01 November 2010


Is the Kindle (Amazon's ebook reader) worth it? My answer is a qualified "yes": if you are a regular reader, it is absolutely worth it.

The Kindle is designed with a single focus: reading books. Yes, you can also read newspapers, magazines, and newsfeeds. Yes, it can also play music, audiobooks, and it has a decent text-to-speech function. And yes, you can go on the Internet with it. But the thing it is designed for and the thing it is best at is reading books.

To this end, it has an e-ink screen that uses ambient light - in other words, it doesn't have a backlight like a computer monitor. This means that you can read it in direct sunlight, but not darkness - just like a book. It also means it is very easy on the eyes, just like print, since you're not staring into a light the entire time you read. Tiny little beads, colored on one side, are flipped up and down to form words and pictures. In addition to being very easy to look at for long periods, this also has the advantage of consuming very little power.

The power advantage is why the Kindle's battery lasts an absurdly long time. Even the heaviest of readers (i.e. me) can read for a week between charges - and I only have the second generation! The new Kindle's battery lasts for several weeks, or up to a month with only light use.

In addition, the Kindle holds a huge number of books. I have hundreds of ebooks, but they can all go on my Kindle at one time if I so chose. And because any book published before 1923 is public domain (and therefore free) and many other books are available through torrents, I essentially can never run out of free material to read. I have an infinite library available, and the size of the Kindle's drive means I can carry around nine hundred or a thousand volumes at a time. On my Kindle right now: the whole of the King James Bible, all the Left Behind books, everything ever written by Hemingway, most of Shakespeare, a dozen Margaret Atwood books, the collected histories of William Prescott, the collected histories of Theodore Ayrault Dodge, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon, and two hundred other books of various authorship and length. Total cost: $0.

So the Kindle lets you read a huge amount of free or cheap books for a very long time, and it is spectacular at that. But (and this is an important caveat) the Kindle really only does that one thing well. If you want it to do other things, it won't do them very well or at all. You can browse the Web, but it's slow and grayscale (even if it is free). You can listen to music, but without any sort of browser for the music or play controls. And you can't watch movies of any kind, and it has no colors so most pictures will be rather less pretty.

So if you plan to do any of those things a lot, then buy something else. It will cost you about twice as much or more (the Kindle is $139 currently) but it will also be able to play movies and easily browse the web and so on. You can even buy an iPad if you must, but you'd do better to hold out for another six months for a much cheaper Android-based tablet. You probably won't enjoy reading on it very much, since the battery will last for five or six hours and your eyes might get strained, but it will do a lot more and do it a lot better.

The best analogy is this: the Kindle is a potato peeler. If you want to peel something, it will do it better than anything else you could buy. It makes peeling very easy. But it will not be very good at cutting cheese. If you want to do both of those things, buy a chef's knife instead. Just be prepared for a lot of nicked thumbs if you try to peel all day.

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