May 18, 2021   12:38am

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Jeff Talks: What’s a Kindle and do you want it?

We published a post about the Amazon Kindle wireless reading device last December.  But now that Oprah has made the Kindle even more famous by giving it away on her show last month, many of you have asked us to tell them about it …

On Oprah’s show was this “tutorial” by none other than Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon), who shows you step-by-step how the Kindle works.  I might add that I love mine and so do all by friends who I talked into buying one.  Also must tell you two other important things:  1) since Oprah’s show, Kindles are sold out so you have to get on a waiting list and won’t get yours until AFTER Xmas; and 2) there’s some talk of a next generation coming out next year so you have to decide if you want to go for it now or wait for what sounds like a super duper new model.  (My friends who bought one say they are glad they didn’t wait.)

Here’s an update of the post written by our “Tech” guy Jeff Parker:

If you’ve read a magazine, listened to the radio, watched television or read a newspaper in the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably already heard about the Kindle: Amazon’s New Wireless Reading Device. So, I won’t attempt to provide a complete overview of the thing (there is already a Newsweek Cover Story and 1,945 news stories returned for a Google News search on Amazon Kindle but I will tell you why I think it’s interesting and perhaps even revolutionary (or at least evolutionary).

What the Kindle is Not
At first blush you might ask, what’s the big deal? Isn’t this just a marketing scheme par excellence? After all, they’re selling you a $359.00 (down from $400.00) thing that lets you buy a bunch of other $6-12 things (electronic books). If that’s all it was, then I’d agree with you and lump it into the neato-gadget-for-geeks pile next to my video googles. But, if you take a closer look it’s more than that.

Wireless Reading Device
Let’s start with the “reading device” part.

The Kindle doesn’t use an LCD. It uses something called electronic ink. Instead of pixels, the Kindle’s screen contains millions of tiny pigment particles that reflect light just like ink on paper. This provides a number of advantages.

Wide viewing angle: The Kindle display allows for a wide viewing angle (if you’re looking at an LCD computer monitor right now, lean over and look at the screen at a steep angle, and you’ll see that the screen appears to dim or darken). This is important if you’re trying to view something (like say… an electronic book?) whose position relative your line of vision may be quite variable — sitting up in bed, propped in your lap, laying down at the beach, etc. You don’t have to be fixed directly in front of the screen for the text to be clear.

Lifelike text (more like paper): A screen using electronic ink has a higher contrast ratio than an LCD — meaning the white is really white and the black is really black. This makes text more legible and makes the experience of reading text on a screen more like that of reading ink on paper. (I’ve never held one of these devices, but the effect is said to be immediately noticeable.) This increased contrast combined with reflected (rather than emitted) light may also help to reduce eyestrain, which is often associated with a lot of time spent in front of an LCD.

Long battery life: When the Kindle screen is activated and draws a screen of text, the tiny, electronic ink particles are, in effect, physically moved around and placed in the correct position to form the shape of the letters (remember, they do not “light up” like an LCD). Once in position, the screen requires very little power to hold the position of the text on the screen. This means that the primary power usage occurs only when the screen is being refreshed (when turning a page) not while it is static (while reading). Thus, the battery life of the device, when used for reading, should be excellent (Amazon promises reading “for a week or more” between charges) in contrast to an LCD display, which would be drawing full power any time text is displayed (i.e. while you read) resulting in a much shorter battery life.

Can read indoors or outdoors: The fact that the Kindle screen does not emit light means that the brightness of the screen is not in competition with the brightness of your external light source. This means that you can read the Kindle under your reading lamp or in direct sunlight – the external light source will illuminate the screen (reflect the light) much like ink on paper.

Now for the “wireless” part.

Free Internet access: Despite the amazing technology used in the Kindle screen, for me the real understated feature is what Amazon calls the “Whispernet,” which is really just a brand name for broadband Internet access. For $399 you get not just the device, but free always on EVDO (G3) (i.e. “fast”) internet access – the same service that many Sprint or Verizon cell phone customers are paying up to $60 per month for.

190,000 books, many magazines, top U.S. & international newspapers, 1000 blogs: This wireless, high-speed network can be used to browse Amazon’s catalog of over 190,000 books. If you buy one, it’s downloaded in seconds – no need to connect to a computer or use a cable. The Kindle is not a computer peripheral (add-on); it can operate completely independently – no wires required.

And it’s not just books. You can subscribe to newspapers and magazines via the Kindle and the always-on Whispernet (i.e. high-speed internet access) allows “push” subscriptions that operate like a virtual paperboy. If you get the subscription to the New York Times then every night about 3am your kindle silently activates and downloads the coming day’s copy of the Times. When you wake up and flick it on the paper is there waiting for you.

Internet access: However the real hidden feature of this Kindle’s network is: you’re not limited to accessing the Amazon bookstore and magazine rack. There is a basic web browser included that allows you use the Internet just like you would from your computer (albeit in black and white). That’s correct. With the Kindle you can surf the web with no wires, from anywhere (car, street, park) for free.

Revolutionary? Other major plusses: So, now we have this highly readable, low-power electronic ink screen attached to an always-on Internet connection. This is starting to sound better than an e-book reader.

But let’s consider for a second just the e-book usage of this thing — internet connection aside. What does it even mean to have an e-book? Consider the following:

  • Annotate pages, make notes and mark text without damaging the book
  • No bookmark required. The Kindle remembers what page your were on within any book – unless of course you want to note specific pages for future reference electronically.
  • Search the contents of an entire book for a word, phrase, or passage
  • Search the contents of your entire library for a word, phrase or passage
  • Download (for free) non-copyrighted works that are in the public domain from Project Guttenberg (i.e. virtually any book published anywhere before 1923. The complete works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, or Dickens anyone?)

In short, you can carry a completely searchable library, complete with your notes in a 10.3 oz plastic square. (The Kindle comes with enough memory to hold “about 200 books” according to Amazon, but just plug in an SD Memory card, like you use in your digital camera, and storage becomes practically limitless.) Oh, yeah and it’s also always connected to the web.

Jump forward a few years after the Kindle (or Kindle-like devices) are widely adopted. Imagine high school or college with one book (that happens to contain all the books you need). Imagine this book going with you through life as you add titles. It’s pretty amazing.

What’s the Downside?
Ok, back to earth. What about the warts?

This Kindle is a first generation device. What if it doesn’t take off and you can’t buy books for it in three years? What if Amazon decides to start charging for that free internet service? What if you have that groovy, ultimate library and you drop the thing in a lake? (Actually on the last one you’re covered. Amazon keeps a backup.)

Early adopter fears aside, there are some more pragmatic concerns.

  • It’s kind of ugly.
  • Why use all that space for a keyboard? It has a touch screen, why not toggle an on-screen keyboard, like on Palm Pilot, when needed?
  • What if you want to buy a book that’s not in that list offered by Amazon?
  • Who wants to surf the web in black and white?
  • The high-speed Internet service (EVDO) the Kindle uses is far from ubiquitous and may not be available outside of the major metropolitan markets. If you leave this zone of speed you’ll have to use a much slower (think dial-up) connection that not only diminishes its effectiveness as an Internet device but is also a drain on the battery.

Or my biggest hang-up: with a Kindle, you can no longer lend a book to a friend.

However, despite these concerns, I think Amazon has introduced something amazing. It will be interesting to see if the Kindle succeeds in dominating this space, but at this point they definitely have a leg up on the competition. (There’s a reason the year-old Sony Reader — which also uses electronic ink but lacks any network capabilities, not to mention a catalog of titles — wasn’t on the cover of Newsweek).

For more on the Kindle, see the links above or just Google “Kindle review”. There are actually a lot of other features and functionalities that I didn’t cover here.

 Click here to order a Kindle from Amazon.

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