Amazon's newest Kindle has shed buttons like an autumn tree losing its leaves. But is the first touch-sensitive Kindle the closest thing yet to a true digital book, or just a black and white iPad wannabe?
Ask anyone who shuns ebook readers why they dislike the digital devices and you'll hear a common theme: they miss the physicality of books. It's hard to let go of the cover art, the book jacket, the whisper of pages under the finger, the turning down of a corner to bookmark a spot...
The first touch-sensitive Kindle goes some way to addressing that. Instead of clicking plastic buttons, you simply tap the screen to turn a page -- or better still, swipe naturally from right to left to flick through pages. Swiping upwards shifts to the next chapter, or downwards heads back.
Amazon has clearly thought long and hard about the interface. Tap anywhere in the right or lower sides of the screen and you'll go forward a page, or tap a much smaller area to the left to go back. It's a solution that seems to work well for either right or left-handed readers. Tapping the top of the screen brings up the menu and toolbar.
Regular Kindle users will notice that the screen on the Touch has a deeper setback than previous models. This is to accommodate the infrared system that adds touch technology, without using any extra sensing layers on the screen itself.
Annoyingly, the touch system is not as responsive as it could be. While the virtual keyboard lets you tap away pretty quickly, menu buttons and options can be very sluggish, leaving you bashing away at the screen in frustration.
For all the perennial talk of a high-resolution, full-colour, full-motion video E-Ink technology 'coming soon', the Kindle Touch ships with the same monochrome 6-inch Pearl display found on all major ebook readers. Put side-by-side with the, the screen looks just as sharp and slightly more contrasty -- a bonus for low-light reading.
Books and reading
Those four tiny horizontal stripes below the screen aren't a speaker -- they're Amazon's homage to Apple's home button, taking you straight to the first page of the Kindle's home screen.
Amazon has made a few changes to the Kindle's dull text-only home screen layout. The menu bar has been redesigned to shrink the battery meter and add wireless and (strangely non-auto updating) clock icons.
There's also a back arrow, a cart icon to access the Amazon Kindle store, a search box and a menu button, all of which reduce the number of actual books and magazines on your home page from nine to seven.
You can flick through home screen pages with swipes only (no taps), or press and hold an item to call up a pop-up window holding search, notes and delete options. It's definitely simpler and more intuitive than previous Kindles although it does take a little getting used to.
Inside a book, just the top menu bar remains, with title, clock, Wi-Fi and power icons. The progress bar has been replaced by location numbers (or real page numbers on some titles), and a 'read' percentage.
One disappointment is that the Kindle Touch is slower to turn pages than its smaller brother; it lacks the smooth page transitions of the Kindle Fire's LCD screen.
With the Touch, you have the choice of the device refreshing the screen on each page turn, giving clearer text but a nasty black flash every time -- or only every sixth page, which offers better transitions at the cost of a little text degradation. The Touch is set to refresh every page by default; try both and see which you prefer.
Social sharing and X-Ray search
If you want to add a note or highlight to a book, or search for a definition, just press and hold a word and a menu (eventually) pops up. This is also how you share passages via Facebook and Twitter.
Tap the top of the screen to get the same shop, search and menu buttons as the home screen, plus three further options at the bottom. The first controls typeface and font size; the second lets you skip straight to the start of the book, the end or points in-between; in most books, the third button is a simple Sync option to refresh your cloud purchases and progress. But on some books, this will say X-Ray instead.
This new feature aims to centralise and supercharge the contextual search functions, bringing up a list of key terms in the book along with a barcode-style image of their distribution throughout the text.
X-Ray's choice of which terms to extract seems a little random, but it actually works quite well. Tap on a character or concept to get a brief Wikipedia introduction, quotes from the text and a link out to the full Wikipedia article.