November 22, 2007
State of the Art
An E-Book Reader That Just May Catch On
By DAVID POGUE
You’ve got to have a lot of nerve to introduce an electronic book reader in 2007.
Sure, the idea has appeal: an e-reader lets you carry hundreds of books, search or jump to any spot in the text and bump up the type size when your eyes get tired.
But the counterarguments are equally persuasive. Printed books are dirt cheap, never run out of power and survive drops, spills and being run over. And their file format will still be readable 200 years from now.
So e-book readers keep on coming and keep on flopping: the Rocket eBook Reader. Gemstar. Everybook. SoftBook. Librius Millennium Reader. The Sony Reader is in stores even now, priced at $350 and making literally dozens of sales.
Then on Monday, Amazon introduced its own e-book reader, called the Kindle. It arrives at $400 — reading material sold separately.
Are they completely nuts?
The Kindle is a thin, 10-ounce slab of white plastic, tucked into a leatherette cover. It’s not, ahem, gorgeous; it’s all white plastic, sharp angles and visible seams, with all the design panache of a Commodore 64.
Its slight left-side thickening is supposed to suggest the feel of a paperback book folded back on your hand.
The screen uses the same astonishing E Ink technology that Sony’s Reader uses. It looks like black ink on light gray paper: no backlight, no glare, no eyestrain — and no need to turn it off, ever.
That’s because E Ink draws power only when you turn a page. At that point, millions of particles are drawn into a pattern of letters (or four-shade gray-scale images) by a brief electronic charge — and there they can stay forever, even if you take the battery out. You don’t turn this thing off; you just set it down, like a book.
The “ink” is so close to the surface of the screen, it looks like it’s been printed there, so reading is satisfying, immersive and natural. At page turns, only a distracting black-white flash reminds you that you’re not viewing paper anymore.
To the right is a screen-height recessed groove. What looks like a shiny bit of silver chrome moves in this groove as you roll the clickable thumbwheel beneath it. This is your cursor; the electronically controlled silver patch grows and shrinks to highlight buttons or page chunks on the screen to its left.
But the part that will really rock your world is the Kindle’s free wireless cellular broadband service.
Now, if you just splurted your coffee, you’re forgiven; “free” and “wireless broadband” have rarely been used in the same sentence before. The Kindle goes online using Sprint’s 3G cellular data network — the same service that costs $60 a month for corporate laptop luggers. The Kindle’s price tag stings less when you realize that Amazon is going to pay your entire wireless tab.
So the Kindle can get online almost anywhere — not just in little coffee-shop hot spots, but in cabs, in lines, in doctor’s offices.
There’s even a crude Web browser. It’s fine for text and graphics, lousy for Web layouts and useless for streaming audio or video. But with some effort, you can use it to get news, rebook a flight, monitor blogs and even check Web e-mail (like Gmail).
But that’s not why Amazon is paying your wireless bills, and that’s not why it burdened the design with a tiny, clicky keyboard. No, the real point is instant book downloading.
The Kindle store offers best-seller lists, Most Popular lists and a Search box. The catalog includes 90,000 books so far, including 101 of the 112 currently listed as New York Times best sellers.
That dwarfs the Sony catalog (20,000 books), but Amazon says that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Its goal is to have every printed book on earth available for instant download.
It’s a giddy thought. Someone mentions a great book — any book. You whip out the Kindle, download the book in 60 seconds and start reading it.
That fantasy isn’t quite fulfilled at the moment. There’s an endless amount of great stuff on the Kindle store, but not everything. There’s no “Harry Potter” series, no “Book Thief,” no “Inconvenient Truth.”
Still, the instant wireless gratification is intoxicating, especially compared with the clunky method of loading up previous e-readers, with a Windows PC and a cable.
The pricing is another breakthrough: Kindle books generally cost less than half of what printed books cost (and much less than Sony’s e-books). It’s common sense; why should a digital file cost as much as a physical object, manufactured and shipped? Most Kindle hardcover books cost $10, including “I Am America (and So Can You”), “Deceptively Delicious” and “Freakonomics.” Their hardcover prices are $25 or $26. Older books cost $3 to $6.
You can also subscribe to major newspapers for various prices, including this one for $14 a month. Your paper arrives at 3 a.m., Eastern time, silently and automatically, complete with all articles and photos (although without the comics, crosswords, ads and so on). Magazines are available (for example, $1.50 a month for Time) and so are blogs ($2 a month).
Of course, even at those discounted prices, it will take you a very long time to recoup the Kindle’s $400 price; this machine is mostly about convenience, not economics.
But if you’re short of cash, you can also fill the Kindle with your own documents and photos — by e-mail. You, or your authorized minions, can e-mail Word, PDF, JPEG and text files directly to your Kindle’s special address — including any of the 20,000 free, out-of-copyright e-books at Gutenberg.org.
Amazon charges 10 cents for each e-mailed document; if even that’s too rich for your blood, you can also transfer them free from a Mac or PC, over a U.S.B. cable.
This feature means that you can look over documents, contracts and user guides while you’re on the road — without a laptop.
The Kindle holds about 200 books. (As an author myself, I was a little mortified to learn that my months of effort boil down to a pathetic 800-kilobyte text file.) You can insert an SD memory card to hold thousands more.
All of your reading material, and even your notes, bookmarks and clippings, is automatically backed up on Amazon.com. You can delete stuff when the Kindle gets full, confident that you can download it again later.
Amazon says that you’ll get about two days’ worth of reading on a charge of the replaceable battery — or, if you turn off the wireless feature, a week.
The Kindle also plays audio books you’ve bought from Audible.com, although they have to be bought and loaded from a computer. You can even play MP3 files as background-reading music (random-shuffle mode only).
There are drawbacks, though. The right and left margins of the Kindle are gigantic Previous Page and Next Page clickers; it’s almost impossible to avoid clicking them by accident.
There’s a Back button, but no Forward button — a real drag when you’re on the Web or the Kindle store. You can’t read in landscape orientation. And you can’t change the type size for the Web — not even for the Kindle store, whose text is tiny indeed.
So if the Kindle isn’t a home run, it’s at least an exciting triple. It gets the important things right: the reading experience, the ruggedness, the super-simple software setup. And that wireless instant download — wow.
Even though most people will prefer the feel, the cost and the simplicity of a paper book, the Kindle is by far the most successful stab yet at taking reading material into the digital age.
No, it’s not the last word in book reading. But once its price comes down and its design gets sleeker, the Kindle may be the beginning of a great new chapter.
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