In hand, the Kindle proves appealing but not quite ready

[13 December 2007]

By Eric Benderoff

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Many people, this reviewer included, found it easy to come up with reasons the Kindle, an electronic reading device introduced last month by Amazon .com, should be avoided.

That was before I got my hands on one. So let me start with three reasons why, if you’re a reader, you would want the Amazon Kindle.

It is a simple gadget, easy to learn. If you can read, you can use the Kindle.

Reading is easy on the eyes, and the font size can be increased or decreased. If I had been using the Kindle earlier this year when I started getting headaches from reading, I may have not learned that I needed reading glasses.

Using the wireless connection to the world’s biggest online bookstore, you can download sample chapters from books of interest before making a purchase decision. There is no need to judge a book by its virtual cover.

I’ve been reading on the Kindle for a week, and I like it far more than I expected. As a lifelong book lover, with a minor collection of first editions, I could not imagine wanting one.

Well, surprise. I would seriously consider buying a Kindle. But not just yet.

I tested the Kindle as if it were a book, reading it in places I typically read books: on the bus during my commute, at lunch and at home in the evening.

I was able to clearly read the Kindle holding it in my lap as bright sunshine hit the display; while wearing thick gloves on a cold, blustery day; with one hand as I ate a sandwich with the other; and, of course, in a comfortable chair under the glow of a floor lamp. In each instance, I had no trouble turning the virtual pages.

I had a simple measure to determine if the Kindle was a worthy device: Could I get “lost” in a book? It’s the feeling you get when a story grips you so fully that you can’t put the book down, when you try to squeeze in one more chapter before bed.

I got lost in my book.

I read a science fiction title I’ve been trying to get through for months. It’s a particularly tough read from an author I like very much, yet it turned into a book I gladly put aside when something else came along.

I downloaded the book onto the Kindle and quickly found Chapter 26, where I left off in print, by using the book’s virtual table of contents. Nice. Then I started reading and reading and reading, less disturbed with the turn of each virtual page that I was reading an e-book and not a handy paperback.

Maybe I was at the right point in the story, but it’s clear the Kindle helped, taking a paperback with tiny type and putting it on a platform far more legible. Yes, there could be a little age speaking here, but a book I was slogging through turned into one I’m finally enjoying.

That’s high praise, yet the Kindle is far from perfect.

Here are three things I don’t like about the device.

It does not include a light source to read in the dark. You can’t read in bed without illumination from a table lamp or a small reading light. If there were one feature that would make me want the Kindle, it would be a backlight to illuminate the text, providing the ability to read in bed, in the dark, without disturbing a sleeping wife.

Battery life is poor. Amazon said if you leave the wireless connection on, you need to recharge the Kindle every other day. In my tests, in which I never turned the Kindle or the wireless connection off, the battery lasted a day.

If you turn the wireless feature off, Amazon says the battery will last a week. But that negates a key feature: daily downloads of national newspapers; plus it prevents automatic updates from blogs of interest.

Price. The Kindle is $400, a lot of money when you can buy a book for $1 at a garage sale or a new paperback for less than $10. When you buy the Kindle, you need to buy e-books.

In my price checks on Amazon, many paperbacks cost the same on the Kindle as they do in book form. Generally, the Kindle books were cheaper but not significantly.

They should be. Apple has created a digital market for music by pricing songs at 99 cents and albums at $9.99 or less. In retail stores, those CDs cost $12 to $15. I’d like to see a similar and consistent pricing strategy from Amazon, where as a consumer I feel that I get a good value when I buy a digital book.

In a response to my concerns, an Amazon spokesman said there is no backlight because “it causes glare and requires too much battery life.”

As for book pricing, “we really don’t have a typical price,” he said. “All Kindle books, even the popular ones, really do vary in price quite a bit.”

Amazon won’t disclose “precise details” on its pricing strategy, he said, nor will it disclose how many Kindles have been sold. Currently, the device is sold out on Amazon and back orders will not be filled before Christmas.

There are other features on the Kindle worth noting. It has a nice search function, where you type in a phrase or a word and then you are offered results from your books, Wikipedia or via a Google search on the Web. You type in search terms using the built-in keyboard. You can also use the keyboard to annotate books if you read something you want to recall.

But those features, and a few others such as a music player, have added costs that could have been stripped out.

The Kindle would be a good buy at half the cost because you can go on a long trip and not have to choose which books to schlep. Just take them all: The Kindle holds about 200 books with internal storage and thousands more if you add a memory card. And you don’t need to squint when you read.

Many people have called the Kindle an iPod-like device. It is in this sense: With the iPod, you have a vast music collection wherever you go. With the Kindle, you have a portable library to access a title to suit your mood or your destination.

That’s a $200 convenience.

Is that my love of books talking, perhaps feeling threatened? Maybe, but for now a better value would be the three-pack of reading glasses Costco sells for $20. They are next to the cheap paperbacks.

(Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune.)

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