Amazon's Kindle first broke cover almost two years ago, then exclusive to US eyeballs. After 24 months, two hardware revisions and some palpable stateside success, it's the UK's turn to size up the first ebook reader that anyone's bothered to glance at more than once.
Reinventing the wheel
When you're trying to replace the printed page with an electronic display, there's one enormous enemy you need to defeat: asthenopia, more commonly known as eyestrain. It's a symptom of staring at a computer screen, but not a book. To counter this problem, the Kindle uses screen technology, originally developed at MIT, called e-ink.
E-ink only requires battery power when changing the image displayed -- for example, when you 'turn' pages. Once a page of text has loaded, the screen is essentially switched off. Each e-ink pixel is basically a tiny ball that's black on one side and white on the other. There are thousands and thousands of these 'balls' in the Kindle's screen. To display text, the Kindle simply rotates them, displaying their black sides where needed.
The result is outstanding. The Kindle's screen closely resembles a printed page, and no LCD means no eyestrain. Each e-ink pixel can display any of 16 shades of grey, so even images look half-decent. Text is just as crisp and sharp as that of any modern book, and reading it is remarkably comfortable. The visually impaired will appreciate being able to enlarge text into one of six easy-to-read sizes, and students will undoubtedly find the ability to annotate sentences and paragraphs useful.
Then there's the actual experience of reading. Whether or not you like the look of the Kindle (we're on the fence), it's undeniably well-designed. You'll spend more time skipping to the next page of an ebook than the previous one, so there's a 'next page' button on both sides of the screen, and just a single 'previous page' button on the left. This, combined with the superb e-ink display, produces a very natural reading experience.
Instead of page turns, of course, you really have screen refreshes. Loading a page takes about one second, during which the display appears to quickly turn black before showing new text (the reason for this is those e-ink balls rotating). The transition is no more distracting than turning a page of a real book, and, in our time with the Kindle, it took nothing away from the reading experience.
If your eyes get tired, an experimental text-to-speech function can be used. The humourless, electronic, American male voice strips all emotion from a book, and can make a harrowing tale of murder and incest sound like someone reading out a shopping list. But, if you just need 10 minutes to rest your eyes, a truly hilarious writer's wit can still seep through, albeit grudgingly.
Browsing the bookstore
Unlike Sony's Reader and other ebook readers, Kindle ebooks must be bought from Amazon's electronic bookstore. It claims to offer over 350,000 books, but it didn't have a single one of the 15 we searched for, including Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and Blink, and Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams. You'd expect this of a bricks and mortar store, but not an Internet-connected device that you paid over £200 for.
Slowly, we browsed the store, using the Kindle's fiddly little chiclet keyboard, and eventually found something we wanted to read: Charlie Brooker's hilarious Screen Burn. It took about 30 seconds to wirelessly download from the computer-free comfort of our bedroom, cost as much as the paperback version, and took up about 1MB of the roughly 1,500MB of internal storage that the Kindle offers. That's enough for about 1,500 books in your satchel, providing Amazon sells some you want. You get cover artwork, chapter lists and all other meta-content you'd expect to see in a printed book, including forewords and dedication pages.
You'll be paying for everything in US dollars, as this is essentially just an American Kindle that Amazon sells overseas. Amazon promises a UK store will launch in the future. There are some UK newspaper subscriptions available, though, including those for The Daily Telegraph and The Times. We bought a subscription to the former and got daily deliveries of the paper's news stories, editorial columns, letters and so forth, all formatted perfectly for the Kindle's display. We think this is arguably more useful than the bookstore itself -- at least at the moment.
Due to Amazon's DRM (digital rights management -- the stuff that crippled legal music downloads for years), purchased books only work on a Kindle. You can't move them to a competing device in the future. This lock-in is akin to that of the iTunes of old, with which only iPods were compatible. But, like Apple's ecosystem, the Kindle provides a painless, easy and intuitive overall experience. You just have to weigh up what's important to you: simplicity or openness.
With the Kindle, Amazon has put the focus on simplicity -- there's an integrated bookstore, no need for a computer and no wireless contract to sign. But this simplicity comes at the expense of freedom, so there's no compatibility with the competing ePub ebook format used by Waterstone's, for example. It's iTunes all over again.
At this point in time, we're sticking with physical books. Amazon's digital bookstore just isn't ready for us to invest over £200 in, when it's a system closed to competitors. But we have no doubt it will eventually get to the point where we'll be happy to make the investment.
Edited by Charles Kloet