Kindle for PC: A Good Preview for E-Reader Fence-Sitters

The scales of justice definitely don’t tip in grayscale’s favor when it comes to the overall e-reader device experience for consumers. Whether it’s an Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader or Barnes & Noble Nook, 16-level grayscale means nothing more than a digital version of the weather in Seattle between November and April: different shades of gray.

I realize that for the most part we’re talking about black words on a white “page,” and having test-driven all but the Nook, I’m well aware of the advantages of storing the equivalent of a home library in an 8-inch long, 10-ounce tablet. Wireless downloads and the ability to digitally bookmark/annotate for study uses also weigh in on the plus side for e-readers. But these devices are also going up against hundreds of years of reading habits, and anything that gets in the way of tactile and optical book-shopping pleasures is a considerable obstacle. The current inability to transfer a lot of color to e-ink is a hindrance for a lot of people who still judge books by their covers.

Which is why the Kindle for PC from Amazon is a small step forward for consumers who are still wondering whether to make that giant leap from physical to digital books. The free 5.17MB download, available Tuesday from the online retailer, is a gentler introduction to Amazon’s e-book strategy for those who are more comfortable reading for long periods of time on their laptop or desktop computers. Thanks to your computer’s processing power, it brings color back into the mix — albeit in a more limited way than I would prefer. With apologies to Cormac McCarthy, the real potential for Kindle for PC lies down The Road.

The Details

You can now download Kindle for PC to computers running XP, Vista and Windows 7 (a Mac version is coming). The new Microsoft OS, of course, enables touchscreen/multi-touch interactivity, so if you have an HP Touchsmart or similar machine, you can zoom in and out of the text with your fingers. An Amazon press release promises finger-powered page-turning in a future Windows 7 release. (Hopefully, people will get used to the fact that they won’t have to lick their fingers before flicking.)

It’s an aptly-named app; Kindle for PC truly gives you the e-reader format on your desktop/laptop with only slight variations. A quick download from sets up an easy-to-navigate Home page for you and automatically archives any previous Kindle purchases. I checked in and sure enough, there was my copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers that I had purchased when I reviewed the Kindle 2 for a TV station earlier this year. The only other links and buttons you’ll see are for the Kindle Store, Menu, and a Sort By function (choose from author or title.)

Superfreakonomics showed up instantly on my Home page — once Amazon took it off “pending” status in my Manage My Kindle page. This may have been a local network issue or Amazon may have been busy with people checking out Kindle for PC, but it only happened once. All other downloads were lightning-quick. But sorry, no newspapers, magazines or blogs. Then again, it’s your PC. Isn’t your favorite short-attention-span reading already bookmarked or RSSed somewhere on your machine?

Periodicals aside, I get that Amazon wants to approximate the Kindle experience as much as possible, since you have that ability to sync purchases if you also own the e-reader device; you can begin a book on a plane trip using the Kindle and then finish it at home on your desktop. But on the PC, you have wasted gray space on either side of the “page.” I know the idea is to simulate reading on a Kindle. I guess I was simply hoping for something that took advantage of a bigger, wider desktop screen.

If you don’t have touchscreen functions, you can only increase the text size using the “Aa” font button. You can bookmark pages, but there’s no annotation with Kindle for PC. Still, these 49-year-old eyes would rather use Kindle for PC on my HP Mini netbook than on the Kindle for iPhone app. I need all the font size and digital dog-earing I can handle.

The Wide World of Color

Amazon has big plans — and revenue possibilities — for the Kindle on school and university campuses around the world; imagine a year’s worth of textbooks and study guides sliding easily into a backpack. But it needs color functionality to paint that profitable picture, and Kindle for PC shows what might be coming soon for Amazon if it can get its technological ducks in a row.

I was a big “Bloom County” fan in my 20-something years, and I was grinning like a goofy Berke Breathed comic-strip creation when I downloaded Opus: 25 Years of his Sunday Best in all its full-color glory. A digital photography book sample also came through with color photos intact, although a sample of a how-to on cupcake decorations was curiously in black-and-white. The cupcakes still looked yummy, but the capricious nature of what gets downloaded in color and what doesn’t on Kindle for PC isn’t all that appetizing.

The book covers are also available in color, and I think that’s important for those who take the cover art and design into account when making a purchase — or determining if they want to leave their 20th century book-reading ways behind and venture into the realm of digital reading. Kindle for PC serves as a helpful bridge for those folks, and a slightly more colorful one at that.

For that reason — the baby step toward more use of color — I would recommend Kindle for PC, especially for the fence-sitters who see the holiday season coming and are wondering if they should drop hints about an e-reader on Santa’s “nice” list. The format will get you used to viewing books on the dedicated device, and more colorful pages will prepare you for anything Amazon or other e-reader manufacturers may have up their sleeves for Christmases yet to come.

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