reimagined home screen, now split into two areas, which are always accessible from two new buttons at the bottom of the screen.

The new software on the Amazon Kindle.

Amazon

"Home" contains your current read, your reading lists, and a bunch of recommendations. It’s almost the same as the old home screen. The new "Library" tab shows only your books, documents, and samples. The look is cleaner, but it’s just a re-organization of the existing home screen. 

More interesting are the swipe gestures. I got excited at first, thinking that the Kindle may have (finally) copied the two-finger up/down swipe from the Kobo, which changes the front-light brightness directly. But no.

Instead, it’s like the Control Center gesture on an iPhone. Swipe down from the top of the screen, and you’ll see the new control panel, with a brightness slider and buttons for sync, Bluetooth, airplane mode, and further settings. Swiping up brings you to the page browser.

The new UI is a clear improvement. Adjusting brightness is now one tap away, not two, for example. But shouldn’t there be more?

More, Please

While phones and tablets continue to add amazing features every year, the e-reader world seems moribund in comparison. But do we really need new features just to read books?

The new swipe down menu on the Amazon Kindle.

Amazon

"I don’t think Kindle is actually lagging behind the competition—I think that Amazon is quite intentional in keeping the Kindle’s features rather bare-boned," lawyer and reader Mark Pierce told Lifewire via email. "An e-reader is an inherently simple device with one function: to be a digital version of a book. E-readers don’t need all the bells and whistles that tablets and phones have."

The problem isn’t that we need those bells and whistles. It’s that the e-book is still worse than the paper book in some ways and that the Kindle is worse than the competition. 

As mentioned, the Kobo lets you adjust brightness by swiping on the screen. It has also long shown the cover of your current book as the sleep screen, which the Kindle only added recently. And the Kobo integrates the Pocket read-later service, making it easy to save articles from your phone.

We definitely don’t want email or Twitter on our e-readers, but that doesn’t mean the e-reader is perfect. What else might it do?

Better Reading

The worst aspect of an e-reader’s UI is navigation. It’s still easier to get around a paper book. For example, if you want to refer to another page in a paper book quickly, you use a finger to keep your place. With a Kindle, there are quick-browsing features, but you can lose your place too easily. 

The new Home layout on the Amazon Kindle.

Amazon

How about a web browser-style history in the back button? That way, you could easily get back, even after a lot of exploration?

The Kobo integrates Pocket, but you can’t highlight any of the article text. Given how great e-readers are for reading, this seems essential. 

The Kindle’s search and dictionary lookups are also pretty bad. Search is so poor that I’ve given up using it. Ditto the dictionary. It’s fine for common words, but the words I don’t know are usually uncommon and do not appear in the Kindle’s simple dictionaries. 

It’s not all bad. E-readers are fantastic for learning languages because you can look up translations by highlighting words. And the accessibility advantage of zoomable text is just great. An e-reader doesn’t need to get fancy, but can we really not improve on paper? That seems like a low bar.

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