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Amazon Kindle Review

I knew Amazon was on to something with its new e-book reader, the Kindle, when my wife was immediately curious about the device. Stephanie is many things, but when it comes to technology, she simply couldn't care less. More important, perhaps, the price of the Kindle--a whopping $400 in its initial incarnation--didn't faze her much at all. And she's notoriously thrifty. She was thumbing around the device within minutes of its arrival and has already begun planning how she would use it while working out and on occasional commutes into Boston. Her first question: "Does it support multiple accounts, so I can have my own content?" (Answer: No, unfortunately. We'll have to share.)

My kids, who are largely immune by now to most of the technology that comes into this house, should have been completely ambivalent about the Kindle as well, but weren't. My daughter, who literally just turned 6 and can only read a bit, was instantly interested when she spied the device in my hands, and after discovering what it was--a little computer book, as she described it--her first reaction was an incredibly positive "cool!" This is high praise, indeed, from the kindergarten crowd.

My oldest, Mark, was even more impressed. A nine-year-old, he immediately had to play with the device and grokked its admittedly utilitarian user interface almost intuitively. But when he discovered that you could buy books wirelessly and get them almost instantaneously, he just had to try it. And then next thing I know, he was taking the Kindle off with him on a car ride with mom so he could read the one "Encyclopedia Brown" book that's currently available on Amazon's newest online service.

As for me, I'm perhaps even more excited about the Kindle than is the rest of my family. A voracious reader since I learned how--as I kid I used to fall back to the sides of cereal boxes when I finished that day's "Boston Globe" over breakfast-- I can't get enough of this thing. I regularly read books of all kinds--fiction, non-fiction, history, travel, whatever--and my wife and I subscribe to an embarrassing number of print magazines. Heck, I still read two newspapers every day--the aforementioned Globe (yes, still) and "The New York Times." And I subscribe to the online version of "The Wall Street Journal" just in case that isn't enough. Add all that onto the audio books and podcasts I enjoy regularly and the various Web sites I peruse daily, and there's a lot of reading occurring here.

But then I grew excited about the Kindle the moment I heard about the first rumors. And when details of the device were revealed just before it went on sale, I knew I had to have one. After coming so close to pulling the trigger on a similar purchase with Sony's e-book reader last year, the Kindle was enough of an improvement that I just had to do it. The question, of course, is whether this device really evolves the e-book experience to sound the final death knell on paper-based publishing, as has so often been predicted.

You know, I think it just might. No, the Kindle isn't perfect, and Amazon will want to move quickly to address some issues. But the screen technology is terrific, even in its current black and white form, the form factor is largely excellent, and free wireless access to Amazon's voluminous online store, complete with appropriately-priced books, magazines, and newspapers, just puts it over the top. Paper-based books aren't going away anytime soon, but just as the iPod was the first nail in the coffin of the traditional music business, so is the Kindle for the traditional book. Now I really do believe that it's only a matter of time.

Kindle basics

The Amazon Kindle is a small, white, slate-type computing device with a 6-inch screen and a small QWERTY keyboard with Chiclet-like keys. In many ways, the Kindle is the anti-iPod, the ego to Apple's id. They're both white portable devices with screens. But the similarities end there. Where Apple's devices are Spartan in design, favoring form over function, the Kindle is all buttons and ports, a utilitarian device that was quite obviously designed around the content you'll be reading onscreen and virtually nothing else. This is what the extreme version of function over form looks like, and its hard not to wonder whether there isn't a happy medium between the Kindle and Apple's form over function devices.

In any event, the Kindle is busy-looking with over 50 buttons all together. In addition to the keyboard, there are two Next Page buttons on the front fascia, one on the left, and one on the right, a Prev Page button on the left, a Back button on the right, and a curious "cursor" button/scroll wheel and accompanying cursor well, which I'll describe in more detail below. The bottom of the device features a headphone jack, a USB port for PC connectivity (which is completely optional), a power port, and volume up/down buttons. (You can listen to MP3s stored on the device while reading if you like; the Kindle does not come with headphones of any kind however.) On the back is a large, grippy rubber-like pad that keeps the Kindle secure on various surfaces (and feels wonderful to boot). It doubles as a cover for the battery and an SD card slot, by which you can dramatically expand the device's memory capacity.

If you've seen any photos or videos of the Kindle, the first thing that will strike you when you see it in person is that it's far smaller and more svelte than you previously thought. About the size and shape of a typical paperback best seller, and quite a bit lighter, the Kindle is easy to carry and hold, and it will pack easily in virtually any carry-on bag or purse. Amazon includes a book-like cover that completes the subterfuge.

From a consumer electronics standpoint, the oddest thing about the Kindle is that you basically leave it on all the time. With all other screen-based devices--iPods, laptops, DVD players, whatever--it is the screen that kills battery life the most, so you tend to spend a lot of your time interacting with the device by eyeing possible places and times to charge them back up. The Kindle tosses this notion on its head, and it's hard to get used to: Thanks to its innovative e-ink screen, the device basically doesn't drain any power while it's displaying content, and that content won't burn-in on the screen, so you don't have to worry about that either. Instead, the Kindle draws power only during the split second when you choose a new display, say by tapping the Next Page button or whatever. Once the display is rendered, the device slips back into an extremely low-impact power savings mode.

If you leave the Kindle sitting there on the same "page" for a while, it will slip into sleep mode, during which the device displays a random image drawn from literary history. These images, unlike many of the pictures you'll see in actual e-books, are quite beautiful. Sleep mode is important because scheduled content, like daily deliveries of newspapers, or weekly deliveries of magazines, can occur while the device is resting. If you turn it off--which you can do manually with a switch on the back--that content won't arrive until the device is again powered on.

Using the Kindle

The Kindle is a joy to use. After all, books are notoriously old school, and while enjoying a digital movie on an HD screen is obviously superior to watching old VHS tapes on that 27-inch clunker we used to use, there's just something special about the whole book experience. The Kindle duplicates this experience pretty adeptly, though I'm not sure it translates as well to magazines and, especially, newspapers, both of which are available on the device as well. (See the next section for more information about the content you can purchase for the Kindle.)

On the Kindle, everything starts logically enough with the Home screen, which lists your acquired content along with some starter content that includes a personalized letter from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and an electronic version of the Kindle User's Guide. Content is sorted by "most recent first," so that your most recently-accessed content is at the top; you can alternatively sort by title or author. Unfortunately, this sorting order makes it rather difficult to get to, say, that book you're currently reading, as it's on the top of the display, and you'll need to scroll all the way up the screen in order to access it. Yep, it's time to talk about the Kindle cursor.

The Kindle's screen isn't touch-enabled in any way, and there's no traditional pointing device and associated software pointer or whatever, so Amazon needed a way to allow the user to select things on screen. Their solution to this problem is delightfully old-school but not always completely successful: The Kindle features a well, or gutter, that runs along the right side of the screen and terminates at the bottom with a scroll wheel that doubles as a clicker. As you scroll this wheel, a little square silver cursor, which looks like tinsel or a tiny bubblegum wrapper, moves up and down the well.

To select something, move the cursor next to the appropriate line of text and then press down on the scroll wheel, which doubles as a clicker, kind of like a mouse button. On the home screen, this makes sense, as your content is there in a helpful list that spans both the height and width of the screen. Some other displays are less helpful. For example, on a newspaper's section list, the text hugs the left edge of the screen. But because the cursor and its gutter are on the right side of the screen, you need to visually line up the cursor with the correct line. This can be a hit or miss affair if the text lines are short or your vision isn't that great.

Clicking the Kindle cursor wheel is somewhat difficult thanks to its curved shape, but fortunately, you don't need to use it all that much in normal use. You use it to look up words using the Kindle's built-in New Oxford American Dictionary--a delightful feature that works quite well--and to access a pop-up menu via the home page or from within books, newspapers, magazines, and other content. This menu provides access to the aforementioned dictionary when appropriate, and to the Kindle store, content manager, and "experimental" applications like a basic Web browser and MP3 player. It's also used to access Kindle settings, though frankly most of this is automated: When you buy the Kindle online, it's associated with your account and your personal information is filled in automatically.

Here's how I use the Kindle. I've subscribed to a few newspapers and a single magazine (Time), and have purchased a number of e-books. This content is all listed on the Kindle home page. Each morning at 3:00 am, the newspapers are updated with that day's editions automatically, so when I wake up, I have something new and up to date to read over breakfast. Since books are typically read front to back, I generally just tap one of the two Next Page buttons as needed during the course of normal reading. With newspapers and magazines, however, there are section lists and article lists so you can read the content in whatever order you'd like. In such a case, the Back button comes into play fairly frequently: You can select an article to read and, when done, pressing Back brings you back to the article list you were just perusing. It's all very logical.

When you complete or stop reading a book, you can manually move it off of the Kindle to save space; Amazon will store the book, along with any bookmarks and other associated data, in your online content. So if you choose to copy the book down to your Kindle again later, or to a second Kindle, you won't lose anything. Periodicals are managed automatically so that older issues are deleted for you on a schedule. You can, however, go back in time to early November 2007 and download previous issues manually if you'd like too.

Obviously, one of the big issues with a device like the Kindle is whether it both replicates and improves on the old way of doing things. The iPod is a classic example of doing this successfully, because it works like a CD-based Walkman in that it's portable and easy to use, but offers many advances over a Walkman around such areas as storage, flexibility, and content types. With the Kindle, Amazon has created a device that very much replicates the experience of reading a book, especially when used with the included leather book-style cover: I've read two complete books with the device so far, and have started several others, and thanks to the form factor and legibility of the onscreen type, you can become as immersed in a story on the Kindle as you can with a traditional book. But the Kindle passes the second test as well thanks to its ability to store hundreds of books simultaneously and download new content from almost anywhere. I could imagine finishing a book on a business trip and then casually perusing the Kindle online store (see below) in a cab or at the airport: Once you find something you like, it's downloaded to the device in seconds. This is a huge improvement over paper-based books.

Magazines and newspapers translate less well to the Kindle because they are generally more visual than books and traditionally come in different form factors. That said, subscribing to a magazine or newspaper on the Kindle is much less expensive (and wasteful) than doing so with the traditional versions of this type of content. And while it may take a few weeks to get used to it, the magazine and newspaper experience is good enough to cause me to rethink some of my paper-based subscriptions. We've subscribed to the print version of the New York Times for several years now, for example, but I will be cancelling that subscription soon in lieu of the Kindle edition which, at about $14 a month is about one-quarter the cost of the paper version. Likewise, Time (and other high quality magazines) can be had for just $2 a month. That's a bargain, though I do miss the nice layout of the print magazine.

You can also adjust the text size on the fly, so the Kindle is appropriate for a wide range of users. As another reviewer noted, now any book can be a large type book.

Kindle content and wireless store

The Kindle has two major advantages over previous e-book solutions: Content and the online store. On the content side, the Kindle's library is quite a bit larger than that of the competition, and books are considerably less expensive than both other e-book solutions and traditional hard cover books and paperbacks. The Kindle store, put simply, is incredible. Unlike the stores associated with other portable entertainment devices like iPods and Zunes, you can peruse and buy all of the content in Amazon's Kindle store wirelessly, for free, using the device. No computer is required, though presumably everyone with a Kindle does at least have access to a PC. This separation of device and PC is actually quite an innovation, as it means that the Kindle is a first-class standalone experience and not an accessory that needs to be tethered to a laptop or desktop PC.

Connectivity to the store can be somewhat slow depending on what the cellular access is like in your current location: Amazon provides all Kindle users with free access to its so-called Whispernet wireless network, which is really Sprint's high-speed 3G, EV-DO-based cellular network. That means you can access the store, browse around, download free samples, and purchase entire books, anytime and from virtually anywhere.

To access the Kindle store online, you access the Kindle home screen, select Menu, and then choose Shop in Kindle Store from the popup menu. The store appears onscreen almost instantly, with sections for browsing books, newspapers, magazines, and blogs; Kindle top sellers; new and noteworthy books; national best sellers; and recommended books, the latter of which is based, in typical Amazon fashion, on your previous purchases. At the bottom of the screen, and accessible at all times, is a Search Store box. Just start typing on the device's keyboard and search the Kindle store as you would Amazon's complete store on the Web.

At the time of this writing, Amazon offers over 93,000 books on the Kindle store, in 24 categories. There are 11 daily newspapers, most from the US, though there's one each from France, Germany, and Ireland as well: I'd like to see this selection improved dramatically, but it's a good start. For magazines, you have a choice of just 8, all of which are American. I couldn't care less about the blogs, as I have a hard time understanding why anyone would pay for such a thing, but there are over 300 available right now.

The browsing experience on the Kindle store is decent but not excellent. Thanks to the grayscale screen and 3G wireless access, book covers render fairly slowly and are unattractive. But the store provides enough jumping off points to get you started, and if you've ever found yourself getting lost on, you'll be in familiar territory here. When you access the info page for a particular book, the Kindle store provides a handy way to see other books by the same author, check out editorial and reader reviews, write your own review, download a sample--a key Kindle advantage--or buy the book. There are also lists, such as other books that were purchased by customers who bought the one you're currently viewing.

While the Kindle store's library can hardly be called authoritative at this point, it's still considerably larger than any e-book library I've seen, and anyone should be able to find something interesting. That said, there are lapses. There isn't a single Tolkien book in there, and "Harry Potter" fans will need to stick with the paper-based books for now. On the other hand, Asimov is well-represented, and those looking for best-sellers will find those lists well-represented. There's plenty of James Patterson out there for frequent fliers looking for some no-calorie easy reading.

Problems with the Kindle

As impressive as the Kindle is, it's also very clearly a 1.0 product with numerous small problems and missing features. Compatibility with common document formats is extremely limited: You can connect the device to your PC with a bundled USB cable, but the only truly common formats it understands are text (for documents) and MP3 (for music). And if you're thinking about accessing the over 100,000 free e-books at Project Gutenberg, prepare for the first serious problem with this device: These books don't display properly on the Kindle because they are encoded with hard returns at a particular character number in each line.

Amazon does offer a document conversion service that works with common document formats like Word documents (*.doc) and PDF. There are two versions of this service, and one is free. If you email a document to your specially made Kindle email address, Amazon will email it back to you in Kindle format for free, which is wonderful. Or, for just 10 cents, you can send it to a slightly different email address and Amazon will send it wirelessly right to the Kindle. But if the document features even slightly complicated formatting or includes a lot of graphics, the resulting Kindle document will look horrible. This service works best with just text. Amazon's turnaround time is excellent and can typically be measured in seconds.

I've noticed some formatting issues with books purchased from the Kindle store. While some books are almost perfect, some have the occasional odd characters, or, in the worst case, missing section breaks. A Robert Ludlum book I purchased ("The Sigma Protocol," which is excellent, by the way) is a particularly bad example: I counted over a dozen missing section breaks, and it's confusing when two consecutive sentences in the same paragraph actually have nothing to do with each other. I'm not sure if this is Amazon's fault or the publishers, but it's an exception not the rule, at least with the books I've seen so far.

In one case, a downloaded book sample included no actual text from the book itself, just boilerplate material from the front matter. Most samples are quite generous, however. Another issue with samples is that there's no connection between a sample and the full book: If the sample covers, say, the first two chapters of a particular book and then you decide to purchase the full book, you have to manually navigate past those two chapters in the full book. That's silly.

The Kindle's button-heavy design means you may have to adjust the way you hold the device, but I was able to adapt very quickly. And while it's not ideal for the gym per se, I am able to read books on the device on an elliptical trainer though reaching for the Next Page button so frequently gets tiring. A remote control of some kind would be nice.

The included leather book cover is a nice touch but it doesn't really hold the Kindle adequately enough. I'd like to see a snap-on corner piece for the lower right corner so that the device was held more securely.

The cursor wheel is a bit hard to click. Nothing serious, as you don't really use it that often, but it's the only button on the device that's truly hard to click. The keyboard response time seems slow, but its fine for searching on the Kindle store. I wouldn't want to write a book review with it.

Finally, I'm reasonably sure that I'm not seeing the 30 hours of battery life that Amazon claims, though it's hard to measure such things. Battery life is certainly exemplary, but I wouldn't consider going on even an overnight trip with this device without bringing the charger, just in case. And when you see the battery meter getting below about 20 percent, get ready for a sudden shut down: Like certain cars I've owned in the past, the bottom quarter of the gas tank seems to empty a lot more quickly than the rest.

Packaging and availability

There is only one Kindle version currently available, for $399, from The company also sells a variety of add-ons and accessories, including additional book covers, power adapters, and USB 2.0 cables. You can expand the device's internal memory with common SD cards, but I have a hard time imagining anyone needing to do such a thing for the near term, unless they wanted to load it up with some background music. My Kindle is currently loaded up with 7 books, two weeks' worth of newspaper subscriptions, and four issues of Time, along with a few converted documents for testing, and I'm only using about a quarter of the device's internal memory.

Kindle ships in a nice book-like box, though I have to wonder about the message such a large package is sending when you consider that the device is supposed to help eliminate paper waste. Everything is very high quality, up to and including the clear plastic sheath used to store the user's manual, another item Amazon might consider scaling back on. (An electronic version is loaded on the device as well.)

Final thoughts

As Amazon's first actual physical product that I'm aware of, the Kindle is an interesting mix of the new and old, and a wonderful solution for anyone who values reading as much as I do. Yes, it's a bit expensive, but do remember that the $399 asking price includes free Whispernet connectivity and access to books that are often quite a bit less expensive than their paper counterparts. Newspaper subscriptions are particularly inexpensive as well.

Rather than trying to figure out how long it would take for you to recoup the costs of the Kindle, I think it makes more sense to think of this device as the ultimate convenience gift for anyone you know who loves to read. It's especially useful for frequent travelers or commuters who read on the way to work, thanks to its small and useable form factor and instant access to an every-growing library of content.

I love the Kindle, and while I understand its initial price restricts its market size somewhat, that will come down over time. But book lovers and readers of all kinds will gravitate to the Kindle regardless of the price. My wife--and remember, she's notoriously thrifty--is considering getting her own Kindle because I'm always using mine. The Kindle is that amazing.

Highly recommended.

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