The Kindle is the electronic book reader first brought to market by Amazon in December of 2007. It was so successful (or Amazon so dramatically underestimated demand) that it sold out during the holiday periods of both 2007 and 2008.
Now, only 14 months after its introduction, Amazon has rolled out the Kindle 2. Even before this new and very much improved version, the pundits were speculating that the Kindle could do for digital books what Apple's iPod has done for digital music.
Before we go any further, let me confess that I was in love with the first version of the Kindle. For me, this is not merely a gadget, it is an enabling technology.
Before the Kindle came along, the only way I could read most books was with a magnifying glass. Not a lot of fun. So, for the most part, I gave up reading. With the Kindle, I can adjust the font size and read almost anything. It has rekindled my love of reading.
Amazon is telling everyone that the price of the Kindle 2 is the same as the first Kindle. That's not entirely accurate. For $359, the original Kindle came with a pretty sturdy cover that protected the screen. But the cover for the Kindle 2 will cost you an extra $30.
So, if, like me, your Kindle is likely to get knocked around in a briefcase or knapsack, you really want the leather cover. Corinthian leather it's not, but it does the trick. For those of you who want to dress up your Kindle 2, there are already pricey custom covers coming to market.
First, a look at what's gone from the first version. Gone is the plastic cover on the back that concealed an SD storage card and a removable battery. Good riddance.
The cover kept falling off. Battery life was good enough so that I never even thought about a second battery. And Amazon claims that with lots more storage, you really don't need the removable storage card.
Gone too are the scroll knob and the silver strip that worked with it to mark your place and helped you navigate. Also gone is the separate button in the back to turn the wireless radio on or off, replaced by a menu function.
There's plenty that's new. Perhaps the most ingenious development is that on the Kindle 2, all the buttons press towards the inside of the page, instead of to the outside.
That may sound like a small thing, but it's not. With the first version, it was far too easy to turn pages you didn't want to turn, and lots of them, simply by holding the Kindle the wrong way. It's really tough to do that with the new version.
The second obvious difference is the five-way navigation button that makes getting around all of the Kindle's functions much easier.
This is particularly true when it comes to navigating newspapers, which are not delivered in anything like a Web or .pdf format. You can find a listing of sections, but after that it's single article after article, as if each is a separate chapter of a book.
Even with the new navigation button, newspapers on the Kindle are still not very user-friendly. I find the Web version of the New York Times much easier to get around. Maybe point-and-click will be on the Kindle 3.
The Kindle 2 is slimmer than the old one, only a third of an inch thick. The keypad is more pleasing to the eye, though not necessarily easier to use. The weight of the old and new one is about the same.
The screen is improved, with sixteen shades of gray instead of the old four. It doesn't make much difference in text, but does improve the black-and-white images.
Storage has been dramatically increased, with Amazon claiming the new Kindle has space for 1,500 books, newspapers and magazines -- more than you're likely to get through on a summer vacation.
Battery life, with the wireless function turned off, can be two weeks. With the electronic ink used in the Kindle's display, power is only used when you turn a page, not when the display is simply on. And the power on/off button has gone from the back to the top, making it more accessible. Amazon claims page turns are 20 percent faster.
Amazon has already run into some trouble with one of the Kindle's newest functions: text-to-speech.
Let's say you've been reading your Kindle in the den and you need to go into the kitchen to make a meal. You can put the Kindle down on the counter, press "text-to-speech" on the menu and the Kindle will begin reading to you where you left off.
The computer-generated voice is no James Earl Jones, but it's much better than some of those on a GPS navigator. You can adjust the reading speed, and honestly, mine actually stuttered going from one chapter to another, perhaps an endearing quality in a computerized voice.
Amazon admits it got some pushback from authors and publishers on this function, who claimed Amazon does not have audio rights to all its books.
While Amazon still claims that text-to-speech is not the same as an audio book, it has now agreed to let rights-holders determine whether they are willing to allow their works to be spoken on the Kindle. The company is working on new software that will control the function.
You can also download audio books onto your Kindle through Audible, a company owned by Amazon.com.
Now that the Kindle is becoming more popular, Amazon has included a feature for the multiple Kindle owner.
Since your library appears on all Kindles with the same account, you can now synchronize the devices so you can automatically pick up reading on the Kindle in your home just where you left off on your Kindle at school. It's a little geeky, but it works.
You can hook up the Kindle to your computer for some functions. You can transfer your own documents to your Kindle using a number of popular file formats. You can take MP3s from your computer and transfer them to the Kindle if you'd like some music by which to read. And you can take the notes and clippings you've created on your Kindle and transfer them in text form to your computer.
Because Amazon uses a proprietary format for its books, you won't be able to read a Kindle book you've purchased on your computer. Amazon does provide a permanent library of the books you bought, so if they are accidentally wiped out on your Kindle's memory, you can retrieve them wirelessly and painlessly from Amazon.
Even though Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos claims that his goal is to get every book ever published onto Kindle, if this is a journey of a thousand miles, then he's probably only gone a couple of yards.
While there are roughly a quarter of a million titles on Kindle, it does not carry most older works (though it does have many classics), nor does it carry the works of some very popular authors like John Grisham.
On the other hand, Stephen King just wrote a novella that's only available via Kindle. And public-domain works, such as "Call of the Wild" and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," are priced cheaply, starting at 99 cents.
So should you run right out and buy a Kindle 2? Avid Kindle aficionados may want the upgrade because of the improved functionality You can probably sell your old one on eBay (they're selling used for as much as $250).
Avid readers might consider the space and cost advantages. Most best-sellers go for $9.99 on Kindle, often half or less than their hardcover price, and you can pack a mountain of vacation reading into your purse or knapsack without hurting yourself or your wallet.
The Kindle is not the only electronic reader on the market. Then again, Apple's iPod was never the only digital-music player. But like the iPod, the Kindle is the only one that's made a market.