After Hours

Geek Gifts 2008: Amazon Kindle

With its paper-like display, wireless capability, PC-free operation, and thousands of titles from Amazon's catalog behind it, the Kindle may be the first e-book reader to gain broad acceptance. Bill Detwiler tested the Kindle. His experience was positive, but Kindle seems best-suited for people with very specific reading needs.

With its paper-like display, wireless capability, PC-free operation, and thousands of titles from Amazon's catalog behind it, the Kindle may be the first e-book reader to gain broad acceptance.

I tested the Kindle for several weeks—reading a work from one of my favorite authors, perusing Amazon's Kindle Store, retrieving sample chapters, and browsing the Web. Overall, my experience with the Kindle was positive but it's clear to me that current e-readers (the Amazon Kindle or the Sony PRS-505) are best-suited for people who have very specific reading needs.

If you're buying a gift for the traveling geek who's a voracious reader and you're willing to spend nearly $400, the Kindle is definitely worth a look.

This blog post is also available in the PDF format in a TechRepublic Download. To see the technology the makes the Amazon Kindle run, check out our, "Cracking Open the Amazon Kindle". You can find all of our geek product reviews on the Geek Gifts 2008 focus page.

Features

Amazon Kindle: FrontAt 7.5 inches tall, 5.3 inches wide, and 0.7 inches thick, the Kindle is comfortable to hold with one or both hands. It weighs 10.3 ounces and is easy to carry alone or with the provided case.

The Kindle's 6-inch (diagonal) E-Ink display offers 600 x 800 pixel resolution with four shades of gray at 167 ppi. To reduce/eliminate eye-strain, Amazon elected not to use a backlight. This means you'll need to read the Kindle in the same lighting conditions as you would a traditional paper book.

After reading on the Kindle continuously for several hours, I can affirm that the device's E-Ink display did not strain my eyes. Unfortunately, a downside to the Kindle's E-Ink display is that the screen takes a second to refresh (very briefly going black) between page turns. Although at first this transition can be disconcerting, I quickly found myself ignoring the effect and reading the newly-displayed text.

The four large navigation buttons along each side let you effortlessly turn pages. Before using the Kindle, I was concerned that moving between pages would distract from the reading process. This was not the case. The buttons are very sensitive and you almost forget you're actually pressing a button while reading. Unfortunately, the buttons' sensitivity makes it easy to change pages by mistake if you accidentally bump the Kindle against the palm of your hand or side of your thumb.

Moving through chapters and navigating the Kindle's menus are accomplished by manipulating a scroll wheel on the front of the device. The process is straightforward although the various menu options can be a bit confusing at first.

The Kindle has a QWERTY keypad just below the screen. Probably the most useful button here is Home. Clicking the Home button will return you to the Kindle's main list page of all your content. Using the scroll wheel, you can sort your library by author, date, title or type (books or periodicals). For the most part, you won't use the keyboard. Although you can highlight passages and make, edit, or export notes on what you read, I only used the keypad when browsing Amazon's Kindle Store or using the Kindle's rudimentary Web browser.

Perhaps the Kindle's best feature is the device's built-in wireless connectivity, which allows it to function without a PC. The device's EVDO radio connects to Amazon's Whispernet service over Sprint's CDMA data network. Using this connection, you can download books, magazines, newspapers, and even blog content directly to the Kindle. You can also browse the Internet, although the Kindle's "experimental" browser leaves a lot to be desired. The Kindle's best use of the Web is perhaps its access to Wikipedia—making it a device as close to the Guide as I've seen thus far.

Unfortunately, the Kindle's wireless capability is limited to CDMA territories. Don't count on accessing Amazon's Whispernet service on your next trip to Europe where GSM cellular networks are the norm. If you can't get wireless access, you can download content from the Web to a PC and transfer it to the Kindle via a USB cable.

Amazon Kindle: BackThe Kindle has 185 MD of user-accessible internal memory, which can hold over 200 books—according to Amazon. Using the device's SD memory card slot and an optional memory card (up to 4GB) you can store many more books along with MP3s, audio books, pictures, and other file formats. You can listen to audio books and MPs using the Kindle's 3.5mm headphone jack or built-in speaker. The sound quality on the internal speaker isn't great, so I suggest using headphones.

As for battery life, Amazon says that you if you leave the wireless radio on, you'll need to recharge the Kindle "approximately every other day." Turn off the wireless radio, and you can read for a week or more. Using the provided AC adapter, you can fully recharge the Kindle in 2 hours. CNET confirmed Amazon's assertions during its Kindle testing.

What I don't like

Despite its many positives, the Kindle isn't without limitations.

Although the Kindle itself is a comfortable size, the E-Ink screen is too small. The display doesn't show enough text on the screen when you're reading, and pictures don't have the detail they often would in a paper book. Furthermore, the gray-scale display is fine when reading pure text, but I'd rather read periodicals or view Web pages in color.

Amazon also needs to improve the Kindle's native support for multiple file formats. Although the Kindle is compatible with several non-native files types (HTML, DOC, PDF, JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP), you must send most files through a conversion process before the device will recognize them. According to CNET's Kindle review, you can convert files by either sending them as attachments "to the device's personal e-mail address, which will cost you 10 cents per attachment" or "to a "free" Kindle e-mail address that you access via your Windows or Mac OS computer and then transfer the converted files to your Kindle manually via USB (it appears as a drive)." Unfortunately, there's no guarantee the Kindle will properly display any of these converted documents.

Amazon currently offers over 190,000 books on the Kindle. This may sound like a lot, but it's only a small portion Amazon's entire catalog. You'll find many new books from mainstream authors like Nora Roberts and Dan Brown, but older titles and those from lesser known authors are harder to come by. And, there are some glaring absences from the Kindle store. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books are missing as are any titles from John Grisham. You'll definitely want to browse the Kindle store to make sure the titles and authors you're interested in are available.

Lastly, the Kindle and its electronic titles are just too expensive. As of this writing, Amazon was selling the Kindle for $359.00. With sales tax, our test unit came to just over $380. E-readers are still in the early stages of their product lifecycle so you expect to pay a premium; but, you can buy a lot of books for the price of a Kindle. You must also factor in the cost of the each book. New York Times Best Sellers and new releases are $9.99, and older titles are less. A quick glance at the New York Times Best Sellers List on Amazon reveals that most hardback titles sell for between $15 and $18. If you save an average of $6.50 on each title you purchase, you'll need to buy nearly 60 books to make up the Kindle's $380 price. Furthermore, you'll have to pay to receive periodicals and blogs on the Kindle, most of which are available for free online.

Bottom Line

The Amazon Kindle is a well-designed e-reader, and its wireless support makes it easy for geeks and non-geeks to buy and read titles from Amazon's catalog. However with a $400 price tag, the Kindle isn't for the casual reader. I recommend the Kindle for readers who fit the following profile:

  • Voracious readers who consume several books a month
  • Readers predominantly interested in new releases from mainstream authors
  • Those who aren't interested in building a physical library or visiting a public library
  • Readers who regularly travel and want to carry several books with them

For readers who don't fit the above profile, I'd wait to purchase a Kindle until Amazon reduces the price to around $150, grows the Kindle's book catalog, and reduces the price of new Kindle titles to $5.

Geek Gift Score (out of a possible 5)

  • Fun factor: ***
  • Geek factor: *****
  • Value: ***
  • Overall: ****

About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

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