Amazon Kindle: Hands-on first impressions

The Amazon Kindle is here, and we've got a first look.

Amazon Kindle
In the house: Amazon's new Kindle Sarah Tew/CNET Networks

The slow drip of rumors and leaks about the Amazon Kindle e-book reader exploded into a full-blown flood over the weekend, once it was revealed as this week's Newsweek cover story . Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos filled in all of the remaining blanks (or most of them, anyway) at this morning's New York press conference that officially introduced the product to the world. Some relevant details, finally confirmed:

  • Measurements: The Kindle weighs 10.3 ounces and is about the size of a trade paperback book. It's both taller and thicker than the Sony Reader.
  • Connectivity: The Kindle connects to the Web via the "Amazon Whispernet," a free high-speed cellular wireless network (Sprint EVDO). Books and other content are available for direct download, without the need for connecting to a PC (though a USB port does provide PC connectivity for transferring files). The Kindle's internal memory can store up to 200 books, and it's expandable via an SD slot (which can also be used to load additional media).
  • Books: Once you're online via EVDO, electronic books are available directly from Amazon for up to $10--just click on the title you want, and it's downloaded (and you're charged) in about a minute's time. Amazon is currently offering more than 90,000 titles, including 90 percent of the current New York Times bestsellers. The first chapter of most books can be previewed on the Kindle for free. Amazon keeps track of your purchases, so you can delete the file on the Kindle (to make space for more content) and then download it again later for no additional charge.
  • Newspapers and magazines: The Kindle can also be used to subscribe to a variety of periodicals, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Le Monde, and Forbes. Newspaper subscriptions are $6 to $15 a month, and magazines are $1.25 to $3.49. Dailies are automatically delivered to the Kindle overnight, and each periodical includes a free two-week trial. (There appears to be no discount for existing subscribers of these periodicals.)
  • Blogs: The Kindle also offers more than 300 blogs, including Slashdot, The Onion, BoingBoing, and Techcrunch--but these are customized Kindle versions that cost at least $1 a month. Moreover, unlike your RSS feeds, you can't add your favorite blog--if it's not on Amazon's list, you can't subscribe to it.
  • Web browsing: The Kindle can also browse the Web at large (it has its own QWERTY keyboard directly below the screen), but--unlike the Kindle-ized premium content listed above--most standard Web pages are something of a disaster. The CNET home page, for instance, was rendered as 18 separate pages. Likewise, don't expect support for any plug-ins such as Flash.
  • Notation and bookmarks: You can bookmark key passages of what you're reading, and (using the keyboard), make, edit, and export notes. The Kindle also saves your place when reading anything, so you can always pick up where you left off.
  • Price and availability: The Kindle reader is now available from Amazon.com for $400.

CNET got one of the first review samples, and we've gotten a chance to put it through its paces. What do we think so far? Here's a quick and dirty appraisal, based on just a couple of hours of use:

The Good: Excellent high-contrast screen does a great job of simulating a printed page; large library of tens of thousands of e-books, newspapers, magazines, and blogs via Amazon's familiar online store; built-in "Whispernet" data network--no PC needed; built-in keyboard for notes; SD card expansion slot; long battery life.

The Bad: Design is ergonomic, but not very elegant; pricing for nearly all the content seems too high, especially considering the periodicals and blogs are available for free online; black-and-white screen is fine for books, but less impressive for periodicals and Web content; lacks a true Web browser; included cover is clumsy and poorly designed; yet another dedicated device you'll need to lug around with you.

The Bottom Line: With its built-in wireless capabilities and PC-free operation, Amazon's Kindle is a promising evolution of the electronic book (and newspaper, and magazine)--but overpriced content could be its Achilles' heel.

In other words, the Kindle is a very promising gadget that offers the potential to revolutionize how we read books and periodicals--but I just don't see myself buying one (and I read about two books a month). But again, that's a very preliminary evaluation. The full review is coming soon. In the meantime, let us know if you have any questions about the Kindle's capabilities. And, of course, your opinions: is the Kindle the next must-have gadget, or is there a dealbreaker or two that keeps it from missing the mark? And how many of you are just holding out for the iTunes Bookstore on your iPhone or iPod Touch? Or would prefer to spend your $400 on an Asus EEE PC instead?

Correction: This article initially misstated the Kindle's built-in connectivity options. It connects to the Web via a high-speed wireless network called Amazon Whispernet.

 

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