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By Jack Ganssle

The Kindle

Published 5/18/2009

You will find no one who is more of a bookworm than me. I love the heft of a weighty tome or even that disposable beach paperback. I'll never pass up an opportunity to view a museum's manuscript collection and have spent far too many hours in the British Library. Here in Baltimore our wonderful Walter's museum has a great collection of ancient manuscripts.

But Amazon's Kindle 2 finally seduced me. A friend raved about his, so I succumbed to their one-click shopping and bought one.

It's a pretty darn nice machine.

The Kindle displays text (and pictures, though crudely) using E Ink, which consumes power only when the display changes, and has a stunning contrast ratio. The screen doesn't quite look as good as a book, but it's close. Close enough to make on-screen reading a delight.

For decades I've dragged many books along when traveling. Now the 10 ounce Kindle holds, not just enough books for a week-long trip, but enough for years of travel. Amazon claims the unit can hold over 1000 tomes.

For those of you whose hair isn't grey, well, enjoy your eyesight. It fades with middle-age. As the day goes on my vision gets less acute. The Kindle's text size is adjustable so one can always read the screen without eyestrain.

The unit fits the hand better than a book does. It weighs less than any hardback and there's no need to prop open the pages of some tightly-bound paperback. Though crazy-thin at just a third of an inch, it feels delicate so needs an optional cover that bulks the unit up a little. I got the Amazon cover, which works well but desperately needs an inner pocket to hold a few pages of paper notes.

Amazon sells a lot of books in Kindle format for less than the price of dead tree versions. While it's easy enough to copy material to the unit over a USB link, the built-in cellular modem can suck them down from the ether. There's no cellular plan; the cost of wireless access is factored into the price of the material. So blogs and other material that are free on-line each costs a buck or so a month. Newspapers are more - the New York Times runs about $15/month. Subscribe to these sources and they just appear in the Kindle each morning. I tried a couple of Kindle newspapers but found I prefer reading them on-line.

Various sources provide tens of thousands of Kindle-compatible free books. The copyrights have expired so they are old, but I'm enjoying rereading the classics. At the moment I'm rereading all of Mark Twain, and had forgotten just how witty he was.

The built-in dictionary is always active; move the cursor to a word and the definition appears. Contrast that to using a book: I usually write down words whose meaning I want to investigate further, and look them up when in front of a computer. By then I've forgotten the context.

The machine has flaws. It's butt-ugly. I wish Apple had been involved to do their iStuff magic to it. It's slow. The page-turn time is fine, but other features take too long. There's a web browser, but it doesn't work well. Amazon has pulled the annoying Google trick of labeling it "experimental" which is apparently justification for shipping poorly-engineered code. PDF conversion is hit and miss. The airlines want the unit turned off till the plane hits 10,000 feet, so backup reading material is still required.

The Kindle's biggest flaw is that it's impossible to share copyrighted material. I often pass books along to friends, and find this restriction tremendously annoying.

Here are a few reasons why the Kindle beats a laptop for reading:

  • Fantastic battery life. Amazon quotes weeks per charge, but I'm finding days is more realistic. Still, that KOs a laptop's few hours.
  • It's tiny, easy to hold, and fits the hand. With seat spacing on planes heading towards millimeters it's sometimes impossible to use a laptop.
  • Computers are heavy and a pain to drag around when you're hoping to find a corner of the store in which to read while the spouse is shopping.
  • There are two next-page keys. I find that them positioned perfectly for painless page turning. My wife noted that now I only have to twitch a muscle to read, further contributing to my demise of physical activity.
  • It turns on in a second or so, about the same boot-time as a book.
  • If you fall asleep reading in bed, it disappears safely in the blankets.

There are a lot of books I'd never read on a Kindle. Anything with a lot of pictures just isn't the same on this e-reader. Some volumes are just too beautiful to be reduced to the bare essences of text on a screen. But 80% of my reading is completely Kindle-compatible.

There's a new Kindle 3 available which has a larger screen and higher price. I haven't seen it yet. But at $359, the Kindle 2 is worth every penny.