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Amazon's Kindle vs. Sony's Reader

E-tailing giant finally unveils Kindle, its new e-book reader. Here are Peter Glaskowsky's first impressions of the gizmo.

Amazon has released Kindle, its new e-book reader.

[Later update: my Kindle review is online now.]

Newsweek has published a lengthy article about it. CNET's coverage includes a review, a photo gallery, a Crave blog, and a News.com blog. That's plenty of factual coverage.

Amazon's Kindle e-book reader
Amazon's Kindle e-book reader Amazon.com

I won't rehash the basic features of Kindle, but I will try to compare it with the Sony Reader--now in its second generation and Kindle's primary competition. I will also talk about what I see as the strong and weak points of the Kindle design.

Disclaimer: This is all based on what I've seen and read. I haven't seen a Kindle in person. Yet.

First, I'm surprised by Kindle's industrial design. The unit has the same screen as Sony's Reader (or one with identical specifications), but Kindle is much, much larger overall--longer, wider, and more than twice as thick. Yet somehow it's only 1.4 ounces heavier--10.4 ounces vs. 9 ounces. The Sony Reader feels solid; I suspect Kindle will feel lighter than it is.

Kindle includes a keyboard to aid in searching stored content and browsing the Kindle e-book store. The keyboard, however, looks like it'll be in the way of reading, which is Kindle's primary purpose. The other buttons also look awkwardly placed to me--the page-turning buttons, for example, are on the right and left edges. They're so large that they basically are the left and right edges.

To my eye, Kindle is fairly ugly. Angular shapes, sharp edges, weird button placements, etc. I'm not all that impressed by the design of Sony's Reader either, but I think it looks much better.

Amazon appears to have devoted some of that extra volume to shock protection; Amazon's Kindle page includes a video of drop testing. I'm all in favor of such protection. I am constantly worried about my Sony Reader getting broken just from normal use--that's exactly what happened to my first-generation Reader, and Sony asked almost the same price to repair it as the cost of a new unit.

Also, Kindle seems to be pretty much limited to a vertical (portrait) orientation; there's no mention of landscape mode in the user guide (which is available online as a PDF). Sony's Reader works fairly well in landscape mode, which helps a little with extra-wide documents, especially in PDF format. But Sony's PDF viewer is pretty awful, so that advantage often isn't enough.

I'll give Amazon credit for trying something new as part of Kindle's design--the "cursor bar," a tall, skinny display alongside the main one that works with a scroll wheel to select on-screen menu options. The Reader has 10 buttons down the side of the screen; menu options are physically aligned. Kindle's cursor bar appears to be more flexible. Whether it's as easy to use remains to be seen, but I appreciate the fact that Amazon is trying to innovate.

The other surprising thing was Amazon's decision to use a mobile broadband connection through Sprint's EV-DO cellular data network...and to shield users from all the complexities of that service. It's called "Amazon Whispernet," which is a strange name, but what the heck. Customers don't have to maintain a separate cell phone account; there are no bills. The cost of browsing Amazon's Kindle e-book store is covered by Amazon; download costs are built into the price of the books, newspapers, blog feeds, and other services available from Amazon.

This isn't a completely new business model; cell phone companies have offered similar deals for a while, but this is the first time I've seen this approach applied to mobile broadband. There is some risk to Amazon; it could be expensive to support Kindle users who browse a lot but don't buy much.

I wasn't surprised to see that Amazon is suddenly the world's best place to buy e-books. Most New York Times bestsellers and other new releases are $9.99 or less. I searched Amazon's Kindle store and found thousands of titles at or under a dollar, although many of these were individual stories or articles. As a specific example, the novel Burning Tower by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, released in December 2006, is priced at $5.59 in the Kindle store.

There's no need for a PC; everything can be handled through Whispernet. Amazon even keeps track of your purchases so you can download them again later if you have to replace or re-initialize your Kindle for some reason.

If you do have a PC, you can transfer files via USB. There's also an SD card slot. Kindle natively supports only a few different file types, however, so I hope that situation improves soon. Several other file types can be handled via translation, including Microsoft Word, PDF, and HTML documents and JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP image files. Sony has a slight edge here with native PDF and RTF support, and possibly a bigger edge once Adobe Systems' Digital Editions is available for the Reader, but I'll have to get my hands on one to see if Amazon's translation service works well enough to substitute for broader native file-type support.

I should be able to figure that out by Wednesday. Regular readers here can probably guess what's coming next--yes, I bought a Kindle. I couldn't resist! Stay tuned for a Gizmo Report as soon as I've had a chance to make detailed comparisons with my Reader.