- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2009

KINGSTON, Jamaica

For $359, the retail price of Amazon.com’s Kindle 2, released last week, you can buy, I guess, 15 hardcover books. In Kindle 2, however, you can carry 1,500. The latter is much easier to carry poolside here. That is, if I were poolside.

That argument, more books in less space, should be enough to convince most avid readers - and almost every D.C. Metro commuter - that the Kindle 2 makes sense. It’s lightweight, thin (less than the width of a No. 2 pencil) and you can actually read the screen in most conditions.

There’s also an avalanche of books available for the Kindle 2; the Amazon.com folks say more than 240,000 titles are available, from Carl Hiaasen to Dr. Oz, plus a dozen or more versions of the Bible.

The big changes in the Kindle 2 over the 2008 version are more than skin deep. It’s much thinner, yes, and the brushed-chrome backplate will evoke comparisons with Apple Inc.’s iPhone. But the Kindle 2, at 8 inches by 5.3 inches by 0.36 inches is no iPhone; certainly not with its 6-inch (diagonal) display screen. This is intended for e-book reading.

And reading on the Kindle 2 suits me just fine. More than fine, in fact. I’ll be frank. AAA isn’t the only discount-giving group I can join, I’m also eligible for AARP. Tiny type isn’t a lot of fun, which is why, much as I love the iPhone, reading a book on it can be a challenge.

With Kindle 2, however, I can bump up the typeface to truly mammoth proportions and read comfortably. There are “page”-turning buttons on either side of the device, and it’s now designed in a way to make accidental turns less likely.

I’ve not run into too many illustrations in books or other items yet, but the display now reproduces 16 shades of gray, so pictures should be clearer. More than two dozen international and U.S. newspapers (though not The Washington Times), are available on Kindle via subscription, along with a number of magazines and a quiver of weblogs.

So far, with everything, so good, but here are some quibbles. The first is at once a plus and a minus. You don’t need to own a computer to use a Kindle. It has a free built-in wireless connection to Amazon.com via Sprint’s 3G data network. The bad news is the network functions only in the United States. Here in Jamaica, I’m stone out of luck, mon, if I want to buy a book or a wireless newspaper.

It would be nice to have the Kindle offer some sort of non-wireless connection back to the Amazon.com mother ship, or even a way to load items from your computer. (Update: Two readers have pointed out that such a feature exists, the details of which are buried in the electronic user’s guide supplied with the device, and not in the printed “quick reference” provided with the Kindle 2. That’s better than nothing, I suppose, but a more explicit way of learning this important feature would be helpful.)

Now the Amazon folks will insist you can send items - Microsoft Word files, Adobe Acrobat PDFs, some other e-book formats - to the Kindle 2. Just e-mail them to your Kindle account and pay 10 cents per e-mail.

It worked in one instance after about three tries, and not at all with a Microsoft Word file. An e-mail from “Bob F.” of Amazon customer service read, “We had some issues with the Kindle Email System. The system is normal now. Could you retry the documents that you sent to your Kindle.”

I could, Bob, if I weren’t out of range with Sprint. Sigh.

The other issue involving Kindle may be a bit more idiosyncratic, but I suspect it isn’t. After buying and installing four versions of the Bible on the Kindle 2, I cannot find one where typing in, say, “John 3:16” will flip through and get me, well, John 3:16. This was a problem I experienced with Bible texts on the first Kindlem, and it’s still here.

Bible verse lookup may not be high on your list of e-book priorities, but I suspect it could be a powerful draw for tens of thousands, if not millions, of consumers. The Kindle 2 size and display are just perfect for this; the built-in keypad is almost ideal (a dedicated colon key would help); and I really believe there’s a market for deeply interactive text searching.

Amazon’s people say, and rightly, that there’s plenty of interactivity built into the device. But the ability to key in, locate and turn to a specific reference in a text would go far beyond just the Bible. If you’re an antiques collector, the Kindle 2 would be a great way to tote around a Kovel guide at a flea market. If you’re a tourist, the same would apply for a Fodor’s or Frommer’s.

So having good search and find is helpful, but the search function has to be “great” here. My suggestion, not that Amazon is asking: find a top publisher in each major reference category, develop a super-capable search version of a key book, and have at it. The reward might well exceed the effort and expense.

Much has been said about the new text-to-speech capabilities of the Kindle 2: Click a menu option and it will begin “reading” to you and advancing pages along the way. The sound is good enough, but in no way does it resemble an audio book. I’d rather have actor Jim Dale read a “Harry Potter” book than the Kindle 2, if I’m looking for a good dramatic reading.

I’m a fan of Amazon’s Kindle 2, and I want to be more of one. The unit is small and handy and easy to carry. The recharging system is USB-based, which is wise. Jut a few more tweaks - and someday when screen technology and battery life allow, a color screen - and we’ll be in heaven.

Now, how do I get Ann Coulter to autograph my Kindle copy of “Guilty”?

• E-mail mkellner@ washingtontimes.com.