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Review: Amazon Kindle is best e-book reader yet, but plagued by short battery life
[November 21, 2007]

Review: Amazon Kindle is best e-book reader yet, but plagued by short battery life

By PETER SVENSSON AP Technology Writer
The Associated Press

Making a successful reader for electronic books is one of the toughest tasks in consumer electronics. Many have tried and all have failed, defeated by something that's thousands of years old -- the book.

This week, (News - Alert) Inc. released the Kindle, the best attempt yet at toppling the book. It's in some ways an amazing device, but it's severely undercut by its poor battery life, making it hard to see it as a game-changer.

The genius of the $399 Kindle is the inclusion of a cell-phone modem in the device, which is the size of a trade paperback, but thinner. Through the modem, the Kindle can wirelessly download books, magazines, newspapers and blogs -- all for a fee -- anywhere Sprint (News - Alert) Nextel Corp.'s network has coverage. You don't need a separate Sprint account or subscription -- Amazon takes care of all that.

Amazon has 90,000 e-books in its store. A full-length best seller like Jessica Seinfeld's "Deceptively Delicious" cookbook costs $9.99 and takes less than a minute to arrive on the device, if you have a good signal.

Eleven newspapers are available, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and San Jose Mercury News. If you subscribe to one, it arrives automatically on the Kindle in the morning, ready to read on your commute. They're devoid of graphics and have very few photos, but I found I was able to read much more of the Times on the Kindle on my morning commute, because it's much easier to handle than a broadsheet paper on a crowded subway.

The Kindle can hold up to 200 books, or more if you expand the memory with inexpensive SD cards. It can play music and audiobooks too, but those will fill up the internal memory quickly.

The text shows up on the Kindle's six-inch screen, which uses "electronic ink" technology. It's a reasonable facsimile of ink on paper, except that the paper is light gray rather than white. It's quite readable, but has some limitations. For one, it's only able to show four shades, from black to gray, meaning that photographs look murky, sort of like they've been photocopied.

Apart from the readability, the main benefit of the e-ink display is that it uses very little power. In fact, it uses no power when showing a page, only when it shows a new page. Sony's Reader, which came out last year and uses the same screen technology, claims a single charge will last for 7,500 pages of reading, or weeks and weeks of use.

The Kindle, by contrast, lasted only 24 hours for me, including about 2 hours of reading, before needing a recharge. Amazon said that result was not typical, and that the device should be able to go two days between charges.

But that's still not good, and I think something's really gone wrong here. Combining a big battery, a display that takes practically no power and a cell phone that doesn't make calls shouldn't result in a device that has less than half the battery life of a cell phone.

The modem can be turned off with an external switch, and Amazon said that should allow the device to run for a week between charges. I didn't have the time to test this claim, but in any case, I don't want to be bothered with remembering to turn the modem on when it's time to download the day's newspaper, then turning it off. I know I'd forget to turn the modem off and end up with an empty battery the next day, when I'm running out the door and want to read the paper.

This is all a big pity, because the Kindle does so much else right.

Sony's Reader was difficult to navigate because the e-ink display is slow to react to the user -- switching between menu options took a second, for instance. The Kindle, however, uses a nifty secondary display to get around this problem. It's a thin strip that runs alongside of the main display. A scroll wheel controls a cluster of silvery squares that run up and down the strip, indicating the user's choices on the main display. It's both strange and attractive, yet is based on lightning-fast liquid-crystal display technology.

The rest of the interface is less convincing. Amazon has strained to make it easy to turn to the next page, and gone overboard: It's hard to grab the device without turning a page, because the buttons are so large, covering most of both sides of the Kindle.

It's also poorly configured for reading while held in just the right hand. If you overshoot, you need to bring up your left hand to press the "Previous Page" button.

But I'm willing to overlook some of those weird design choices, because the Kindle has some really cool features. For instance, the full-alphabet keyboard below the screen allows you to (slowly) type in words to search for in your books. You can annotate what you read. You can wirelessly send questions to a team of editors, who will grab answers for you from the Web and send them back to you for free. There's even a rudimentary Web browser that allows you to surf for free.

You can also bring your own documents along on the Kindle, though this ability is somewhat limited. By connecting it to a computer, you can transfer plain text files. If you want to bring PDFs or Microsoft (News - Alert) Word documents, you have to e-mail them to Amazon, which converts them and sends them to the Kindle over the wireless network for 10 cents each. In my test, Portable Document Format files with text in columns were garbled in the conversion.

The real reason I can't recommend the Kindle is the battery issue. It's quite possible that Amazon could apply some simple fix, like a software upgrade, because the battery life is much shorter than its components seem to warrant.

If not, we'll have to wait for the next attempt at making a great e-book reader. Like a great white whale of the electronics world, it seems ever elusive.


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