The new edition of Amazon?s Kindle book reader arrived in the office late in the morning and after a quick charge, I spent three hours on the sofa making my stately way through the better part of Michael Palin?s ?Diaries? and a six-pack of something cold and refreshing.
Yes, there are days in which the lot of a tech columnist is not an unhappy one.
The first thing you?ll notice about the Kindle 3 is the size: it?s about half an inch shorter and narrower than the second edition. That doesn?t sound like much until you spend a half an hour as I did, rummaging through a closet and trying the K3 and the second-edition Kindle out in various pockets. It?s an important half-inch: it allows the new Kindle to fit into most of the back pockets of most of the pants I own, the inside pockets of many of my jackets, and even the occasional shirt pocket.
In a year in which proud men have been forced to start carrying leather purses to tote their 10? iPads in, this is a highly positive advancement.
The size reduction isn?t a sacrifice, either. The screen is exactly the same size as the K3?s predecessors. They just cramped the buttons of the alphanumeric keypad together a little ? no great loss, there ? and trimmed all of the ?dead space? from the edges of the frame.
Which makes the K3 a little harder to handle. The page-turn buttons have been transformed from thick bars to slim lines, mounted on the extreme edges of the device. I found it hard to safely turn pages one-handed. Speaking of buttons, the little five-way joystick has become a flatter (and cheaper) little cluster of arrow buttons. Otherwise, the UI of the Kindle hasn?t changed.
The new screen?s way more comfortable to read, thanks to a vast boost in contrast. Compared side-by-side against the Kindle 2, the ?white? of the new Kindle?s screen is considerably brighter, and the ?ink? is as black as India ink. It makes the Kindle 3 more readable in any lighting situation and in poor light, the improvements in the screen amount to the difference between Readable and … well, Not.
Finally, the new Kindle comes with WiFi in addition to the free-for-life 3G mobile Internet connection.
Other than those three main new features, the Kindle 3 has the same toasted-oat goodness you?ve come to expect from a Kindle. Its battery lasts for weeks on a single charge, you can store thousands of books on the device, you can copy your own Office files (via an email conversion service) or PDF files onto it, and thanks to its 3G (and now WiFi, too) connections, you can buy books and load content onto the device without hunting around for a USB cable.
And it still includes my favorite feature: an ?experimental? web browser app that?s powerful enough to run the mobile editions most sites. Could you work in Google Documents on the Kindle? Hell, no. The Kindle was designed to be a book reader, not a multifunction computer. Between the cheap keypad (which is mostly there so you can search for titles of books in the Kindle Store) and the slow screen (which was designed to display static book pages, not a dynamic application interface), you can barely compose and send email with the Kindle. Nonetheless, when you point the browser to a ?receive text and read it? sort of website (like Google Reader), you feel like you?ve justified part of the expense of the Kindle.
Which steers us nicely to the single most important new feature of the Kindle 3. All of the other features are nothing more than incremental improvements. But the Kindle?s new price is revolutionary. The device that debuted at $399 and settled down to $259 now costs just $189. If you can do without 3G, the WiFi-only model is $139.
Barnes & Noble has kept right in step with Amazon: their Nook reader now comes in 3G and WiFi flavors and they?re priced just ten bucks higher than the Kindle. All told, it amounts to an aggressive new movement to transform the e-book reader from a pricey gadget for heavy travelers whose bosses don?t examine their expense account reports too closely into a true consumer device.
Or maybe it?s just a reaction to the iPad. Its size aside, the iPad is the best book reader on the market. It has a big, backlit color screen that can display full pages of book text with a careful attention to typography and design, and it?s the only one that?s compatible with content from all of the different e-bookstores (via free reader apps from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other e-tailers). Plus, of course, it?s a real computer that can handle hefty chunk of a laptop?s workload.
The iPad quickly created a toxic cloud around its $499 price. It?s already killed several $350 and up e-readers and mobile devices; it must have been clear to Amazon and Barnes & Noble that it was time to move their readers a safe distance away.
I?m still trying to warm to the Nook. Its core features are just fine. Most of the Nook?s unique features are rather lamely executed, though. If you take a Nook into a Barnes & Noble, you can plant your butt in a seat and read any book in the e-bookstore, just as you can with the paper versions. But only for an hour. You can ?lend? e-books to your Nook-wielding friends. That sounds like a killer feature (passing around a favored book is probably the world?s original form of social media) but you can only do it once per book. The Nook scores over the Kindle in only one area: its support for the ePub digital book format. It?s an open standard that allows any kind of publication to be formatted using existing tools and which can contain nearly any kind of media. ePub is so flexible that publishers can even incorporate proprietary digital rights management into it to prevent commercial titles from being pirated, which is why Barnes & Noble, Apple, Sony, and every other major retailer of digital books has chosen ePub as its main format.
The popularity of ePub means that a you can download a public domain book from anywhere and read it on anything. There?s a whole bunch of easy-to-use tools for converting desktop documents, web articles, and even whole manuscripts into ePubs. It?s a lot of work to convert a favorite out-of-print book into an ePub, but once you?re done, your new e-book is future-proof.
ePub has quickly become the JPEG of electronic publishing. Amazon is starting to look pretty damned foolish foolish for failing to get on the bus. It?s true that many of those e-book-creation tools can spit out a Kindle book as easily as an ePub, but the momentum is clearly moving towards the open standard.
The two best e-book readers available today are the iPad and the Kindle. If you don?t want any bonus features, and don?t mind being locked to a single commercial e-bookstore, then the Kindle is the easy choice.
The star of the Kindle ecosystem is indeed Kindle Store. There are more commercial titles available for the Kindle than for any other device. A more accurate statement is ?the number that Amazon gives me is higher than the number that Barnes & Noble has given me? but the fact is that when I hear about a book and am interested enough to download a sample, I?m more likely to find it on the Amazon e-bookstore than on B&N or the iBookstore.
I?m also keen to see if Amazon manages to make anything of its Kindle Development Kit. Like the iPhone, like the iPad, like Android, like Blackberry ? oh for God?s sake, like the box of Cheerios I bought a few days ago ? the Kindle now has a software development kit so that programmers can write (and sell) their own apps for the Kindle. In theory, support for ePub could be added with a new app, as could a Twitter client, a text editor, and a whole slew of software designed to work within the limitations of the Kindle?s pocket calculator-style keyboard and a screen that struggles to refresh itself more than once per second.
Early indications aren?t encouraging, though. Despite the fact that the KDK was released back in February (as an invite-only beta), the only apps that have shown up so far have been two simple word games. It would appear that the KDK, like the Kindle browser, will do nothing to redefine the Kindle as something more than a static book reader.
Which is perfectly fine. The whole point of a $139 Kindle is to snatch the concept of an e-book reader away from the nerds and the elitists and finally turn it into a mainstream device. The Kindle 3 can accomplish things for electronic books that the $499 iPad can?t and as such, if this device succeeds everybody wins.
Society is definitely on the precipice of somethingorother. I still have discussions with people who think reading a book on an electronic device is as appropriate as giving the Boston Public Library?s Rare Books librarian a friendly pat on the butt as a thank you for locating an 1822 book on Dutch trade negotiations from John Adams? personal collection.
But they?re not as confident about their position as they once were. The chintzy and quirky devices of five years ago have been eradicated from the cultural memory. Now, ?e-books? are synonymous with slim, attractive readers whose text is as clear and readable as print, that offers instant access to all of the books you own and acts a portal to a bookstore that sells almost any book you ever hope to buy, at prices well below print, and delivers it to the device just a minute or two after you read the first few chapters for free.
I keep saying the same thing: if you love books, you won?t ever be happy with a Kindle or any other e-book device. But if you love reading, it?ll bring your love to a whole higher level.