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The Amazon Kindle: One week and 3,500 miles later

Guest post: Josh Taylor is the director of ZDNet and its sister site TechRepublic. Keep an eye out for Josh’s product review blog later this year.

Guest post: Josh Taylor is the director of ZDNet and its sister site TechRepublic. Keep an eye out for Josh’s product review blog later this year. In the meantime, here’s his first impressions of the Kindle.

While my initial reactions to the Amazon Kindle were generally favorable, a five-day Thanksgiving jaunt to the Caribbean let me (and my wife, Lisa) to more fully put it through its paces. And though the Kindle is certainly not without its flaws, I must confess that I’ve fallen in deep like with it.

Interesting side note: Either Amazon didn’t produce very many of these things, or the Kindle’s actually selling – as of this writing, the site says the product is temporarily out of stock.

The first is probably the most obvious – I didn’t have to make the hard cover versus paperback trade-off that has accompanied every other vacation-packing session I can recall. In e-book land, nobody knows if you’re a cloth cover, which meant I could bring along Jeffrey Toobin’s Supreme Court tell-all The Nine without fear of an aching shoulder.

I was also eager to see how different it would be to read a full book on the Kindle, as opposed to just reading a page here and there. And despite a bit of apprehension, I have to say that within five minutes of actually reading, I generally became oblivious to the fact I was reading digital ink on a screen, as opposed to actual ink on paper. The screen was extremely easy to read in the less-than-stellar light of an airplane, as well as the super bright sun of an Anguillan beach.

Purchasing books for my trip was also as easy as advertised. Once I updated my Amazon one-click account with my latest credit card info, I was able to purchase three books, each of which downloaded to my Kindle in well under a minute. In case I ran out (I didn’t), I also stockpiled a bunch of free samples, as Amazon allows you to download, gratis, the first chapter of any Kindle book it sells.

And while at first glance, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the placement of all the navigational buttons – primarily, the next and previous pages – after spending many hours with the Kindle, I no longer have doubts. No matter which position I found myself reading – from laying on my back on the beach, to squished into an economy class seat, to, errrr, let’s just say another room in which I often find myself reading a lot – I could easily flip back and forth without fumbling.

That all said, abandoning papyrus isn’t a walk in the park. First off, as other reviewers have pointed out, while the big navigation buttons make for easier reading, they also make it virtually impossible to say, close the Kindle’s leather carrying case, without inadvertently flipping the page. There are two workarounds – you can either add a bookmark which makes it easy to return to a previous location, or you can hit a key combination (ALT + the font size button), which puts the device to sleep -- but I still wish I could simply close the device without worrying about where I would find myself when I reopened it.

While Amazon also does little to hide the fact that the Kindle is really not great for graphics, let there be no mistake – they’re not lying. Even the basic black and white photos and graphics in Jon Krakauer’s memoir of his disastrous trip up Mount Everest, Into Thin Air , were nearly impossible to make out. And while the fact that the Kindle version of the book cost only $4.76, whereas Amazon sells the paperback edition for $10.17, did help alleviate some of the frustration, I would definitely steer clear of buying any books that you know in advance are graphic-heavy. One other minor annoyance: I encountered a handful of formatting errors in the text, primarily with sentences that had hyphenated words, and/or had non-traditional alignment (like lines that were meant to be centered).

In my post last week, I also mentioned that the Kindle had a magnet, which helped keep it attached to its leather carrying case. And in fact, the prototype I had seen several weeks ago had just such a feature. But while it does in fact feel like there’s a magnet in the model I’ve been using, in practice, there doesn’t seem to be, and I was constantly readjusting the Kindle into its case to make sure it didn’t fall out. My colleague, Larry Dignan, has encountered the same issue, but despite that, tells me he is growing rather fond of his Kindle, reading the Wall Street Journal on it each morning.

The fact that the Kindle does such a good job of hiding its technology can also lead to a bit of trouble. One, it is an electronic device, which means you can’t read it during takeoff and landing. In my case, that meant having to put down Into Thin Air at a crucial moment during our final approach into JFK last night, and resign myself to re-reading the same in-flight magazine that I had perused during take-off.

And unlike a traditional book, you actually need to pay attention to the Kindle’s battery meter.  Despite my repeated assurances to Lisa that she didn’t have to worry about recharging the Kindle before taking it out to the beach one day, the Kindle died on her (ironically, during a crucial moment of Into Thin Air). Now granted it was totally avoidable, but the fact is, you never need to glance at a battery meter on a paper-based book, nor can you accidentally turn on a regular book’s wireless switch, and thus, more rapidly deplete its battery.

But in all, these end up being fairly minor quibbles. I’ve gone from somewhat grudging admiration to a wholehearted embrace. Heck, I’ve gotten so engrossed while using the Kindle, that I no longer even notice how ugly it is. And that, my friends, is high praise.