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Introducing Electronic Ink
Although the Amazon Kindle was not the first e-reader, it was the first one to gain wide acceptance. This was largely due to the vast amounts of promotion Amazon did for it, but also because it had e-ink, rather than a backlit screen. Electronic paper is much easier on the eyes than a screen, allowing the user to enjoy reading for much longer periods of time; additionally, it can be easily used in full sunlight. While other e-readers now use e-ink technology, as of 2010 Amazon still had 41.5 percent of the market. While the iPad has taken away some of the market (and even has its own Kindle app), its backlit screen means that many people prefer to keep it as a general purpose device while relying on a single-purpose device like the Kindle for reading. E-ink displays do have two disadvantages over regular screens: first, they're not as fast, and second, most only display in greyscale (although color is on the way).
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Kindle, First Edition
The original Amazon Kindle was released on November 19, 2007, and sold out in five and a half hours in spite of the $399 price tag. With many people adding themselves to the waiting list, the Kindle did not come back in stock until the end of April 2008. Aside from its e-ink screen, selling features included the ability to download books from Amazon from anywhere with the included 3G access; indeed, once the Kindle was purchased and linked to an Amazon account, there was no need to have a computer to load new content. Although the first generation could only hold a few hundred books in memory, it also contained an SD card slot to hold extra books, as well as the ability to delete books and then re-download them from Amazon at no extra charge.
Although the library of Kindle books was limited at first (although it grew quickly), the ability to easily load public domain books for free reading was also a strong selling point.
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Kindle 2: More Memory, No SD Slot
In early 2009, after some time in which the Kindle was listed as out of stock, Amazon announced the Kindle 2 (and also announced that anyone who had ordered a Kindle while it was out of stock would be receiving the new model). The second generation Kindle offered 2 GB of internal memory, up from 250 MB in the first generation; it also added a text-to-speech option for e-books. The new model was also thinner, but at the cost of losing the SD slot; indeed, the original Kindle remains the only one in the series that accepts memory cards. While the first generation Kindle was available only in the US, the Kindle 2 was available in both US and international versions until the end of 2009, when the US-only version was discontinued in favor of one Kindle that was available worldwide. Over the course of 2009, the K2 was reduced in price from its original $359 to $259, making it much more affordable.
From a reader's perspective, the main advantages of the K2 over the K1 were longer battery life and faster screen refreshes.
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Kindle DX: Bigger and Better
One common complaint with e-readers is the lack of PDF support; this is actually not a limitation of the readers themselves so much as the screen size. PDF is an image format, not a text format; it's meant to be displayed at a particular size, and shrinking it down to fit a small screen means actually shrinking the image to still fit on one page rather than breaking it up into two pages. As many technical documents are distributed as PDFs, this limited the use of e-readers for research purposes, which, as you can imagine, is a great disappointment to people needing to carry around dozens of papers!
Amazon's answer to this problem was the Kindle DX, announced in May 2009. While the other Kindles are about the size of a paperback, the DX has a 9.7-inch screen. While the DX was also thinner than the K2 and offered an accelerometer, allowing the user to turn the Kindle on its side to rotate between landscape and portrait orientation - a feature now offered on the iPad and other tablets as well - the main attraction was the screen size. The DX is considered to be the most appropriate Kindle for displaying textbooks and newspapers, as well as any other PDF content.
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Amazon doesn't actually number the Kindles; if you look at their website, they simply list the Kindle and the Kindle DX. To the rest of us, however, the currently available models are the Kindle 3 and the Kindle DX 2. The K3 is the first Kindle to be available with Wi-Fi only (no 3G); it costs only $139 (vs. $189 for the 3G version). Amazon also introduced the Kindle with Special Offers: you can take $25 off the price of the Wi-Fi version or $50 off the price of the 3G version if you allow Amazon to display advertising on the Kindle when you're not reading (ads don't appear when a book is open). Both the Kindle 3 and the latest Kindle DX are now graphite rather than white, and use the latest e-ink technology. Naturally, the latest models again expand on the amount of memory available, to 4 GB.
While Amazon does not release sales figures for the Kindle, in January 2011, they announced that for books available in both print and electronic editions, the electronic versions are outselling the print versions.
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Of course, the Kindle doesn't only have electronic versions of existing books; many new and existing authors are choosing to publish their books directly to the Kindle instead of (or prior to) an actual dead tree version. While the quality of these books can be hit or miss, it allows authors to offer their work at much lower prices without sacrificing profit, due to the lower overhead. Additionally, because many publishing houses are cutting down on the editorial and advertising services they once offered, many writers feel they can do a better job themselves, without a middleman.
At the time of this writing, there are ten authors who have sold over a million Kindle books, one of whom has been published only on the Kindle. As Amazon pays a 70 percent royalty to authors who price their work at between $2.99 and $9.99, many new authors are delighted to discover that they can actually earn more per book with the lower sales price. If you have a story to tell, the Kindle Direct Publishing program could be the platform for you!
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By this point, you may have very well decided that the Kindle may be a great present for a friend of family member, or for yourself! As e-paper technology becomes cheaper, the price of e-book readers keeps coming down, and many observers expect the Kindle with Special Offers to drop below $100 in time for the holidays. What better gift than something that encourages reading?