E-book reader needs a tweak

If hoped its new Kindle electronic book reader would do what its name implies -- set fire to a market that has long fizzled -- we may have to wait for Kindle Version 2.0.

Yes, Kindle is light-years better than any electronic reader I've tried. Its ingenious wireless delivery system makes buying books a no-brainer, too. But this gadget is still too rough around the edges to win over legions of traditional bookworms.


In fact, the reader's $400 price tag is way too high for any but the most dedicated hardware addict (Sure, boss -- go ahead and buy one).

Don't get me wrong. Kindle is a slick piece of technology. And I'm not surprised that its first production run sold out in a week -- although Amazon didn't say how large it was. But once the impulse buyers are gone, the rest of us will need convincing.


Fortunately, there's nothing wrong with Kindle that a ergonomic touch-up and a price cut can't fix. If Amazon can manage both, Kindle will fly off the shelves, providing authors, publishers and readers with an excellent matchmaker.

Let's start with what Kindle is -- a white plastic brick 5.3 inches across, 7.5 inches high and less than three-quarters of an inch thick. Unlike previous generations of overweight electronic readers, it weighs less than a real book -- 10.3 ounces.

For that we can thank a new display technology called E-Ink, which uses a single sheet of thin, grayish, cutting-edge digital "paper" embedded with thousands of tiny dots of electronic "ink." Each time the Kindle draws a page, it rearranges the dots in the shape of the alphanumeric characters (or even photos and illustrations).

Sony's elegant, $299 Reader Digital Book was the first mass-market device to use this technology, which finally appears to have found its first niche after years of development.

The Kindle screen is strictly reflective -- there's no artificial illumination -- yet it's eminently readable in most light. Another key benefit -- unlike LCD screens, E-ink uses power only when it's redrawing the page. If you turn off the wireless transceiver when you're not shopping or Web browsing, the rechargeable battery can last for days or weeks.

But the coolest thing about Kindle is how easy it can be used to buy books. No computer required. Kindle has a built-in broadband wireless radio that connects to Amazon's store (or to the Web) via Sprint's high-speed EVDO network. Once connected, you can shop for more than 90,000 titles -- over four times as many as Sony offers -- plus subscriptions to dozens of periodicals, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon's chief executive officer, says he wants to make the store's entire catalog available online, and some day this kind of reader may provide a more comfortable electronic home for newspapers and magazines than a standard computer screen.

For now, there's an excellent selection of current titles, including most of The New York Times best-seller list, for $9.99 each. That's less than half the average selling price for the paper version. There are also thousands of back titles for $3 to $6.


If you fill up Kindle's 256 megabytes of memory, you can offload your books to a PC or erase them. You can download previously purchased books again at no extra charge.

All of which would be great if Kindle weren't so awkward to use.

The control panel is built around a scrolling menu wheel that moves a silver cursor in a channel that runs up the side of the screen. Navigation bars in both margins take you to the previous and next pages, while a Back button takes you to the start of the current title. There's also a tiny but usable QWERTY keyboard that sits under the screen with a handful of function keys.

Along with an extra $100 in the price tag and a wireless connection, the keyboard differentiates Kindle from Sony's Digital Book. It's primarily useful in searching for titles or entering Web addresses when the unit is online.

My wife and I had no trouble finding a couple of "guilty pleasure" titles to test the Kindle. I chose Clive Cussler's latest thriller, The Chase, while my wife picked Faye Kellerman's The Burnt House. Both downloaded to the Kindle in a minute -- wow!

Now the bad news. Amazon made it easy to page forward and back by building navigation bars into the right and left edges of the book. Pressing one bar moves you forward. Another moves you back. A third bar moves you to the beginning of your book or article.


Unfortunately, these navigation bars have hair triggers that make it all too easy to turn the page. There's almost no way to grip the book -- or move your hands even a fraction of an inch -- without accidentally tapping one. Suddenly you're two pages ahead of where you should be, or three pages back -- or somewhere else entirely.

We both found this outrageously annoying -- enough to be a deal breaker, even if Kindle's price weren't so exorbitant. The same goes for Kindle's cryptic "page" numbering system, which made it hard to remember where we were after we'd inadvertently pressed the navigation bars four or five times.

Actually, there are no pages in the traditional sense because Kindle offers six typeface sizes, all instantly accessible from a function key. This is an excellent feature, but it means that you have to learn a new coordinate system for remembering where you were.

Fortunately, Kindle does make it easy to set bookmarks, which my wife was soon using regularly to recover from her navigation bar misadventures.

On the upside, Kindle has excellent search features, with immediate access to dictionary and Wikipedia entries. An "experimental" wireless Web browser was more awkward than useful, but that could get better. Kindle also allows you to transfer MP3 music files from your computer and play them randomly in the background.

I hope Amazon doesn't spend much time on these features. If the retailer would just market a Kindle with navigation bars that weren't so confounding, I might buy one tomorrow.


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