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Kindle puts library in palm’s reach

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If you ride the Metro to work every day, do I have a device for you: the $359 Kindle, an electronic book reader created and sold by Amazon.com, the dominant online book seller. Once purchased, you can buy electronic books that are delivered wirelessly and stored on both the device's internal memory or a SecureDigital (SD) memory card. It'll hold roughly 200 books without the card.

I mention the Metro because it seems that a commuter bus or train would be a great place to have the Kindle handy. You can read a book, make notes and annotations, and the thing weighs 10.3 ounces. It's small, too, just 7.5 by 5.3 inches, and only 0.7 inches thick. You can even play MP3 files, although I've not tried songs from Apple's iTunes just yet. (Oddly enough, there's no way at present to buy music from Amazon's MP3 store directly from the Kindle.)

Of course, you could read a Kindle book at home or in bed or on an airplane. The daily commuter, however, may find the best value in the Kindle, which includes its own electronic bookmark and easy paging routine. If nothing else, it'll take your mind off of the rising cost of commuting.

The Kindle created a bit of buzz when it was introduced: Encased in stark white plastic, the device had more heft - in terms of marketing and the number of titles available, estimated at 130,000. Most sell for $9.99 each, some for more and others for less. You can order books using the device itself, as well as on the Amazon.com Web site from a PC. The Kindle uses a data modem and wireless radio - not Wi-Fi, however - to communicate with the Seattle-based mother ship, meaning quick access and fast downloads, even in remote places such as Elkins, W.Va., as I discovered a couple of weeks back.

The screen isn't as white as the plastic casing, but it's light enough to read in most circumstances. You can adjust the type size from minuscule to very large - large enough for my middle-aged eyes, at least, to read without squinting. I do wish there was a way to adjust the screen's brightness or contrast or something, but maybe that's just me.

Instead of turning pages, users rely on buttons to page forward and backward. There's also a search feature, the usefulness of which varies: It found references to "Roman Catholic" in one book quite easily, but on a Kindle-formatted version of the Bible, I had a tough time searching for specific verses of Scripture. Entering "Jeremiah 29:11" produced nothing. When I typed just "29:11," I got all sorts of results. I would have thought chapter-and-verse searching would be relatively easy to implement.

The Kindle platform isn't as open as one might want : I could e-mail (at 10 cents per mailing) a Microsoft Word file to the Kindle and read it there, but I couldn't "drag and drop" the same file from my Mac to the device, even though there's a provided data cable. The Kindle has some way of importing/using files in Adobe Systems' PDF format, but, again, drag-and-drop isn't it.

Kindle also offers subscriptions to various newspapers and about a dozen magazines, the latter ranging from Time to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, which I last remember reading during mid-adolescence. I skipped the newspapers, since each title listed is available free online, and since The Washington Times wasn't one of the choices. (This, by the way, is one place where having a more direct way of using PDFs would be helpful; The Times now offers an "e-edition" that includes a PDF version.)

All of this points to a strength and a weakness of the Kindle, in my view. I can understand what Amazon.com is trying here: It wants to make sure it can monetize as many sources of content as possible. That's fine, but give me some options beyond the snooty (was Britain's Independent really the only U.K. newspaper it could sign?), and some ways to make that $359 investment - roughly the cost of 15 hardbacks or 21 trade paperbacks - more useful to me. Let me not only read my Word documents, but let me annotate and edit them, since the Kindle has a keyboard of sorts. Let me read PDFs easily. And let me send that document back to my home or office computer.

Oh, and while we're talking here, Mr. Amazon.com: Let me "rent" a book for a week or a month, kind of on the Netflix model. Subscribers may not want to pay even $9.99 for a Harlequin potboiler, but they might spend $3 to rent it for a fortnight. For reference books that are, shall we say, "mature" in years, give me a break on the price and I'll dip in.

In terms of use, the Kindle is one of the better electronic book readers I've seen, and Amazon's technology here is very good. However, content will drive this thing, I believe. At such a high cost of entry, I believe Amazon can, with a few adjustments, make the Kindle more useful, and thus more tempting.

Ready to turn the page? Write to mkellner@ washingtontimes.com.

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