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The Gizmo Report: Amazon's Kindle ebook reader (part 1)

Glaskowsky reports on his first eight days with Kindle. Part 1 of 2 (probably).

I wrote about Kindle when it was announced, and again when it arrived, but all of that was just warmup. Today I'll be providing a genuine review.

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

I've had my Kindle for eight days now. I've bought eight books for it (well, seven plus a short story) and read three of them, installed over 90 other free ebooks, spent time browsing the Web, and... I actually read the manual. On the Kindle, naturally.

It's a good thing I ordered mine so quickly, Amazon's web page for Kindle says they're sold out and they don't even know when they'll get more.

I like it. I like it more than my Sony Reader, which I've blogged about several times as well (here, here, and here). Kindle's bigger and not quite as easy to hold, but it's a lot faster-- faster to start up, faster to sleep and wake, but most critically, faster to turn pages.

At its fastest, with simple text or RTF documents, the Sony gizmo is a little slower at page-turning than Kindle, but at its worst, the Reader is painfully slow-- several seconds for even mid-size PDF documents. Kindle doesn't support PDF files natively at all, but Amazon will convert them for you if you like. That's the theory, at least. I took a PDF file that I'd created for the Sony Reader-- with the same dimensions as the screen it shares with Kindle-- and emailed it to Amazon's conversion service. It still hasn't shown up. (HTML and TXT files I sent did show up, though.)

I've also established that some reviews (like this one from PC Magazine) were a little too quick to condemn Kindle based on misunderstandings. You don't have to pay Amazon to convert your PDF files (you can email them to @free.kindle.com for free email delivery; you then install the converted file via Kindle's USB interface).

Similarly, some reviewers have complained that it's impossible to buy Kindle books if you're not in the US (where Kindle can access Sprint's EV-DO wireless service). In fact, you can buy a Kindle book, then go to the "View Your Media Library" option in your Amazon "Your Account" page. Your new book will appear on the Downloads page, so you can download it and install it over USB... anywhere in the world.

You may be wondering why I bought so many Kindle books. One was a book I've read in hardcover, and I wanted to compare that experience with this one. Three just looked interesting, my usual reason for buying books. And the other four were just cheap! If you visit the Kindle Books page on Amazon and sort by "Price: Low to High" you'll see three books priced at just one penny each plus hundreds (maybe thousands-- Amazon won't show them all this way) for under a dollar.

Actually, many of those are just short stories, priced individually. But that's nice. It's the literary equivalent of selling individual tracks on the iTunes Music Store. Today we may take for granted that we can buy one track from almost any album in the world, but before digital music, we didn't have that much freedom. Amazon's Kindle service doesn't yet have the breadth of iTunes, but over time, it may get there.

The other big thing about Kindle is its free wireless Web browsing. I can't think of any way this is a good deal for Amazon, but it's a great deal for Kindle users. Kindle's Web browser is pretty weak by traditional standards. Amazon calls it "basic", but I think "weak" is more accurate. Still, it'll show you the text from any Web page, and medium-size images are generally understandable.

Dynamic content (Flash, Java, etc.) isn't supported at all due to limitations in Kindle's display technology. But if you're out and around with your Kindle and need to do a quick Google search, it'll get the job done.

I can already tell I'm going to have to write this in two parts, but let's see what else I can add here. Oh, some shortcomings:

The home page on Kindle is a flat list of all your books. If you have an SD card in there, you could have a hundred pages of books, too many for this approach.

Books don't open to the cover by default; they open to what someone defined as the first page of real content. But you may miss the author's preface or other key information. This was a poor choice on Amazon's part.

I deliberately filled up the on-board memory with a bunch of free Mobipocket-format ebooks, then tried to buy a book. The download failed. I deleted a couple of the free books to make room, but I couldn't retry the download from the Kindle. I had to log into my Amazon account from my Mac and retry from there.

As far as I can tell there's no way to print anything from a purchased ebook. Kindle has no printer interface, and a purchased Kindle book can't be opened in any software on a Mac or PC. That's a major pain. I have no intention of printing a whole downloaded book, but it'd be nice to be able to print a page here or there, especially from non-fiction books.

Similarly, it'd be nice to be able to read my Kindle books on my Mac where the screen is bigger and brighter. The Sony Reader comes with a Windows application that can do anything the Reader can do-- and more, such as searching and printing. Amazon needs to offer a similar application.

The power, USB, and earphone jacks, and the volume buttons, should not have been placed on the bottom edge. If there's a cable plugged into Kindle, you can't rest the gizmo on that edge on your lap or a table in front of you. Bad industrial design, I think.

But you know, the overall design-- likened by some wiseacre to the Pontiac Aztec-- no longer bothers me. I think someone at Lab126 (the Amazon subsidiary responsible for Kindle) was just trying too hard. Maybe the designer thought that "edgy" designs require, you know, sharp edges.

I could do without the weird shape; the Sony Reader is much nicer in that respect. But the shape no longer catches my attention. Instead, I just look forward to grabbing the thing and doing some reading before bed. Which is what I'm going to do now. I'll be back in a couple of days with Part 2 of this review.