If you need a gift with tech cred for someone who is a voracious reader then the Amazon Kindle 2 rocks. But there’s also another scenario to consider.


At the end of 2008, I realized something disturbing. I had not read a single book cover-to-cover during the entire year. I love to read, so that was pretty surprising, but there were a number of reasons for it. Between long hours at the day job and two young kids, I don’t have a whole lot of extended stretches of time for reading.

The only long stretches I get are usually on airplane rides, and since I try to travel as light as possible I usually don’t carry books with me on the road. Instead, I typically spend my flight time listening to audiobooks and podcasts. So, in one sense, I had still been consuming books. I was just listening to them instead of reading them.

When the second generation Amazon Kindle was released earlier this year and TechRepublic got one of the devices, I decided to give it an extended test run to see if it would change my reading habits. In my first six months with the device, I read four books. So the answer was a resounding, “yes,” but there was one big surprise that will have repercussions for any geek who is interested in buying a Kindle for themselves or giving one as a gift this holiday season.

You can find all of our reviews of this year’s best geek gifts on the Geek Gifts 2009 page.

Product features

  • Price: $259
  • Screen: 6″ diagonal E ink display
  • Dimensions: 8″(h) x 5.3″(w) x 0.36″(d) inches
  • Weight: 10.2 ounces
  • Storage: 2GB (1.4GB useable), up to 1,500 books
  • Network: Whispernet 3G wireless with no fees and global roaming
  • Power: Micro-USB connector (USB 2.0) connects to computer or power adapter
  • Audio: 3.5mm stereo audio jack
  • Content formats: Kindle (AZW), TXT, Audible (AAX), MP3, unprotected MOBI, PRC natively; Through conversion (with a fee): PDF, HTML, DOC, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP.
  • QWERTY keyboard (for making book notes and searching the store)
  • Text-to-Speech (on some titles)
  • Non-removable battery

What I like

The thing that made the biggest difference for me was the portability of the Kindle. It is thin and light and easy to stow in a small bag. To save back strain, I like to keep my briefcase as light as possible, since it’s already weighed down with a laptop and other electronics accessories, so I don’t like sticking books in there. However, since the Kindle is less than a pound and has a very small charger, it has a minimal impact on the weight of the bag.

The other killer feature for the Kindle is the wireless book store over the Whispernet, a free cellular Internet connection that allows you to browse for books and then purchase and download them over-the-air in a matter of minutes. I also really like that you can download a sample chapter from any of the books in the store in order to try-before-you-buy.

Other things I like:

  • The battery life is terrific. You can go several days without having to recharge.
  • Not having to pay for the wireless connection is a plus, although I suspect it’s one of the things that drives up the price tag of the device.
  • International roaming is a great feature. Here’s the coverage map.
  • The online library backup provides ease of mind. If you ever lose your Kindle or accidentally delete a book, there’s a copy stored on the Amazon servers so you can re-download it.
  • The E Ink screen produces less eye strain than an LCD screen and it’s easier to read in full sunlight.
  • The bookmarking and notes are nice, especially for work reading more than pleasure reading.

The other thing that I need to add about the Kindle is that my reading really sky-rocketed once I discovered the Kindle app for the iPhone / iPod Touch. Initially, when I heard about the Kindle app, I thought, “Why would I want to read a book on that little screen?”

However, I installed the app and tried it. At first I just started using it when I had a few moments to spare, such as waiting in line at a store or in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, etc. Then I quickly realized that I was reading a lot more on the iPhone app than the Kindle itself. I didn’t mind the small screen at all, and the fact that my phone is with me all the time made it really easy for me to read a few minutes here and there. I also stopped carrying the Kindle on the road and used the Kindle iPhone app while I was traveling.

What I don’t like

There are a few big drawbacks to the Kindle. First, all of the books that you buy are currently locked into the Amazon ecosystem. You can only use them on a Kindle e-reader, a Kindle mobile app, or the new Kindle PC app. With lots of new e-readers from Sony, Barnes & Noble, Plastic Logic, and others about to hit the market in 2010, this will become even more of an issue as readers feel locked into Kindle because that’s where all of their content is. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has said that Amazon will eventually split the e-reader and e-book businesses so that Amazon devices will handle multiple document formats and Amazon’s e-books will be portable across different platforms and competing devices. However, we haven’t seen that materialize yet.

Something else to keep in mind about the Kindle is that not all books are available as Kindle e-books. There are currently over 350,000 titles available, but once you start using the Kindle you’ll inevitably run into times where a book that you’d really like to download to your Kindle for your next trip is not available as an e-book.

The other problem is the price. $259 is a lot to spend on a single-function device like an e-reader. These devices really feel like they should cost around $100 or less.

Geek bottom line

If you are looking for a gift that has tech credentials and the recipient is an avid reader, the Kindle 2 can be an awesome choice. The ability to have a whole library of books in a thin electronic reader is very appealing. Plus, you can decide you want to read a new book and purchase and download it within minutes. The reading experience on the E Ink screen is also very good. It won’t satisfy those who love the smell and feel of paper books, but everyone else will be thankful not to have to mess with big paper tomes.

The one thing to consider is that if this gift is for someone who is more of a casual reader and is also a music and media lover, then it might make more sense to get an iPod Touch. You can get the 8GB version for $199, plus a $25 Amazon gift certificate for buying e-books for the Kindle app and a $25 iTunes gift certificate for buying music, videos, and apps. At that point, you’ll still come out at $249, $10 cheaper than the Kindle 2 itself.

The one thing you can’t do on the iPod Touch Kindle app that you can only do on the Kindle 2 device is read electronic versions of newspapers, like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. If the gift is for someone who would also enjoy reading the daily newspaper electronically (automatically delivered every morning) then the Kindle 2 device is a stronger choice.

Geek Gift score (out of 5)

  • Fun factor: 4
  • Geek factor: 4
  • Value: 3
  • Overall: 4