REVIEW: Should you buy an Amazon Kindle e-reader? The answer, in one easy formula

It doesn't matter if the Amazon Kindle e-book reader is the first e-book reader that makes sense. It's not a question of whether the unique un-backlit monochrome screen technology works, if the Sprint-powered wireless online bookstore and download of books and in less than a minute works, it doesn't matter if the unusual interface works.

The Kindle has a problem, and it's not the technology. It's the economics. But more on that in a bit. You dialed this review up to read about cool technology, and Kindle is definitely that. Kindle is not like any other piece of high tech you've ever used. Unlike music and video players designed to play back new media, Kindle is designed to improve the enjoyment of old media — sort of like a portable 35mm movie projector.

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Kindle Technology
Physically, the Kindle, named for the love of reading Amazon hopes it will arouse amongst tech geeks, is a Macintosh-white colored 8-inch-long wedge with a 6-inch grayscale display and a split QWERTY thumbpad. On the rear are on/off switches for power and wireless, and most of the back is rubberized to improve the grip. Inside Kindle is 200MB, roomy enough to store around 200 e-books. You can add memory via an SD card slot buried beneath the rear cover. Books you buy are also stored on Amazon's servers, so you can download them again in case your Kindle crashes.

The Kindle's screen is reminiscent of an Etch-A-Sketch, black lettering on a light gray background. Because it's not backlit like an LCD, the dull screen is eminently readable in all lighting conditions including direct sunlight but, like a real book, not in the dark. If you want to read in a darkened airplane interior or bedroom, you will need a light.

The Kindle Concept
At Kindle's heart is the wireless connection to Amazon's Whispernet, powered by Sprint's EV-DO network. There's no subscription fee. From the device, you access and shop the Amazon Kindle store and download Kindle books, usually priced at $10 each. At launch there were 90,000 books available, including most of the New York Times Best Sellers list. While that sounds impressive, I couldn't find any of the first half dozen titles I searched for, mainly hefty books that I'd rather not schlep around, including the new biography of Charles Schulz, the coffee-table-sized Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi and several current American history titles. Perhaps Amazon should prioritize what Kindle titles it offers first by size then by popularity.

You can also subscribe to dozens of newspapers, magazines and blogs via RSS feeds and surf the Web, although the experience without color is poor.

Navigation is up/down only via an exclamation point-shaped array. Not having an onscreen cursor is sometimes awkward. For instance, finding a definition of a word using Kindle's built-in dictionary becomes a two-step process: you have to choose the line that contains the word you want defined, which results in short definitions of all the words in that line. You now have to scroll up/down to select the specific word you're looking for. Filling in an onscreen Web field is similarly awkward.

Book 'Em, Danno
Once you grok the Kindle concept, using it is intuitive and fun — but it's not a book, which presents both pros and cons. Unlike a book, you can pick one of six different font sizes (but not different typefaces), but it takes a full second for the next or previous page to materialize onscreen, far slower than a physical page flip. You can easily add (and then edit or delete) bookmarks and notes or "highlight" text by putting a box around lines. When you power on, Kindle returns to the page you left when you turned it off. Pictures look more like Wall Street Journal woodcuts, and it's tough to leaf through a Kindle book to seek out previous references, maps or illustrations.

Kindle's text input and features navigation is archaic. Characters are annoyingly slow to appear once typed. Web and music playback controls are hidden in an oddly-named "Experimental" menu choice. You have to drill down through the Experimental menus just to stop the music from playing.

With the wireless turned on, Amazon says you'll get "a couple of days" of battery life; turn off the wireless and Kindle will operate for a week. Books, of course, never run out of power, never break and are relatively cheap to replace. Which leads us to…

Kindleconomics
Given the price of the Kindle, none of this really matters. The Kindle retails for $400. Each book you download costs $10. Figure that between paperback and hardcovers that you'd spend an average of $20 per real-world book. Let the number of books you read during the lifespan of the Kindle be x.

Book budget = $20x

But with the Kindle, you have to factor in the initial cost.

Kindle budget = $400 + $10x

So, equating the two:

$20x = $400 + $10x
$10x = $400
x = 40

In order for the Kindle to just pay for itself you'd have to buy 40 real books.

I'm a voracious reader. But I don't buy 40 books in a year. Do you? Even if the price drops in half, we're still talking about 20 books a year for a device that you could lose or break and need to replace.

The Kindle is clever but will have only limited usefulness in the real world until the price drops to around $50.

THE ESSENTIALS: AMAZON KINDLE

WHO WANTS THIS
Rich frequent travelers who don't have assistants to carry piles of onboard reading material.

WHY
All your reading material is centralized in one light and thin package.

WHAT'S COOL
An e-book that makes technological sense with intelligent ergonomics and a brilliant book-acquisition system.

WHAT'S LAME
It's a book that can run out of power. It's slow to react to typing. Even with 90,000 books available, the online Kindle store selection is thin. And it's waaaaaaay too expensive.

FINAL MARK: B–
Kindle represents a huge leap forward in e-book design, but it makes no economic sense, even at a quarter the price.

PRICE: $400