Amazon's Kindle first broke cover almost two years ago, then exclusive to US eyeballs. After 24 months, two hardware revisions and some palpable stateside success, it's the UK's turn to size up the first ebook reader that anyone's bothered to glance at more than once.
Reinventing the wheel
When you're trying to replace the printed page with an electronic display, there's one enormous enemy you need to defeat: asthenopia, more commonly known as eyestrain. It's a symptom of staring at a computer screen, but not a book. To counter this problem, the Kindle uses screen technology, originally developed at MIT, called e-ink.
E-ink only requires battery power when changing the image displayed -- for example, when you 'turn' pages. Once a page of text has loaded, the screen is essentially switched off. Each e-ink pixel is basically a tiny ball that's black on one side and white on the other. There are thousands and thousands of these 'balls' in the Kindle's screen. To display text, the Kindle simply rotates them, displaying their black sides where needed.
The result is outstanding. The Kindle's screen closely resembles a printed page, and no LCD means no eyestrain. Each e-ink pixel can display any of 16 shades of grey, so even images look half-decent. Text is just as crisp and sharp as that of any modern book, and reading it is remarkably comfortable. The visually impaired will appreciate being able to enlarge text into one of six easy-to-read sizes, and students will undoubtedly find the ability to annotate sentences and paragraphs useful.
Then there's the actual experience of reading. Whether or not you like the look of the Kindle (we're on the fence), it's undeniably well-designed. You'll spend more time skipping to the next page of an ebook than the previous one, so there's a 'next page' button on both sides of the screen, and just a single 'previous page' button on the left. This, combined with the superb e-ink display, produces a very natural reading experience.
Instead of page turns, of course, you really have screen refreshes. Loading a page takes about one second, during which the display appears to quickly turn black before showing new text (the reason for this is those e-ink balls rotating). The transition is no more distracting than turning a page of a real book, and, in our time with the Kindle, it took nothing away from the reading experience.
If your eyes get tired, an experimental text-to-speech function can be used. The humourless, electronic, American male voice strips all emotion from a book, and can make a harrowing tale of murder and incest sound like someone reading out a shopping list. But, if you just need 10 minutes to rest your eyes, a truly hilarious writer's wit can still seep through, albeit grudgingly.