Whenever some new, paradigm-changing gadget comes along, there are new adopters and there are late adopters. Usually, I fall into the latter category. I don’t think I owned a cellular phone until 2005 or so, and the I carry around now is still used primarily to make phone calls. No Internet, or WI-FI, or apps. Heck, it was only a few years ago that we actually got cable TV at my house. I still had rabbit-ears on top of my TV five years ago.
So it’s perhaps odd that I sprang for a Kindle. Amazon claims, apparently, that they’ve sold 2.5 million of the things. That’s a big number, but then apparently Apple has sold ten times that many iPhones, and I’m still making phone calls on the free Sony Ericsson I got when I signed up for my plan. I guess that makes me, if not an early adopter in the field of e-readers, at least not a late one. Which sort of makes sense, since I’ve always read more than I did much of anything else. (Remember how long it took for me to get cable?)
Another admission: my wife bought one first. By about a week. She was prompted by the fact that Amazon had just dropped the price for the entry-level Kindle 2 (the basic model currently available on their website) to $189. I was prompted by the fact that hers came in the mail and seemed pretty cool.
What the thing basically is, in case you’ve happened upon this review by chance and you have no idea what you’re reading about, is an iPod for books. It used to be that I’d go on vacation with a portable CD player and a carefully-chosen binder of 30 CD’s. Then, four years or so after Apple started selling iPods (I said I was a late adopter), I bought one of those, a 20G model with a black and white screen. Instead of 30 CD’s, I could bring the equivalent of thousands with me when I traveled. I still listen to CD’s on an actual player in the house. Speakers sound better to me than headphones, and I like browsing the shelves of my collection to find something to listen to. But the convenience of bringing that much music with me when I leave, and bringing it in a package the size of a pack of cigarettes instead of the lunchbox-sized bundle my CD player and binder used to make, that’s a big advantage.
The Kindle is the same thing. It’s an electronic reading device like the iPod is a music storage device, and it lets me squeeze a lot more media into a lot smaller package for convenience’s sake. I haven’t traveled with it yet, but I’m in the habit of bringing two or three books with me on vacation. More sometimes, if it’s one of those relaxing vacations where you’re sitting on a beach somewhere with nothing much to do except read and try to recover from work. I can already see that the Kindle is going to let me pack that much lighter.
Now, I love books. Just like I loved records when I could still buy them. CD’s were a bit of a step down. The album art was so small in comparison, so you couldn’t actually hold the album sleeve in your hands and feel the same sort of impact, while you listened to the music, that you could with LP sleeves. And then mp3′s replaced CD’s, and that was another step down. I like physical media, is what I’m saying. And the Kindle is a compromise in some ways. It stores books, but simplifies the layout and appearance of the page. I’ve seen book publishers do interesting things with layout, but those sorts of tricks probably wouldn’t transfer well to the Kindle’s screen.
I’ve also heard that people complain that the e-ink screen the Kindle uses isn’t as contrasty as a book, and they’re right. With a paper book, the background is white and the text is black. On the Kindle’s screen, the background is more of a light gray. There isn’t the contrast that there is with paper, and there’s a bit of a reflection if you’re holding the screen at just the right angle in bright light. Neither is particularly distracting, though, and I found that I almost immediately found reading on the Kindle to be more or less equivalent to reading from a paper book.
One advantage the Kindle has over a traditional book is the ease with which it can be read one-handed. In the weeks since I bought the thing, I’ve spent a lot of hours lying on the couch, holding the Kindle up in front of me to read and pressing the “Next Page” buttons (there are two, one on either side of the device, so that you can perform that function with either hand) with my thumb. This is a comfortable position, but I’ve never been able to hold a book open comfortably in that position, let alone turn pages.
Another advantage the Kindle has, if you’re willing to pay for it, is instant gratification. Instead of making a trip to the bookstore or ordering a book through the mail, you can pay the fee for the ebook on Amazon’s website and the file is downloaded a minute or so later to your Kindle, which is registered to your Amazon.com account, through the 3G wireless service that is provided for the device without a monthly fee. Amazon clearly thinks that they’ll make enough money off of people willing to spend $10 a pop on intangible digital copies of books that they can afford to eat the cost of maintaining the equivalent of a cell phone data-only connection for everybody who buys a Kindle, and if my wife’s buying habits are any indication, they’re probably right. However, I tend to read a lot more classics and less new fiction. There are a number of books available on Amazon for direct download to the Kindle at no cost, by authors like Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Oscar Wilde. Those are some of my favorites, so I haven’t actually gotten around to paying for Kindle content yet.
Also, there’s the fact that Amazon ships their Kindles out with a power cord for recharging that’s actually a USB cable with an attachment on the end to plug it into wall current. If you’re looking for classics that aren’t listed on Amazon’s site (or aren’t listed there for free), you’ve got the option of downloading them from sites like Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org) and uploading them to your Kindle for free. That website offers ebooks in the .mobi format that Kindle likes, though it can also handle text files. Moving the ebooks from a computer’s hard drive to the Kindle’s storage is easy, just like using a USB drive, though you can also download management software (I use Calibre, available at calibre-ebook.com) that acts like iTunes, managing the ebooks you have stored on your computer and converting them from other formats that Amazon doesn’t support to Kindle-friendly ones that it accepts. That software can also periodically download stories from news sites, like the Huffington Post or the New York Times’ website, so that you can avoid paying Amazon the subscription fee for wireless downloads. Or, if you’d prefer, you can pay the fee and have the paper wirelessly and automatically downloaded, without having to connect the Kindle to your computer. It’s up to you.
Speaking of that power cord brings up the question of how long the Kindle holds a charge. I’ve found that, with the 3G wireless on, I needed to recharge it in the evenings but could read for most of the day without a problem. Once I hit upon the idea of turning the wireless off, I could go for several days of reading without a recharge.
There are a few other functions hidden in the Kindle’s menus that might interest some users. There’s a basic web browser. It’s very limited, as it only deals well with websites that are mostly text-base and it’s limited by Kindle’s e-ink screen to black and white, but I’ve used it once or twice when I wasn’t near a computer, and one big advantage is that it’s free, using the 3G that Amazon provides in the hope that you’ll download books. There’s a text-to-speech function that seemed to work fairly well, the one time I turned it on. There’s also a function to look up unfamiliar words as you read, either using the Kindle’s included dictionary or online resources. All of these are welcome additions, but I haven’t used any of them very much. The meat of the device is as an ebook reader, and it performs that function very well.
In the final assessment, I’m happy with what I’ve got. It works very well for keeping a lot of media in a small package, and the text it displays is easy to read. The black and white display would be limiting for people who might want to read comic books instead of traditional books, or who wanted to upload pdf files (which the Kindle handles, but not well) to the device. But to carry around a large selection of books, stripped of formatting but very readable, in a small package that performs well, I’d definitely recommend it.