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.
Amazon announced on 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.
Kindle devices include a feature called Whispersync. Whispersync gives you the capability to send books you bought on one Kindle to another, as long as both are registered to you (this would enable you to share books between family members). You can also sync two or more Kindle devices and switch back and forth between them while keeping your reading location synchronized. Basically, you can start reading the book on one device and continue where you left off on another.
For those who own an iPhone or iPod Touch, you can download the Kindle app from the iTunes App Store, and read books on either device as well. In fact, if you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, you don't need a Kindle e-reader to download Kindle books. (Amazon has also announced free Kindle Reader software for Windows PCs, and has indicated that Mac and BlackBerry versions are on the way.) But the Whispersync caveat applies here, too--you can't access books on more than one device simultaneously. By contrast, Sony lets you download the book to up to five Sony Readers that are registered to your account with no other restrictions.
As we said in our earlier review of the Sprint-powered Kindle, the processor in this model is faster, so the screen refreshes about 20 percent more quickly between page turns compared with the original Kindle. All and all, the thing just feels zippier, but it's important to note that while you'd think a monochrome system would be lightning fast at this point, the Kindle still exhibits some slight lag and it's a little bit irksome.
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 current Kindle, the page-turn buttons are smaller, and in playing with the device we noticed that it took a bit more effort to actually click the button and advance a page.
In a nod to Apple, Amazon has also sealed the battery into the back of the unit, so you can't replace it yourself (Amazon charges $60 for battery replacement). That's the bad news. The good news is Amazon says the battery now delivers about 25 percent more battery life, which should give you a few days of reading (with the wireless on) and two weeks with it turned off. We found the battery life to be quite good, and confirm that if you keep the wireless access to a minimum, you won't have to recharge for close to two weeks.
If you're a user of the original Kindle, you'll notice 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 volume control is on the top right side of the device). And there are two tiny speaker ports on the back of the Kindle that give you external audio. Because the speakers don't sound great, you probably wouldn't want to listen to music this way, but they do just fine with text-to-speech, a new "experimental" feature that allows you to have text read to you. While there's still a pronounced robotic element to it--you can switch between male and female digitized voices--it sounded better than we expected. In short, don't expect to get a true audiobook experience along the lines of what Audible offers (and yes, the latest Kindle, like the original, does support audiobook downloads from Amazon's Audible subsidiary), but it's usable. (Alas, after some authors protested that the inclusion of this feature might eat into audiobook sales, the text-to-speech feature has gone from a universal feature to one that's available on a title-by-title basis; each Kindle title's listing on Amazon should now note whether it's speech-enabled or not.)
In other changes, Amazon has gone with a new charging system. Instead of an AC adapter port, there's a port at the bottom of the device. However, it's not your standard Mini-USB port; rather it's the smaller microUSB variety you'll find on some new cell phones and Bluetooth headsets. The power adapter is actually one of the more impressive parts of the package: it's small, not much bigger than a standard plug, and the microUSB cable detaches from it so you can also charge the Kindle by connecting it to a USB port on your Mac or Windows PC. (We had mixed results when using third-party USB chargers.)
Storage and file compatibility
Like the Nook, the Kindle offers 2GB of onboard memory, so you can store up to 1,500 books or assorted newspaper and blog subscriptions, as well as JPEG images. But unfortunately, taking a cue from Apple, it left out an expansion slot for additional memory.
Using that same microUSB port, you can transfer files to the spare memory on your Kindle (it shows up as a standard USB storage drive when connected to a computer). Like the earlier model, this one can play back MP3 and AAC files (as well as Audible audio book 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. You can drag and drop the music files into the "music" folder when connecting the Kindle to your computer via USB. But the audio support is a convenience, not a fully developed feature. The skimpy storage and lack of playlist support means you won't be getting rid of your iPod. Too bad--perhaps a future Kindle model will offer an easier way to support podcast subscriptions as well.
More problematic is the fact that the Kindle can't natively view any text or image files (Word, PDF, TXT, JPEG, GIF, and so on) that you copy over to it. Instead, you'll need to e-mail those files to your special Kindle e-mail address for conversion to Kindle-friendly formats. This is a pain, particularly because you also get charged 10 cents for every document, PDF file, or image you send to the device. Here's what Amazon has to say about the whole thing, which strikes us as weird:
Kindle makes it easy to take your personal documents with you, eliminating the need to print. Each Kindle has a unique and customizable e-mail address. You can set your unique e-mail address on your Manage Your Kindle page. This allows you and your approved contacts to e-mail Word, PDF documents, and pictures wirelessly to your Kindle for a small per-document fee--currently only 10 cents per document. Kindle supports wireless delivery of unprotected Microsoft Word, PDF, HTML, TXT, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, PRC, and MOBI files. You can e-mail your PDFs wirelessly to your Kindle. Due to PDF's fixed layout format, some complex PDF files may not format correctly on your Kindle.
It's important to note that the Kindle is natively compatible with only Amazon's own .azw file format, which is what you get when you download anything from the Kindle Store. The Nook, Sony Reader devices, and other e-books are compatible with the widely used ePub format. Eventually, Amazon could make the Kindle capable of reading more file formats, but for now, it has decided to go with a more closed architecture, which means you won't be able to download any e-books from local libraries for they, too, are standardized on ePub.
The lack of ePub compatibility also means you can't read the huge library of free Google Books that are available in that format. Still, it's worth noting that those titles are usually public domain classics that predate the First World War--Mark Twain, Jules Verne, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the like. Also, many of those same titles are available for free on Amazon.
The original Kindle had a little rolling wheel to assist with navigation. The current Kindle 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 has made it easier to access the embedded dictionary to look up words, but it's far from a total revamp. You're still left with moments when you're not sure whether you should go forward or backward, or which button you should hit to get to where you want to go. In other words, it's not entirely intuitive. 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 touch-screen interfaces (that way, you can go to a virtual keyboard and shrink the device) and Sony went that route with its PRS-700, PRS-600, and PRS-900 readers. 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 appears that a color version of the Kindle is still years away.)
While we're comparing the Kindle with the Sony Readers, we should mention that though the Amazon product has a big advantage with its built-in wireless connection, the Sony does have a couple of advantages. The one thing that the Kindle just doesn't do as well is handle PDF and Word files. With the PRS-600, you can zoom in and out on PDFs, though it can be a rather sluggish process. With the Kindle, a PDF seems to get broken into pages, so you often can't see the document as a whole--just in pieces. All that said, if you're really looking for a more PDF-friendly device, you should probably consider a larger e-reader, such as Amazon's pricier Kindle DX, which has native PDF support and a 9.7-inch screen. (The DX has slightly superior features to the smaller Kindle, but we prefer this model's smaller size.)
Another warning: the current version of the Kindle doesn't ship with a protective carrying case. The case that was included with the original Kindle was mediocre at best, but it's too bad Amazon has chosen to ship the Kindle completely naked. So, while the price of the Kindle is $259 (down from its original $359), you can expect to tack on another $20 to $30 for a protective case. On a positive note, Amazon's official Kindle case, which costs $30, is nice: the device clips in securely and the whole package looks elegant. (While we haven't experienced any problems with the case for our review unit, some owners have complained that the new case can cause your Kindle to crack where the case clips on to the Kindle's spine). If you don't like the official Kindle case, there are plenty of third-party options as well, including some with built-in light options (M-Edge, Periscope, and Case-mate).
Until now, Amazon has held a commanding lead in the dedicated e-book reader space. While its devices have not been without their shortcomings and quirks, the overall experience of reading, buying, and even listening to electronic books has been better on the Kindle than competing platforms.
With this internationalized model, that experience continues to evolve. Yes, it's sullied a bit by the extra fees, but at least the overseas option is now there for those who want it, and the slightly darker typeface is a nice bonus that makes this Kindle an incremental improvement over the previous, U.S.-only Sprint-powered Kindle.
Whether Amazon has a new, even snazzier Kindle on the way, we don't know, but the e-reader space is hot and transforming rapidly. The Kindle is still attractive, but we'll soon see whether such models as Barnes & Noble's Nook have what it takes to knock the Kindle from its throne. If it does, Amazon will have to respond--either with a new, more impressive Kindle that perhaps includes Wi-Fi and better compatibility--or by chopping the price further on this model.