By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Amazon's Kindle didn't make printed books obsolete, and the Kindle 2 won't, either. It does, however, make its predecessor look pretty awkward.
The $359 Kindle 2, which began shipping Monday, is a fine piece of work -- far more elegant than the model that debuted in November 2007. But it still trails the usability of paper in some ways, and it's still stuck in a e-book market that treats customers as potential thieves.
You may not care about those things on first seeing the Kindle 2. Where the old model was all sharp angles and buttons that were either too small or too big, this slim, streamlined tablet (just over a third of an inch thick) looks like it could be the iPhone's big brother.
The Kindle 2's design makes it a far friendlier machine. Its next-page and previous-page buttons fall neatly under your thumbs instead of taking up entire sides of the device. You navigate around the screen by flicking a little joystck instead of rolling a dial to move an indicator up or down a thermometer-style gauge.
That screen uses a faster version of the Kindle's "e-ink" technology. You still wait a second and change to turn a page, during which time the screen momentarily flashes a photo-negative image of itself. But it feels like a notable speedup over the first model. And because the Kindle 2 displays 16 shades of gray, a picture no longer looks like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photo.
This model offers more storage than its predecessor. (At 1.4 available gigabytes, Amazon says, the Kindle 2 can hold 1,500 books.) Unlike the older version, this one doesn't let you expand that capacity by popping in an SD Card.
Amazon says the Kindle 2's battery should last 25 percent longer than the original. But its estimate of "up to 4 days" of use per charge seems optimistic; a day of intermittent reading ran its (non-removable) battery down to the halfway mark.
And the Kindle 2 can read a book aloud in a synthesized voice, which works no better than you'd expect.
In the most important aspect, however, the Kindle 2 is just like the first Kindle: You can get lost in a good book on this thing. The Kindle's minimal, almost-distraction-free interface works quite well in that respect.
And as before, buying titles with the Kindle's free wireless data connection is painlessly simple. You can look through Amazon's inventory of almost 241,000 Kindle books (plus 31 newspapers, 22 magazines and 1,280 blogs) by typing a query on the Kindle 2's keyboard or by browsing through categories.
That catalogue, however, still falls short of Amazon's print inventory. For example, three of the 20 best-selling hardcovers and five of the 12 "Critics' Picks" books listed on The Post's Web site are print only.
Because the Kindle is tied to your Amazon account, you need only select the "Buy" button, and the book should land on the screen a minute later. (Unless you have no service: The Kindle's Sprint-provided wireless access leaves out many rural areas, especially in the western United States.)
You can download public-domain titles for free at sites like Project Gutenberg (http://gutenberg.org), but that requires e-mailing each file to a special Amazon address for conversion to Kindle format -- a 90-minute delay with a copy of James Joyce's "Ulysses."
Many Kindle books cost $9.99 -- a lot of paperbacks sell for no more than that. A copy of Barack Obama's "Dreams From My Father" bought on a Kindle 2 loaned by Amazon sold for $8.97, the same price Amazon charges for a paperback copy.
Now consider the things that you can do with the paperback that the Kindle's digital rights management (DRM) software prohibits. You can read the download only on a Kindle, while the paperback works anywhere. You can lend or sell the paperback at will, while the Kindle download is tied forever to your Amazon account.
The publishing industry seems determined to make the same mistake the movie and music industries have: thinking customers won't mind having purchases locked down by software restrictions. Some may accept those limits, but others will spend their money elsewhere, on things they feel they actually own.
Record labels finally realized the folly of this strategy and began letting music sites -- such as Amazon's MP3 store -- sell music without DRM. But the movie studios remain stuck in their DRM delusions, and book publishers don't seem to want to learn, either.
Until that changes, Amazon can have the smartest designers in the world work on the Kindle, and it will still feel like a Version 1.0 approximation of the e-book future.