Amazon Kindle (2012) review: Excellent no-frills e-ink reader

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MSRP: $69.00

The Good The entry-level Amazon Kindle is a compact, lightweight, and ultra-affordable e-book reader with a crisp e-ink screen and Wi-Fi. It offers access to a massive catalog of books, magazines, and newspapers via's familiar online store, plus online loaners from your local library. The Kindle can hold hundreds of books and the battery lasts for weeks.

The Bad Lacks the touch screen and self-illumination found on more expensive e-readers. All accessories -- including an AC charger -- cost extra.

The Bottom Line The $69 Amazon Kindle is an excellent no-frills e-book reader for anyone who’s willing to forgo a built-in light or a touch screen.

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7.7 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

That appears to be Amazon’s design philosophy with the 2012 version of its entry-level Kindle e-book reader. If you’re familiar with the 2011 Kindle, you’ll find very little changed on the new version. The body is now available in black as well as gray; the screen has slightly higher contrast and some additional fonts; the page-turns on the e-ink screen are 15 percent faster; and Amazon’s added support for children’s books (and parental controls).

Otherwise, this is pretty much the same as the previous Kindle. But that’s a smart move, since the earlier Kindle was -- and is -- a great no-frills e-book reader.

The 2012 Kindle (left) and 2011 Kindle (right) share the exact same frame. Sarah Tew/CNET

In lieu of a big design overhaul, the entry-level Kindle has two main selling points. The first is price: just $69 for the ad-supported “Special Offers” version, or $89 to go ad-free. That’s $10 less than last year, for a product that’s a tad better. The second is Amazon’s best-in-class e-book “ecosystem” -- which offers a total of 1.8 million titles, including more than 180,000 exclusives (and the ability to borrow thousands of titles at no additional charge if you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber).

Amazon has reserved the real innovation for the step-up model, the Kindle Paperwhite. That device offers an impressive self-illuminating touch-screen, but it costs $50 more. If you don’t need the touch screen and built-in lighting of the Paperwhite and other pricier models, the baseline Kindle is still the best no-frills e-reader option out there.

The hardware
Except for the aforementioned color change and small hardware tweaks, the 2012 Kindle is identical to its predecessor. The 6-inch Pearl E Ink display is housed in a 6.5-inch-by-4.5-inch body that’s just one-third of an inch thick.

Sarah Tew/CNET

One of the biggest “features” of the Kindle is its weight. At just under 6 ounces, it’s notably lighter than its touch-screen brethren. (The one exception is the Kobo Mini, which offers a 5-inch touch screen, a lighter 4.7-ounce heft, and a competitive $80 price tag.) So even if you put your Kindle in a case, you can hold it without worrying about tired arms or stiff fingers.

The other big advantage of the Kindle is its battery life. Amazon says the Kindle should last up to a month “with wireless off based upon a half-hour of daily reading time.” After a few weeks of use, we can confirm that estimate is pretty much on the money. (You only need to toggle the wireless on when and if you’re downloading new books or other content.)

To be clear, that sort of long battery life is par for the course for e-ink readers. In fact, the $99 Nook Simple Touch claims two months between charges. But the bigger point here is that -- unlike a phone or a tablet -- the Kindle can go weeks without charging. For hard-core readers, that’s also the reason you’d invest in an e-ink reader even though you can read the same content on those LCD devices: read your books on the Kindle while the tablet or phone stays juiced up for phone calls, e-mails, games, and Web browsing.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Another point in favor of the Kindle versus reading on LCD phones or tablets is the lack of glare. Unlike the reflective screens on those devices, a Kindle (and all other e-ink readers) allows you to read in bright environments, up to and including direct sunlight.

Those moving to a Kindle from “real” books will appreciate two big features not found in paper books: font sizes and line spacing are completely adjustable to your preference. Likewise, the screen can be toggled from portrait (vertical) to landscape (horizontal) mode.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Kindle screen is flanked by a few buttons. Page-forward and page-back buttons are on both sides of the screen, giving equal access to left-handed and right-handed readers. While the buttons are bit old-fashioned in the touch-screen age, many readers will find their responsiveness and location more convenient than tapping on a screen. The other controls are below the screen: a four-way directional pad for navigating menus; home and back buttons; a toggle for the onscreen keyboard; and a menu button.

The Amazon Kindle ecosystem
The Kindle is a one-stop shopping gateway to Amazon’s best-in-class Web store, which arguably offers the largest array of books, newspapers, and magazines on the Web.

Amazon offers more than 1.8 million e-book titles, including more than 180,000 exclusives. The Web retailer also tends to offer discounts more frequently than many of its competitors. While many have differing opinions on whether some of these practices are fair to competitors -- or good for the long-term health of the publishing industry -- they are certainly consumer-friendly, at least in the short-term.