Can Amazon save the e-book?

The latest gadgets and tech toys.
Nov. 26 2007 5:40 PM

Can Amazon Save the E-Book?

The online retailer takes a crack at selling a portable book-reading gadget.

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While Amazon has integrated its hardware and e-commerce services, you aren't dependent on the company for content. You can e-mail any text document, such as a tome from Project Gutenberg's free book catalog, to your Kindle for a charge of 10 cents per file. There's also a rudimentary Web browser tucked behind a menu option labeled "Experimental." Kindle calls this feature "Basic Web" and cautions that it works best with sites that are mostly text. That's about right—it's essentially the equivalent of a middling cell-phone browser, only on a large, monochromatic screen. (There's no wireless data service charge for surfing the Web or using the Kindle store.)

Like the Sony Reader, Kindle can display images, but it's fundamentally a text-oriented device. Both machines dispense with LCD in favor of a 6-inch grayscale "electronic paper" display using technology from E Ink Corporation. E-paper draws so little power that Kindle can run for two days with its wireless connection turned on, or for a week with the wireless shut off. And it doesn't flicker or wash out in the sun—as long as there's enough light it looks more like paper than an electronic display. (The Sony Reader has a slightly more advanced implementation with slicker typography and eight shades of gray vs. Kindle's four; the difference isn't enough to stress over.)

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But in an age in which even cheapo cell phones have vibrant color screens, e-paper's dark-gray-on-light-gray color scheme is drearily retro. The Kindle refreshes much more slowly than any device with an LCD screen, resulting in a perceptible pause and flashing effect as you flip pages. Since the display's refresh problems preclude even simple animations like a moving cursor, Kindle's designers have created a workaround—a thumbwheel that moves a cursor up and down a skinny, secondary display to the right of the main screen. To navigate, you point the cursor at menus on the main screen and click to select them. It's kludgy and a bit primitive but gets the job done.

So, why should you shell out $400 for Kindle when even the most cut-rate printed volume is easier on the eyeballs? As with previous e-book readers, the biggest selling point is portability. I wince at the prospect of lugging even one hardcover on a plane trip, but Kindle can hold the equivalent of 200 in its internal memory, and it has an SD card slot for further expansion. Other conveniences include six text sizes to choose from, full-text searching, annotation, and easy access to the Oxford New American Dictionary and Wikipedia. Most of these features use Kindle's keyboard, which works quite well, though it adds to the device's bulk and detracts from its aesthetics.

The proof of any e-book reader's worth, of course, is in the reading. Here, Kindle proves a mixed bag. I breezed through Steve Martin's memoir Born Standing Up, reading at least as quickly and enjoying myself at least as much as if I'd sprung for the hardcover. When I flipped the last virtual page, I was sorry it was all over.

But the book's photographs, crisp and evocative in the printed edition, are barely decipherable on the e-paper screen. And although Kindle contains a welcome letter from Jeff Bezos declaring his goal to have the device "disappear in your hands," in mine it occasionally behaved like a buggy piece of first-generation consumer electronics. At one point, it inexplicably decided to display the book as center-justified text before abruptly switching back to left-justified format.

For all of Kindle's rough edges, it's the first e-reader that's left me believing that content-consumption tablets could one day be everywhere. My hunch is that they'll resemble flashy, oversized iPhones more than Amazon's resolutely bookish device, though. For now, I'm looking forward to spending time with a well-stocked Kindle on my next cross-country flight. The only downside: Unlike any book I've ever traveled with, it will need to stay stowed during takeoff and landing.

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