Why Kindle 2 is the Goldilocks of E-Book Readers

Fans of this column know that I spent months dithering over whether to buy Amazon’s Kindle 2 e-book reader. I had mercilessly panned the original Kindle, mainly for its ungainly looks. And while I was much more impressed by the Kindle 2 when it came out in February, I was put off by the $359 price tag, which left me casting about for more excuses to resist a purchase.

Well, I finally ran out of excuses and let my inner geek take over. My new Kindle 2 showed up last Wednesday, and I’ve been enjoying it immensely, for reasons I’ll detail below. But as luck would have it, my Kindle arrived exactly a week before Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced another new Amazon device, the large-screen Kindle DX. So the first question I want to tackle is whether Kindle 2 owners should feel any buyer’s remorse—that is, whether they would have been better off waiting until this summer, when the DX, with its much bigger 9.7-inch screen, will start shipping. I don’t think so. The Kindle DX will be great for reading electronic documents where some extra formatting aids comprehension—meaning textbooks, business documents like PDF brochures and white papers, and maybe magazines and newspapers. But for any document where the text is primary, meaning the vast majority of current fiction and nonfiction literature, the DX will be overkill. And for $489, the announced price of the DX, you could buy a very good netbook or even a basic laptop and get access to a much broader world of digital media, and in color to boot.

Or you could spend nothing and simply read e-books on your mobile phone. The excellent resolution of smart phones like the iPhone actually makes them credible e-book readers. Companies like Lexcycle, Shortcovers, and Amazon itself have come out with very nice e-book software for the iPhone, and e-books are the fastest-growing category of applications in the iTunes App Store. But the iPhone’s weakness—-for purposes of reading, anyway—its its limited screen size, which means you have to flick to the next page every few seconds.

Amazon Kindle 2 and Kindle DX ComparedThe Kindle 2 feels to me like the Goldilocks of information display devices: bigger than a smartphone, but smaller than a tablet PC. Its electronic ink display, which measures 6 inches diagonally, is more than twice the size of the iPhone’s screen. It can hold about the same amount of text as one standard paperback book page, depending on the font size you’ve selected. So you press the “next page” button only twice as often as you would turn the pages of a printed book (since the Kindle doesn’t have two facing pages, the way printed books do). But it’s still small enough to make the device extremely light and portable. You can read it comfortably using one hand. I can imagine pulling out my Kindle 2 on a bus or a subway car. I’ll be surprised if I ever see anyone do that with a Kindle DX.

Reading on the Kindle 2 is a beautiful experience. It is no less immersive than reading a printed book. (The first two e-books I read on the Kindle were The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel-Pie Society and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—The Classic Regency Romance, Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem; I recommend both heartily.) Of course, I didn’t really need to be convinced on this score. I first fell in love with e-book devices in 1999, when NuvoMedia brought out the Rocket eBook—in fact, I liked it so much I went to work for the company for a couple of years. But I’m still amazed by how much displays have evolved over the past decade. The Kindle’s electronic paper display, made by Cambridge, MA-based E Ink, is sharp and clear. It sips electricity like a hummingbird, meaning the battery lasts for days between rechargings. And the screen’s momentary flicker when you turn a page—which is needed to fully erase the previous screen, sort of like shaking an Etch-a-Sketch—isn’t nearly as annoying as it was on the original Kindle, thanks to the improvements E Ink built into the Kindle 2’s electronics. In fact, the screen redraws itself quickly enough now to allow a fully interactive interface, with pop-up menus for doing things like jumping around within or between books.

Far more earthshaking, however, is Whispernet, the 3-G wireless network that Amazon built for the Kindle family of devices. Even if you left out the electronic paper screen, wirelessness would make the Kindle a huge improvement over all previous e-book devices, because it lets you shop for books, magazines, and newspapers on the device itself and download them instantly, from practically any location where you can get a cellular signal.

The fact that Amazon has also released an iPhone app for reading Kindle editions makes it clear that the company’s long-term e-book strategy is to sell content, not gadgets. (As David Pogue puts it, “The Kindle is just the razor. The books are the blades—ka-ching!”). Going wireless was a master stroke, because … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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