Normally, I review toys. Technically, most of what I review aren’t true ‘toys’ (if you can find a way to play with a Professor McGonagall mini-bust that doesn’t involve your own weird sexual aberrations, please let me know), but that’s generally how folks think of it nonetheless. So today I thought I’d go for something a bit different, and look at the newly released Kindle 2 e-book reader from Amazon. Hey, it’s more of a ‘toy’ than a Premium Format statue of Slave Leia…and yes, I know exactly how you’re ‘playing’ with her, you sick bastard.
As a card carrying geek in good standing with the association, I’m a huge fan of technology. I’m an engineer by education, and I was working with computers when they still took up entire rooms. I tend to be what the marketing types like to call an early adopter, especially when it comes to technology related to entertainment.
E-books and e-book readers were touted as the next great thing that would change the face of the world more than a decade ago. And as you might have noticed, books haven’t disappeared. I was one of those people who thought that e-books didn’t stand a chance, not because the technology sucked, but because of thousands of years of inherited instinct. We’ve been reading books an awfully long time, and there’s a special bond between a reader and the tome he reads. Early proponents of e-books seemed to dismiss that human instinct and desire for the printed page, right up to their failure in the market.
So years went by, and I didn’t own an e-book reader. Various models popped up and disappeared, as well as various technologies to make reading e-books easier on computers and portable devices. And I avoided them all. Until the Kindle.
My sweet, adorable, loving wife bought me a Kindle 2 for my recent birthday. However, it was not a total surprise, as I’d been requesting such a gift since last summer. Maybe it was the cool look. Maybe it was the ability to get new reading material instantly, any where, any time. Maybe those marketing types had finally just wore me down. In any event, I was ready to give it a personal shot.
I’ve had my Kindle 2 for a couple weeks now, and have already bought 5 books for it. I even bought one newspaper, largely to see how it handled such a beast. I’ve read it in various lighting situations, and in various places, and I couldn’t be happier with it.
Let’s start with the design and ergonomics. The overall reader is about 8″ tall and just over 5″ wide, making it book-sized. However, it’s only about a third of an inch thick, making it Christian Bale in the Machinist skinny. To add to the impression of thinness, they’ve beveled and rounded the sides, tapering them down at the very edge. The Kindle weighs in at about 10 ounces, which is more heft than you’d think. Don’t get me wrong - it’s not heavy, but having the 10 ounces in such a thin device does give you the impression that you’re holding something sturdy and substantial, not something cheap and easily broken.
The screen is 6 inches on the diagonal, and is certainly large enough. As a fast reader, I find myself flipping pages quickly, but said flipping happens with great speed, so there’s no delay or interruption in the flow of the book.
There aren’t a lot of buttons on the front of the Kindle 2. There’s two large buttons on the left and right edges, both designed to move to the Next Page. Why two instead of just one on the right? Well, first you’re forgetting the lefties out there, and second, having the main button on both edges means you can hold the book in only one hand and still flip pages, and that hand can shift back and forth as you change physical positions. Hey, I shift around when I’m reading, and I found the two buttons very useful. Above the Next Page button on the left is a smaller Previous Page button (which does the obvious), and above the Next Page button on the right is a Home button.
The Home button takes you to your home page, where there’s a listing of all the books, papers, magazines and blogs that you have on the reader, and allows you to archive content or delete it. Jumping away from a book at any time to the Home page or another book does not lose your place, by the way.
Also on the right, near the bottom, are two more buttons and a control ’stick’. The top button is your method for accessing the Menu, where you can shop the Kindle store wirelessly, along with a ton of features like annotating, bookmarking, copying text, etc. These features vary based on where you are, and I’ll cover these additional features more in a minute. The bottom button is a simple Back function, and it functions anywhere just like you’d expect.
The Kindle 2 does not have a touch screen. I’m good with that - I really don’t need to smudge up the screen constantly, especially when I’m trying to read with it. But some of the menu functions I mentioned require a cursor to be on the text, so that you can highlight passages or add notes. The control stick can be used to move said cursor, or to move any cursor (for example, the cursor in a Search box in the Kindle Store) to the left, right, up and down. Likewise it can move you through various menus, and by pushing it, you can select particular options.
Across the bottom of the Kindle is a keypad with the usual alphabetic characters as well as a couple of the most used symbol characters. There’s actually a ’sym’ button mixed in there for the less used symbols, a delete key, a space bar…the usual suspects. This keyboard is useful for searches, notes, annotations, etc.
There’s one little key mixed in with the keyboard that’s very important, particularly if you’re an old fart who refuses to use bifocals, like me. It’s labeled “Aa”, and pressing it brings up a screen that you can use to alter the size of the typeface. The default font is right in the center, and you can up the size (as I did), or shrink it down, for you punk ass kids with your eagle eyes and complicated shoes.
The use of these various buttons, menus and functions is extremely clear and straight forward. In the first two weeks, I haven’t referred to the user manual for any thing - the interface is that intuitive. The manual is available right on the Kindle of course, but most folks won’t need it to get started.
Getting started means buying your first book, newspaper, or magazine, and to do that you have a couple options. There are two key features that I think separate the Kindle from all previous e-books, and the first and foremost of those is the ability to get content any time, any where, over a 3G wireless network. This network access is free, at least in the sense of no monthly bills or additional charges once you’ve bought your Kindle. If you are wondering about the network coverage, Amazon has a coverage map right here. Can you read me now?
I can attest to the speedy nature of the downloads. I bought Dan Simmons’ new book, Drood, and it’s a long book…and I had it within 30 seconds. The beauty is that you can order the books from the Kindle itself, or on your computer and they get downloaded instantly. When you ‘register’ your Kindle, you tell it what your Amazon account name is. This links your Kindle directly to your Amazon account, using the CC you have on file for the purchases. It’s one click buying on your computer too, and is a fast, simple process.
Being able to get content this way is a key feature that sets this e-book reader apart. Now I can be sitting at a restaurant for lunch, and grab today’s copy of USA Today to keep myself occupied. An unexpected delay at the airport, doctor’s office, or any other situation can be turned into a chance to start a new book, without having to have the forethought to have bought it in advance. How great is that? No longer will us bookworms be forced into uncomforable conversations with the strangers around us.
There’s plenty of content to choose from too, and much of it is absolutely free. Amazon has over 260,000 books available right now, and like I said, I had no trouble finding Dan Simmons’ new book…or Michael J. Fox’s new book…or his old one, for that matter. New books are usually $9.99, up to 50% cheaper than what you’d pay for the hardcover. Older books are even less expensive, often just two or three dollars, and I picked up Wind in the Willows to read to my kids for just eighty cents. Many classics are absolutely free! And don’t worry about accidently deleting a book off your Kindle. Amazon keeps a backed up record of all the books you’ve downloaded, so you can always download them again for free.
The Kindle 2 can store up to 1500 books. That translates to a lifetime of reading, or about 1 book every two weeks for 70 years. You could read e-books your entire life, and never delete the old content. Of course, you know that’s not going to happen, which is part of the issue with an e-book reader. When you buy an actual paper book, you have something you can keep your whole life (short of fire, flood or your dog chewing it up). But as time has passed, I’ve figured out that there aren’t many books I actually WANT to keep. Oh, I’m a packrat, so I end up with more than I really need, stored in boxes in an attic, garage or basement, and finally ending up in a garage sale. It’s taken me awhile to get to this point, but I’m fine with the concept of electronic media being my only copy of a new bestseller.
However, most folks aren’t going to want to ditch their electronic copies of their books every few years when the next great reader comes out. Amazon has that covered, by providing the back up service I mentioned above. Since they’ll always let you re-download a book you’ve purchased, I can see them using that as a method of getting you to upgrade to the next Kindle. Buy the latest and greatest reader from them, and all your old Kindle content can be downloaded to it again!
Another big drawback is that you can’t share your copy with your friends. There’s no way to simply hook up a USB stick and drop the book on for your friends to read, and you know what…I can live with that too. If you’re in the habit of loaning out your books, you might not agree. But as far as I’m concerned, buy your own damn copy. And get the hell off my lawn, while you’re at it.
One area where I think e-book readers like the Kindle have real potential is college text books. The Kindle 2 allows you to highlight and annotate passages, cut sections of text out, make notes, and do all that sort of stuff the average poor college student is forced to do. But instead of being forced to pay $40 for some crappy used copy of a text book that was owned previously by some anal moron that highlighted every other paragraph and doodled love poems to their latest drunken conquest in the margins, they could have their own copy for just ten bucks, nice and clean and ready for their own virtual yellow highlighter. And the authors and publishers of college text books would be happy too, since they’d be getting a piece of ALL text book sales, instead of losing a huge hunk of the income to the used book market.
This ability to annotate, book mark and notate is something that only an e-copy allows. Another feature that can only exist in the electronic world is searching. Kindle’s search function will allow you to find a phrase, character, or word across your entire library of downloaded books. Lets say you’re a fan of Stephen King, and have all his books on your Kindle. You are reading his Kindle only novella, UR, and you know he’s used the term ‘low men’ before in describing the same type of characters…but in what other books? The search function will find them all for you instantly.
Amazon also has a free feature to convert your own documents to the Kindle. Let’s say Bob in Accounting has just sent you a huge Word document you need to read this weekend, but you don’t want to lug your laptop to your kid’s baseball game. You email the doc to a specific Amazon email address, and they convert it to a Kindle usable file. For a small fee (ten cents) they’ll also transfer it directly to your Kindle over the wireless network, or if you’re really a cheap bastard like me, for free they’ll send it to your regular email address, and you can hook up your Kindle through it’s USB port and download it yourself.
Another new feature with the Kindle 2 is the ability to read a book to you. You can choose between a male or female voice, and alter the speed a bit as well. However, don’t go thinking this feature will put any book-on-tape actors out work any time soon. While it’s not as robotic as WOPR, but it does have some trouble with inflection with longer words, and lacks any sort of emotion. The speakers are clear and well placed however, and their inclusion means that you can download audio books from Audible.com, and listen to them through your Kindle, either with the speakers or with headphones.
I mentioned early in the review that there were two features that make this e-book reader stand out. One is clearly the wireless connection. What’s the other? Why, the single most important feature of any e-book reader - the display.
Most readers feature a backlit display. Yep, you can read a book on your iPhone with an iApp, and you get iStrain. One of the main reasons is the backlighting. Staring at a bright screen with black text is hard on the eyes, especially when you’re reading for long periods. A computer monitor can be tough enough on your eyes, but when you’re browsing web pages and playing games, your eyes are bouncing around, getting updated images quickly. When you’re reading, you’re simply staring at text - do that for an hour, and you’ll quickly start to feel that tell tale headache behind your forehead.
The Kindle 2 is NOT backlit. Of course, that means you can’t read it in the dark without a light, just like a regular book (and yes, I’ve heard some people complain about this), but it also means that the page not only looks much more like an actual piece of paper with black type on it, but it treats your poor eyes the same way too. I read for 3 1/2 hours last Sunday at my daughter’s gymnastics meet, and didn’t have any trouble. Because there is no backlighting, and holding the ink on the screen requires no real power, the only real power use is when you’re flipping pages or using various functions. That means the battery lasts an extremely long time, and the Kindle doesn’t heat up no matter how long you’re using it. The screen itself allows no glare, so you can read in any sort of direct light including sunlight without any of the usual problems. While all the other features of an electronic book are fantastic - downloads, searching, bookmarking, etc. etc. etc. - they wouldn’t have any appeal if they hadn’t solved the simple issue of making the screen simulate an actual page. I think that Amazon’s ‘electronic ink’ technology has solved that basic issue, allowing all the other features to become the focus.
There’s lots of other features here, including an experimental web browser, a pre-loaded dictionary that can instantly tell you the meaning of words in the text, wireless access to Wikipedia, the ability to zoom in and out on images (yes, it can handle images, although they are rendered in 16 shades of gray), the ability to sync with your iPhone, and much, much more. But the key purpose here is to read books, and that’s what you’ll be doing for hours with this reader.
So am I happy with it? Yea, if that isn’t obvious. Rememer, I’m one of those bookworms who never believed I’d be able to give up the feel of a novel in my hands. And now it’s going to be the mighty rare book that I buy that isn’t on my Kindle 2.
Because Amazon has solved the riddle of eye strain with their new electronic ink technology, you can get past that issue and focus on the pros and cons of electronic media versus print. With print, you can share the book, have it on your shelf, and throw it at the cat. You can treat it as poorly as you’d like, and not feel too bad about it. You can’t do those things with an electronic copy (at the price of a Kindle, I wouldn’t recommend throwing your own at anything or anyone…but if it’s you’re boyfriends, and you just caught him cheating with that tramp at the coffee shop, then chucking his Kindle at him will be far more satisfying than any paper book) but you can do oh so much more. So are e-books and readers like the Kindle going to change the face of the print world? Yes, yes they are. Oh, they won’t do it overnight, but I suspect that it’s going to seem that way once we hit the tipping point.
You can get your Kindle 2 from Amazon for $359. Yep, I said it wasn’t cheap, but considering the price of hardcover books these days, it’s not going to take too many downloads before the reader pays for itself. And besides…there’s a price to be paid for being an early adopter
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