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Tech Review: Costly 'Kindle' reader gets a lot of it right

Amazon's e-book reader has clunky design, good performance, and a couple of annoying quirks.

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It doesn't look like much. In fact, Amazon's new e-book reader, the Kindle, looks downright industrially ugly, a beige flashback to the clunky '80s. A glance tells you that this product was not designed by anybody working for Steve Jobs. Many critics have seized on the Kindle's lack of eye appeal as one reason to forecast its failure.

But to add a new twist to an old saying, you can't judge an e-book by its cover.

The Kindle may not look perfect, or be perfect, but it's the best e-book reader yet to appear on the market. And like the iPod, it could be the tipping point in a whole new way to access a popular medium – in this case, books.

The reason that the Kindle will prove to be popular boils down to one word: convenience. And wireless. (OK, maybe it boils down to two words.) Amazon has included free wireless (so no monthly service charges), and not just any middling wireless, but top-quality Sprint EVDO wireless. This means anytime you want to read a new book, you can download one right away.

This is an enormous advantage over machines like Sony's Reader Digital Book, the latest version of which came out this summer. The Digital Book ($299) is a decent machine, but every time you need a new book, you have to hook it up to your computer to download one. If you finish a book, and forget to load up before a trip, you're out of luck if you're away from Internet access. (If you live out of EVDO range, Kindle can also download books via computer connection.)

Here's another smart move by Amazon: e-book pricing. The company is offering many top-selling books and new releases for $9.99 each. After all, why sell a digital version of a book, made of ones and zeroes, at the more expensive price of a book made of crushed ink on dead trees? Amazon also claims to offer 90,000 titles that can be accessed with the Kindle.

The Kindle is relatively light, at just over 10 ounces. Like the Digital Reader, it features the revolutionary e-ink technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, which duplicates the look of a book page pretty faithfully. That means no glare. (The Kindle and Sony displays are equivalent in readability.) Once the page appears on the Kindle, it stays there until you decide to move on. If you turn the machine off, when you turn it back on, you'll find the last page you were reading.

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