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It’s thin as a pencil and lighter than a paperback, and can store more volumes than the average school library. Amazon.com’s two-year-old digital reader, the Kindle, might just be the best travel innovation since the wheelie bag. No wonder Oprah, Stephen King, and Martha Stewart have all endorsed it. For the avid readers and frequent fliers who have yet to try it, there’s fresh incentive in the leaner, greener Kindle 2 and the large-format Kindle DX, both released this spring. Why lug around a hardback of War and Peace when the collected works of Tolstoy fit neatly (and nearly weightlessly) into your briefcase?
1. Finally a digital reader is catching on.
For more than a decade, Silicon Valley has been trying, and mostly failing, to persuade us to read digitally. (Remember NuvoMedia’s Rocket eBook or SoftBook Press’s Reader? Didn’t think so.) Even Sony, whose Walkman launched the portable-music revolution 30 years ago, has had little success with its Reader line, out since 2006. The Kindle, unveiled in fall 2007, got traction by offering wireless connection directly from the device. The service, called Whispernet, allows users to download books on the go, without connecting to a computer. This—along with rave reviews from the patron saint of book clubs—has made all the difference. Amazon sold an estimated 380,000 Kindles last year, and sales are expected to reach $1 billion in 2010.
2. The Kindle pays for itself over time.
The Kindle now goes for $360, down from the $400 Amazon originally charged. Most new releases are Kindle-ready, and at an average price of $10, the digital format is far cheaper than a hardcover. Sample chapters are available for review before buying, so you never end up stuck with a book you hate ten paragraphs in. In addition, any book in the public domain that’s been properly digitized is free to Kindle users. To date, there are more than a quarter of a million Kindle titles on Amazon; users can also subscribe to dozens of newspapers across the country and even certain blogs (for a small fee).
3. It’s user-friendly.
Setting up the Kindle takes all of 30 seconds. In most cases it arrives already registered to your Amazon account. If it’s not, just log on from any computer and add your new Kindle’s serial number to your profile. You can start buying digital books instantly. The electronic-ink screen takes up the upper two thirds of the device, while a keypad below allows you to order titles, highlight and take notes in the margins of books, and annotate PDF files—a handy way to slog through legal briefs, manuscripts, or investigative research. You can increase print size if you’ve misplaced your reading glasses. The Kindle also keeps track of what page you’re on, so you never lose your place.
4. It’s easy on the eyes.
While it doesn’t have the sleek lines of the iPhone, the Kindle, like most digital readers on the market today, does employ electronic ink. Its display, according to E Ink, the company that markets the technology, has a “paper-like high-contrast appearance,” and indeed, the black type on a gray background comes very close to duplicating the look of newsprint. Sufferers of computer vision syndrome, take note: Kindle screens are not backlit, so they don’t cause eyestrain. This also means they consume precious little energy and are visible in direct sunlight and from many angles, something that can’t be said for even the smallest laptop.
5. Kindle 2 and DX
The Kindle 2 is taller, thinner, faster, and more efficient than the first. Amazon elongated the new model’s screen slightly, to six inches, but managed to shave its width down to .36 inches, so the weight remained virtually the same (10.2 ounces). Welcome improvements also include a longer battery life (one charge can last up to 14 days), a heftier capacity (up to 1,500 books), and a sharper display (it has a 16-shade gray scale, as opposed to the original’s four shades). The Kindle can even read aloud, albeit with a stilted mechanical voice. Pages turn 20 percent faster, and an entire book downloads in under 60 seconds. The new Kindle DX, meanwhile, has an impressive 9.7-inch display and can store up to 3,500 books, though that amount of memory will set you back $490. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, however, are all offering to offset the price of the Kindle DX for subscribers who live outside the papers’ daily delivery zones. Several universities, including Princeton, will begin using the DX in classrooms this fall.
6. You get to know Walt Whitman, James Joyce, and Jules Verne.
Perhaps the Kindle’s most charming design aspect is its sleep screen. When you set it to rest, engraved portraits of famous authors magically appear, inspiring you to keep growing your library.
7. You read more.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, recently called the Kindle a gateway drug. Speaking from experience, I’ve found the slippery slope to be an ice slick. In my first three days of Kindle-ing, I bought and read six books, totaling 3,008 pages, before my husband put limits on the hours I was allowed to use it. (Insomniacs, beware: You may find yourselves engaging in the Kindle equivalent of drunk dialing, downloading scores of random books in the middle of the night.)
8. You kill fewer trees.
Need we explain?
9. You get to use Whispernet.
Stuck in the jury-duty waiting pool? Or in line to renew your license? No matter where you are, as long as your cell phone works—well, more specifically, your Sprint cell phone—your Kindle will, too.
10. No one can tell what you’re reading.
The Kindle functions much like an anonymous dust jacket wrapped around a Danielle Steel bodice ripper: It’s the ultimate cloaking device. What could be better than whipping it out on the train, without anyone knowing you’re 60 pages into Twilight?
Amazon’s success has competitors scrambling to one-up the Kindle. Several possibilities are already available, and there are some interesting prospects on the horizon.
Apple Rumor has it that Apple is getting into the game with its own reader. For now it offers a Kindle application for iPhones. apple.com
Foxit Software Released in March, Foxit’s eSlick Reader has a built-in MP3 player and can open and display PDFs. The company plans to introduce a wireless model late this year. $260; foxitsoftware.com
Fujitsu The FLEPia by Fujitsu is the first digital reader to offer full color—260,000 shades. Unfortunately it’s available only in Japan—for now. $1,000; fujitsu.com
Hearst is reportedly working on a device that will be thin, flexible, and large scale—in other words, able to mimic the format of a newspaper or magazine. hearst.com
iRex Technologies Netherlands-based iRex’s DR1000S model comes with a handy stylus that allows you to write directly on the screen. One caveat: The device runs on 230 volts, not 120. $860; ereaderoutfitters.com
Plastic Logic Slated for release in early 2010, Plastic Logic’s paper-size reader is designed to help businesspeople carry around their work documents more easily. plasticlogic.com
Sony The Reader Digital Books by Sony are currently incompatible with Macs, unless you buy additional software. They also lack wireless access. A new version, currently in development, is expected to correct these issues. $300–$350; sony.com