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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Amazon’s upgraded e-book reader, Kindle 2, has many attributes that gadget freaks will find irresistible. It’s got wireless 3G. (Ooh!) It’s slim and elegant. (Ah!) It’s got a luscious, 16-shade display and can handle 1,500 books at a time. (Wow!)

Hands down, though, the very best feature of this hotly anticipated gadget is the ability to lord it over your envious friends. I just hooked up with Kindle 2 this morning, and already I’m insufferable. Just ask my co-workers.

Thanks to the intuitive navigation, QWERTY keyboard and lightning-quick downloads, I’m quoting text from books I’ve never read. What’s more, the Oxford Dictionary tool quickly defines words on the page so that I sort of even know what I’m talking about. Why, I’ve never sounded so smart or pompous! Bragging rights aside, there is the product itself ... the super awesome feather-light product I have locked in a lovesick gaze even as I type. True, at $359, Kindle 2 is a pricey bit of technology, especially for something that excels at just one thing — book readin’. That puts it in the same neighborhood as a multi-tasking iPhone (sans service contract), and still too expensive to risk reading in the bathroom or on the beach. But you know what they say: You can never be too expensive or too thin … if you’re an e-reader, that is.

Not all the tech geeks see Kindle 2 as worthy of love or money — at least that’s what they say. I suspect they’re all jealous. For example, NBC news Web producer and Clicked blogger Will Femia grumbled that he couldn’t imagine Kindle replacing the stack of disheveled newspapers on the counter of his morning coffee shop. Scoop columnist and original-recipe Kindle owner Courtney Hazlett took one look at K2 (my pet name) and declared, "I am in a legitimate love affair with my Kindle, and I now have no plans to break up."

Hazlett’s beef? She prefers the iPod-like wheel navigation of the earlier model over K2’s joystick-style toggle switch. I admit that the joystick is less receptive than the original’s navigational wheel. It also seems less durable and a magnet for crumbs, dust and peanut butter. (Yes, peanut butter. I’m a slob. Shut up.)

Know-it-all interactive editor Phil Zepeda (who builds iPhone apps in his spare time — geek!) gripes that the dual "next page" buttons on either side of the lovely, symmetrical K2 weren't responsive to a normal amount of pressure. And two "next page" options are confusing to fingers, causing accidental "next page" turns when you mean to go back, and vice versa. I grudgingly agree, the K2 should have a "next page" button on one side and "previous page" button on the other.

(And no, the Kindle 2 does not feature a touch screen — something I found out the hard way after jamming my finger into the six-inch screen repeatedly.)

Whatever. At least office I.T. guy Mike Gee isn’t a hater. He described K2 as "easier to navigate than (an) actual book; an improvement on book technology." The search function allows you to instantly find words or phrases rather than tediously flipping around for the part you underlined. And that’s another thing, corporeal book fans: Kindle 2 lets you to save book passages and add notes on individual pages.

Unfortunately, the lovely white case (with brushed metal backing) surrounding the screen will surely fall victim to grubby finger splotches, and as with the original model, K2 is not dishwasher safe.

If the K2 does get too filthy to look at, however, I can always shut my eyes as it reads to me via the text-to-voice function. Sure, the headphone jack is at the top the device, making the cord a source of irritation while looking at the screen. (Hello, Amazon! Who designed this thing?) But the K2 has two decent-sounding speakers in the back.

OK, K2’s speaking voice — available in male and female — is just a tad more animated than Stephen Hawking reading you a bedtime story. And it sure as heck won’t replace Stephen Colbert’s recitation of his own best seller, "I Am America (And So Can You!)" or any of the Harry Potter tomes narrated by Jim Dale (not that any Harry Potter books are available yet for Kindle, another frustration). Still, it’s a function that can come in handy — though I wouldn’t recommend the sleep-inducing drone if you’re going to be driving.

Those who insist on finding flaw with perfection may whine about the fact that despite the K2’s extra shades of gray — 16 over the original model’s four — it doesn’t display illustrations worth beans. That’s no matter to me, as I wasn’t getting rid of my first edition "Watchmen" graphic novel anyway. For straight up, no-diagram-needing reading, Kindle’s electronic ink display is a delight for the eyes. E Ink technology looks eerily similar to actual ink on paper. If your gripe with Kindle 2 is that you don’t want to stare at a computer all day at work and then a Kindle screen at home, never fear. Unlike LCD screens used on computers and cell phones, E Ink reflects light, and once the text is on the screen, it's not constantly refreshing pixels. That saves your optic nerves as well as a ton of power, reducing the need to recharge K2 as frequently as a laptop or cell phone.

Not everyone sees E Ink as perfection. Bedtime readers may lament the lack of backlighting, ignoring the fact that the K2 is just looking out for your eyes. The other thing is, each page does not refresh instantly as you flip through. There’s a few seconds of lag time as the screen blacks out and reloads — a tic common to all E Ink e-books, and something that probably needs to change before Kindle conquers the world.

How does K2 compare to other e-readers? Who cares? Part of K2’s appeal is its prestige factor as "the iPod of books." At $299, the Sony Reader, released last year, remains Kindle 2’s main competition, but what it saves in money it lacks in convenience. Books must be downloaded manually to the Sony model. Meanwhile, K2, thanks to its 3G access provided by Sprint, downloads books immediately either through the device or your online Amazon account.

So why does Kindle 2 cost just so darn much? When you take into account what you get for the money, it starts to make sense — almost. There’s no charge for the 3G wireless. While you can’t text or make calls, K2 does allow MP3 downloads, mobile-style Web surfing and will receive e-mails for a nominal fee. If you’re big into the latest best sellers, Amazon offers Kindle versions for $9.99, as well as Kindle subscriptions to newspapers (including The New York Times) and popular blogs for $1.99 a month each.

Still, even with Amazon’s discounted e-books, the hold-steady $359 cost of the actual hardware assures that the Kindle 2 is a toy for the economically fortunate and foolish — and not something meant for someone in the habit of leaving electronics on the bus. But until this Kindle 2 joins two iPods, one cell phone and my favorite pink and black stripy scarf in the Bronx/Manhattan Express netherworld, I have one and it’s awesome.


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