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 it makes book-buying frictionless. In Wednesday’s press event introducing the Kindle DX in New York, Bezos revealed the startling fact that for books with electronic Kindle editions, digital unit sales amount to 35 percent of print sales. In other words, if Amazon sells 1,000 copies of a print book, it will sell 350 copies of the Kindle version. I’d argue that the wireless feature alone accounts for most of this success. That said, it was something Amazon couldn’t afford to leave out if it wanted the Kindle to appeal to the same consumers now accustomed to downloading songs, videos, and applications instantly to their iPhones and other mobile devices.

I won’t review every other feature of the Kindle 2 here, but I do want to mention just three of the lesser-known functions that have made me even happier with my purchase.

Clippings.
Thanks to Web-based tools like Evernote and Instapaper, I have become an inveterate clipper of articles or passages that I find on the Web and want to remember for later. It’s easy to do the same thing on the Kindle 2, by manually marking the beginning and the end of a passage in a book, then saving it to the device’s clippings file. If you’re reading a newspaper or magazine article, the Kindle provides a helpful menu item that copies the entire article into the clippings file. The next time you connect the Kindle to your PC using the provided USB cable, you can copy the clippings file to your desktop, and if you want to save the clips to Evernote or some other tool, you can just cut and paste from this file. What would be even better, of course, would be the ability to send clips straight to Evernote using Whispernet. But not even the iPhone has this function yet.

Personal document transfers. When you get a Kindle 2, you also get an e-mail address like myname@kindle.com. You can use the address to e-mail documents to your Kindle via Amazon’s servers, which will reformat them to display correctly on the device. I’ve tested this for Word, PDF, and JPEG files and it works great. Amazon says it also works for GIF, PNG, BMP, and ZIP files.

The company recently increased the price of these transfers slightly—they used to be $0.10 per e-mail, and now they’re $0.15 per megabyte, rounded up to the nearest megabyte. But that’s still a pretty negligible amount. And you have to remember that Amazon charges nothing for all other Whispernet traffic. (Just try asking AT&T or Verizon Wireless to reduce your data plan bill to zero.)

Kindle 2 displaying a photographBeyond just sending yourself documents, the fact that your Kindle has a unique e-mail address means you can program Web-based services to send mounds of free content to your device, where you can read it at your leisure. My favorites so far are Instapaper (for clipping long Web pages such as magazine articles) and Kindlefeeder (for sending any RSS feed to your Kindle).

And here’s a sneaky trick: for works that are in the public domain, you can make your own perfectly legal e-books. I did this last weekend after discovering that Amazon doesn’t yet sell any Kindle editions of poetry by William Carlos Williams. (In fact, the Kindle store is pretty short on poetry in general.) So I tracked down a few websites that have published Williams’ poems, copied and pasted them into a Word file, and e-mailed it to my Kindle.

Image viewing. Over the USB connection, you can create a pictures folder and copy photos from your computer onto your Kindle. The Kindle 2’s screen, thanks to those upgraded electronics, can show 16 levels of gray, meaning it creates pretty good black-and-white renditions of almost any picture. See the photo above for an illustration. You probably won’t find yourself using the Kindle to show off pictures of your kids or pets to your friends, the way you might with your iPhone, but it’s still a nice feature to have.

The Kindle 2 has many other nifty features, such as a built-in dictionary, a rudimentary Web browser that lets you search Wikipedia and other sites and even send e-mail, and a text-to-speech engine—which makes any book into an audio book, and consequently became the subject of a ludicrous dispute between Amazon and the Author’s Guild. (This is the same group of know-nothing dinosaurs who tried to stop Google from scanning out-of-print library books and making them searchable—but more on that in a future column.) Amazon hasn’t acted on some of my other suggestions about how to soup up the Kindle platform—by experimenting with subscription-based book clubs or book bundles, for example, and by giving potential buyers a chance to try out the device at bricks-and-mortar retail stores. But I have a feeling they’re not finished innovating.

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

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