While it's obvious, the biggest "feature" of the Kindle Touch is the Amazon store itself. We think Amazon offers the best online shopping experience on the Web (though Barnes & Noble has come a long way), and it's dead simple to buy reading material and audiobooks directly on the Kindle's touch screen. Alternately, you can buy e-books via a Web browser, and the books will automatically load onto the Kindle the next time it connects to a wireless network.
The Kindle Touch is, first and foremost, an e-book reader. It handles books with aplomb--including a host of freebie options--but it also allows you to enjoy newspapers, magazines, text documents and PDFs, audiobooks, and MP3 audio.
The most notable Kindle Touch features include:
E-book borrowing from your local library: Previously, Kindles could not be used to check out e-books from local libraries. That limitation is now a thing of the past.
Kindle Owners' Lending Library: Amazon Prime subscribers ($79/year) are now granted free access tothat they can check out, up to one per month.
Audiobook compatibility: Unlike most readers, the Kindle is compatible with Amazon's in-house Audible brand of audiobooks.
MP3 playback: You can drag and drop MP3s (and only MP3s--AAC and M4A files need not apply) onto the Touch and use it as an MP3 player. This function is listed under the "experimental" menu, but it worked fine for us. Music can be played in the background while you read, and the virtual controller lets you skip tracks and control volume without leaving your reading material. Just be prepared for battery life to take a hit.
Read-to-Me: Another unique Kindle feature lets the device "read" the book to you. Not all titles are supported--some publishers feel that this feature kills their audiobook market--and the voice has a Siri-like robotic bent. But it's certainly a boon for the visually impaired, and can even be useful for "reading" while multitasking.
X-Ray: This new Kindle feature isn't available on other models, and it's limited to certain supported titles. It lets you explore, as Amazon says, "the bones of the book." That means characters, locations, and events are explained using detailed descriptions from Wikipedia and Amazon's crowd-sourced Shelfari service, and cross-referenced. On plot-heavy titles like "A Game of Thrones" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," one could see how the feature could be genuinely useful.
File support: Beyond the native AZW e-book format, the Kindle Touch also reads TXT, PDF, unprotected MOBI, and PRC files. The Kindle is notoriously incompatible with EPUB files, but--now that library lending is supported--that's pretty much a nonissue. (If it is, opt for the Nook Simple Touch.) HTML, DOC, DOCX, JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP files are supported through conversion.
Three-thousand-book capacity: The Kindle Touch offers 4GB of built-in memory, which Amazon says will hold at least 3,000 e-books. That capacity declines if you load up on PDFs, MP3s, audiobooks, and the like, but because Amazon stores all of your book purchases "in the cloud," you can download them again at any time at a touch of the screen. That's another reason the Kindle's lack of an expansion slot is no big deal.
Highlights, annotations, and social sharing: The Kindle Touch lets you take notes, highlight text and see what others have highlighted, and share your favorite passages via Facebook and Twitter. Heavy note takers will definitely appreciate the virtual keyboard, and should opt for this device over the nontouch Kindle.
Long-lasting battery: Amazon rates the Kindle Touch battery at 2 months with the wireless turned off. We haven't had it that long, but we know from experience that e-ink devices can go for weeks without recharging--though that will take a hit if you're a heavy wireless or audio user. Like nearly all e-readers, the Touch has a sealed battery that is not user-replaceable.
Whispersync and app support: In addition to the Kindle hardware, buying a Kindle book lets you access it on a variety of other devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android phones, BlackBerry phones, Windows Phone 7 devices, PCs, Macs--and even other Kindles) via free Kindle apps. Whispersync, meanwhile, means you can pick up and resume a title across multiple devices at the same point. Just be aware that some publishers limit the number of devices onto which you can download a book.
Two other less notable features are book lending and Web browsing. Book lending lets you "lend" titles to other Kindle users. It's a cool idea, first pioneered by Barnes & Noble, but--again--publishers limit which books are shareable, and each title can only be lent once, and only for 14 days.
Web browsing is another "experimental" feature on the Kindle Touch. It works in that you can access the Web (we checked our Gmail and went to the New York Times' site), but the black-and-white, slow-refresh e-ink screen just isn't good for surfing the Web. It may work in a pinch, but anyone interested in a real Web browser should opt for a color LCD device such as the Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet instead. Anyone interested in saving a buck should also note that the free 3G connection doesn't work for open Web browsing--it's only for accessing Amazon's site and buying content.
On the downside, the dearth of physical page-turn buttons may be a real issue for some, especially lefties. And the Touch is a tad heavier than the superslim entry-level Kindle. But there's very little not to like here.
Still, it's a very close call between the Touch and its similarly priced Amazon and Barnes & Noble brethren. The choice will come down more to personal preferences than anything else. To that end, here's how we'd suggest breaking any ties:
The entry-level Kindle is best for those who want the most affordable option ($20 cheaper) and the lightest e-reader on the market that we'd recommend. It's great if you're just reading books, and it's got the hard page-turn buttons that are missing on the Kindle Touch. But don't get it if you want a touch screen, or if you're a heavy note-taker.
The Barnes & Noble Nook Touch is a great Kindle alternative if you want a touch screen and physical buttons--and if you want an ad-free reading experience at $99. Its design is arguably a bit slicker than that of the Kindle Touch, too. But it's a no-go if you want any audio support.
The Kindle Touch is arguably the best all-around full-featured e-ink reader--if, that is, its litany of extra features (audio support, X-Ray, Kindle Owners' Lending Library) appeal to you, and if you're okay with Special Offers ads. If you don't need hard page-turn buttons, it's definitely the best bang for the buck.