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Kindle 2: Hands-on impressions

CNET's David Carnoy shares his first impressions of Amazon's second-generation digital reading device.

David Carnoy/CBS Interactive

Additional coverage: Amazon Kindle 2

While Amazon isn't doling out review samples of its new Kindle 2 digital reader for a few weeks, I did get a chance to play with it at the launch event and come away with some first impressions.

Let me start by saying that the Kindle 2 is a nice upgrade over the original Kindle, but we're not talking a jump from, say, black-and-white television to color, so early adopters who own the original Kindle shouldn't feel too dejected.

Yes, the Kindle 2 is thinner--it measures a svelte 0.36 inches at its thickest point--and weighs in at 10.2 ounces. It also has 25 percent improved battery life and is about 20 percent faster, thanks to an upgraded processor. And it's got 16 shades of gray instead of 4, so the text pops a little more. But this is an evolution, not a revolution.

One thing that hasn't changed much is the height and width of the new Kindle. Some people have complained that the original Kindle should have been shorter and forgone the keyboard, like the Sony Reader. Whether you're a fan of the keyboard or not, it's worth noting that the Kindle 2 is about the same size as the original, measuring 8 inches top to bottom. According to the specs, the screen itself is a 6-inch, diagonal, E-Ink, electronic-paper display, with 600x800 pixel resolution at 167 ppi.

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 Kindle 2, the page-turn buttons are smaller, and in playing with the device I noticed that it took a bit more effort to actually click the button and advance a page.

Amazon has upped the amount of onboard memory to 2GB (from 256MB), so you can store up to 1,500 books or assorted newspaper and blog subscriptions, as well as JPEG images. But unfortunately, it left out an expansion slot for additional memory. Like the earlier model, this one can play back MP3 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.

I noticed 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 wireless on/off is now a toggle in the menu system, not a physical button, which is also good).

There's a USB port at the bottom of the device that doesn't look like your standard USB port; rather it's of the micro-USB variety, similar to the ones you find on Bluetooth headsets. You charge the unit and manually transfer files from your computer to the device via this port. I say "manually" because the Kindle 2 has the same free-of-charge, Sprint, high-speed data connection--Amazon calls it Whispernet--that allows you to make wireless book purchases in the Kindle Store, surf the Web, or have files, periodical subscription, and blogs delivered to your device over the air. Alas, the wireless aspects of the device still only work in America--and there's no word on a European or Asian version of the Kindle.

The original Kindle had a little rolling wheel to assist with navigation. The Kindle 2 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 made it easier to access the embedded dictionary to look words up. But it's far from a total revamp, so you're still left with moments when you're not sure whether you should go forward or back or which button you should hit to get to where you want to go. In other words, it's not entirely intuitive, so 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 a touch-screen interface (that way, you can go to a virtual keyboard and shrink the device) and Sony went that route with its PRS-700 Reader.

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's worth noting that the Sony PRS-700 allegedly has the same processor as the Kindle 2's, so they should run at very similar speeds).

At the press conference, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made it a point to highlight two new features. The first is Whispersync, which gives you the ability to sync two or more Kindle devices and "allows you to seamlessly switch back and forth between your Kindle devices while keeping your reading location synchronized" and pick up in a book where you left off. The word is this feature will eventually apply to other wireless mobile devices, though no details were given at the launch--and no mention of the iPhone (not yet anyway).

The second is called "Read-to-me," a new "experimental" feature that allows you to have text read to you (this would come in handy if you were driving, for instance). In the onstage demo, the reading sounded really good, but in my brief tests there was still a pronounced robotic element to it. In other words, don't expect to get a true audiobook experience, though you can choose between a male or female digitized voice.

One warning: Unlike its predecessor, the Kindle 2 doesn't ship with a protective carrying case. The case that was included with the original was mediocre at best, but it's too bad Amazon has chosen to ship the Kindle 2 completely naked. So, while the price of the Kindle 2 is $359, you can expect to tack on another $20-$30 for a protective case. Amazon's Kindle 2 case will run you $29.99.

That gripe aside, the Kindle 2 is a nice upgrade over the original and I think those who waited for this new model to arrive will be happy they did. But remember, these are only our initial first impressions and as always, we'll wait to pass final judgment until we get our review sample and put the product through more rigorous testing.

Editor's note: The first batch of Kindle 2s are scheduled to ship out February 24 and word is that people who ordered the original Kindle during the holiday season (or even more recently) will receive the new model.