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Test driving the Kindle for iPhone

March 4, 2009 |  9:34 am

Kindleiphone_0304

When the news hit last night that Amazon was releasing a Kindle for iPhone, I jumped to get it. No matter how much I love books, I'd developed a definite longing for the Kindle. It was partly my fondness for new technologies, partly the (perhaps late) realization that e-readers are likely here to stay and partly, no doubt, Amazon's successful hype over the Kindle 2. And this was a way to get a taste of the Kindle without shelling out the $359.

So I went to the iTunes store and downloaded the free Kindle app. Then I looked around iTunes trying to find an e-book to read — mistake. It was back to the laptop to use a browser to access Amazon.com's Kindle offerings from its site (this can be done from an iPhone's browser, but the laptop was faster).

With the Kindle you can subscribe to magazines and newspapers, but for this test drive I really wanted a book. Good thing, because as MacWorld reports, "According to Amazon, Kindle for iPhone supports only books, not newspaper or magazine subscriptions." And you can see that I went for a bruiser of a book — "Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville — because I wanted the full effect of reading a big book in a non-book format.

Finding that book took ages, though. In Amazon's Kindle section, I first looked for classics, but that wasn't a category, so I headed to literary fiction. Without any subcategories, I scanned by bestselling first — but went through 30 screens without feeling convinced. Amazon may be good if you know exactly what you want, but it can't compare to a bookstore for browsing.

Most contemporary books for Kindle cost around $10, but when sorted by price (low to high), I came across "Moby-Dick" for 80 cents: Bingo. I was already logged into Amazon, so I just bought my new Kindle book with one click.

Whoops! Amazon.com didn't see that I had a Kindle or Kindle-for-iPhone. I hadn't synced my iPhone, so the app wasn't installed yet. After syncing, I disconnect the iPhone, opened the Kindle app and logged in with my Amazon.com user name and password — from there, Amazon.com's slightly dirty-sounding Whispersync knew to go get my book.

There was Ishmael. "Moby-Dick" was legible and crisp, opening up with a readable text size that could be made two steps larger or smaller.  My cheapo copy of "Moby-Dick" doesn't have chapters, so the only way to navigate was with the long bar that serves as volume control in iTunes. But there is an easy bookmark function — tapping the plus mark at the bottom of the screen seems to fold over the top right corner of the current page — so once I started reading, it was easy to keep my place. (Touching the "folded corner" erases the bookmark). Since the text size can be changed, the number of pages isn't fixed; instead of pages, the book has screens. "Moby-Dick" on the Kindle for iPhone is 9,461 screens long.

OK, that'll take a while to read. So I headed off to bed with my Kindle-ized iPhone in hand. With the lights on, it wasn't much different from reading a book in bed: comfortable, occasionally awkward, sleep-inducing. But with the lights off, it was charming, kind of like reading with a flashlight under the covers after being told it was time for bed — without having to crawl under the covers.

That said, I spend so much time staring into a glowing screen — I'm doing that right now, and you are too — that as the day comes to a close I'd rather see something else. I welcome the respite of looking at the pages of a book, whether it's an advance galley or an old book with heavy paper stock or something colorful and visually stunning like "The Watchmen." I want to look at something that isn't shining at me.

"We think the iPhone can be a great companion device for customers who are caught without their Kindle," Ian Freed, Amazon’s vice president in charge of the Kindle, told the N.Y. Times. It's true that, with Whispersync, the two devices will talk to each other so a bookmark in one will show up in the same place on the other. But for me, the Kindle-enabled iPhone (or iTouch) isn't a junior replacement of Amazon's pricey stand-alone device.

Because I don't have a Kindle, and my iPhone is with me constantly. My Kindle-enabled iPhone will be a lifeline when I'm stuck without a signal for 30 minutes at the post office (which happened to me yesterday). That's when I'll be happy to read a tiny glowing version of "Moby-Dick," as many of the 9,461 screens as I can.

— Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Carolyn Kellogg

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