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My life among the Kindles: Comparing the models

Amazon's Kindle family grew last year. I spent some time living with the new members. Which showed the most promise?

Danny Sullivan
Danny Sullivan is a journalist who has covered the search and internet marketing space for over 15 years. He's founding editor of Search Engine Land and Marketing Land, and writes a personal blog called Daggle (and maintains his disclosures page there).
Danny Sullivan
12 min read

In less than a year, I've gone from mocking e-books to never wanting to buy a print book again. Blame the Amazon Kindle. I've found it a great way to read.

A new generation of Kindles came out at the end of last year, including the Kindle Fire tablet. Here's how I've found them to measure up against each other, over the past four months or so.

Danny Sullivan

Kindle's cool, but e-book high prices and limitations aren't
Before I dive into the Kindles, let me get two issues that I hate about the Kindle out of the way--issues I'll expand on in more depth in future columns.

The first is price. I often pay as much, if not more, for an e-book than the paperback or hardback version. That's despite having fewer rights, such as the ability to give my book to someone else or sell it when I'm done.

The reasons are complicated. Amazon and publishers disagree on discounting. Apple and publishers are working together, to the degree that the U.S. Department of Justice may investigate price-fixing accusations. I mainly blame publishers, which seem at odds in how to handle legacy pricing issues in the exploding digital marketplace.

The second is being locked into Amazon. Since Amazon copy-protects the books it sells with digital rights management, you're really only going to read them on Kindle devices or software, unless you want to mess around with trying to strip off the DRM protection. That's not hard, apparently, but it's extra work and likely illegal. If I buy a real book, I don't expect that I can only read it in the bookstore where it is sold. So, having library of e-books effectively locked to the Amazon bookstore is a concern.

As I said, I'll come back to these issues in the future. On a positive note, the big plus to the Kindle is that I can have my books everywhere. Using the Kindle app, I can--and have--read books on my Windows PC, my Mac, my iPad, my iPhone, my Android tablet and my Android phone.

While the apps are nice, I find my phone screens too small to read on for long periods of time. Tablets are too big and heavy to hold comfortably. That's where the dedicated Kindle devices come in. All the devices below are ones I've purchased myself, by the way.

Kindle Keyboard Amazon

My starting place: The Kindle Keyboard
Last April, I got my first Kindle device, what is now called the Kindle Keyboard. At 8.5 ounces, it's lightweight and comfortable to hold. It's easy to flip forward or backward through the virtual pages of an e-book, with hard buttons along either of its sides. It seems to stay charged forever, which is true of all the other "E Ink" Kindles in this roundup. Even with regular use, I only needed to recharge them every two or three weeks.

What's not to like? For one, I like to read at night before sleep, which means in the dark. I assumed that the E Ink paper would be backlit, the way the screen is on a phone or a tablet. Nope. Just like a regular book, you need to shine light on the Kindle to read the pages of your books. That's good news for those who read outdoors. These can be easier to read than tablets, for some. It's a pain for those who read in the dark.

It's a case. It's a light!
I ended up buying Amazon's own case for the Kindle Keyboard with an integrated light. It's more a portfolio than a case, the cover flipping open to reveal the Kindle inside. The Kindle clips securely in the case, which, in turn, allows it to power the LED light that you can pull out, when you want to use it.

The light is powered by the Kindle itself, which I love. There are clip-on lights that you can buy for the Kindle, but most of these seem to have the same problem I have with book lights in general: batteries. They're always running down, making the light fade.

At $50, the case is pretty expensive, especially given that the Kindle Keyboard itself is $139. That's about a third of the price right there! However, the separate clip-on lights pitched as being for the Kindle (even though some aren't specifically designed for it) sell for $15 to $40. Covers and sleeves tend to sell for $20 or more. Add it up, and going with Amazon's own case gave me nice protection plus a convenient light that isn't constantly dying as the batteries go down.

A downside to the case is that it adds weight, 8 ounces, nearly the same as the Kindle Keyboard itself. Suddenly, my lightweight device was heavier. It was also thicker, because when the case cover was flipped back to use the Kindle, you're holding three layers in your hand--the Kindle, the case's back cover, and the case's front cover. Still, it was comparable to the weight of some paperbacks I've read. I didn't find it uncomfortable, in the end.

Amazon's 2011 Kindle, Kindle Touch and Kindle Touch 3G (hands-on photos)

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No touching!
The other issue I had, or thought I had at first, was that the Kindle Keyboard doesn't have a touch screen. I kept wanting to poke on the screen to do things, and it felt odd that I couldn't do what I do with a tablet.

Over time, I came to appreciate how well the Kindle Keyboard design lets you navigate options using only buttons. I also learned to love the little keyboard, which looks like something out of a PDA from the 1990s. It's easy to type on, if you want to take notes--an issue that comes up with the new Kindles that I'll cover below.

Despite all the "next generation" Kindles that I'll get into, the Kindle Keyboard is still sold. For the same price, if you don't mind "Special Offers" ads (more about these below), you can also get the 3G version for exactly the same $139 price. That mainly allows you to download books, newspapers, and magazines for free, if you don't have access to Wi-Fi.

Kindle Touch Amazon

Kindle Touch disappoints
The Kindle Touch is the next-generation Kindle with which I thought I'd fall in love. Finally, I'd be able to touch the screen in the way I thought I needed to with the Kindle Keyboard. Instead, I found it disappointing.

I felt that the touch screen was sluggish, and I never could quite remember where, exactly, to touch to bring up a menu, versus turning a page, versus jumping to a new chapter, versus beginning a highlight. The onscreen keyboard seems to take ages to respond.

To turn a page, you have to touch the side of the screen. That means moving your thumb, which becomes slightly annoying. In contrast, the Kindle Keyboard or the basic Kindle (below) have hard buttons exactly where you'd rest your thumb to hold them while reading. With a slight click, you advance to the next page without having to reposition your thumb.

Thinner case, bigger price
Like the Kindle Keyboard, the Kindle Touch uses E Ink. That means you need a light for reading at night, as with the Kindle Keyboard. Amazon also makes its own case with an integrated light for the device.

I feel like case for the Touch spills light just slightly more across the page than the Keyboard case does. The Kindle Keyboard case's light is in the top-right corner, so it sometimes felt like the lower-left corner was a tiny bit dimmer. But both are very good, as you can see below:

Kindle Keyboard with lighted case (left), Kindle with lighted case (right) Danny Sullivan

However, the design means that if you tilt the Kindle in your hand so that it's not directly in line with your face, some of the light also shines into your eyes. I've tried to illustrate this with the comparison above (the basic Kindle's case has the same issue as the Touch's):

Danny Sullivan

It's not a huge problem, but it is annoying to the degree that I've learned to hold my Kindle in a way to prevent this. I wish the light had been designed with a better shade around it, and I almost want to keep a little bit of electrical tape handy to make my own.

On the plus side, the case is fairly light, at only 5.6 ounces. With the Kindle Touch being 7.5 ounces, that's 13.1 ounces combined, compared to 16.5 ounces for the Kindle Keyboard-and-case combo I covered above.

The case molds around the Kindle's body, making things about twice as thick as just having the Kindle Touch on its own. But the cover is very thin, so that when you fold it back, you're not getting that triple-layer of thickness that I talked about before. Here's a look at the two:

Kindle Keyboard in case (left) vs. Kindle in case (right) Danny Sullivan

Sticker shock
Overall, the Kindle Touch, in its case, is very comfortable to hold. Without the case, it's super light. The real downside is the price of the case. If the Kindle Keyboard case is pricey, being over a third the price of the actual Kindle, the Kindle Touch case produced a real "are you kidding me?" moment when I saw its $60 price tag. That makes it nearly two-thirds the price of the Kindle Touch, which is $100 for the "Special Offers" and non-3G version.

Kindle Fire Amazon

Special Offers are little ads you'll see on your screen, before you turn the Kindle Touch (or basic Kindle) on. They also appear at the bottom of your home screen. They don't appear elsewhere, such as when you're reading. I'm super-sensitive to ads anywhere, and these totally don't bother me. Sometimes, I even find them interesting. But if you don't like them, you can pay $40 more for a version without them.

Kindle Fire is appealing
I thought perhaps the Kindle Fire might also be a book-reading device with which I'd fall in love. It offers backlighting, unlike the Kindle E Ink devices. It also offers a touch screen. As it turns out, it did succeed for me, in many ways.

Amazon Kindle Fire photos

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Since the Fire is backlit, I had no need to find a clip-on light. That also made me decide against getting any case at all. As a result, the Fire at 14.6 ounces is comparable in weight to all the other Kindle devices in this review, when they're in cases. Obviously, if you don't use a case and are looking for extreme lightness, then the Fire will feel much heavier.

It's fairly comfortable to hold. As with the Kindle Touch, you have to advance by tapping the screen. Again, this is a relatively minor annoyance. A bigger issue with both is that the "chrome" or the "surround" around the screen is fairly small, so it's easy to accidentally hit the touch screen when just holding either.

Some have complained about the Kindle Fire not having physical volume controls. Since I was primarily using it for reading, I wanted a brightness control. But it's simple to make the on-screen control come up by tapping at the top of the screen:

Kindle Fire controls Danny Sullivan

The power button is at the bottom of the unit, so it's easy to accidentally hit that while reading. My solution is to rotate the device and lock the orientation, so that the bottom becomes the top. It's easy to do, and it works.

As for reading itself, I've learned to prefer E Ink, but I didn't find reading the Kindle Fire's lit screen hard on the eyes at all.

The touch screen is responsive, much more so than the Kindle Touch, so highlighting and making notes is easy. However, unlike the Kindle Touch or the basic Kindle below, you can't share these notes through Twitter or Facebook, which is an easy way to make them part of your public profile (such as mine, here).

Of course, Amazon's entire system of allowing social interaction around books seems pretty confused and broken in places, so perhaps omitting this from the Kindle Fire was intentional. I'll revisit it in a future column. For many people, it's unlikely to be a key issue.

How about battery life? Pretty good, lasting for hours without a problem, as I got into one particularly gripping book. If you read an hour or so a day, expect to charge it once or twice per week.

Not better than the iPad, but better than other Kindles
You're going to pay more for the Kindle Fire, $199, double what the Kindle Touch costs and even more versus the regular Kindle. On the upside, if you don't have a tablet, there's a lot to like.

It's sort of a Netbook of tablets. If you compare the Kindle Fire to the iPad, you'll be disappointed. If you compare it to a regular Kindle, it's pretty awesome.

For about $100 more than a basic Kindle, you get a Web browser, an e-mail device, plenty of free games to download, and the ability to play music and movies. The latter are especially compelling, if you already buy music through Amazon or are a customer of Amazon Prime, which gives you access to tons of TV and movie content for free. My review of the Kindle Fire last December gets into these areas more.

Kindle Amazon

My favorite, the basic Kindle
What really won me over for reading books, however, is the entry-level Kindle, which Amazon now just calls the Kindle.

The main downside for me was needing a light to read in the dark. My solution, as with the Kindle Keyboard and the Kindle Touch, was to purchase Amazon's own case with an integrated light. Be careful. The Kindle Touch case will not fit the basic Kindle, which is slightly smaller than the Touch.

What's not smaller is the crazy $60 price for the case. The Kindle is $79 ($109, if you don't want the Special Offers version), so the case costs almost as much at the Kindle itself. There's also the same light-in-your-eyes issue, if you hold the Kindle at the wrong angle.

The Kindle is the lightest of the entire family, only 6 ounces. With the case, that's 11.6 ounces, still pretty light. Unlike the Kindle Touch, you've got hard buttons to advance pages easily with a thumb click.

Should you need a keyboard to take notes, an on-screen one is available. It's a pain using the Kindle's rocker button to maneuver through the letters to spell what you want, but it's workable enough.

Here's how the three on-screen keyboards compare (the Kindle Keyboard, of course, has hard buttons for its keyboard):

Keyboards on the Kindle, Kindle Touch & Kindle Fire, from left-to-right Danny Sullivan

Nook and other readers
There are other readers, such as the Barnes & Noble Nook. I haven't tested all of these like the Kindles, but CNET has just done a freshly updated comparison, "Kindle vs. Nook vs. iPad: Which e-book reader should you buy?" So check that out.

The Nook uses DRM, just like the Kindle, for purchased books. That means you have the same drawback of being locked to a particular company's platform, even if the platform is extended to other devices through apps.

One thing to consider on the Nook-versus-Fire debate is that the apps you buy for a Nook tablet only really seem to work on the Nook tablet itself, as I covered last year.

In contrast, Amazon operates its own Android app store. Most apps you buy there, even to use on your Kindle Fire, will be available to you for use on other Android devices.

What to choose?
If you don't need to take notes much, I'd get the basic Kindle. Even though the Kindle Touch is only $20 more, I found the Kindle more usable. If in doubt, you can try the Touch and take advantage of Amazon's liberal return policy to try another version.

If you do take notes often, I think you'll find the Kindle Touch maddening. Instead, consider the Kindle Keyboard or the Kindle Fire. The Kindle Fire is more expensive, but you won't need a clip-on light for it. For not that much more, you'll also get a lot more than a book-reading device.

I find it incredibly disappointing that Amazon didn't find a way to integrate a light directly into the latest version of its Kindles. That would have eliminated the need to consider clip-on lights or the expensive integrated cases.

If you read in the dark, consider this, if you're choosing among Kindle models. The lighted-case route suddenly makes jumping to the Kindle Fire not as expensive as it may seem, at first. To recap the costs:

  • Kindle: $79, $139 with lighted case
  • Kindle Touch: $99, $159 with lighted case
  • Kindle Keyboard: $139, $189 with lighted case
  • Kindle Fire: $199

Why bother going for a Kindle device at all? As I said, you can get the Kindle app to read books on a variety of non-Kindle devices. But if you want a book-like physical format, there are few big-brand tablets out there that fit that size and price range. Wi-Fi versions of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7-inch models, for example, will set you back more than $300.

Another advantage to the Kindle devices over the apps is that they allow you to read books for free from the Kindle Owners' Lending Library, if you have an Amazon Prime account. However, that's more attractive-sounding than it seems.

You can check out one book per month. When you're done with one, you have to wait until you're into your next month to read a new book. And after you get done reading the heavily featured Hunger Games series (it was great, though the first book was far better than the last), you might find it tough to spot a best seller among all the low-price singles and other books I find that clutter the library.

But that, again, is a topic for a future column.