Editors' note: As of June 21, 2010, Barnes & Noble reduced the price of its competing 3G Nook to $199 and introduced a $149 Wi-Fi-only Nook. Amazon immediately responded by lowering the price of the Kindle reviewed here to $189.
Amazon announced August 2, 2010, that the model reviewed here will be replaced with an updated Kindle. As of August 27, 2010, the redesigned Kindle with ship in a Wi-Fi version for $139 and a Wi-Fi plus 3G version for $189.
Amazonon April 20, 2011, that a software update adding the ability to read e-books from participating local libraries will be added by the end of 2011.
On October 22, 2009, Amazon discontinued the U.S.-only version of the Kindle and replaced it with the international Kindle model and set the price at $259. This new model--now called the "U.S. and International Kindle"--runs on AT&T's network and can access content on cellular networks inside and outside of the U.S. While Amazon suggested it was virtually identical to the Sprint-powered Kindle we reviewed back in February of this year, we did want to get our hands on a unit to make sure they were twins.
Surprisingly, while the design of the two products appears to be exactly the same, the first thing we noticed was that the text looked slightly different on the new model. When the second-generation Kindle (Sprint-powered) was first released, some buyers complained that the text didn't appear as dark on that e-reader as it did on the original Kindle. Well, comparing the two models side by side, the blacks look darker on the AT&T-powered Kindle compared with those of the Sprint-powered Kindle. It's not a huge difference, but it's definitely noticeable, and it's certainly appreciated.
As for the switch to AT&T from Sprint, we didn't sense a significant difference in our tests of Amazon's wireless "Whispernet" service, and actually found AT&T's data network to be slightly faster in our use of the "experimental" Web browser, which remains intact (and largely unusable). That said, your experience using the wireless aspects of the device will largely depend on whether you can get coverage where you live--or where you travel. In our office, for instance, AT&T offers better coverage than Sprint, but in other places Sprint may offer better coverage.
Those planning to travel outside of the U.S. should be aware of some caveats. First off, only some countries have Kindle-compatible wireless coverage. And even if cellular "Whispernet" service is offered, additional fees--anywhere from $1.99 per title to $4.99 per week--are charged for books and periodicals downloaded outside the U.S., at least for U.S.-based Kindle owners who are traveling abroad. On the bright side, those using the Kindle internationally can still download sample chapters of books at no charge. (Surcharges can be avoided by downloading Kindle content to a PC first, then transferring it to the Kindle via USB.)
If you live overseas and are thinking of buying this "American" Kindle, you should check the Kindle's product page to see what you're up against. There's a box right under the pricing information that asks, "Live outside the U.S?" You can then select your country from a pull-down menu and read the pertinent information. The long and short of it is that while the Kindle presents a convenient way for you to download English-language books if you live or are traveling outside the U.S., you're simply not going to get the same deal as U.S. customers. Still, we can see how certain people--particularly expats--wouldn't mind paying the extra charges to have immediate access to books they want to read.
Aside from its international capabilities--and the slightly better screen contrast--the new Kindle is effectively identical to the previous Kindle model. However, prospective buyers should also note that the Barnes & Noble Nook, due to be released around Thanksgiving and also priced at $259, looks to offer some stiff competition. Key step-up features of the Nook, which is similar in size to the Kindle, include built-in Wi-Fi (in addition to 3G cellular service provided by AT&T), a memory expansion port, and a second color touch-navigation screen--none of which is available on the current Amazon e-reader.
Even so, while the Nook looks promising, until we play around with a final shipping unit we can't say whether it's superior to the Kindle, even if does have better specs on paper. The fact is the interface of any e-book reader is essential to its success and we just don't know yet how well the Nook works and how straightforward it will be. But we do know that one of the Kindle's strengths is it is simple to use and taps into an expansive e-book store.
If you're new to the Kindle--or e-book readers in general--read on. The full rundown of all its strengths and shortcomings, which we've written about before, is below.
The second-generation Kindle is thinner than the original Kindle--it measures a svelte 0.36 inch at its thickest point--and weighs 10.2 ounces. That's basically the same as the 2009 lineup of Sony Reader models.
One thing that hasn't changed much from the original Kindle is the height and width of the device. Some people have complained that the original Kindle should have been shorter and forgone the keyboard, like the Sony Reader did. Whether you're a fan of the keyboard or not, it's worth noting that the gen-two Kindle is actually slightly longer than the original, measuring 8 inches from top to bottom.
Part of the reason for the elongation is that Amazon has devoted a bit more space to the keyboard, with some additional room between the keys and a more simplified, streamlined look (the keys are circular and the space bar is longer and more intuitively placed). This was a good move, as the keyboard is now easier to use.
As on a BlackBerry and other shrunken QWERTY keyboards, you enter text using your thumbs. The Kindle's keyboard comes in handy when entering notes and annotations while reading (they're saved), keying in text for searches in the Kindle Store, and typing in URLs when surfing the Web. We also appreciated that the home button is now much more prominently displayed on the side of the device, right in the middle above the "Next page" button. Before, it was tiny and buried at the bottom of the keyboard.
In case you haven't heard already, the Kindle's screen is technically considered an electrophoretic display, which Wikipedia describes as "an information display that forms visible images by rearranging charged pigment particles using an applied electric field." Like some other electronic paper products, the Kindle uses "e-ink" technology, which serves to make the letters and words on the screen look more printlike in their appearance. A lot of people, when they first see the screen, are genuinely impressed.
As with most of these types of digital readers, there's no backlight (Amazon says it causes eyestrain), so you need some sort of light source to read in the dark. The screen itself is a 6-inch (diagonal) electronic-paper display, and--according to the specs--it sports 600x800-pixel resolution at 167 pixels per inch. This new Kindle offers 16 shades of gray instead of 4, which really doesn't do anything for making standard text pop better, but it does add more detail to images. Visually challenged readers will be happy to note that the Kindle's font size can be adjusted to six different levels.
Whispernet: Free cellular data access (in the U.S)
Until recently, one of the key differentiators of the Kindle was its free, built-in, wireless connection, "Whispernet," which allows you to tap into Amazon's vast online Kindle Store from just about anywhere you can access AT&T's cellular data network. (Sony's forthcoming PRS-900 Reader Daily Edition, the Barnes & Noble Nook, and the Plastic Logic Que will have free AT&T cellular connections as well.)
Like the Sprint-powered version, Amazon has broadened the device's wireless footprint by allowing it to also access AT&T's slower data EDGE network when it can't tap into the company's 3G network. (Amazon has posted a Kindle wireless coverage map to consult.) In our tests in New York, the connection was impressively fast, with quick downloads of books from the Kindle Store and documents e-mailed to the device in around 10 to 15 seconds. However, the Web-surfing experience wasn't all that good (there's no Flash or video support), but we were able to access Web sites and read articles, albeit somewhat slowly.
While the cellular wireless works well, we'd prefer there to be a Wi-Fi option on the Kindle as well. That would help alleviate wireless coverage concerns in a lot of areas (including overseas). Alternatively, you can shop for Kindle books from your computer (or any other browser-enabled device) and have them wirelessly sent to your Kindle by simply hitting the one-click "purchase" button.
Aside from making wireless book purchases in the Kindle Store, you can have periodical subscriptions and blogs automatically delivered to your device over the air. Several Kindle newspapers are available for download, including international papers. Unfortunately, some of the most desirable subscriptions are somewhat overpriced. For example, a monthly subscription to The New York Times is $13.99 and The Wall Street Journal is $14.99. They should really be less than $10 (The Washington Post is $9.99), because the fact is you can access a lot of the same articles for free on your cell phone or the Kindle itself--and the content can be fresher (there's only one daily Kindle edition of each paper that's "delivered" every morning). On the other hand, some weekly magazines like Time and Newsweek cost a much more reasonable $1.49 per month. And having these newspapers, magazines, and blogs delivered to your Kindle each morning (or each week) is a nice option for commuters--and you don't have to worry about getting any ink on your hands.
It's also worth highlighting another nice design tweak. The wireless on/off button on the original Kindle was a physical switch on the back of the device that was kind of a pain to access if you had the Kindle in its cover. Now the wireless on/off is a toggle in the menu system, which is better. Also, to wake the device from its sleep mode, you now just slide and release the power button instead of having to press the Alt and Home keys in tandem. That's an improvement, as well.