In a nation that's increasingly turning away from books, anything that turns people on to reading is a good thing. And the Kindle, Amazon.com's formidable new electronic book reader, is a very good thing indeed.
The $399 device is unlike anything that has come before it, including the Sony Reader that was introduced in October.
The Kindle weighs about 10 ounces and is the size of a large paperback book. It can hold the electronic text of up to 200 books, plus a small but growing list of magazines, newspapers and blogs. But the real innovation is the Kindle's wireless Internet connection over Sprint's EVDO network.
With this connection, there's no need to find a hot spot or hook up to a PC. You can download best-sellers from Amazon's online store for a maximum of $9.99. That's a fantastic price compared with the Sony reader, which, for example, charges $28 for Ken Follett's "World Without End."
The Kindle is also the first device to have wireless Web access on a dedicated network with no monthly fees. You can also access stripped-down text versions of many Web and e-mail sites.
Newspapers like The New York Times are $14 a month and The Wall Street Journal is $9.99 while each blog costs $1 a month. You can sample the first chapter of any one of 90,000 titles with the Kindle, compared with 20,000 available at Sony.
Both readers use a new magnetic ink screen technology that's easy to read against an off-white background and in bright sunlight. The black-and-white screen uses virtually no power when a page is displayed.
The Kindle is Amazon's first electronic device, and it lacks the sophistication in design, materials and controls that you get with Sony.
It's nearly impossible to pick up the Kindle without touching the oversize Next Page bar on the right-hand side or the smaller Previous Page bar on the left, making it easy to lose your page. The device is '80s cheap-looking, like a hand-held DeloLean, and the tiny keyboard at the bottom has oddly canted keys. An included leather-bound book cover holds the Kindle tentatively; the device can easily slip its mooring and fall to the floor. (I dropped it twice, with no ill effects.)
But readers will be thrilled to have access to so much for so little. Newspapers and books download to the Kindle in just a few seconds after you turn on the wireless connection. It's best to disable the wireless when you're not using it to extend battery life. A one-hour charge will last up to a week of regular use, but only a day or two with the wireless constantly on.
I was prepared to hate reading the Times on the Kindle, but was pleasantly surprised to find the navigation system sensible and easy to use. I could plow through the stories I wanted to read and skip those that didn't interest me, just like with the dead-tree version. And there are no ads to get in the way, although dedicated shoppers may see this as a negative.
With the newspapers, you've got to turn on the Kindle wireless connection however briefly each day to get your download or you miss that issue. There may be a way to go back and retrieve a skipped issue, but I wasn't able to discover it.