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Editor's note: As of February 2009, this product has been replaced by the Kindle 2.
One of the screensavers for Amazon's $400 Kindle electronic book reader has a picture of an old printing machine and above it a message that reads: "Kindle is a whole new class of device. Thank you for being an early adopter. We'd love to get your input at: kindle-feedback [at] amazon.com."
Well, here goes.
First off, while the Kindle may not be a whole new class of device (electronic-book readers have been around for a number of years), it joins the Sony Reader in making the e-book reader category a whole lot sexier and buzzworthy. While the Sony PRS-505 ($300) is the sleeker of the two devices, the Kindle is the more revolutionary in that it has a free built-in wireless connection that allows you to tap into Amazon's vast online bookstore from just about anywhere you can access Sprint's EVDO cellular data network.
In many ways, the Kindle is similar to the Sony Reader. At 10.3 ounces, the Kindle weighs about an ounce more and is slightly bigger, measuring 7.5 inches high by 5.3 inches wide by 0.7 inch deep. But both devices have 4.9-by-3.6-inch (6-inch diagonal), 600 x 800-pixel screens that use E Ink technology, which serves to make the letters and words on the screen look more printlike in their appearance--it's quite impressive if you haven't seen the technology in action before. Technically, it's an electrophoretic display, which Wikipedia describes as "an information display that forms visible images by rearranging charged pigment particles using an applied electric field." The Kindle's screen has 4 scales of gray and 167 pixels per inch, while the Sony's has 8 scales of gray and 170 pixels per inch, which means the Sony offers a little more in the way of contrast and is slightly easier to read.
One of the inherent downsides to E Ink technology is that the screen takes a second to refresh (it goes to black and essentially blinks) when you turn a page. Some may find this "ghosting" effect bothersome, but the Kindle's designers have done a good job limiting the delay so it isn't completely irritating and jarring. Also, considering you can read the screen in direct sunlight (think: beach chair), the trade-off seems worth it.
To be clear, Amazon (like Sony) opted against using a backlight, since it strains the eye. That means you'll need to use the Kindle in the same sort of well-lit environment that you'd read a normal book or magazine. The Kindle holds around 200 books in its 185 MB of user-accessible internal memory, and you can store hundreds or even thousands more books, MP3s, Audible audio books, and other files on the device if you purchase an optional SD memory card (only capacities up to 4GB are supported, as it doesn't accept SDHC cards). We would have preferred if the SD-card slot wasn't hidden behind the Kindle's back cover, but there are worse sins. On the other hand, the battery is user-replaceable--one user-friendly feature that the vaunted iPod hasn't yet seemed to master.
As we said, side by side, the Sony Reader comes out the clear winner in the looks department and Sony's done a much better job with its protective leather cover (the Kindle's cover seems a bit bulky, and the device just didn't sit inside it that well). Partially due to the clunky cover, the Kindle isn't as comfortable to hold in your hand as the Sony and some folks may prefer removing the Kindle from its cover while using it, though making sure your $400 investment is properly protected is a concern. Naked may not be the way to go.
Because of the Kindle's distinct design, people's first reaction to the device tends to be, "Wow, that's cool--what is it?" However, some of that initial cool factor wears off after about a day or two. The Kindle's far from ugly, but it does have an ungainly side to its design. With its built-in keyboard under the screen, the device is most often compared to an oversized Blackberry--and a white one at that. It should also be noted that the Kindle feels a little cheaper in-hand than the Sony, partially because the Kindle's shell/casing is made of plastic while the Sony's is made of metal.
We liked the Kindle's button layout, particularly the inclusion of a rubberized scroll wheel and the placement of the large buttons on both sides of the screen for paging forward and back between screens or pages (you can use either hand to page forward or back). However, it is worth mentioning that the next/prev buttons are right at the edge of the device and are almost too sensitive--on several occasions we found ourselves accidentally hitting a button and ending up on another page. Also, the little scroll wheel seems prone to picking up lint, fibers, and other particles. How this will affect operation over time is hard to say, but it would probably help to try to keep it clean.
We applaud Amazon for including a home button. Click it and you'll be taken to the main list page of all your content. With a click of the scroll wheel, you can then choose to sort by author, date, or title and to show just books or periodicals (you can download newspapers, magazines, and blogs). 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. We also liked how when you're in a document, you can look up a word in the dictionary by selecting the line from the text using the scroll wheel (the dictionary looks up all the words in the line, so you don't have to go to the trouble of selecting the exact word). On a more critical note, we had some trouble using the "location" jumping feature, mostly because we couldn't figure out what the location description numbers on the screen actually referred to.