It's also worth highlighting another nice design tweak. The wireless on/off button on the original Kindle was a physical switch on the back of the device that was kind of a pain to access if you had the Kindle in its cover. Now the wireless on/off is a toggle in the menu system, which is better. Also, to wake the device from its sleep mode, you now just slide and release the power button instead of having to press the Alt and Home keys in tandem. That's an improvement, as well.
Kindle devices include a feature called Whispersync. Whispersync gives you the capability to send books you bought on one Kindle to another, as long as both are registered to you (this would enable you to share books between family members). You can also sync two or more Kindle devices and switch back and forth between them while keeping your reading location synchronized. Basically, you can start reading the book on one device and continue where you left off on another.
For those who own an iPhone or iPod Touch, you can download the Kindle app from the iTunes App Store, and read books on either device as well. In fact, if you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, you don't need a Kindle e-reader to download Kindle books. (Amazon has also announced free Kindle Reader software for Windows PCs, and has indicated that Mac and BlackBerry versions are on the way.) But the Whispersync caveat applies here, too--you can't access books on more than one device simultaneously. By contrast, Sony lets you download the book to up to five Sony Readers that are registered to your account with no other restrictions.
As we said in our earlier review of the Sprint-powered Kindle, the processor in this model is faster, so the screen refreshes about 20 percent more quickly between page turns compared with the original Kindle. All and all, the thing just feels zippier, but it's important to note that while you'd think a monochrome system would be lightning fast at this point, the Kindle still exhibits some slight lag and it's a little bit irksome.
One gripe that Amazon has clearly addressed is the issue with the page-advance button. On the original Kindle, that button was extra long and easy to depress, which meant it was very easy to accidentally turn pages. On the current Kindle, the page-turn buttons are smaller, and in playing with the device we noticed that it took a bit more effort to actually click the button and advance a page.
In a nod to Apple, Amazon has also sealed the battery into the back of the unit, so you can't replace it yourself (Amazon charges $60 for battery replacement). That's the bad news. The good news is Amazon says the battery now delivers about 25 percent more battery life, which should give you a few days of reading (with the wireless on) and two weeks with it turned off. We found the battery life to be quite good, and confirm that if you keep the wireless access to a minimum, you won't have to recharge for close to two weeks.
If you're a user of the original Kindle, you'll notice a few other design changes. The on/off button and headphone jack have been placed at the top of the device, which makes both easier to access (the volume control is on the top right side of the device). And there are two tiny speaker ports on the back of the Kindle that give you external audio. Because the speakers don't sound great, you probably wouldn't want to listen to music this way, but they do just fine with text-to-speech, a new "experimental" feature that allows you to have text read to you. While there's still a pronounced robotic element to it--you can switch between male and female digitized voices--it sounded better than we expected. In short, don't expect to get a true audiobook experience along the lines of what Audible offers (and yes, the latest Kindle, like the original, does support audiobook downloads from Amazon's Audible subsidiary), but it's usable. (Alas, after some authors protested that the inclusion of this feature might eat into audiobook sales, the text-to-speech feature has gone from a universal feature to one that's available on a title-by-title basis; each Kindle title's listing on Amazon should now note whether it's speech-enabled or not.)
In other changes, Amazon has gone with a new charging system. Instead of an AC adapter port, there's a port at the bottom of the device. However, it's not your standard Mini-USB port; rather it's the smaller microUSB variety you'll find on some new cell phones and Bluetooth headsets. The power adapter is actually one of the more impressive parts of the package: it's small, not much bigger than a standard plug, and the microUSB cable detaches from it so you can also charge the Kindle by connecting it to a USB port on your Mac or Windows PC. (We had mixed results when using third-party USB chargers.)
Storage and file compatibility
Like the Nook, the Kindle offers 2GB of onboard memory, so you can store up to 1,500 books or assorted newspaper and blog subscriptions, as well as JPEG images. But unfortunately, taking a cue from Apple, it left out an expansion slot for additional memory.
Using that same microUSB port, you can transfer files to the spare memory on your Kindle (it shows up as a standard USB storage drive when connected to a computer). Like the earlier model, this one can play back MP3 and AAC files (as well as Audible audio book files), but 2GB is pretty skimpy when you start getting into multiple albums with high bit rates--so think in terms of storing only your favorite songs or albums and not your entire music library. You can drag and drop the music files into the "music" folder when connecting the Kindle to your computer via USB. But the audio support is a convenience, not a fully developed feature. The skimpy storage and lack of playlist support means you won't be getting rid of your iPod. Too bad--perhaps a future Kindle model will offer an easier way to support podcast subscriptions as well.
More problematic is the fact that the Kindle can't natively view any text or image files (Word, PDF, TXT, JPEG, GIF, and so on) that you copy over to it. Instead, you'll need to e-mail those files to your special Kindle e-mail address for conversion to Kindle-friendly formats. This is a pain, particularly because you also get charged 10 cents for every document, PDF file, or image you send to the device. Here's what Amazon has to say about the whole thing, which strikes us as weird:
Kindle makes it easy to take your personal documents with you, eliminating the need to print. Each Kindle has a unique and customizable e-mail address. You can set your unique e-mail address on your Manage Your Kindle page. This allows you and your approved contacts to e-mail Word, PDF documents, and pictures wirelessly to your Kindle for a small per-document fee--currently only 10 cents per document. Kindle supports wireless delivery of unprotected Microsoft Word, PDF, HTML, TXT, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, PRC, and MOBI files. You can e-mail your PDFs wirelessly to your Kindle. Due to PDF's fixed layout format, some complex PDF files may not format correctly on your Kindle.
It's important to note that the Kindle is natively compatible with only Amazon's own .azw file format, which is what you get when you download anything from the Kindle Store. The Nook, Sony Reader devices, and other e-books are compatible with the widely used ePub format. Eventually, Amazon could make the Kindle capable of reading more file formats, but for now, it has decided to go with a more closed architecture, which means you won't be able to download any e-books from local libraries for they, too, are standardized on ePub.
The lack of ePub compatibility also means you can't read the huge library of free Google Books that are available in that format. Still, it's worth noting that those titles are usually public domain classics that predate the First World War--Mark Twain, Jules Verne, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the like. Also, many of those same titles are available for free on Amazon.
The original Kindle had a little rolling wheel to assist with navigation. The current Kindle moves to a five-way rocker button that's more straightforward and helps solve some--but not all--of the quirky navigational issues the device has.
Amazon has made some nice tweaks to the interface and has made it easier to access the embedded dictionary to look up words, but it's far from a total revamp. You're still left with moments when you're not sure whether you should go forward or backward, or which button you should hit to get to where you want to go. In other words, it's not entirely intuitive. Kindle newbies will have to play around with the device for a day or two to really get the hang of it (that's pretty good, all things considered).
In many ways, these types of devices lend themselves to touch-screen interfaces (that way, you can go to a virtual keyboard and shrink the device) and Sony went that route with its PRS-700, PRS-600, and PRS-900 readers. Unfortunately, in going to a touch screen, Sony managed to lose some contrast and has run into some snags with glare issues. So, until the engineers improve the e-ink touch-screen technology, Amazon has made the right choice with its nontouch display, though some CNET readers are waiting for color, especially when it comes to Web surfing. (It appears that a color version of the Kindle is still years away.)
While we're comparing the Kindle with the Sony Readers, we should mention that though the Amazon product has a big advantage with its built-in wireless connection, the Sony does have a couple of advantages. The one thing that the Kindle just doesn't do as well is handle PDF and Word files. With the PRS-600, you can zoom in and out on PDFs, though it can be a rather sluggish process. With the Kindle, a PDF seems to get broken into pages, so you often can't see the document as a whole--just in pieces. All that said, if you're really looking for a more PDF-friendly device, you should probably consider a larger e-reader, such as Amazon's pricier Kindle DX, which has native PDF support and a 9.7-inch screen. (The DX has slightly superior features to the smaller Kindle, but we prefer this model's smaller size.)
Another warning: the current version of the Kindle doesn't ship with a protective carrying case. The case that was included with the original Kindle was mediocre at best, but it's too bad Amazon has chosen to ship the Kindle completely naked. So, while the price of the Kindle is $259 (down from its original $359), you can expect to tack on another $20 to $30 for a protective case. On a positive note, Amazon's official Kindle case, which costs $30, is nice: the device clips in securely and the whole package looks elegant. (While we haven't experienced any problems with the case for our review unit, some owners have complained that the new case can cause your Kindle to crack where the case clips on to the Kindle's spine). If you don't like the official Kindle case, there are plenty of third-party options as well, including some with built-in light options (M-Edge, Periscope, and Case-mate).
Until now, Amazon has held a commanding lead in the dedicated e-book reader space. While its devices have not been without their shortcomings and quirks, the overall experience of reading, buying, and even listening to electronic books has been better on the Kindle than competing platforms.
With this internationalized model, that experience continues to evolve. Yes, it's sullied a bit by the extra fees, but at least the overseas option is now there for those who want it, and the slightly darker typeface is a nice bonus that makes this Kindle an incremental improvement over the previous, U.S.-only Sprint-powered Kindle.
Whether Amazon has a new, even snazzier Kindle on the way, we don't know, but the e-reader space is hot and transforming rapidly. The Kindle is still attractive, but we'll soon see whether such models as Barnes & Noble's Nook have what it takes to knock the Kindle from its throne. If it does, Amazon will have to respond--either with a new, more impressive Kindle that perhaps includes Wi-Fi and better compatibility--or by chopping the price further on this model.