We’ve long appreciated the concept of the eBook, but we’ve been disappointed in its execution. The old Franklin readers ate batteries, had small screens, and included only a meager selection of books. Sony’s Reader has a better battery life, but the selection of first-run books leaves much to be desired. Amazon’s new Kindle solves many of these problems but introduces an even thornier one.
The Kindle's screen is made up of a ton of tiny magnetic balls, which are light on one side and dark on the other.
Like the Sony Reader, the Kindle sports a 6-inch black-and-white E Ink screen. Unlike backlit LCD screens, E Ink draws power only when pixels are changing, which greatly improves battery life for this type of device. There are other benefits as well: The screen looks more paperlike and is easier on the eyes than a typical backlit LCD. Of course, there’s a downside: The screen redraw time is very slow, you need an external source of light to see what’s on the screen, and E Ink is limited to black and white, at least for now. The Kindle’s 188MB of onboard memory should be sufficient to hold at least 100 average-size books and an integrated SD card slot allows for additional storage.
What separates the Kindle from other electronic books is its tight integration with Amazon. By building in an EVDO cellular data connection and connectivity to the Kindle store, Amazon removed the requirement for a PC from the eBook equation. There’s no monthly charge for the wireless service, and downloading books takes less than a minute. Furthermore, Amazon is selling electronic books at a steep discount over their dead-tree brethren. The most expensive (non-textbook) title we’ve seen on the service is $9.99, with many older books priced substantially lower. With only about 90,000 titles available currently, finding the book you’re looking for can be hit or miss, but the selection is growing every day, and includes all the current bestsellers, plus a respectable back catalog. Unlike other eBooks, the Kindle could be a money-saving proposition for voracious readers who purchase lots of hardcover books.
Kindle also allows you to access newspapers, magazines, and blogs. For a small subscription fee (the New York Times costs $15/month, Boing Boing costs $2/month), your Kindle will automatically download the news of the day from your publication of choice. The newspaper selection includes major dailies from around the country, but the magazine selection lacks many publications we’d like to have. Because of the limitations of the black-and-white screen, only text-heavy magazines like Newsweek are available via Kindle. We wouldn’t buy a Kindle just to read the San Francisco Chronicle and Newsweek, but it’s a handy bonus.
Naturally, if you live outside an area serviced by Sprint/Nextel’s data coverage, then you can use your PC to download and copy content to the Kindle, either over USB or by copying it to an SD card. You can also use the same mechanisms to back up your purchased Kindle content, although that isn’t necessary. All of your digital purchases are automatically backed up online at Amazon’s digital media locker. If you delete something from your Kindle and later want to reread it, you can easily redownload it from Amazon at no additional charge.
There are some problems with the Kindle. Using the wireless service absolutely destroys the battery life. With wireless disabled, the Kindle’s battery lasts more than a week, but we could mow through a half-charge in the time it took to find and download a couple of new books. We also strongly dislike the Kindle’s proprietary file format. In order to view a PDF on the device, you must email it to a special email address, which will convert the PDF to the Kindle format and automatically deliver it—for $0.10. And the larger problem is that Kindle books you buy from Amazon won’t necessarily work with future eBook readers. By using a closed format, Amazon effectively locks you into its hardware platform, at least if you want to be able to revisit your old purchases. There isn’t even a reader program for your PC. Be aware of this before you shell out $400 for a Kindle.
The Kindle is an extremely promising platform, but until Amazon commits to building a migration path for users to move their books from one eBook platform to another, we just can’t give it a glowing recommendation.
Cheap books. Great screen and impressive battery life; when not using wireless.
Closed eBook format locks you into the Kindle forever. Expensive. Doesn't support PDF.