There's a lot to like about Amazon's new digital reading device, the Kindle. It's a lightweight, slickly designed handheld device with a crystal clear black and white electronic ink screen that is very easy to use right out the box. And the Kindle has three surefire selling points—title selection, pricing and Amazon's nifty Whispernet wireless network—that give it an advantage over devices like the Sony Reader and the iLiad.
Using the device over the Thanksgiving weekend (I happened to be staying in a Holiday Inn outside Albany, N.Y.) was no problem. The network signal (Kindle uses a cellphone network) was strong and every title in the Kindle bookstore offers a free sample chapter; just the ticket for an intrepid wireless device reviewer. Very quickly I downloaded sample chapters of Mark Harris's The Southpaw; Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke and Buster Olney's The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, just to check out the technology before buying (all but The Southpaw, which was $5, were $9.99) and downloading all three books in their entirety. There's a bit of set up involved in purchasing: each Kindle is registered to its individual owner (you need an Amazon account) and there's an online account to manage the device and set up credit card information and other personal data needed to buy books or to make use of the device's functionality.
Once online, the thing works quite well. Clicking the home button calls up your content and using the select wheel, the user can scroll the list of content, click an item and begin reading. The e-ink screen is very clear and readable even in bright sunlight. The full keyboard lets you search the device and the Web and there's a dictionary to look up stuff. Over the holiday, my two cousins (one is a clinical psychologist and the other a biomedical engineer) pretty much took over the device. The psychologist began downloading sample chapters of organizational development titles, thrilled to easily survey material in her field. She needs to do both a lot of professional reading and a lot of traveling and doesn't like carrying all the books; while the engineer was fascinated by page after page in the Kindle store of $95 Java programming titles (that’s after the discount). But while they loved using the device, they both balked at the $400 price—easily Kindle's biggest drawback. It will be interesting to see how long it will take for the price to come down.
The device will also read personal documents formatted as text, Word or html—sort of. Once you've set up an account you have to e-mail text docs to your Kindle e-mail address, where they are converted into Kindle's AZW format and downloaded wirelessly to your device—for 10 cents each. There's also a free conversion service that e-mails the doc back to you to be loaded into the Kindle via USB cable, an awkward but workable arrangement that at least gives you the option of considering whether you really want to pay to read your own documents.
Despite all its advantages the Kindle isn't perfect. The clamshell white plastic surface is likely to end up grimy very quickly. And while Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has gushed about the user research that went into the Kindle's design, the device can be awkward to hold and use. In the age of touch screen devices, Kindle seems to have a lot of mechanical switches, oddly situated. Buttons that turn the digital pages forward or backward run almost the entire side edges and users will find they are constantly turning pages inadvertently. And if you've done a search on the Kindle store, be very careful not to hit the back button (its small, but it happens) on the right side or you'll lose the search results and have to start all over again. The device's grayscale images are badly rendered (though not the nifty illustrations that appear when the device is in sleep mode) and using the keyboard can be awkward if the device is not supported on the edge of a table. Although I have not had a chance to try the audiobook function, you can also put MP3 music files on the device, although it can only play them in an odd random shuffle mode, intended to provide a kind of musical score to your reading. Another drawback: once I removed the music files, the device's memory gauge still seems to indicate that the files are taking up space.
Compared to the Sony Reader, Kindle offers many more titles and the ease and total digital cool of wireless downloading and online searches. It's a lot cheaper than its other wireless competition, the British-designed iLiad Reader, which uses conventional Wi-fi, offers about 40,000 titles and costs about $700. At the press conference held to announce the device, Bezos said Amazon was trying to create a device that "disappears when you use it," meaning that they wanted a device as easy to use as a real book. In fact Kindle is very easy to use; you don't need a separate PC; it appears to work flawlessly and is clearly another step forward in the effort to create a viable digital reading device. But if Bezos really expects the Kindle to disappear into the hands of readers, he's going to have to rethink the price.