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Editors' note (October 3, 2011): With the announcement of new Kindle models for 2011, we have lowered the rating of this product from 8.3 to 7.3 and removed the Editors' Choice designation originally awarded in August 2010. Potential buyers of this product (now known as the Kindle Keyboard) should instead strongly consider its 2011 replacement model, the Kindle Touch, which offers a touch screen. See Kindle vs. Nook vs. iPad: Which e-book reader should you buy? for more information.
Editors' note: As of May 2011, the Wi-Fi Kindle reviewed here is available in two versions: the original $139 version and a $114 ad-supported version known as the Kindle with Special Offers. Because the ads are non-invasive--limited only to the screensaver and main menu screen--there is little disadvantage to buying that cheaper model. Also of note: as of September 21, 2011, Amazon has added the ability for the Kindle to download and read e-books through participating local libraries.
Just as Apple's iPod wasn't the first MP3 player, Amazon wasn't the first company on the block to release an e-book reader; NuvoMedia's RocketBook and the early Sony Readers both beat the Kindle to market. But it's hard to argue that the online retailer's Kindle isn't the iPod of the e-book reader market. The Kindle has helped usher the e-book reader from gadget curiosity to a burgeoning mass market device, all in less than three short years. And now, amid a much more competitive market, Amazon is debuting the third-generation Kindle.
The first thing you should know about the "Kindle 3" is that it's more evolutionary than revolutionary. Most importantly, Amazon has made its 6-inch e-reader smaller and lighter, and it has improved the screen. The Kindle has also adopted the key Wi-Fi feature from its rival, the Barnes & Noble Nook.
In fact, this Kindle comes in a couple of versions, one with both Wi-Fi and 3G wireless for $189, and a Wi-Fi-only version that costs $139--both $10 less than corresponding versions of the Nook. The latter version is available in graphite (black) or white, while the Wi-Fi model is only available in graphite. On top of the more compact design, the key additions to the latest Kindles include more memory (4GB instead of 2GB) and double the battery life (four weeks instead of two weeks with the wireless turned off).
Here's a rundown of the key specs:
Clearly, one of Amazon's primary goals was to make the device smaller and more pocket- and purse-friendly so that users would be more apt to see the Kindle as an everyday gadget they can carry around with them at all times. We can say that Amazon has certainly achieved that, and the device, at least when held without a cover, feels lighter and more comfortable in your hand and easier to hold for longer periods.
Though the Kindle offers some additional functionality beyond reading, Amazon has been careful to market it as a "purpose-built reading device" in order to contrast it with the multifaceted Apple iPad, which features a backlit touch-screen LCD instead of an e-ink screen.
That e-ink screen is both the Kindle's strength and weakness. On the upside, the latest Kindle's display looks really good. When compared side by side with the older Kindle and Nook, the letters appear slightly darker and pop a little more (Amazon, like Barnes & Noble, has also optimized the fonts so letters appear sharper). It's not a huge difference, but it's noticeable. Turning "pages" is also considerably faster. Side by side with the Nook, the new Kindle appeared to turn pages in about half the time. (There's still that somewhat jarring photo negative look when doing so, however).
The other upside to e-ink displays is that they aren't backlit, which not only is supposed to reduce eye strain but it also allows you to see the screen--better, in fact--in brightly lit environments, including direct sunlight. By contrast, the iPad is hard to read outside because its LCD gets washed out in direct sunlight and the glass covering the screen is reflective and creates glare issues.
The Kindle's screen can toggled from portrait to landscape mode--particularly useful for certain PDFs and Web sites--but the process requires manually accessing the menu. By contrast, it's an automatic feature on the Kindle DX or iPad, thanks to their built-in accelerometers.
At night, however, you have to have a light source to use the Kindle, which is part of the reason why Amazon has designed an optional protective cover (none ships with the unit) that includes a retracting LED light that's brilliantly designed. The slim light draws power from the Kindle and tucks away into the case (at first glance, you don't even know it's there). The only downside is it's expensive at $59.99, but we have to say, we really liked it.
Amazon also sells a $34.95 protective case and plenty of third-party companies make nice covers and lights for the Kindle. But just factor the price of a cover into your purchase because it's not a great idea to carry your Kindle around naked. Like the iPhone, the Kindle is prone to serious injury when dropped from moderate heights to a hard surface (e.g., a concrete sidewalk).
In shrinking the Kindle, Amazon has made some noteworthy changes to the button design. Most are good; for instance, the new page-turn buttons on the each side of the device are smaller and make only a muffled clicking sound when you depress them (that's important if you're reading someone trying to sleep in bed next to you).
Amazon has also modified the joystick-like main navigation button and moved it lower and integrated it into the more tightly spaced keyboard where the Enter key on a computer keyboard would typically be. This makes a lot of the sense, and the new four-way navigation button is fine, but we did find that the back button and menu buttons are a little too close to the up/down portions of navigation button. As a result, we sometimes ended up accidentally hitting the back or menu button, and we expect that users with larger fingers will have to take extra care when using the navigation button. We also have a feeling some folks will miss the older nub-style button.
Aside from those button adjustments, very little has changed in terms of the overall experience of using the Kindle. Yes, there's now Wi-Fi on board, which enables you to get access in locations which aren't serviced by AT&T's cellular network. It also offers a faster connection for browsing the Kindle Store and browsing the Web using the new "experimental" WebKit browser.
As with the Nook, the combination of Wi-Fi and the new browser makes for better surfing, but it still remains a somewhat sluggish, less than fluid affair. The browser's more useable overall, and more Web pages will display properly formatted. But using the navigation button to jump from link to link on a Web page can become a little tedious. And we didn't have much luck logging into our Yahoo or Gmail Web mail accounts. (In fact, the Gmail attempt locked up the browser, and forced us to do a soft reset.) But the browser does work well enough for those times you need to log-in to a password-protected Wi-Fi access point, or click on a splash screen (say, at a Starbucks) in order to jump online.
As we said, the e-ink screen is both the Kindle's strength and a weakness. Though Amazon has improved the page-turn speeds and made the device feel slightly zippier, e-ink still exhibits some latency and using a four-way button to navigate menus can seem weird after playing around with your touch-screen smartphone all day. Perhaps that's why using a Kindle gives you the odd sensation of using a futuristic device that also feels somewhat archaic at the same time. The same cannot be said for the iPad (which, admittedly, is far more expensive).
For version 3.0 of its Kindle firmware, Amazon has enhanced the text-to-speech capabilities of the device, extending it to the menu system (some publishers allow the text-to-speech feature to be enabled in their books, some don't). The device also appears to have a built-in microphone near the USB connecting port at the bottom, where you'll also find volume buttons; yes, the Kindle has two small speakers on the back and you can play MP3 audio as you read. However, the microphone is currently disabled, though that hasn't stopped some blogs from speculating that Amazon may someday adding voice note-taking, Skype calling capabilities, or even voice recognition features.
Another recent addition to the Kindle world is games. There is only a handful so far, but it could be a precursor to a wider app store that may someday be available on the Kindle.
If you're comparing this Kindle with the existing Nook e-readers, you'll find that looking at them straight on, the Kindle is actually only slightly smaller on a two-dimensional plane. However, the Kindle is significantly slimmer depth-wise and about 2.5 ounces lighter (22 percent) overall, which is meaningful.
Neither device is particularly good for viewing PDF files (the iPad is much better for that), but the Nook has the advantage of supporting the industry standard EPUB format. That's useful because some libraries have begun lending e-books in the EPUB format, and there are a wealth of free public domain books available from sources such as Google Books. That said, Amazon offers more than 12,000 free public domain books for the Kindle including many of the most desirable classics, so the lack of EPUB compatibility shouldn't be a stumbling block for most users.
As of a December 2010 software update, the Kindle now offers a book lending feature similar to the one found on the Nook. Each title can only be lent once, and the loan period is only two weeks--but it's up to the publisher whether the feature is activated on any given title.
The Nook's other advantages over the Kindle are its user-replaceable battery and expandable memory. Again, however, the latter issue really isn't a big factor for two reasons: the Kindle's 4GB of memory will hold around 3,500 books, and--even if you need to make room for other files, such as music or PDFs--you can always redownload e-books you've previously purchased from Amazon for free in less a minute.
Some people also like the Nook's color touch-screen for viewing book covers and navigation, but its inclusion does affect battery life and we should note that the Kindle's four weeks of rated battery life with the wireless turned off is currently tops for e-readers.
One area where the Kindle and the Nook are neck and neck is their ability to access books on other devices. Buy a book on the Kindle, and you can also access it on the Kindle app on iPad, iPhone/iPod Touch, Android phones, BlackBerry phones, Windows PCs, and Macs. (The same goes for Nook, which is also available on each platform.) So, should you ever trade up to an iPad--or nearly any other popular OS--you should still have no trouble accessing the books you've purchased previously. (By contrast, e-books purchased in Apple's iBookstore are currently only available on iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch.)
All in all, we really didn't have any serious gripes with the new Kindle. There are those out there who would like to see Amazon ditch the built-in keyboard and trim the device down even further, and some folks are still waiting to see the Kindle drop to $99 or less before they buy one. (Barring a major price war, it's probably not going to happen in 2010, but with e-reader prices falling the way they have, a $99 Kindle in 2011 seems quite possible.)
As we said in our Nook review, if you're trying to determine whether you need a 3G connection or not, we can see how it would come in handy for frequent travelers who like the idea of being able to access an e-book store at a moment's notice, or those who subscribe to periodicals through the Nook. Though free Wi-Fi hot spots are becoming more widely available, they certainly aren't ubiquitous yet.
But if you're the type of person who doesn't need that instant access to the store at all times (or wherever you can get a data connection), you'll probably be fine with just a Wi-Fi connection. For instance, you could buy five or six books at a Wi-Fi-enabled airport lounge before departing on a long vacation.
In the end, much as Apple tends to do with its mobile devices, Amazon has simply taken an e-reader that was already good and improved it. Those improvements aren't so great that it will make owners of the second-generation Kindle or Nook feel bad about what they've already bought. But if you're already a Kindle fan, you'll most likely be tempted to pawn off your older model on a friend or family member and purchase this model.
And, if you're new to the whole e-reader game, $139 or $189 may not be dirt cheap, but it's whole lot more reasonable than the $399 that the Kindle cost when it first came out in late 2007. At these prices, we can actually say the latest Kindle is a solid value for readers looking to make the jump to e-books.