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In-depth review: can Amazon's Kindle light a fire under eBooks?

Judging the Kindle by its Cover

It seems the Kindle was only designed to be used with the included leather cover, which turns it into a hard bound virtual volume. The cover itself seems well built and is more attractive looking than the Kindle itself. It includes a padded area to protect the Kindle's screen (visible below top) and has an elastic band that holds the cover closed when not in use (below bottom).

Amazon Kindle

Amazon Kindle

Snugly fit into the cover, the odd Kindle shape makes more sense. Reading is still a bit foreign, as it feels like you are forever stuck on page one of a hard cover book, but the page turning buttons reflect how you'd turn real pages: tap the right edge to page forward or reach over to touch the upper left to flip back. Kept inside the cover, the Kindle quickly begins to feel natural, although it can still be easy to bump the page turning buttons accidentally.

Amazon Kindle

Being inside the cover doesn't make the keyboard fell any less cheap, but the Kindle is designed primarily to read information, not to enter significant amounts of text. Taking the Kindle outside of its cover is a bit like taking a snail out of its shell: it lethally converts its plucky, slow crawl into an ugly mess you don't want to have in your hands. Used as intended however, the Kindle seems to work well within its intended purpose as an electronic reader.

Reading Between the Lines

Because the screen isn't backlit, you can't read in the dark. In bright light, the Kindle's display looks like very much like light grey, unbleached paper printed with a good quality inkjet printer (below, in contrast with paper). In dim light where paper books are still very readable, the Kindle's contrast and readability falls dramatically; it's like reading a wet newspaper: black on dark grey.

Amazon Kindle

That limitation comes with the territory for devices using E Ink. The upside is that the Kindle lasts forever on a battery charge. It's rated for two days of use with the wireless antenna turned on, and a week if you turn it off. The wireless service, called "Whispernet," is used to order and receive content, and can also be used to access Wikipedia and experimentally browse the web. The store and ebook download service is exceptional, but the other online features sound more attractive than they actually are.

For a number of obvious reasons, directly competing against paper with a digital reader is quite impossibly difficult. For the serious reader, Kindle offers a variety of very compelling features that weigh against the inherent limitations of replacing paper with electronics. In sufficient light, the Kindle is about easy to read as paper; unlike the printed page however, you can select from six levels of type size on the Kindle, which range from what looks like a compact but readable 12 point type to a large, oversized 24 point font. That makes it an enabling technology for readers who require larger type.

Being digital also means that the Kindle can hold scores of volumes and periodicals without consuming space or filling landfills. Once fitted into the cover, it generally works well enough to serve as a stand in for a real book and makes it possible to read text-oriented books, magazines, and newspapers without waiting for or paying for shipping, and without unfolding a tabloid or broadsheet paper.

The Amazon Content Connection

The main reason this oddly shaped plastic gadget absolutely wipes the floor with Sony's sharper looking Reader is that fresh content for the Kindle is literally a few clicks away. Unlike the iPod or iPhone, you don't need a PC or or any software equivalent to iTunes in order to use the Kindle, although it does include a USB cable that allows you to manually drag files to the device as if it were a Flash memory card.

There's also that standard SD Flash RAM slot on the back that can be used to store additional document files on the device, or to manually transfer content from another system. Plugging the Kindle into a Mac or PC via USB presents both the internal Flash and the SD card as mounted volumes. It does not however provide any access to its internal system software, which happens to run a version of Linux, just like Sony's Reader. Incidentally, running Linux doesn't necessarily mean the device is functionally open; there is not currently any way to extend its features. Additionally, all Kindle purchased content is protected by DRM.

The exceptional new wrinkle introduced by the Kindle is its wireless features. Amazon links the unit to your account before mailing it to you, so it shows up personalized with your name when you turn it on. Amazon also activates EVDO mobile data service for you, which is included in the price of the unit and the content you buy. EVDO is the 3G mobile data service offered by CDMA2000 providers such as Sprint and Verizon Wireless, as opposed to the GSM network providers AT&T and T-Mobile in the US. EVDO is also what wags have in mind when they complain about the iPhone's mobile data service not being 3G. As described in How AT&T Picked Up the iPhone: A Brief History of Mobiles, EVDO is significantly faster than AT&T's "2.5G" EDGE, but is much slower than WiFi.

The Depth and Breadth of Amazon Content

Since the digital books and periodicals Amazon delivers are all relatively small, EVDO is plenty fast enough to download content. It typically arrives before you can actually navigate back to the home page to look for it. Issues of the Wall Street Journal appeared to be about 500 - 700 KB, and books seemed to be on average about the same size as long as they didn't include illustrations.

In the 180 MB of free space available, Amazon estimates you can hold about 200 books. If you need more than that, you can drop in a cheap 1 GB SD card and carry around a thousand more books. That type of capacity offers digital book readers another major reason to take the plunge. But where does one get it, and how much does it cost?

Amazon Kindle

Books from the Amazon store (above) cost around $10 for bestsellers and new releases, or a couple dollars for public domain books. Other books are discounted significantly from list prices. For example, Aaron Hillegass' "Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X" lists for $44.99, but is offered at $29.96 as the Kindle download. The paper version is listed on Amazon's website at $31.49. Oddly, Amazon listed the full "print list price" as $49.99 on the web, suggesting a greater discount percentage online despite actually being cheaper as a download.

You can download a sample of a book for free to try it out; I sampled Hillegass' Cocoa book, which included the first three chapters, roughly 10% of the entire book. If you buy a book on accident, you can immediately undo your purchase. You can't sell or giveaway your ebooks when you're finished with them, as they are tied to your account just as most iTunes media downloads are. Rather than paying for a paper copy of a work that wouldn't be easy to duplicate, you're licensing a digital copy that--without DRM--would be trivially easy to mass duplicate and distribute.

The Kindle store lists around 94,000 titles broken down into two dozen categories. Those titles will likely expand rapidly as Amazon continues to line up new content. That sounds like a lot of books, but there's still significant gaps caused by publishers leery of entering the ebook business, and there were a number of duplications. For example, under "Computers and Internet," the store listed nearly 5000 books, but two of the top ten were "iPod and iTunes for Dummies," the latest version and an old edition from 2004. I find it difficult to believe that many people are actually buying a three year old edition of a "how to" book that was published prior to 90% of the iPods ever sold.

The Kindle ebook selection looks more like what Amazon could quickly wrangle the digital rights to distribute, not necessarily a listing of the most popular or most significant books. There were no Harry Potter books, but there were eleven books explaining, attacking, or defending the Harry Potter books. On the other hand, there are five books by Ann Coulter, who has only written six, and at least one of them was filed under the reference section. The Kindle catalog and selection needs some work, but it's still impressive that it's already both larger and lower priced than Sony's "thousands" of Connect ebooks and Mobipockets' library of 40,000 ebooks.

Thinking Outside the Book

Amazon is also offering the Digital Text Platform, which allows writers to publish and sell their work as ebooks for a retail price between a quarter and $200. Amazon pays the author 35% of the proceeds based on the price set by the author. That move makes for an interesting addition to Amazon's existing retail business, and a new opportunity for self-published works.

The Kindle store also offers digital editions of daily newspapers that range from $6 to $15 per month, with a current selection of just 8 US papers: the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Investor's Business Daily, Seattle Times, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as well as the Irish Times, the French language Le Monde, and German Frankfurter Allgemeine.

There's also a selection of digital versions of magazines at $1.25 to $3.50 per month. Currently, the offerings are limited to the Atlantic, Time, Fortune, Forbes, Readers Digest "express", the Nation, Slate, and Salon. Each issue feels a bit abbreviated, but there's also no advertising, so it makes for dense reading.

On page 3 of 5: Other Alternative Content: Blogs, Audiobooks, and Other Documents; A Decade of eBook Failure; Amazon Kindle vs Amazon Mobipocket; Kindle eBook Content Management vs Sony Reader, iTunes; and Kindle vs the iPhone or iPod Touch as a Document Reader.