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Amazon Kindle (first generation) review: Amazon Kindle (first generation)

Amazon Kindle (first generation)

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Headphones, Bluetooth speakers, mobile accessories, Apple, Sony, Bose, e-readers, Amazon, glasses, ski gear, iPhone cases, gaming accessories, sports tech, portable audio, interviews, audiophile gear, PC speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
11 min read

Editor's note: As of February 2009, this product has been replaced by the Kindle 2.


Amazon Kindle (first generation)

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 free wireless "Whispernet" data network--no PC needed; built-in keyboard for notes; SD card expansion slot; compatible with Windows and Mac machines.

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; additional file formats need to be e-mailed to Amazon for conversion; yet another dedicated device you'll need to lug around with you.

The Bottom Line

With its free built-in wireless capabilities and PC-free operation, Amazon's Kindle holds a distinct advantage over Sony's Reader and is a promising evolution of the electronic book--but Amazon needs to bring down the pricing for both the device and the content to attract a wider audience.

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.

The Kindle is about the size of a trade paperback book.

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.

The screen duplicates the sensation of reading a printed page.

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.

The SD slot allows you to expand the Kindle's onboard memory.

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.

Use the built-in keyboard to make notes.

Much of the aforementioned functionality is similar to what the Sony Reader offers. But the two devices start to diverge once you start talking about the Kindle's wireless capabilities. As noted, there's a built-in EVDO radio that connects to a data service (Whispernet) that Amazon's apparently built on top of the Sprint data network. That limits the device's wireless roaming capabilities to CDMA territories, so don't expect your Kindle to have online access on your next trip to Europe (and most other countries outside the U.S.). That said, you can "manually" transfer content to the Kindle when you're abroad by downloading content from the Web to your PC, and then transferring it to the Kindle via USB. (If everything goes well for the Kindle here in the U.S., perhaps we'll see a GSM version for European customers).

Downloading books wirelessly to the Kindle is generally a very pleasant experience. You can search for titles or authors in the Kindle Store or scroll through the national and Kindle bestsellers lists (Amazon is currently offering more than 90,000 titles, including 90 percent of the current New York Times bestsellers). Hardcover bestsellers and newly released titles are currently priced at $10, and you'll see some better deals on paperbacks and other older books.

You can download a free excerpt from the book (the first chapter) or simply click on the buy button to purchase the book. In fact, the process is so simple, the first time we hit "buy" we expected some sort of secondary step (such as, "Are you sure you want to buy this book?"). But with one click the book was bought and being readied for delivery (it takes about a minute to download a standard length book). The good news is if you make a mistake, Amazon makes it very easy to cancel your order--and you'll get a message to your Amazon account's e-mail address letting you know your order was canceled. Also, 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.

Amazon has made a big deal about being able to subscribe to The New York Times, Washington Post, and several other newspapers and magazines (dailies are automatically delivered overnight, ready for reading on the morning commute). But the subscription to the Times, for example, costs $13.99 a month or $.75 an issue, which may seem pricey to those who are used to viewing the same content on the paper's Web site for free. The same goes for subscriptions to "free" blogs, which run you a buck or two a month. Yes, you can access those blogs from the Kindle's limited Web browser, but it offers no color, Flash support, or even proper formatting--the CNET home page, for instance, was rendered as 18 separate pages. What you're paying for is the automatic delivery and a format that fits the screen properly. But what you're losing, in addition to the subscription fees, is timeliness: with only a single "delivery" per day (for the dailies), you're locked into one version of the day's news--basically, the morning paper. And in today's on-demand world, being stuck with what's effectively yesterday's news is a real throwback--don't expect the latest sports scores, stock quotes, and breaking news.

A variety of top periodicals can be wirelessly delivered to the Kindle--for a price.

We're not going to knock Amazon too hard for its pricing on books at this point, but it's clear that $10 is still too much to pay for an electronic book, and ideally Amazon would move toward some sort of subscription rental service a la Netflix. Unfortunately, Amazon is handcuffed by publishers who charge upward of $10 for electronic versions of their books, but we expect--or at least hope--to see that pricing evolve with time. We also hope that Amazon will do more to promote cheap content, such as offering Ebook Classics with the purchase of the device as Sony does, or serve up some free content, like Apple does with its free downloads of the day in its iTunes Store.

In that vein, Amazon has launched something called the Digital Text Platform, which makes it very easy to upload your own manuscript or document to the Kindle Store and have it converted into a Kindle book. You can then put whatever price tag you want on the book and sell it on the store. Obviously, such a platform should appeal to fledgling authors and has the potential to revolutionize the self-publishing industry, which has seen a rapid expansion in recent years.

What else? Well, we should probably mention that the Kindle can access Wikipedia, which technically makes the device a hand-held encyclopedia. Like the Sony Reader, the Kindle is compatible with a number of file types, but most files have to undergo a conversion in order for the device to recognize the files. You can convert files in one of two ways: you can either send attachments wirelessly to the device's personal e-mail address, which will cost you $.10 per attachment. (You create a whitelist for acceptable addresses, so you can't have your bill run up by spammers.) Or you can send them to a "free" Kindle e-mail address that you access via your Windows or Mac OS computer and then transfer the converted files to your Kindle manually via USB (it appears as a drive). According to Amazon, to reduce wireless charges, your best bet is to zip up a bunch of files in an attachment, then send the ZIP file wirelessly to the Kindle's personal e-mail address, where the ZIP file will automatically be unzipped and the files converted.

PDF files can also be converted and viewed, but like with Sony's Reader, they won't necessarily display properly because the PDF is scaled to fit the screen. You can increase the font size of Word documents but you can't zoom in on PDF files, which can makes them hard to read because they're being reduced to fit on the screen. PDF's take several seconds to load (as they often do on a computer). Also, one image-based PDF we tried (an architectural floor plan) wasn't viewable at all.

In terms of audio, the Kindle plays back MP3 files, so you can listen to music while you read (there's a headphone jack on the bottom of the device along with a tiny speaker on back of the device), as well as Audible books. The device is capable of viewing image files (JPEG, GIF, BMP, PNG) but they, too must be sent through the e-mail conversion process. The pictures are monochromatic--and they look like some really detailed Etch-a-Sketch work--but the effect is kind of cool, and you can use the reader to show off your family album if you're so inclined.

As for battery life, you can obviously do better by turning off the wireless connection. Amazon says that if you leave the wireless on you'll have recharge approximately every other day--and our tests confirmed that. Turn the wireless off and Amazon says you can read for a week or more before recharging. The device fully recharges in 2 hours, and unlike the Sony, the device ships with an AC adapter.

The Kindle's firmware is upgradeable and updates will be delivered wirelessly. Clearly, Amazon intends to add additional features and you can already get a little taste of that if you click on the "Experimental" tab on the options menu on the Kindle's home page. A note at the top of the page says, "We are working on these experimental prototypes" and asks for feedback. One of the prototypes is Ask Kindle NowNow, which, much like Yahoo Answers, allows you to ask questions and have "real people" research the question and send you up to three answers usually within ten minutes (there's no charge). We asked, "Who is David Carnoy?" Reply: "Some jerky CNET reviewer who grades really hard and never rates products above an 8.3." (We're kidding, but we did get a response within about 3 minutes that offered Carnoy's CNET.com user bio.)

If all this sounds like a lot of features to pack into a device, it is, and the Kindle is certainly ambitious. The product is three years in the making and to a large degree it shows. At the same time, like we said when Sony put out its first-generation Reader, there's plenty of room for improvement. While Sony may have a leg up in design, Amazon has the critical advantage of having a decent content delivery service integrated right into the device. When all is said and done, that additional functionality makes the Kindle the more compelling device and probably worth spending the extra $100 on. Still, there are plenty of areas that could be improved. Native file support--so you could dump all your Word docs, PDFs, and image files on an SD card without dealing with Amazon's e-mail conversion process--would go a long way towards realizing the promise of a true "electronic book" and not a proprietary "Amazon reader." Likewise, adding a convenient RSS reader so you could pick and choose your own free Web content--not Amazon's list of pre-approved pay-per-view sites--would be a worthwhile addition as well.

While we're outlining improvements, of course, we'd like to see the Kindle (and Sony) cost closer to $200. Of course, early adopters are used to paying a couple of hundred bucks extra to be on the cutting edge. And if that's where you want to be, the Kindle's where it's at, impressive and imperfect as it is.

Editors' Note: This review is based on less than 48 hours of Kindle usage, and is likely to be updated in the coming days and weeks as we get more hands-on experience with the device.