Amazon Kindle 2 Review

by J.R. Nelson Reads (43,859)
  • Pros

    • Awesome e-ink display is easy to read and causes less eye strain over backlit devices
    • Thin form factor makes Kindle 2 easy to carry around
    • Can buy books anywhere there's Sprint coverage
    • Three words: FREE. CELLULAR. INTERNET.

  • Cons

    • No user-expandable storage
    • No user-replaceable battery
    • Five-way joystick slippery at times


The Kindle 2 is Amazon’s second attempt to bring e-books to the masses. The new version brings a number of improvements to the line, with a higher contrast screen, a slimmer, lighter design, longer battery life and faster page turns.

With an 800×600 resolution e-ink screen and unlimited free Internet access, the Kindle 2 makes a compelling choice for anyone who enjoys reading. I’ve spent a couple of days with the device and while it isn’t perfect, it’s getting there.

Build and Design
I typically don’t mention product packaging in reviews, but I felt compelled to do so here. Amazon put a lot of thought into the new Kindle’s packaging, which makes it fun to open. It makes for a sleek presentation, and takes more than a couple of pages from Apple’s book on design.

Amazon Kindle 2The first thing you notice about the Kindle is probably how white it is. Most consumer electronics don’t go for white, or at least not to such an extent. The front of the device is entirely white except for the screen and the labels on the buttons. The color of the button text is the same shade of grey produced by the e-ink screen, which helps everything to blend together.

Speaking of buttons, one of the major complaints of the original Kindle was the button placement. They were large and awkwardly placed, making it difficult to pick up the device without changing the current page. The Kindle 2 features much smaller buttons that don’t cover the entire front of the reader. Mostly, they’re well-placed, but I do wish Amazon had put a second previous page button on the right for when you’re holding the Kindle 2 with your right hand.

Screen: As I covered in my preliminary review on the new Kindle, everything revolves around the e-ink screen. I can show pictures and videos all day long, but this is really something that must be seen to be believed.

E-ink is a fundamentally different display technology from those you’ll see on other consumer electronics. Current iterations of e-paper/e-ink devices are of a class of screens known as electrophoretic displays. An electrophoretic display uses charged particles to display some sort of image; electric fields move the particles around to change the image on the display.

In this case, current e-ink readers use titanium dioxide particles suspended in a body of dyed oil. Specialized materials added to the oil push the particles to take on a specific electric charge. The oil and particles are sandwiched between two charged plates. By selectively applying voltage to one of the plates, the particles are forced up and down, depending on the charge of the particle and the back plate. When the particles are driven to the top of the screen, the spot appears white (well, white-ish). If the particles are pulled to the bottom, then the darkened body of oil is seen, and that region looks grey or black.

Amazon.com Kindle 2Because of the way these electrophoretic displays work, they only require power when the content on the screen is being changed — if you were to rip the screen out of a device and completely remove it from battery power, you’d still be able to see an image on the display. Moreover, since these displays can actually reflect and absorb light like traditional paper, they don’t need to be backlit (and actually, can’t be, which is why you don’t see an e-reader with a backlight). These two factors are what add up to the typically high battery life found on devices that employ such technology.

All told, it makes for a reading experience that simply can’t be matched by those offered on readers that use LCDs. People often talk about how great it is to read on the iPhone or iPod Touch, and I’ve used both my iPod Touch and various cell phones and PDAs to read an awful lot of text. There is, simply put, no comparison. At least, no comparison in which the LCDs come out on top. After a while, the backlights cause eye strain and just aren’t as comfortable to read on. It’s true that they hold the advantage in low-light reading, but I’ve read physical books with external lights for the past couple of decades and it’s hard to knock e-paper devices for actually being too much like real books.

Keyboard: A very noticeable difference between the Kindle and other e-readers currently on the market is the addition of a full QWERTY keyboard at the bottom of the device. This adds a significant amount of length to the unit, especially when compared to a device like the Sony Reader, but Amazon’s entire business model depends on having the keyboard on the device.

The redesigned Kindle uses small round buttons for input instead of having an angular, split-keyboard design of the first model. I found it comfortable enough to use when searching for content on the Kindle Store; its diminutive size lends itself to being used more as a thumbboard than a traditional keyboard.

In addition to the redesigned keyboard, Amazon also changed the selection tool from the original Kindle. In the first generation, they used a scroll wheel in conjunction with a polarized pneumatic LCD; as you moved the scroll wheel up and down, a shiny little bar moved up and down the length of the PNLCD. It was definitely something that people noticed and oohed and aahed over, so it’s no surprised that many decried the lack of such a display in the new model. The Kindle 2 uses what Amazon calls a 5-way selection device. It’s basically a tiny joystick that moves up, down, left, right, and in.

Video Overview

It’s a much better idea, in my opinion, but I think the implementation is slightly flawed. The joystick is made out of the same plastic as the rest of the Kindle, which means that while it looks good, it offers little grip so your fingers can slide right off. It wouldn’t surprise me to see an enterprising accessory manufacturer produce little grippy silicone nubs to fit over the joystick and make it easier to use (please send me one if you decide to do this).

The rear of the device is brushed aluminum and dark grey plastic, making for an attractive finish.

Coming in at just 0.36 inches thick, the Kindle 2 is thinner than an iPhone and shares Apple’s penchant for non-replaceable batteries and storage. In this case, if your battery fails within the first year, Amazon will replace it; past that, it will be shipped back to Amazon and cost $59. The slim nature of the Kindle 2 also means that it no longer carries an SD card slot, which is probably my single biggest gripe about the device. I know that the 1.4 GB available for user content is enough to store well over a thousand books, but there’s something I like about being able to pop a card in and out. It would be less of an issue if Amazon had a better means of organizing content for the device, like Sony’s reader software or iTunes.

Software
It’s my understanding that the Kindle 2 features a new and improved user interface. Having never used the first model, I can’t really compare the two, but I can say that the interface on the Kindle 2 is functional and easy to use, with a few caveats. The home screen of the device shows all of the books in a single list; unfortunately there aren’t any folders or other organizational tools to make browsing your collection any easier. There is a fairly capable built-in search, however, which you can use from the main screen just by typing a few letters and hitting enter. Selecting an entry and then clicking left with the joystick will give you the option to delete the document, while selecting and clicking right will bring up more detailed information.

Reading content on the Kindle is comfortable and easy to do; I know that some people have claimed that it takes you out of the reading experience, but I found the opposite to be true. Once you load a book or other document, it’s just a matter of hitting the Next Page button. After a while, it’s just like reading a regular book, and you’re caught up in the story.

While it’s definitely a competent e-reader, the defining characteristic of the Kindle devices are their connected nature. Unless explicitly disconnected, the Kindle 2 is always attached to what Amazon terms the “Whispernet”, which is a 3G EV-DO connection to a machine-only MVNO run on top of Sprint’s high-speed network. This gives you a nearly constant wireless connection to the Kindle Store, where you can buy books and magazines.

To go to the store, all you have to do is hit the menu button and select the option with the 5-way joystick. Once in the Kindle Store, you can browse bestseller lists as well as options for magazine, newspaper, and blog subscriptions. New bestsellers tend to cost $9.99, new non-bestsellers might be a few bucks more, and older books can cost significantly less. Newspaper and magazine subscriptions vary depending on chosen title, but can average $10-12 and $2-4, respectively.

It’s worth noting that Amazon doesn’t store back issues of subscribed content for you, meaning that if you want to keep your delivered periodicals past the most recent seven issues, you will need to download them from the Kindle library and back them up on your own computer.

Amazon Kindle StoreOnce you purchase a particular piece of content, the selection will be downloaded in the background, so you can continue browsing the store or reading as it is pushed to your device. The download and listing only takes a minute or two, and then you can start reading.

The coolest thing about the Kindle store isn’t the ability to purchase books wherever you are, though that’s certainly part of it; rather, what I find to be an excellent benefit is the right to download the first two chapters of any book on the service. You can get quite a lot of reading content that way without having to pay for anything.

If you have content on your computer that you wish to place on the Kindle, you have a couple of different options: you can connect the Kindle via USB and transfer it directly to internal memory, or you can pay ten cents to have Amazon email it directly to the device. While the Kindle supports .AZW, .MOBI, .PRC and .TXT documents natively, it will also support a few others (.HTM, .PDF) through Amazon’s conversion service. You can email documents (if you have several, Amazon lets you email them all in a single zip file) to Amazon; if you email them to YOURADDRESS@free.kindle.com, Amazon will convert the files and send them back to you, while sending them to YOURADDRESS@kindle.com will email them to your device (again, with a ten cent charge). To avoid running up charges because of spam, you can set the Kindle to only receive email from a safe list of addresses you trust.

Picture support on the Kindle 2 is improved significantly over the first generation, largely due to the increased greyscale support from four to sixteen levels. The device isn’t made to view pictures on, obviously, but it’s certainly manageable for newspaper and magazine content (though most pictures in the subscriptions are sadly omitted) or if you want to show off a couple of baby pictures at work.

Extra Features
The Kindle 2 includes a very basic web browser, accessible from the menu under the ‘experimental’ listing. It isn’t supported by Amazon despite how much they like to publicize being able to “browse Wikipedia anywhere”, but it works fairly well for basic websites, especially if they’re largely composed of text. Graphics and javascript tend to make the browsing experience suffer. At this point in time Amazon permits unlimited web browsing via the included browser, but if you look in the terms of service for the Kindle, you’ll find that they mention charging for excessive data usage. At least they promise to clearly delineate such charges on your Kindle page before implementing them.

Amazon also included an interesting new feature with the Kindle: text-to-speech capabilities. It’s suggested that you can use the audio capabilities to read a book to you while driving (or when you want to just sit on the beach, if you watch their promo video) or otherwise have your hands full, but in reality it isn’t very useful. It’s an interesting function, but it’s sadly lacking and I don’t see large numbers of people taking advantage of it. That may change in the future, however, as text-to-speech technologies get better. The Authors Guild of America is currently threatening Amazon with litigation, saying that they license the rights to audiobooks separately from their “printed” versions, and the Kindle 2′s audio functionality infringes on these patents. In reality, it’s all a bit silly since no one who’s ever listened to an audiobook would ever confuse it for what the Kindle generates.

In addition to reading your book to you, you can put your own audio content on the Kindle 2; it supports both MP3 files as well as Audible audiobooks (Audible is now a subsidiary of Amazon). You just have to authorize your Kindle to your Audible account so you can listen to the purchased content. Again, this is something I don’t see that many people taking advantage of, but it’s still a useful function to have.

Much like the original Kindle, Amazon put a few Easter eggs into the new Kindle; pressing a few key combinations will unlock hidden features. Want to play a basic game of Minesweeper? Press Alt+Shift+M. Not all of the ones from the original Kindle work, so if you find some new ones, be sure to leave us a comment.

Specifications
Platform: Linux-based OS (2.6 kernel)
Processor: 532 MHz Freescale ARM-11 CPU
Memory: 2GB moviNAND (1.4GB available for user content)
Display: 6-inch 800×600 e-ink display with 16 shades of grey
Formats supported: Amazon proprietary (AZW), TXT, Mobipocket, PRC, Audible, MP3
Wireless connectivity: 1xRTT/EV-DO (machine-only MVNO on Sprint’s wireless network)
Audio: 3.5 mm audio jack, rear-mounted stereo speakers
Size: 8 in x 5.3 in x 0.36 in
Weight: 10.2 oz
Battery: 1530 mAh Li-poly
Warranty: 1-year limited warranty and service

Conclusion
The Amazon Kindle 2 is an impressive piece of technology, and Amazon should be proud. Much like Apple’s success with the iPod, Amazon is crafting a successful brand by not only offering good hardware, but by supporting it with a software backbone.

It has succeeded where others have failed by sheer effort; even though Sony has been at the effort a longer time, their store doesn’t offer as much content, and it’s typically more expensive. Moreover, no other e-reader can offer such expansive wireless connectivity, at least at this point in time.

Despite the overall positive tone of this review, the Kindle 2 isn’t perfect. I’m not a huge fan of the 5-way joystick, as it’s slippery and at times difficult to use, and there are still some user interface bugs that need ironed out. Moreover, when you flip the power switch to turn wake it from sleep mode, it can take up to thirty seconds before it’s fully responsive; until then it can take more than a second for pages to refresh.

Right now, I can comfortably say that the Kindle 2 is the best e-reader on the market today, based on a combination of features and price. There are already rumors of a larger version of the Kindle, however, due out around the end of the year and offering an 8×10 orientation and touchscreen interface. Plastic Logic plans on launching a similar-sounding e-reader early next year will also be implementing a touch interface on their device, a preproduction version of which I got to play with at CES (and it was still impressive). Until then, however, you can’t go wrong with the Kindle 2 and if you love to read as much as I do, then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. The price at more than $350 is certainly a barrier to entry for some, but the combination of features the device offers make it worth it in my book.

Pros

  • Awesome e-ink display is easy to read and causes less eye strain over backlit devices
  • Thin form factor makes Kindle 2 easy to carry around
  • Can buy books anywhere there’s Sprint coverage
  • Three words: FREE. CELLULAR. INTERNET.

Cons

  • No user-expandable storage
  • No user-replaceable battery
  • Five-way joystick slippery at times

 


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