E-books have come a long way since the debut of the Kindle just three years ago. According to Amazon, e-books are now outselling hardcover books in its Web store, and company CEO Jeff Bezos has predicted that sales of digital books will outpace those of paperback books within a year. Amazon doesn't disclose sales of its Kindle, but the online retailer says the device has been the top-selling item in its store over the past two years and analysts estimate that it's dominating the market.
Hoping to catch some of the Kindle's fire, companies such as Sony, Barnes & Noble, Apple and numerous startups in the past two years have updated their own e-book readers, come out with new devices or developed e-book reader applications for smart phones or tablets.
Amazon recently moved to extend its lead by updating its Kindle lineup. The new devices -- there are three models -- are thinner, smaller and lighter than before and cost significantly less. Amazon also claims that the device's screens are much improved, with 50 percent greater contrast than those of the previous versions, and that they refresh -- switch from one page of text to the next -- faster than before. In addition to the standard Kindle 3G and the extra large DX model, Amazon has also introduced a new entry-level model that connects to the Internet via Wi-Fi but not a 3G cell phone connection.
I've been testing out the midrange Kindle 3G, the $189 model that includes both Wi-Fi and 3G antennas to connect to the Internet. The changes address some of the shortcomings of earlier Kindles, most notably that they were bulky, pricey and slow. You can't fit the new Kindles in your back pocket like a paperback -- not that you'd necessarily want to -- but they're nearing that size. The $139 price for the entry-level Kindle isn't yet to the point where it's a no-brainer purchase -- but it's nearly there.
While turning digital pages on the new Kindle still isn't instantaneous, it happens much faster than before. You no longer have to wait a full beat or more to see the next page.
And the new screen is probably the closest thing to text on paper that's out there.
These improvements add to the many compelling features Amazon had already built into the Kindle and its e-book system. Amazon offers a large selection of e-books for sale, some 670,000 of them, including nearly all of the top best-sellers. Kindle users can download those books directly to their devices, using the Kindle's built-in connection to Amazon's e-book store. And owners of the top two Kindle models can download books in a wide variety of places, such as the beach or at a park, thanks to the 3G wireless antenna and connection that's included in those devices' price.
One of the things that's made the Kindle even more attractive lately is Amazon's move to develop Kindle reader applications for the latest smart phones and tablets as well as for PCs. Amazon has developed software that keeps those various e-readers in sync. So you can start reading a book on a Kindle device then switch over to a smart phone, tablet, PC or Mac and pick up where you left off.
All that said, though, the Kindle still has significant shortcomings. For example, its screen is great to look at, but only as long as you don't try to do anything with it or compare it with screens on more versatile devices like the iPad.
After having had a touch-screen smart phone for more than two years and spending months with an iPad, it was annoying not to be able to simply touch the Kindle's screen to select titles to read, turn pages or zoom into text. The four-direction pointer button works to navigate around the screen, but not well and not instantaneously as a touch-screen would.
The Kindle's e-ink monochromatic screen works well in bright light, unlike the LCDs on phones and tablets. But Amazon still hasn't built in a backlight, so it's difficult to read in low light. A new case for the device includes a reading light, but the case costs a whopping $60, nearly half the price of the entry-level Kindle.
And while a great technology for text, e-ink is by its nature a poor option for photographs, illustrations or video. That's not a big deal if you are just reading novels, but it makes a big difference if you want to use an e-reader for kids' books or nonfiction works with full-color illustrations or videos.
The Kindle has other shortcomings beyond its screen. While it's great for reading digital books, it's a frustrating device to use for other digital content. If you want to read a newspaper or magazine, for example, Kindle forces you to get a subscription.
As a newspaper writer, I'm all for charging for our content, but the Kindle version of newspapers or magazines is typically less than you'll find -- for free -- on those newspapers' or magazines' websites.
The Kindle also now has a Web browser, but it's frustrating to use. Text isn't sharp and it's difficult to zoom in or click on links.
The other big problem with the Kindle is that Amazon has restricted the types of e-books that you can read on it. Most of the rest of the industry, including Apple and Barnes & Noble and many libraries, has standardized on a format called ePub. Not the Kindle.
What that means is that the only store through which you can buy books for the Kindle is Amazon's. While you can import books in certain other formats, most notably Adobe's PDF, the lack of support for ePub means that you generally won't be able to comparison shop for e-books and in many cases, you won't be able to use the Kindle to read e-books you've checked out from your local library.
Still, there's a lot to like about the Kindle. For reading aficionados, it's close to a must-have device. For the rest of us, it's definitely worth a look.
AMAZON KINDLE 3G:
• Troy's rating: 4 out of 5
• Likes: Brighter screen, quicker refresh rate, smaller size, lower price
• Dislikes: Monochrome screen poor for anything but text, doesn't support popular ePub format, frustrating Web browser
• How much: $189. (Other models available for $139 and $379)
• Web: www.amazon.com
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More information: Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Reach him at twolverton(at)mercurynews.com