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Is the Amazon Kindle Really the iPod of Books?

Hype Check: Amazon Kindle

Last week, CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled the Kindle, a new electronic book reader that has quickly become one of the hottest gifts of the holiday season (in fact, the device's first run sold out in a mere 5 and a half hours!). We got our hands on one and have been busy browsing, buying, downloading and reading e-books, -magazines, -newspapers, and blogs for the past week so we could report our findings back to you. But is the Amazon Kindle really the iPod of books? Will this new instantly-iconic gadget make a book-lover or info-hound in your life happy this year? Read on to see what found.

What it is:
The first electronic book-reading device from, which lets you read your choice of more than 90,000 books, as well as dozens of magazines, newspapers, and blogs, on a 6-inch sized screen. Like the recently upgraded Sony Reader, the Amazon Kindle uses E-Ink, a new type of display that has eschews the typical LCD screen's harsh backlight for a glare-free, book-like experience.

How it works:
The Kindle has built-in high-speed 3G network access, so it lets you browse for and download books directly into the device, either by scrolling through genre categories and lists or by searching by author or title (using the included QWERTY keyboard). Book downloads take less than a minute, while newspaper, magazine, and blog subscriptions are downloaded automatically as soon as something new is published. As for reading, you click on the title of a book or article you want to read, then scroll through pages by pressing "next" and "back" buttons on the right and left sides, respectively, of the screen. Maneuvering around content is easy enough since books, magazines, and newspapers are divided into easy to scan chapters, sections, and headlines. Text size can be adjusted to one of six different settings.

Why it's different:
E-readers have a bad name because the versions that came out in the late '90s irritated the eyes and never really took off, but the Kindle is part of the new generation of e-readers that uses easy-on-the-eyes E-Ink. The real differentiator, though, for the Kindle, is its ability to let you browse for and download content directly into the device (using a cell phone network, no less). And you just use the same Amazon account you use to buy books and other items on your desktop, so it's oddly reminiscent of that other all-encompassing e-tailer eco-system, iTunes. (The Kindle's wireless service, by the way, is free.) Also, unlike other e-readers, the Kindle is the first to get real newspapers (New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Le Monde), magazines (Time, Atlantic Monthly, Reader's Digest), and even blogs into the e-edition mix.

What we like:
Downloads of books are fast (usually around a minute per title). You can try a sample out before you buy for free. Prices for new hardcovers are often more than half what you'd pay for a physical book (about $9.99 a pop). Adjustable text sizes means young and old alike will be able to embrace the future with this thing. The "next" [page] button runs two-thirds of the length of the Kindle's right side, meaning don't have to fumble for the right button to turn a page. E-Ink is truly readable. And, if you don't know what a word means, you can just look it up using the included dictionary! (You can also look up topics with the built-in Wikipedia entries).

What we don't:
If you're a big browser and shopper, you'll probably spend more time looking for new books and wearing the battery down than reading. (We got only about a day and a half of battery life with heavy browsing and shopping, but about six days with occasionally 10-15 minute reads and the thing otherwise just lying in our backpack.) Even though it offers 90,000 books, the Kindle Bookstore was surprisingly lacking in many titles we wanted, including anything but the latest book by Jonathan Franzen, travel guides, graphic novels, and even certain new translations of Russian novels we were in hot pursuit for!. Yes, you can basically get the New York Times bestseller list and lots of intriguing and obscure fare, but the Kindle bookstore is far from comprehensive – for now. And we fully expect more than the handful of magazines and newspapers to be offered in the near future. And what's with charging 99 cents to read otherwise free blogs?

Should you get the Sony Reader or the Kindle? Which one is better and how are they different?
Well, the Sony Reader is by far the better designed gadget from a looks and heft perspective – it's about half as thin, about three ounces thinner, and comes in a much more attractive leather case. It also offers a screen that we found to be clearer, a silver body that felt solid versus the Kindle's relatively cheap white plastic body, and faster page-turning. But the Sony Reader doesn't have any of the wireless capability that lets you shop on the fly – you have to buy your eBooks on your computer first and then transfer them manually via USB to the Reader. The Reader is also less expensive. We recommend the Reader to anyone who prefers long-form books over magazines, newspapers and up-to-the-minute news stories – it's simply a more pleasurable experience to read with and you can find plenty of books on the Sony Connect store. But anyone who likes their newspapers and magazines as much as they like their books will want the Kindle, without a doubt.

Does the Kindle live up to the hype? Ultimately, yes. We've been using the Kindle for a little over a week now and we have been more or less blown away. We spent almost a whole night downloading books, blogs, newspaper articles and browsing for titles – pretty much the same way we spent all night loading up our iPods with iTunes the first time we gave it a spin. The truth is, this device is a Godsend to anyone who likes daily newspapers or magazines and doesn't want to carry them all around, or anybody who simply likes to read several books at once. And truthfully, we found the newspaper reading experience on the Kindle to be far superior to both real newspapers and newspaper headlines on the Web – the Kindle is lighter than a PC, less awkward to hold than a newspaper (and yet just as portable), and offers the easiest way to scroll through to the articles you actually want to read. It also offers some hope to the increasingly beleaguered print newspaper and magazine industries, not to mention one of the first ways to actually monetize a blog via readers. (Yes, we complained about having to pay for blogs above, but honestly, it's great to be able to catch up on your favorite Internet news sources while on a plane or somewhere else where there's no Internet connection – a convenience we're happy to pay 99 cents a month for!)

Is this a good gift? Since it doesn't require a computer for downloading and the wireless service is included in the price, most definitely yes. The book lover and info-hound in your life will love you for it!

Price and where to get it: $399, from Amazon.

For more great gift ideas, check out the Switched Holiday Gift Guide.

Amazon Kindle, Up Close

Tags: Amazon Kindle, AmazonKindle, E-Ink, e-readers, Holiday Gift Guide, HolidayGiftGuide, Hype Check, HypeCheck, Kindle, summerreviews



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