Editor's note: the RRP listed is in US dollars and is subject to fluctuations in the current exchange rate between the US and Australian dollar. The price is also listed minus postage.
Once upon a time reading books was a favoured pastime by millions of internet-less people stuck in a time when photos were black and white, an Apple was eaten and hacking something usually involved a large knife. But as with everything else in the modern era, reading is becoming electronic and the current king of the electronic book is the Amazon Kindle.
For readers of heavy sci-fi novels, the light, compact size of the Kindle is going to be a major drawcard. At 18mm thick and weighing just under 300 grams, the Kindle is more like a magazine than a heavy paperback. From the front, about 60 per cent of the face of the Kindle is taken up by its 6-inch E-Ink display. This display has a 600x800-pixel resolution and can display four varying shades of grey.
The E-Ink screen may sound like an older generation technology and pretty unexciting next to the new 16-million colour AMOLED mobile phone touchscreens, but there are a number of unique advantages to using this technology over a backlit display technology like LCD, the most important of which is how it looks. E-Ink has a paper-like appearance, with sharp and clear text on the page and your eyes don't get tired reading this surface the way they would a computer screen. It's also unaffected by direct sunlight, so you'll have no trouble reading in the park on a sunny day, and it uses far less power than an LCD, giving the Kindle extraordinary battery life compared to phones and laptops.
Under the screen is a full-QWERTY keyboard, though before you get excited the Kindle is not a word processor. Instead, the keyboard is used for making short notes and for searching through the text in books or the Amazon Store. The edges of the device is dedicated to the navigation buttons; page-turn keys as well as a menu button and a five-way navigation toggle.
When we tell you that the Kindle has a 6-inch screen and 3G wireless connectivity, we don't want you to get the wrong idea. This is not a phone or a mobile computer of any kind, even though it shares some similar technologies. The Kindle's use of 3G is straightforward and for almost a singular purpose — to contact Amazon and buy more books. For this reason Amazon makes this connection free, there are no contracts to pay and no commitments to make.
The 3G wireless connection is a godsend and making it free is a master stroke. Hunting around the Amazon Store is slower on the Kindle than you might be used to, but being able to find books and download them to read immediately is very rewarding (if dangerous for the old credit card). You can also side-load books from your PC via a USB connection, with the Kindle capable of reading TXT and PDF files, .mobi ebook format plus its own proprietary .azn file format. It can also play music too, recognising MP3 music and .aa audio book files. The Kindle now ships with 2GB of internal storage which is enough to hold about 1500 books.
One feature we love is the built-in Oxford Dictionary, which is accessible from the main menu, or word by word within the text you're reading. Simply use the navigation toggle to place the cursor in front of the word you want defined and a brief definition appears at the bottom of the screen. If you'd like more detail you press enter on the keyboard to open a detailed view, including alternative definitions and usage.
Those of us used to powerful PCs and the slick performance of the iPhone may be underwhelmed by the way the Kindle navigates its menus and moves through the texts. Each menu selection will take a second or more to respond and moving the cursor throughout the text you're reading requires a little patience. The 3G performance is slow, but considering that Australian users can only browse the Amazon Store and Wikipedia, this shouldn't be too much of a concern for most.
Battery life is one area where you'll have no complaints. With the wireless connection active, Amazon predicts a four-day battery cycle, and with wireless turned off the battery can remain charged for weeks. Colleagues at CNET who have been using the Kindle for longer than our review period report up to two weeks and over between charges, and in excess of a whole novel's worth of reading. The secret is that the display uses no power to maintain the E-Ink display once loaded, it only uses power to change pages.
The Kindle is simple yet fantastic. It performs one specific task and it does so at least as well as the books it replaces, and far better than any other electronic device. Its 3G connection to the Amazon Store makes it superior to other ebooks available in Australia at this time, even if the performance of this connection is a touch on the slow side. The Kindle makes reading more portable than a sackful of books and is likely to inspire you to read more than ever before.