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Top 5 Screens of 2010: #4 – The Amazon Kindle (A Review)

As you read this, I am on a train traversing across the American landscape. I’ve got my laptop, a box of granola bars, and a one-way ticket.

And, of course, my Kindle.

Today, I’m moving from Chicago to Los Angeles. I’ve spent the last few months paring down my possessions, finding a temporary home for my cat, and getting rid of 83 percent of my books (to be exact). So for me, Christmas didn’t have the usual thrill of accumulating new possessions. In fact, I initially asked for “absolutely nothing.”

After thinking about it, I realized that my books were the one replaceable thing I was begrudgingly parting with. So what I asked for this Christmas, and what I got, was an Amazon Kindle 2.

For those of you who live under stones of varying sizes, the Kindle is an e-reader. A portable, electronic library. It’s the size of a paperback, as thin as a pencil, lighter than a can of coke, and can hold hundreds of books. The screen utilizes so-called “e-ink” technology. And it looks beautiful. It’s black and white, but easy on the eyes. It looks pretty dang close to paper, and I’ve read it for hours on end without the ache that comes from staring at my laptop. Keep in mind though, the lack of a back-light means you need some available light to read. Sort of like… What are those things called? Oh yeah, books.

The Kindle 2 has been out since early 2009. So why, you might be asking, is it on my list of the Top 5 Screens of 2010? Two reasons: One- I’d be willing to bet that most people who own a Kindle just got it over the holidays. Amazon reported that the Kindle was the “most gifted item ever” in Amazon’s history. And, on Christmas day, after all those new Kindles were unwrapped, Amazon sold more Kindle books than it did physical books. Sure, they probably don’t sell that many physical books on Christmas day as it is, but still.

And two- along with competing e-readers–notably the Sony Reader and the Nook, from Barnes and Noble–the Kindle is looking to revolutionize the way we read. Book sales have been steadily decreasing for some time, and newspapers have been complaining about declining readership ever since Yahoo was king of the internet.

People are still reading, yet publishers online and offline are losing money. Something has to be done. Rupert Murdoch, and those following his lead, think that “micro-payments” are the solution (paying a small amount of money every time you read a Wall Street Journal article online, for instance). But Amazon, Sony, and others like them, are convinced that what the readers of the world need is the perfect cross between a book and a computer. And while “perfect” is not a word I would associate with the Kindle, I’d venture to say that their efforts have been highly successful.

So we’ve gone over what the Kindle is, and why it is. Here are the two questions remaining: 1) What else can it do? and 2) Do you really need one?

Technology for technology’s sake is great and all, but there’s a reason that most businesses are still using Windows XP. If a product can’t help your business’s efficiency, it’s not worth it.

So here’s what the Kindle has: Free internet access virtually anywhere in the country. Now you can’t go around watching YouTube videos and playing Flash games on this thing. But you can check your email and access most mobile-sites (websites designed for PDA’s and smartphones). Buying books off Amazon is probably the easiest thing to do. It’ll cost you 10 bucks for a New York Times best seller, or 2 bucks for the entire collection of Mark Twain’s writings. The purchase is as easy as clicking a button and the book is wirelessly downloaded, instantly and automatically. PDFs and other e-books can be converted to the Kindle format free of charged.

The Kindle can read to you. Though some books have the feature disabled (it’s up to the publisher) the Kindle has a built-in text-to-speech feature that will read your text aloud to you. For those Radiohead fans who are imagining the mechanical, computerized droning in “Fitter Happier,”  think again. This is pretty sophisticated voice simulation (I know that AT&T has been experimenting with this kind of technology for some time). There’s also a headphone jack so those around you won’t be subjected to it. The headphones are also useful if you plan on using the Kindle as an MP3 player.

Not sure what a word means? Scroll to any word on the page and the definition will pop up from the built in New Oxford American Dictionary. Like a particular passage? Highlight it, and then using the thumb-pad keyboard, make a note about it. Want to know more about something? Search Wikipedia at any moment with minimal effort.

Every morning when I wake up, the New York Times has automatically been downloaded to my Kindle and is there waiting for me. There are over a hundred books and magazines available for the Kindle, including the Wall Street Journal.

Did I mention that it fits perfectly into the pocket of my winter coat? Well it did, before I defiantly threw my coat from the speeding train somewhere in New Mexico (Goodbye Winter!).

But the Kindle’s biggest flaw, in my opinion, is that, while you can upload word documents and PDFs, you can’t edit them. You can’t create new documents. You can make notes “in the margins,” but you can’t just open a blank file and start typing. Why this feature wasn’t included is absolutely beyond me. And seeing as Google Docs is incompatible with the Kindle’s web browser, you’re not left with many options.

So why the heck would anyone who’s not an avid reader want this? Why would anyone want a Kindle for their job or business?

Truthfully, they might not. Especially now that Apple’s long-rumored tablet is getting ever closer to being more-than-a-rumor, the Kindle’s functionality might seem laughably limited inside of twelve months.

But last week I got an email that changed the way I thought about this thing. It was an assigment from someone I’ll be doing some work for in Los Angeles. He wanted me to read the entire canon of a particular author and become well acquainted with each work.

Immediately I logged onto Kindle’s online store. Only one of the books I needed was available in Kindle format. I paid the ten bucks for it, and then I started downloading bootlegged copies of the rest. I already own most of the books in hardcopy (or I did, before the Great Purge) so I didn’t feel too guilty, but it’s a shame that they weren’t available from the Amazon Kindle Store. I suspect that, as the Kindle becomes more commonplace, the selection of books will expand even more.

Will the Kindle make it easier for me to read nine or ten full-length books in the next three weeks? No. But it will help immensely. I’ve already begun highlighting and making notes. If there’s a concept that is mentioned only briefly in one of the books, but which I vaguely remember being explored more thoroughly in another, all I have to do is search for it. My search will yield all the mentions of that phrase in all of the books and documents I have on my Kindle. For those of you who used to write term papers before the days of Spark Notes and Easybib.com, you can see how appealing the search functionality is. True, you can search inside most any book on Google Books. But now you don’t have to put your book down to search. You’re literally searching in the book.

Really, is that all? The inner-workings of an Amazon Kindle

"Really, is that all?" The inner-workings of an Amazon Kindle

I couldn’t think of an existing tool I’d want at my disposal more than the Kindle. But whether or not the Kindle could benefit you really depends on how much paper you find yourself sifting through and lugging around with you. If people are constantly sending you documents that you print out and take on the go, it could be perfect for you. Every Kindle user gets their own Kindle email address. People can email attached documents to this address and they’ll download directly to your Kindle, for a very small fee (think pennies). The Kindle is smaller and more convenient than a laptop, or even a netbook. In the end, novelty and convenience are all the Kindle really has to offer. But convenience is no small thing.

In Hollywood, where everyone writes scripts and no one seems to read them, the Kindle has cropped up as an appealing alternative to killing trees. The film studio Lionsgate has started using Kindles to distribute the thousands and thousands of scripts that they used to print out and hand-deliver to producers, writers, and actors. Now they just give everyone a Kindle. When there’s a new script that they need to deliver, all it takes is the click of a button, and the script magically appears on everyone’s Kindle.

It wasn’t long ago that I, and most other people, scoffed at the notion of digital books. I’m a bibliophile, through and through. I’m guilty of buying certain books just because I like the way they feel in my hands. That won’t change.

But I also like listening to music on vinyl (let’s not even talk about CD’s. My New Year’s resolution was to pretend like the 1990’s never happened. So far I’ve been pretty successful). If I had to choose between my records and my iPod… Well, that’s the great thing. I don’t have to choose. I can have both. Just like I can have my newly shrunken library of books and my beautiful, tactilely pleasing Amazon Kindle.  Could I live without it? Sure. But with every page I “turn,” I like the idea of not having my Kindle less and less.

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