At half the thickness of Amazon’s first e-book reader, the Amazon Kindle 2 ($359 as of March 5, 2009) is pretty inviting–it’s a, sleek, curved tablet that you can easily hold in your hands. But while Amazon has made some successful enhancements to its e-book reader, other tweaks fall flat or miss the mark entirely. And the company has done little to advance the gadget beyond its single trick: reading digital books.
In the e-book universe, the Kindle retains a significant edge. Offering built-in Sprint 3G wireless (at no extra cost to users) and tight integration with Amazon’s shopping engine, the Kindle handheld delivers a cohesive reading and shopping experience (even the Kindle for iPhone application doesn’t allow you to shop within the app itself). Its nearest competitor, Sony’s PRS-700 Reader, can’t come close: Amazon’s library of Kindle e-books, all available for immediate delivery, gives new meaning to the concept of instant gratification.
I have to admit, however, that the Kindle 2 is disappointing in some ways. Yes, the polished new design looks great, as does the new screen. And yes, the redesigned paging buttons correct some issues that hampered the first-gen model. But I had hoped for more from the second-gen Kindle. I was annoyed to find that the Web browser remains a “beta” buried under the Experimental menu option–along with MP3 playback and the new, highly touted text-to-speech feature. Equally as frustrating: You still have to e-mail documents and PDFs to yourself at your personal Kindle e-mail address for the files to be readable on the device, even though you can directly transfer files to the Kindle 2 via USB.
Now, on to what the Kindle continues to do right. The first-generation Kindle weighed 10.3 ounces and offered a paperlike E-Ink display that keeps eyestrain at bay (as compared with the backlit displays of cell phones and other mobile devices). The first Kindle was readable in sunlight; it also had long battery life and allowed you to look up words on the fly, as well as to take notes and highlight passages at will.
The Kindle 2 retains all of those capabilities, in a slimmer form (it’s 0.36 inch thick). I appreciated the thinner profile: In my tests with the device, it felt easier to hold, especially one-handed. And the slim form made it easier to pack alongside my ultraportable laptop and other devices in my gear bag. At just 10.2 ounces, the device’s weight is virtually the same as before.
The Kindle 2’s screen is the same size as the first Kindle’s–6 inches, with 600 by 800 resolution–but its refreshed E-Ink technology provides 16 shades of gray, as opposed to the original Kindle’s 4 shades of gray.
When I compared the two screens under ambient lighting, side by side with identical content, I saw a distinct difference. I found text on the Kindle 2 slightly finer; letterforms appeared crisp, with less ink-like bleed-in to the virtual page than with the first Kindle. The real difference was evident in images, which had far greater gradations. Another observation: Before, the background of the screen seemed to have a slight texture, almost like newspaper, but now the surface is completely smooth.
Amazon says that the new screen technology boasts a faster refresh rate. In my tests, though, I couldn’t verify the company’s claim that the Kindle 2 turns pages 20 percent faster than the original Kindle does. Whenever I pressed the Next button on both units simultaneously, the Kindle 2 redrew the page a shade faster than the Kindle 1 did, but the difference was tough to detect–in fact, the Kindle 2’s screen tended to frustrate me, often flickering a few times after I changed screens.
The faster refresh allows you to navigate the screen in real time, at least. The earlier Kindle had a column to the right of the screen, with a sliver of silver denoting which line you were about to select. Now, the E-Ink screen technology is speedy enough to enable the joystick to move through options directly on the display, highlighting your selection as you go along–a huge improvement.
The unit’s sleek design is only one component of the Kindle’s new look. The power switch has moved to a more convenient location at the top (previously it was on the back–an awful place for a power switch). The volume buttons are no longer positioned awkwardly on the bottom of the device; instead, a rocker switch sits on the right spine. Unfortunately, the handy wireless-off switch, which was also on the back of the first Kindle, is gone entirely; now you must turn off the wireless radio in the Home menu (annoying for us frequent flyers who will need to do so far too often).
The navigation keys have been completely redone. At the left are Previous and Next buttons, with the former half the length of the latter; at the right are a Home button and another Next button. The new buttons depress inward, toward the screen–unlike the Kindle 1’s buttons, which pressed outward (and made turning the page inadvertently too easy). Regrettably, over time I found the new buttons to be a mixed bag. For one thing, their mechanism had a fair amount of resistance and required a firm press. And while the right side’s Next button ran the length of my thumb and was comfortably situated in relation to where my hand rested while holding the device at its midsection, my hand tired more quickly on this device than it did with the Kindle 1, particularly because I had to hover my finger in a specific place just to turn the page.
On top of that, the more I used the Kindle 2, the more I disliked the new, stumpy five-way navigation joystick. It was stiff to maneuver, and its location was awkward relative to where my hand fell for the paging buttons. The scroll wheel of the first Kindle moved much more smoothly, and I’ve used other joystick designs that operate more cleanly than the one on the Kindle 2 does.
The completely redesigned keyboard more closely resembles what you’d see on a cell phone with a QWERTY layout. I found the circular keys easy to press and incredibly handy. In my testing, the closer spacing worked better than the angled spacing and more-rectangular shape of the Kindle 1’s keys.
One addition is text-to-speech capability. This feature, powered by technology from Nuance (makers of Dragon Naturally Speaking) and accessible either via a menu option or a keyboard shortcut, offers two digital voices–Tom and Samantha–and up to 3X reading speed, in case you’re fast-forwarding. The voices are clearly computerized but tolerable; I could see using the feature in a pinch, such as if you’re following a recipe or in need of being lulled to sleep. Your opportunities to use it may be limited, however: After the Kindle 2 launch, Amazon announced that it would allow publishers to control the use of text-to-speech.
The Kindle 2 powers up from USB–a boon for all of us who hated carrying an extra charger with the original handheld. The micro-USB port at the bottom works not only for power but also for allowing the Kindle 2 to act as a USB mass-storage device, in the event you want to drag and drop files to it. Personally, though, I’d have preferred to see the Kindle 2 get a mini-USB port (so that I could plug in the same cable I use to charge a portable battery pack, or access a portable hard drive or memory card reader).
In lieu of the first-gen device’s SD Card slot, the Kindle 2 has 2GB of integrated storage. Per Amazon’s estimates, a typical audiobook ranges from 40MB to 80MB, but a typical Kindle e-book ranges from 700KB to 800KB. Amazon claims that the Kindle 2 will hold over 1500 e-books. Your selections are stored on Amazon’s servers, so if you ever have to erase something to free up space on the unit, you can redownload e-books later as needed. You can also synchronize e-books you’ve purchased with mobile devices, such as via the Kindle for iPhone app.
You don’t get a case in the package anymore. Instead, the Kindle 2 has two holes on its right edge that allow the unit to snap into any of a selection of third-party cases. The design effectively creates a hinge, which makes handling the encased Kindle 2 easy. Amazon’s no-frills leather case will sell for about $30.
In the end, Amazon will need to do more with the next version to make waves. But even with its flaws and foibles, the Kindle 2 is a good reader’s companion, as evidenced by its tenacious grip on a spot in our Top 5 E-Book Readers chart despite a wave of newer challengers.