By DAVID POGUE
Published: February 24, 2009
In the high-tech industry, you live for the day when your product name becomes a verb. “I Googled him.” “She’s been Photo- shopped.”
Amazon, however, is hoping that its product name, a verb, becomes a noun. “Have you bought the new Kindle?”
The Kindle is the most successful electronic book-reading tablet so far, but that’s not saying much; Silicon Valley is littered with the corpses of e-book reader projects.
A couple of factors made the Kindle a modest hit when it made its debut in November 2007. First, it incorporated a screen made by E Ink that looks amazingly close to ink on paper.
Unlike a laptop or an iPhone, the screen is not illuminated, so there’s no glare, no eyestrain — and no battery consumption. You use power only when you actually turn the page, causing millions of black particles to realign. The rest of the time, the ink pattern remains on the screen without power. You can set it on your bedside table without worrying about turning it off.
The big Kindle breakthrough was its wireless connection. Thanks to Sprint’s cellular Internet service, the Kindle is always online: indoors, outdoors, miles from the nearest Wi-Fi hot spot.
This sort of service costs $60 a month for laptops, but Amazon pays the Kindle’s wireless bill, in hopes that you’ll buy e-books spontaneously. “Have you read ‘The Audacity of Hope’?” someone might ask you. “Why, no, but I’ll download it now!” And 45 seconds later, you’ve got the whole book.
It’s all a thousand times more convenient and more exciting than loading books from a PC with a cable, as you must with Sony’s Reader, the Kindle’s archrival. As a bonus, the Kindle includes a simple Web browser, great for quick wireless Wikipedia checks and blog reading.
Starting today, there’s a new Kindle. Amazon calls it the Kindle 2, but Kindle 1.1 would be more like it; the changes are fairly minor. Fortunately, they’re exactly what was needed to turn a very good reader into an even better one.
The page-turn buttons are now much smaller — and the clicky part is on the inward edge of each button — so you no longer set off page turns just by picking the thing up.
The new, square plastic joystick is homely and stiff, but it gets the job done. The back is now brushed aluminum. Turning pages on the Kindle is a tad faster now. The screen shows 16 shades of gray now, not four, so photos look sharper; you can also zoom in and rotate them.
Taking a page from Apple’s playbook, the new Kindle is a sleeker, more sealed-in sort of machine. You can no longer expand storage with a memory card; then again, the built-in memory holds seven times as much — 1,500 books. Think that’ll tide you through the weekend?
The battery is also sealed inside, à la iPhone. Amazon says, however, that it lasts 25 percent longer per charge (four days of reading with wireless turned on, or two weeks if it’s off). If that battery ever needs replacing, Amazon has to do it ($60).
The Kindle will also read aloud to you through its tiny stereo speakers or headphone jack, and even turn the pages as it goes.
But if you have visions dancing in your head of turning every book into an audiobook, forget it. The Kindle’s male and female voices are very good, but nobody will mistake them for the voices of humans, let alone the professionals who record audiobooks. Kindle voices have some peculiar inflections and pronunciations — they sound oddly Norwegian, sometimes — and, of course, they’re incapable of expressing emotion. They read Hemingway the same way they read Stephen Colbert.
As before, your books, annotations and clippings are auto-backed up on Amazon.com. But now, if you buy multiple Kindles (dream on, Amazon), all of them remember where you stopped reading in each book. (This feature will be more useful if, as Amazon has hinted, you’ll soon be able to read your e-books on other machines, like your laptop or iPhone. And why not? The Kindle is just the razor. The books are the blades — ka-ching!)
The Kindle catalog is bigger, too; now 240,000 books are available. New York Times bestsellers are $10 each, which is less than the hardcover editions. Older books run $3 to $6.
That said, Amazon is still a long way from its “any book, any time” goal. You don’t have to look far to find important titles still among the missing; they include all Harry Potter books; “An Inconvenient Truth”; “The English Patient”; and “The Associate” (the No. 1 fiction best seller) or anything else by John Grisham.
You can have any of 30 newspapers, including this one, wirelessly beamed to your Kindle each morning ($10 to $14 a month) — minus ads, comics and crosswords. Magazines (22 so far, $1.50 to $3 monthly) and blogs ($2 a month) can arrive automatically, too.
Finally, you can send Word, text, PDF and JPEG documents to the Kindle using its private e-mail address — a huge blessing to publishers, lawyers, academics, script readers and so on — for 10 cents each. Or transfer them over a USB cable for nothing.
So, for the thousandth time: is this the end of the printed book?
Don’t be silly.
The Kindle has the usual list of e-book perks: dictionary, text search, bookmarks, clippings, MP3 music playback and six type sizes (baby boomers, arise). No trees die to furnish paper for Kindle books, either.
But as traditionalists always point out, an e-book reader is a delicate piece of electronics. It can be lost, dropped or fried in the tub. You’d have to buy an awful lot of $10 best sellers to recoup the purchase price. If Amazon goes under or abandons the Kindle, you lose your entire library. And you can’t pass on or sell an e-book after you’ve read it.
Another group of naysayers claims that the Kindle has missed its window. E-book programs are thriving on the far more portable (and far more popular) iPhones and iPod Touches. Surely smartphones, which already serve as cameras, calculators and Web browsers, will become the dominant e-book readers as well.
The point everyone is missing is that in Technoland, nothing ever replaces anything. E-book readers won’t replace books. The iPhone won’t replace e-book readers. Everything just splinters. They will all thrive, serving their respective audiences.
With those caveats, the new Kindle edges even closer to the ideal of an e-book reader. The reading experience is immersive, natural and pleasant; the book catalog, while not yet complete, is growing and delivered instantaneously; and apart from the clicky keyboard (an unnecessary appendage 99.9 percent of the time), the design feels right.
If the Kindle’s popularity keeps growing, then it may be remembered as the spark that finally ignites mainstream e-books. Someday, other gadgets may even be described as “Kindleizing” their fields. In that case, “Kindle” will be the first product name that ever went from verb to noun — and back to verb again. [*bold formatting added]
MORE READERS A roundup of devices and software for reading books electronically will appear in the Circuits section on Thursday.
A version of this article appeared in print on February 24, 2009, on page B1 of the New York edition.