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Review: The Amazon Kindle e-Book Reader

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My Amazon Kindle arrived this morning. OK, so what on earth (or on the Internet) is an Amazon Kindle? Thanks for asking. The Amazon Kindle is something called an “e-book reader.” It’s a device intended to store complete books, all ready for reading, replacing old-fashioned paper books with something called “E-Ink.” Unlike “real” books, e-books have changeable type (so you can make the text bigger), which is good for middle aged presbyopic eyes like mine. And, instead of schlepping 10 pounds of airplane or beach reading in your carry-on, you can carry the equivalent weight and substance in E-ink within a neat 11-ounce device.

In general, e-book readers lack the “feel” of real books, with all of their inherent “curling-up-with-it-ness” (OK, so that’s not a real word—but you have to admit it does have certain Stephen Fry/Hugh Laurie wordsmith feel to it—but I digress). On the other hand, I like really long novels, and balancing a 1,000 page book on my knee with a cup of coffee in one hand, with the other occupied with keeping the book flat open is one “real-book” feature of which I am not overly fond. So it was with great anticipation that I awaited my Kindle.

And like a kid with a new toy, I tore into the box, tossing the instructions to the side as I beheld my new possession. So now that I’ve had a couple of hours to play (and read), press the buttons and otherwise familiarize myself with the Kindle, I thought it might be timely to jot down a few thoughts.

I figure that there will be tons of reviews of the Kindle in the forthcoming days. I also figure that most of those will be by techno-geeks and gadget freaks. I love my gadgets (just ask my husband and co-workers.) I’m about as geeky as a 53-year old mom can be, I suppose. However, I’m more reader than gadget freak, and more writer than techie–and have been in love with books since before I could read them. I probably spend more time and disposable income at the combination of Borders, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com than I do at Best Buy and Sharper Image (although it’s probably close). Therefore, I believe that my comments about the Kindle will be more useful to the average consumer than to the gadget aficionado. The corollary of that, I suppose, is that this review will not marvel at the technical achievements of the device, but rather focus on the practical and the fun.

The first thing you notice is the packaging. It’s nicely packaged in a book-style case (cute). But who cares about a box? Even a pretty one. Ah, there it is. The Kindle is actually very attractive; its pictures in the media do it no justice at all. Whereas the photos make it look quite klutzy, the actual device is sleek and lovely to view; with its silvery screen and white body, it feels nice in the hand. The back is rubberized, so it doesn’t slip easily from your hands.

The screen is about the same size as a paperback book. A very workable split keyboard (much nicer than that of Blackberry or Treo) takes up the bottom quarter of the unit. The Kindle is flanked by long page turning bars, which are easily operated by the thumb. So easily, in fact that it takes a bit of getting used to since the buttons hug the edge of the unit on both sides, it’s a bit too easy to flip the page. I’m thinking that the design and position is intended to simulate how one turns pages in a real book.

Along the right margin of the page (but in a separate screen is a “wait” screen: a long narrow silvery barometer-looking thing which processes whatever you’re doing, indicates choices on menus, etc. A thumbwheel sits below that, which allows you to scroll and select items from various menus.

The Kindle is easy to use and very, very logical to maneuver. It is relatively simple to navigate the screens, reading material and the bookstore; it took me about two minutes to figure out how to access documents, get to the Kindle bookstore, download samples and start reading.

The keyboard features a “Home” button, which takes you to your main Kindle contents screen; a search button; and a font-sizing button, which lets you adjust the size of the type. The keyboard also allows you to search within a book or document or search the Amazon.com site for a book. They keys are nicely sized and labeled. Typing is not a problem.

I had pre-purchased a novel last night and it was already on the Kindle by the time I powered it on, having found my registered Kindle wirelessly, almost magically, through the ether of the electronic atmosphere. My office sits in a very cell-unfriendly place, but the “EV-DO” signal (like the broadband signal Verizon uses with its cell phones) was strong. I was able to quickly access the Amazon.com store and downloaded sample pages of half a dozen books. I finally purchased one, and it took about 30 seconds before it downloaded and was available for reading. If you have an existing Amazon.com account set up, purchased materials are automatically charged to that account, and to the credit card on file. It’s like “one-click” buying on the regular Amazon.com site. Very convenient; effortless as well. Almost too easy.

The type is incredibly clear. Though not backlit, the page is bright and I had no problem reading the page in the second smallest type face in the not-very-bright light of my office. The unit comes with a leatherette case (much like one of those inexpensive paperback covers you can buy).

You can also download audio books and mp3s, although, as an iPod user, I doubt I will ever use those functions. You can increase the size of the Kindle’s memory by using an SD memory card, which is actually fairly difficult to find (it’s behind the unit under the rubberized back). Again, with the ability to hold more than 100 books on the machine itself, I can’t imagine needing to use an SD card. But you never know, I suppose.

In addition to books, you can subscribe to magazines like Forbes, Time, The Nation and The Atlantic, or newspapers, including The Washington Post, The New York Times…even Le Monde and other international papers. I tend to read newspapers online (or in hard copy, as I do with The New York Times) so this functionality, while nice (and if I need some reading material for a long flight) might be something I won’t access much. The subscriptions are far less costly than the equivalent hard copies, so maybe…

The price is pretty steep at $400.00, and although content is a bargain at $9.99 or less (even for best sellers) for most books, it’s not for the occasional reader. However, the lure for an avid reader to carry with them an ever-present virtual library is pretty seductive to this gadget-loving book lover.

One of the biggest drawbacks I foresee is that people might want to actually hold it and play with it, try it out, etc. before forking over $400.00.  On the other hand, Amazon has already sold out of the Kindle until next week.  So what do I know?

 I give the Kindle a B+ and look forward to a nice long weekend of catching up with my reading.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Ken Jr.

    Thank you for this review. Others I’ve read seem to dwell on perceived downside and brush lightly over what’s good.

    I like to read but the high cost of hardcovers means waiting for the paperback. If I understand correctly I’ll finally be able to read hardcover equivalents for less than $10 as they freshly hit the market. That means a lot to me. And if I wasn’t on a retiree’s budget and instead was a buyer of hardcover books, the Kindle would pay for itself over a year or two just in the price differential between hardcover book store cost and e-book cost.

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    I’ve actually been considering buying an e-book reader for about six months and was thinking of going with the Sony reader. The ease of use that the Kindle offers, the price of new releases (which seems to be lower than for other e-book formats) and the breadth of offerings for the Kindle made me want this one rather than one of the other brands.

    One friend suggested to me that this may ultimately be the answer heavy textbooks (and the damage they cause to the backs and shoulders of kids). I wonder if she’s right on.

    Barbara

  • http://www.zomboscloset.com ILoz Zoc

    I didn’t know about the rubberized back. That’s a plus. As for the design, I still think they keep going down the wrong road: make it the equivalent of reading paper is odd thinking. I don’t want the feel of reading a book. What I really want is a full-color, magazine-styled electronic device using liquid paper technology. The paperback sizing is all wrong. Something the size of a trade paperback or magazine, with a bi-fold screen arrangement would be super (keeping it thin, though). Even a bifold paperback size is better than a single page at a time screen.

    This unit is definitely an improvement, but until full-color comes along, it’s still an early adopter product. What tempts me to pick it up is the use of wireless to download books; that’s a smart move, and a necessary one. Still, the lack of easy PDF support is a poor decision. I’m sure they’ll add direct support in an upcoming version.

    There’s also a blog download feature, but until they go for less mainstream bloggers, I’ll pass on that.

    Audio support is a good idea for more dynamic book or magazine content, but for standalone use, I agree with you, it’s not something I’d buy this thing for.

    I’m itching to pick one up, but at the current price tag, there’s not much being offered. Now if it were color…

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    After playing with it for several days now, there are things (after getting used to it) that I really, really love. Reading in bed is a big thing for me, so the ability to easily, without moving my hands or taking my arms out from under the blanket in the chill of winter is quite nice. The text without backlighting is fine (a backlit display, while eaier to read in the dark would be harder on the retinas, so they say), and so is the size of the unit. The size makes the reader easy to hold with one hand, flipping pages with a flip of the thumb. A two page spread, which would be nice to look back quickly to the previous page would be great, however, I think it would make the unit’s size too large.

    I don’t miss the four-color, but having that ability would make the unit even more flexible.

    The other thing I really like is the wireless, always-on connection to Amazon.com. I have to admit that it is very cool to be sitting in bed, wondering what other books I’d like to read and having the entire Amazon.com collection at my fingertips to download sample pages, etc.

    Barbara

  • http://kevineagan.blogspot.com Kevin Eagan

    This is one of the better reviews I’ve read about this device. Thanks for not overly gushing about it or immediately writing it off as junk. This device sounds really cool, and if it’s successful enough, we may see some of its better technology and ease of use make its way into other devices. However, I think Amazon needs to find a better balance between making the Kindle as close to reading an actual book and a mobile device separate from the literary world as well. Before I ever consider buying it has to 1.) Drop in price considerably 2.) quit charging newspaper and rss subscriptions since we can get most of this for free already 3.) figure out a way to link previous amazon purchases with the e-books, so you don’t have to re-purchase perfectly good books and CD’s 4.) get an integrated, fully functional browser than can compete with iPhone’s Safari browser and the Asus Eee PC, etc. It seems odd to have a device with free 3G and EV-DO and have no web browser.

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    3.) figure out a way to link previous amazon purchases with the e-books, so you don’t have to re-purchase perfectly good books and CD’s 4.) get an integrated, fully functional browser than can compete with iPhone’s Safari browser and the Asus Eee PC, etc. It seems odd to have a device with free 3G and EV-DO and have no web browser.

    Thanks for your comments, Kevin. The price isn’t that out of line with other ebook readers. I know its a bit more than the Sony reader, but the Sony requires a computer interface.

    I would absolutely agree that Amazon should have a way of downloading already-purchased material (hard copy) into the Kindle. Now THAT would be a great improvement. It does have a primitive browser (that works only with text based web pages), but I haven’t played around with that yet.

    I read newspapers (and magazines) online, but it would be nice to carry them around with me on such a small device. You can buy single issues of some of the newspapers (I don’t know if it’s true for all of them, however.)

  • Sean

    I would get one for Christmas, but the lack of support for my pdfs kills it for me. I may just get the sony reader. More format support and cheaper.

    PS- That leather cover is real.

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    I was considering the Sony Reader first. I’ve played with both the PRS 500 and the new 505. Do not get the 500. the screen is very dark and the contrast is terrible. If you do get the Sony, I’d suggest the 505 if only for the brighter screen and better readability. It’s worth the extra money for it.

    To my non-tecchie self, I though that the Sony was harder to use. Someone had to explain to me how to do just about everything with the unit (at a Sony store). The library of available titles is pretty small and is (I’m told) limited to Sony’s bookstore. You don’t have the option to purchase things from the much larger mobi-pocket store (not to mention the Amazon Kidle store–although I don’t know how large the mobi store is). I know that is a complaint I’ve heard about the Sony reader. Bookeen has its Cybook Gen3, which I think also has PDF readability.

    That real leather Sony cover costs $40.00. The unit does not come with any cover at all. You can buy a fake leather cover for $30.00.

    Good luck with whatever you buy. I don’t care that much about PDF compatability, so the lack of support for it (for now anyway) is not an issue.

  • Pol Stafford

    Just wanted to pipe in and say there IS support for other formats than mobi – and it’s either 10 cents or free!
    You have a doc, a pdf, a text file you want on your kindle? You just email it to an amazon.com email address for your kindle, and they convert it and either send it back to you (free) or zap it to your kindle (10 cents).

    You can also plug your kindle in and load files onto it manually.

    One reason you might want that SD card is that you can load Audible audio books onto it (they are HUGE), and you can also put MP3s on the device, and have it play them through the headphones or the speaker – which actually has really amazing sound quality, and makes it fun to read in bed!

    If only there were some kind of Itunes interface for it where it’d auto-sync playlists or something when you connect it, that’d be de-lightful.

    :)

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    Pol–You are correct. I really, really like the Kindle. It’s great for reading in bed, for carrying in my backpack, etc.

    My only real quibble with it is that you have to be careful to not accidentally page turn while you’re holding it. More room for the fingers on the front (maybe slightly smaller page turn-buttons) would be a big improvement for version 2.0

    Barbara