The Amazon Kindle isn't the most attractive electronic book, but it's definitely the most connected. One-upping Sony's new Reader PRS-505 the $399 Kindle costs $100 more, but it includes free integrated mobile broadband for buying books on the go, accessing Wikipedia, or having your subscription newspaper and magazines sent to you directly. The Kindle's stunning display, skinny body, convenient reading tools, and easy-to-use interface make it the best alternative to hardcovers yet. However, its unattractive design, unfriendly button placement, and lofty price will give some pause.
Without its black leather cover, you wouldn't know the albino Kindle, which looks like a calculator from 1985, was an e-book reader. The 5.3 x 7.5 x 0.7-inch device is as thin as an issue of The New Yorker and at 10.3 ounces, nearly half an ounce lighter; its 6-inch, 600 x 800-pixel screen takes up most of the real estate. A rubberized scroll wheel lets you navigate menus and select options. Four large rectangular page-turning buttons line both sides of the screen and are angled, making it comfortable in our hands. We liked that the Kindle is ambidextrous, but the buttons are too sensitive; we kept turning pages by accident.
The screen is extremely easy on the eyes; we read Anita Shreve's Body Surfing in the sun without a problem. While one of the shortcomings of E-Ink technology is the split-second delay when you turn a page, it's less obvious on the Kindle than on the Sony Reader. Unfortunately, just like the Reader, the Kindle lacks a backlight; in a dimly lit room, we needed a lamp. The bottom rim contains a headphone jack, volume controls, a mini-USB port, and a charging port. A power switch, wireless on/off control, and SD Card slot (hidden under a rubberized pad) are located on the back.
Because you can shop for books and surf the Web on the Kindle via EV-DO, the full QWERTY keyboard is a necessity. It has angled rectangular keys that lie below the screen; we were happy to see designated number keys and a Home key. Though easy to type on, the keyboard took a few seconds to catch up with our fingers. You can select from six font sizes for typing.
The Kindle's tools demonstrate the real potential--and pitfalls--of electronic books. The integrated New Oxford American Dictionary let us look up words easily, and the note and highlight tools allowed us to write in the margins. The menus are easy to navigate; the only problem we had was seeing exactly where the sidebar cursor lined up with options on the screen. The Kindle removes page numbers, so pinpointing your exact location in a book is difficult; a percentage line displays your progress.
Shopping at the Kindle Store
Adding content from Amazon's Kindle store involved a three-click process, but we preferred using our PC to search the full Amazon site. Most books are priced at $9.99 and offer the first chapter free to preview. This is less expensive than the books Sony offers. James Patterson's Double Cross, for example, costs $11.99 through Sony Connect and only $9.99 on Amazon. Downloads are quick: Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!) downloaded in 45 seconds. Amazon's 90,000-book catalog puts Sony's 20,000-book offering to shame, but it doesn't have everything: Our search for Philip Roth and Raymond Carver novels turned up blank. The Kindle can hold as many as 200 books in its 256MB of internal memory (or more if you expand the memory with up to a 4GB SD Card). Amazon backs up all your material to its site in the event of a crash.
Playyour tunes, Browse the Web
The Kindle also has an unimpressive, stripped-down music player and a Web browser, which uses the free EV-DO-based delivery system called Whispernet. The connection is speedy, but page formatting is poor, and you can't navigate using the scroll wheel. The browser works best with sites formatted for mobile, but not for checking e-mail or Facebook. We liked the Kindle NowNow service, which has real people answer questions. Our query "What is the capital of Maine?" was replied to via our Amazon-assigned Kindle e-mail address in less than five minutes. (Answer: Augusta, in case you didn't know.)
Although Whispernet is free, we were disappointed that you have to pay to subscribe to otherwise free online newspapers and blogs, but some are worth the price (especially because you can't get them at all on the Sony Reader). We're loath to pony up $1.99 per month for most blogs, but reading using the Kindle to read The New York Times ($13.99 a month, or 75 cents per issue) on a train was a lot easier than folding the broadsheet. Loading documents was easy: We sent a Word doc to our Kindle e-mail address, where, for 10 cents, Amazon converted it and sent it to the Kindle in less than a minute.
Battery life was decent on the Kindle, so long as we remembered to turn the wireless off. It's rated for 2 days with it on and 7 days with it off. We managed to get through 5 days with the wireless off and still had some charge left. Ideally, the device would automatically shut down after going into the screen saver mode, but we like that Amazon, unlike Sony, ships its device with an AC adapter.
The Kindle's Potential
There's a lot of solid and convenient technology inside the Kindle, and we were thoroughly impressed with the mobile broadband connection and the reading tools. But $399--a hundred bucks more than the Sony Reader PRS-505--is a lot to pay for an imperfect reading experience. If you're an avid reader, however, that may come out in the wash with Amazon's cheaper selections. Despite the price, the Kindle has potential to win over business travelers, commuters, and other mobile readers who like the idea of downloading new content on the spot.