Amazon has launched its new range of Kindles, but, to our dismay, the spiffing Touch version hasn't been made available to Australia, and we entertain doubts that it ever will. What was made available is the budget model: a Wi-Fi-only e-reader sans touchscreen and audio options.
Of all the Kindles that have passed through our hands, we have to say that this is the handsomest. It's smooth, metallic graphite with a smooth and lustrous front and curved matte back. Buttons are kept minimal — a five-way D-pad on the middle front of the bottom panel, flanked by two small buttons on either side — Return and On-screen keyboard to the left, and Menu and Home to the right. More on that keyboard in a bit.
On either side of the device are two long, discreet buttons flush with the edge for page turning, so that it's equally comfortable in the left or right hand.
Ports are kept to a minimum, too; there's only one micro-USB port for charging on the bottom edge of the device, along with a power button and a charge/power indicator light. Overall, this minimalism speaks of the device's raison d'être — that is, it is a budget, bare-bones reader that does its job and nothing else.
It's also thanks to these design changes that the new Kindle is the smallest and lightest Kindle yet; it's only 166x114x8.7mm and 170g, compared to the older Kindle, which was 190x123x8.51mm and 241g. We suspect that this is mostly due to the removal of the keyboard.
As such, the Kindle is relatively light on some of the features that we are growing to expect from e-readers. Kindles have never had expandable memory, so the absence of a memory card slot is no surprise; but the lack of audio, we have to confess, is. This is not because we feel pouty that we can't listen to Handel's Messiah on the bus out of tiny, tinny speakers — it's because it makes the new Kindle all but useless to the people who would have purchased one for Amazon's text-to-speech-enabled books. Because none of the Kindle apps have TTS, either, it's a pretty poor showing that the new option with audio isn't available in Australia.
We should note at this point that the older Kindle — or the Kindle Keyboard — is still available for purchase, so all is not entirely lost.
What it does include is dictionary support, annotations, bookmarks, custom fonts and font resizing and on-board Wi-Fi — and even a web browser. Overall, for its price, we'd say that it's pretty great, actually.
The main problem with using the Kindle is the navigation. It does a lot, and getting around using just a D-pad is just this side of annoying. The Kindle has never had the best UI, but removing the physical keyboard has really thrown a spanner in the works. For example: using the dictionary. Unlike e-readers with a touchscreen, you can't just tap on a word; instead, you use the D-pad to navigate to the word you want defined, with said definition appearing in a text box at the top of the screen.
That said, if you've not used a touchscreen e-reader before, using the dictionary is surprisingly painless, even good; it does depend on your own experience. Bad example.
(Another instance of this strange dichotomy is the screen — it has the standard 800x600p resolution, but is crisper and sharper than any other screen we've seen to date; yet, at the same time, it shows quite noticeable ghosting.)
Another example: using the keyboard to search the Amazon store. Like the Sony Reader and the Kobo Touch, this uses an on-screen keyboard. Unlike the Sony Reader and the Kobo Touch, where you can simply tap letters, here you need to navigate the keyboard using the D-pad. This also goes for making notes and searching the web.
Web pages are likewise quite strange to navigate. You can "mouse" around a web page — the cursor will jump around according to a grid, and snap to links. We can see how it could possibly come in handy as a back-up for checking email, but why bother when you can use a smartphone? In fact, we'd probably be inclined to leave the on-board browser and Amazon store alone, except for emergencies, and use either a smartphone or a PC to make purchases; since you can sync all purchases wirelessly, it just seems easier.
While we're on the subject, the wireless syncing is really one of the Kindle's best features. Firstly, it allows you to wirelessly sync all of your Amazon purchases across all your Kindle apps and Kindle e-readers. Secondly — and this is the bit we love — it will sync what page you are on across all your Kindle apps and devices. So, say you read Revelation Space to page 250 on your Kindle, then leave the e-reader at home; you can then open your Kindle app on your BlackBerry, and your book will open at page 250. And all of your purchases are stored in Amazon's cloud, which means they're always there (unless Amazon decides to remove it).
In spite of our niggling irritations using the Kindle, actually reading a book — its main purpose, after all — is a lovely experience. As we mentioned earlier, the screen is very clear, and the device is quick to respond and act. The page-turn buttons on the sides are comfortably positioned, and it's light weight is easy to hold up for long periods of time. It's just a little hard to get past how outdated the navigation and UI feel, even in such a short time.
It used to be that the Kobo was the cheap, no-frills option, but, due to its price and feature set, the new Amazon Kindle has taken its place. If you're looking for something that will do its job decently for as low a price as you can find, the Kindle is definitely worth a look; but do check out the older-gen Kindle Keyboard (now US$139), too.