Reading a book online is like cooking a hotdog with your bare hands at a campfire: it doesn’t really work, and the longer you try, the more it hurts. Even if you find a really compelling e-book, current generation LCD screens flicker too much – your brain and your eyes know this, even if you can’t tell – and the resolution is too low. Besides, no one wants to curl up for the night in front of their Dell desktop. Yet, as major newspapers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer move to an online-only format, the issue of reading online will only become more important. Amazon recently upgraded its first eBook reader, the Kindle, to make online reading more bearable – without a computer and without the Web. It’s an intelligent device, marred only slightly by a less-than-stylish approach and scant “open e-book” support.
Features and Design
Although the Kindle 2 is intended mostly for book reading, it’s actually amazingly flexible when it comes to magazines, newspapers, blogs, and just about any document you have on your PC or Mac. Noticeably taller than the original Kindle (measuring 8 inches), but having lost a few millimeters in thickness (at just over a quarter inch), the Kindle 2 looks and feels sleek and trendy. The original Kindle had a goofy “space-age design” right out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 movie, so the Kindle 2 is a major improvement. It’s also worth noting that the hinges in the included real leather cover hold the e-book reader tight, so it will never flop around or go flying down an aisle on an airplane. Amazon even offers a wide assortment of covers for about $25 to $100 each.
Reading books with the Kindle 2 is easy, but not quite as fluid as on the Sony’s competing Digital Reader PRS-700. In fact, it’s easier to become engrossed in a book and not fumble with controls on the PRS-700. On the Kindle 2, it’s easy to click to the next page, but the 5-way navigation button is too small and awkward. For example, if you want to make a bookmark, you click Menu, scroll down to Add a Bookmark, and click with the 5-way button. The 5-way slips too easily, and it’s hard to control. The full QWERTY keyboard is great for searching, though, and there are easy-to-find volume buttons and a power switch.
Volume control is more important, because the Kindle 2 supports text-to-speech reading for any book, magazine, or document on the screen. The Kindle 2 will read aloud whatever it sees on the screen. You can change the voice speed (slower or faster), and switch between a male or female voice. Granted, the Kindle 2 is never going to compete with a real audiobook from, say, Audible.com. (The Kindle 2 supports that service directly, which Amazon owns, but only as downloaded audio files.) The voice has an annoying cadence, and makes frequent errors in pronunciation. There is some comedic value in hearing the speech-to-text voice read the last word in a question with a strange and poorly timed vocal trill.
The main dig against the Kindle 2 is that it’s a bit clunky. The Sony Digital Reader PRS-700 lets you click a button to turn on a reading light, supports touch-screen control, comes with a stylus, and just feels more like an advanced e-reader that never gets in the way of reading. Both devices sport a high-resolution screen that does not flicker at all, so reading is enjoyable and doesn’t cause any eye strain. Also, both devices are small and light enough to carry around all day.
Yet, the Kindle 2 is the better device, and here’s why: spontaneous book downloads. The Kindle 2 supports 3G mobile broadband service – included for free – so you can find, order, download, and start reading a book without ever using a computer, anytime you want. In fact, the only reason to bother connecting the Kindle 2 to your computer is to charge it or copy MP3 files. You can also send documents (the Kindle 2 supports TXT, Word, HTML, PDF, and several image file formats) to a Kindle.com e-mail address (e.g., firstname.lastname@example.org) – again, included free with the device. Amazon converts the docs to the Kindle 2 format automatically, charging your Amazon account 10 cents per conversion, a minor expense. Another option: you can send the docs to a “free.kindle.com” account, which forwards the converted docs to your own e-mail address so you can then copy them to the Kindle 2.
The Kindle 2 is also more flexible than the Sony Reader. You can subscribe to newspapers, magazines, and blogs, reading them in a format that is designed specifically for the Kindle 2. There’s also a way to browse the Web, which means you can check your e-mail on the device – and even have the speech-to-text read your messages. You can load the device with MP3 files, audiobooks, and podcasts as well, although it’s somewhat of an afterthought because there are no dedicated music control buttons.
Book selection on the Kindle 2 is far superior to the Sony Reader. Amazon offers about 190,000 books at the Kindle store, compared to only about 50,000 at the Sony store. You won’t have any trouble finding best sellers, although we couldn’t find few recent historical books, such as 1848 by Mike Rapport. Predictably, more obscure books – such as the latest by Brennan Manning – are not available from the Kindle or Sony stores. Amazon, being the largest book retailer in the world, will likely make e-book publishing arrangements faster and easier than Sony. Books also cost less, about $10 each compared to $12 at the Sony store. Still, the major perk remains immediate online access on a whim.
We mentioned the Sony Reader is a bit easier to use. It’s also a bit more supportive of “open-source” books. Recently, Google started offering free classic books that are no longer under copyright (James Joyce fans, you can get your fix now), and you can copy them directly to the Sony Reader. There’s a trick here, however. If you do download one of the free Epub books using the Sony store software, you can convert it to the Kindle 2 format using a program called Calibre and e-mail them to the device. Still, this is not quite the same as direct support for the Google library of books.
There are a few other e-book readers available, including the iRex and the new BeBook, which is cheaper. The Kindle 2 is the only device that offers such as wide selection of well-known books, including almost all of the current best-sellers, and they are just a 5-way navigation button click away. It also supports magazines, such as The New Yorker, and newspapers, such as The New York Times, that are formatted for the device. There’s very little effort involved when you want to add content, even if the Sony Reader is a more elegant reading device. In the end, we heartily recommend the Amazon Kindle 2 over any other e-reader.
- Easy access to new content
- Converts many different document types
- Comes with free 3G access
- Wide selection of books
- Supports audiobooks
- A bit hard to use at times
- Not as stylish as the Sony reader
- Limited support for free books