Amazon is pushing e-books back into the limelight with the launch of its $399 Kindle e-book reader and corresponding service. The device isn't splashy--and it leaves some room for improvement--but it has succeeded in rekindling my interest in reading e-books.
The Kindle, which is larger than an average paperback book but not as thick, is a boxy rectangle of white plastic with a matte finish. The device includes 180MB of user-accessible memory (which the company says can hold about 200 books) and supports SD Cards up to 2GB. Instead of an LCD, a 6-inch electronic-paper display from E Ink occupies the top portion of the device. The monochrome display, which is designed to save power, supports four levels of grayscale but no color. For the most part I had no issues reading the display under various circumstances. The one exception was when I tried it under dim lighting, as the Kindle lacks a backlight; on an airplane, for example, you'll need to keep your seat light on to read. The text was generally clear, though a few characters had jaggies. A button on the keyboard lets you switch among six different font sizes.
I found the Kindle's design finger-friendly. A rubberized surface on the back of the device makes it comfortable to grasp, and the unit's thickness tapers from left to right, so it's easy to hold. The taper dovetails with the angled Next Page button that runs along the full length of the display on the right side; the design makes moving forward a page simple. 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. Beneath the Previous Page button are a small Back button and a rubberized scroll wheel.
What's especially notable about the Kindle, though, is its integrated 3G cellular radio, which allows the device to connect to Amazon's Whispernet EvDO service for wireless transmission of e-books. You don't need a PC to make a purchase: Just browse the Kindle store and download your reading material. No service charges or contracts are involved. Books take less than a minute to download, and their prices vary; new releases and New York Times bestsellers cost $10. At launch the Kindle store offered 90,000 titles. You can browse or search for book, magazine, newspaper, or blog content. If you're browsing Amazon on your PC, you can also initiate a purchase there and send the e-book to your Kindle, as Amazon clearly states when it has a Kindle version of a book for sale. Alternatively, you could also have the title sent to your PC and then transfer it to your Kindle via a USB connection. (While an e-book file can reside on both your PC and your Kindle, you can't read it on your PC.)
The Kindle includes a basic Web browser intended for use with text pages, not graphics-heavy sites. It's handy for quick news, weather, or Wikipedia lookups. Not as useful is the Kindle's stab at daily relevance with its newspaper and blog delivery, in which Amazon charges you for services available elsewhere for free on the Web. You can subscribe to 11 newspapers, 308 blogs, and a handful of magazines. Choices include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Houston Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, Time, Fortune, the Atlantic Monthly, Le Monde, and Slate. By contrast, Sony's e-book competitor, the $250 Reader, provides blogs and RSS feeds for free (though it has no Wi-Fi), and it can read PDFs and text files. To read supported document formats on the Kindle, you must e-mail the files to the device--and Amazon charges you 10 cents per e-mail.
The Kindle's design won't wow anyone, but its usability touches alone are enough to make me consider using an e-book reader.
--Melissa J. Perenson
E-book reader benefits from thoughtful design touches and wireless book transfers.
- No PC required
- EvDO wireless book transfers free
- Flicker effect when changing pages
- Newspaper and blog content carries a fee