Can It Kindle the Imagination?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says that the Kindle may be the most important thing he's ever done. But how well does it work? As the first journalist to get his hands on the device, I found it fit my hands pretty well. It's comfortable to hold, and the huge NEXT PAGE and PREVIOUS PAGE buttons on the sides make it easy to keep reading at a steady pace. On the other hand, the prominence of those buttons makes it almost impossible to pick the Kindle up without inadvertently turning a virtual page.

Navigation through the various features is via a novel system centered on a clickable "select wheel" that moves a silvery cursor up or down a slim bar, like an elevator moving through a shaft. It's dead simple to master, but a little slow.

The real acid test was whether the Kindle was capable of transporting a reader into that trancelike zone where the world falls away. My suspicion, since I've had a Sony Reader (which uses the identical E Ink technology), was that it would, and I was right. I read a Dan Silva thriller, Richard Russo's new novel and Eric Clapton's unsatisfying memoir, and didn't feel I was missing anything that I would have gotten in a "real" book.

It's also exciting to get a daily dose of The New York Times and other papers. But the interface for newspaper reading is disappointing—you have to painstakingly go through article lists, and often the stories are insufficiently described. Still, getting the Times in one burst on a daily basis, no matter where you are, is closer to getting a hard-copy delivery than picking out articles on the Web, and it costs $13.99 a month, compared with the $50-plus I pay for home delivery. Do the math.

The real innovation of the Kindle is connecting by its wireless Whispernet, which works well from pretty much everywhere. When you go to the Kindle store, you are greeted like an old friend, since your Kindle account is linked to your Amazon buying history and recommendations. Not every book I wanted was there (paging Philip Roth), but plenty were, and the $9.99 price for best sellers and new books makes purchases more attractive. The coolest thing you can do with a Kindle, hands down, is buying a book—just click BUY and, bang, you have the book in less than a minute.

Though the copy protection doesn't affect book-reading, it is limiting, and annoying. You can't print out a passage, e-mail it to a friend or copy it into a document. You can't lend a book to someone, or sell it after you're finished.

Searching—inside books, inside the device, in the store and on the Web—is speedy and easy. You can do Web browsing on a Kindle, but it doesn't display pages well. (No YouTube, as the device doesn't support animation.)

I didn't scientifically test the battery life, but I found that when you're warned that you have only 20 percent of your power left, you should recharge immediately, because when it goes, it goes quickly, and there's nothing more frustrating than a device that plays dead. And yes, you can replace a battery, for about $20.

The Kindle, mainly because it is not just a device but a well-designed cog in a coherent and useful service, is a high point so far in electronic reading. Deciding whether it's worth the $399 price tag is a classic early-adopter question: if history has any validity, you'll eventually be able to buy an improved version for less. But I'd say that any voluminous reader, particularly one who travels, would be delighted to receive a Kindle by the fireplace this holiday season.