E-Book Reading

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e-book readingAmazon.com Inc. has revealed another prong of its strategy in making its gigantic e-book library available on a device already in millions of hands: bringing its Kindle e-book reader to the iPhone. This is a big step for e-books, but the first version of the iPhone application is crude and Amazon would do well to release a software update soon to demonstrate its commitment to the iPhone.

The Kindle app is free, available in Apple Inc.’s App Store. Apart from the iPhone, it will also work on the iPod Touch. Once you’ve loaded the app, you can buy books on Amazon’s Web store. You’ll have to use either a computer or the iPhone’s browser. Unlike some other e-book readers, including the Kindle, the app doesn’t have a built-in store. Considering that most people are familiar with the Web site, this isn’t a major shortcoming. Head back to the application and it will load up the books you bought wirelessly.

The Apple devices have gigabytes of storage memory and can hold hundreds, even thousands of books. Tap one and its text fills the screen. Turn the page by swiping over it with your finger. If you do something else with your phone then return to the reader app, it will show you the last page you were reading. Since the screen is backlit, you don’t need a light source. If you’ve already bought a book for the Kindle device, it will load on your iPhone for free and vice versa. If you’re reading a book both on the Kindle and the iPhone, the two devices will communicate to keep track of how far you’ve read. This sounds elegant, but the app has a mildly annoying habit of freezing when it’s trying to communicate with Amazon when your wireless connection is weak.

E-book readers haven’t taken off in part because people don’t like reading on a computer screen. The Kindle reading device, which costs $359, tackles that by using a novel screen technology known as electronic ink. It’s not backlit, so it looks a lot more like paper, but it has numerous drawbacks, most notably that it can’t show a bright white or a really dark black. Since it doesn’t show any colors either, it looks like gray, unbleached paper printed with weak ink. The iPhone and iPod Touch screens have great contrast and color, but the Kindle app will show all books on a white background that many will find too bright, making it uncomfortable to read. You can turn down the screen brightness, but that will leave it too dark for other applications. Other e-book readers available on the iPhone, like eReader and Stanza, let you pick a background and text color that won’t hurt your eyes. They also let you pick the font and set the margins on the screen. The only adjustment the Amazon app offers is the font size.

The Kindle on the iPhone is still the best e-book reader I’ve seen so far. Other applications are hampered by a weak selection of books and inelegant ordering systems. Stanza has the bad habit of freezing for nearly a minute when launched. A relatively new application called Shortcovers gave me frequent connection problems and seems to emphasize providing samples rather than full books. The eReader does have the virtue of being available for other cell phones. Another alternative, Mobipocket, is available for practically every “smart” phone except the iPhone. But there are few phones out there with screens large and sharp enough to make reading pleasurable.

The Kindle 2 is four times the size of the iPhone. The dedicated reader has much longer battery life, but the iPhone will last for a domestic flight and you need to charge the phone every other day or so anyway. Perhaps the biggest advantage of the Kindle 2 is that it can subscribe to newspapers, which load wirelessly every day. The iPhone makes up for this to some extent through free news applications. The iPhone costs less to buy than the Kindle, but the monthly wireless service fees quickly make up the difference, so don’t get an iPhone just as an e-book reader. For that, get an iPod Touch for $229. It doesn’t have any monthly fees.