By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, December 6, 2007
Electronic data have rendered all sorts of paper documents obsolete -- plane tickets, billing statements, card-catalogue entries and even, for many, the morning newspaper. The book, however, has yet to be bumped off by the Internet.
Now one of the world's most successful bookstores wants to yank this last bastion of ink-on-paper publishing into the digital era.
Amazon.com hopes its new Kindle tablet will make buying and reading electronic books as easy as buying the paper kind. But while Kindle avoids some flaws of such earlier attempts as 1998's NuvoMedia Rocket eBook and last year's Sony Reader -- thanks in part to a free wireless connection that downloads books off the air -- it can't quite close the deal.
The $399 Kindle (sold out through Christmas) is a slim, white tablet about the size and shape of a paperback, weighing just over 10 ounces. Its front consists of a 6-inch screen and a miniaturize keyboard.
The device's gray-scale screen doesn't look anything like other computer displays. It uses the same "E Ink" technology as the Sony Reader, which keeps the screen readable even in direct sunlight but can't duplicate other qualities of the printed word.
The Kindle's screen, for example, doesn't include a backlight and displays only a few shades of gray. Between the dark-gray text and the light-gray background, its contrast falls short of a newspaper's and is inferior to that of a book.
Worse, the Kindle's sluggish screen needs about 1 1/2 seconds to draw a new page, during which time the next page distractingly appears as a photo-negative image of itself before settling into place.
That delay seems short next to most waits on a computer but feels like infinity compared with turning a paper page. The Kindle screen's lag ensures there can be no such thing as flipping through a book on this device.
The design of the rest of the Kindle can get in the way, too. Two-thirds of each side is taken up by buttons to skip to the previous and next page, so you must remember where you can safely grab the thing without losing your place.
To navigate through the Kindle's on-screen menus and links -- say, to bookmark a page, search the book's contents, view a footnote or add a comment -- you spin a small scroll wheel to move a tiny indicator up and down a thermometer-like column to the right of the screen. You're supposed to line up this indicator with the item you want to select, an awkward task when a chapter list hugs the left side of the screen.
The reward for mastering this often-awkward interface is a small library you can read on the go. Amazon stocks 90,000 titles for the Kindle, a fraction of its print inventory, and makes them available through a wireless connection that comes free with the device.
Once you set up a Kindle with your Amazon account, everything downloads directly and almost instantly -- no computer or special software required.
This Sprint-supplied "Whispernet" service, however, has major gaps in rural areas, starting as close as 30 miles from the District. Users in the country may need to download books to their computers, then copy them to a Kindle. It also will drain Kindle's battery; I had to recharge it about every two days.
The inconvenience factor of reading on a Kindle should justify a healthy discount over the price of paper books, but you may not save much money this way. Most Kindle books cost $9.99, only $5 or so off Amazon's print price. Some provide no discount.
The site also stocks digital versions of 11 newspapers and 8 magazines (including The Post and its Slate.com site), plus 310 blogs. Newspapers cost from $5.99 to $14.99 a month, magazines $1.25 to $3.49. Almost all blogs cost $0.99 or $1.99 a month.
These books come wrapped in "digital rights management" software that prevents you from printing them, reading them on another device or loaning them to friends.
Adding other content takes a little tinkering. You can plug a Kindle into a computer to copy over text and MP3 files. Transferring items such as Microsoft Word or PDF files requires e-mailing them to Amazon, which will either e-mail them back to you or, for 10 cents each, zap them to the Kindle.
And yet, you can get lost in a compelling book on the Kindle. You can start to forget the plastic around the words -- so long as the Kindle doesn't crash.
The review unit loaned by Amazon froze on a page I was reading several nights ago, then stayed stuck through the next morning. Nothing would clear the screen and wake the thing up -- not pressing the reset switch beneath the back cover, not removing the battery.
Amazon's tech support answered almost immediately but could only suggest replacing the Kindle. Finally, I tried plugging it in.
That somehow revived the device. The screen flashed on and off a few times, the Kindle rebooted, and I could resume my reading -- an excerpt of a book called "Dreaming in Code," which explains how hard it is to write good software.