Tech Review: Costly 'Kindle' reader gets a lot of it right

Amazon's e-book reader has clunky design, good performance, and a couple of annoying quirks.

It doesn't look like much. In fact, Amazon's new e-book reader, the Kindle, looks downright industrially ugly, a beige flashback to the clunky '80s. A glance tells you that this product was not designed by anybody working for Steve Jobs. Many critics have seized on the Kindle's lack of eye appeal as one reason to forecast its failure.

But to add a new twist to an old saying, you can't judge an e-book by its cover.

The Kindle may not look perfect, or be perfect, but it's the best e-book reader yet to appear on the market. And like the iPod, it could be the tipping point in a whole new way to access a popular medium – in this case, books.

The reason that the Kindle will prove to be popular boils down to one word: convenience. And wireless. (OK, maybe it boils down to two words.) Amazon has included free wireless (so no monthly service charges), and not just any middling wireless, but top-quality Sprint EVDO wireless. This means anytime you want to read a new book, you can download one right away.

This is an enormous advantage over machines like Sony's Reader Digital Book, the latest version of which came out this summer. The Digital Book ($299) is a decent machine, but every time you need a new book, you have to hook it up to your computer to download one. If you finish a book, and forget to load up before a trip, you're out of luck if you're away from Internet access. (If you live out of EVDO range, Kindle can also download books via computer connection.)

Here's another smart move by Amazon: e-book pricing. The company is offering many top-selling books and new releases for $9.99 each. After all, why sell a digital version of a book, made of ones and zeroes, at the more expensive price of a book made of crushed ink on dead trees? Amazon also claims to offer 90,000 titles that can be accessed with the Kindle.

The Kindle is relatively light, at just over 10 ounces. Like the Digital Reader, it features the revolutionary e-ink technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, which duplicates the look of a book page pretty faithfully. That means no glare. (The Kindle and Sony displays are equivalent in readability.) Once the page appears on the Kindle, it stays there until you decide to move on. If you turn the machine off, when you turn it back on, you'll find the last page you were reading.

If you turn the wireless off when you're not using it, the battery will last several days to a week. (We'll have to take Amazon's word for that. I borrowed a fellow tech columnist's Kindle to do this review, and he wouldn't let me have it for more than a day – which is probably a good sign for the Kindle.)

Amazon says the Kindle will hold up to 200 books. It has an SD slot (hidden under the battery cover at the back of the machine, for some reason), so you can use a flash memory card to hold more books.

So there are lots of good things about the Kindle. But there are some bad things, too.

First and foremost is the price – $399. It's too much. Perhaps Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, didn't learn from the recent launch of Apple's iPhone. Apple knocked $200 off the price of its cellphone within two months of its late-June launch. If the Kindle were $199 or even $250, I'd be a lot more prepared to say buy one right now. But my advice is to wait for the price to drop.

The Kindle has a lot of other add-ons, like a Web browser and the ability to send and receive e-mail (each Kindle comes with a free e-mail account). You can also buy monthly subscriptions to magazines, books, newspapers, and even some blogs. In my opinion, they are all more than a little clunky (it's only a black-and-white screen, too, and not all images are included). They detract from the primary purpose of the Kindle as a new way to read books.

Lots of people have harped on the design, but that's never been a deal-breaker for me. Who cares? Just as long as I can easily read my book. There are, however, a couple of changes that I would like to see Amazon make: the hidden SD slot mentioned above and the rather annoying flaps on the sides of the device that allow you to page forward. They are so big that it's easy to accidentally turn the page.

And I hope Amazon will eventually allow you to forward a book you really enjoy to a friend. One of the greatest joys of physical books is being able to give it to a friend after you've read it.

In the end, the Kindle is a real step forward in this field. Give it a year or so, a few tweaks, a lower price, and the Kindle is going to be a machine you are going to want to own.

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