E-books have emerged from the shadows with Amazon's launch this week of its $399 Kindle e-book reader and service.
I've found e-books intriguing for a while now, as they could be easier to tote, easier to store, and easier to read than their paper brethren.
The concept of Sony's Reader, the first significant contender in this market, was solid, but its hardware didn't impress me. Though Amazon's Kindle design is even less splashy, its usability touches are enough to make me consider using an e-book reader.
Amazon integrated a 3G cellular radio into the Kindle and uses its new Whispernet EvDO service to wirelessly transmit e-books to the Kindle. You don't need a PC to make a purchase: Just browse the Kindle store and download your reading material. Notably, no service charges or contracts are involved--Amazon covers all of that in the background.
Kindle: The iPod of E-Books?
Can Amazon do for the fledgling e-book market what Apple did for the digital music market? Perhaps.
Amazon doesn't sell just books, but books are certainly perceived as a cornerstone of this Web retailer's business. If you're looking to buy a book, logically you might turn to Amazon; competing e-book approaches don't have that advantage.
So who will the Kindle appeal to? Folks who are ready to take their reading digital. Avid readers who are running out of shelf space for their books. Commuters who are tired of wrangling newspapers while getting ink on their fingers.
Who will stay away from the Kindle? Travelers who want to read on an airplane during takeoff and landing, when you can't use electronic devices. Readers who enjoy a good book in the tub or at the beach. People who aren't already comfortable with digital gadgets. And mainstream shoppers will certainly find the Kindle's high price a turn-off.
For some buyers, though, the price won't be a deterrent. The conveniences I've cited may be enough to sway them, or perhaps the Kindle's integrated wireless networking and no-PC-required approach may be appealing. Maybe they'll appreciate the savings over buying physical books.
Despite the Amazon reader's bland design and the fact that this first-generation device leaves some room for improvement, the Kindle and its corresponding service have succeeded in rekindling my interest in reading e-books.
Unassuming, Functional Design
The Kindle, which is larger than the average paperback book but not as thick, won't wow anyone with eye-catching good looks. It's a boxy rectangle of white plastic with a matte finish (though it comes with a leather cover). A 6-inch electronic-paper display from E Ink covers the top portion of the device; a keyboard dominates the bottom quarter.
The keyboard, with its rectangular keys set mostly at an angle, is easy to use. A rubberized surface on the back of the device makes it comfortable to grasp.
The Kindle supports up to 2GB SD Cards, but unfortunately the slot is located beneath the removable back plate and is not readily accessible.
What caught my attention, though, is Amazon's attention to detail in other respects. The unit's thickness tapers from left to right, making it easy to hold. The taper dovetails with the angled Next Page button that runs the full length of the display along the right side; the rocker-style design makes moving forward a page easy, no matter where your hand is holding the device. This is an important detail if you're reading a long novel, since poor design leads to muscle fatigue.
The other navigation buttons are conveniently situated around the display. The Previous Page button runs down two-thirds of the screen on the left side, while a second Next Page button takes up the lower third (this arrangement is useful for lefties and righties alike who want to mix up their repetitive page-turning motions). Beneath the Previous Page button is a small Back button and a rubberized scroll wheel.
I found the Kindle's design finger-friendly; the buttons flowed logically as I navigated the device. I also liked the scroll bar/select wheel combination, whereby you scroll to menu options by using the wheel, and then push the wheel in to select options.
You can also push the wheel in to call up a context-sensitive pop-up menu. For example, when you're shopping in the Amazon store, the menu offers to take you to Home, the Kindle store, Top Sellers, New & Noteworthy, Recommended for You, and 'Save for Later' items. I particularly liked that last option: I could pick things I stumbled on in the course of browsing, and bookmark them to find them again before proceeding with another purchase.
When you're at the Kindle's Home screen, the pop-up menu offers to send you to the Kindle store, check for new items, change the device settings, and manage content, moving items from the Kindle's 180MB of user-accessible memory to an SD Card and back again.
This menu also offers "experimental prototypes" that include a basic, text-friendly Web browser and a background MP3-music player. Curiously, Amazon presented the latter at launch as a feature, not a prototype.
While reading, you can use the Kindle's select wheel to highlight a passage or choose where to make an annotation. You can then e-mail a highlight to a friend or access your notes--stored as text files--via the Kindle's USB connection.