Editors' note: As of October 22, 2009, Amazon has discontinued this version of the Kindle and replaced it with the international Kindle model. That new model runs on AT&T's network and can access content on cellular networks inside and outside of the U.S. It's otherwise essentially identical to the Sprint-powered Kindle reviewed here.
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.
With a slicker design, improved performance, and such additional extras as Text-to-Speech audio reading, Amazon has gotten a lot right with the latest version of its much-hyped e-book reader, the Kindle. While it may not be the huge leap forward that some people were hoping for, and it leaves off a couple of key items--most importantly removable memory and a protective carrying case--its easy-to-use interface and wireless connectivity still make it the e-reader to beat in the U.S. And it doesn't hurt that as more competing e-readers have hit the market, Amazon has lowered the price from $349 to $299.
The Kindle 2 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 Kindle 2 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 better placed). This was a good move, as the keyboard is easier to use.
As with the BlackBerry and other shrunken QWERTY keyboards, you enter text using your thumbs. The Kindle 2'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 button of the keyboard.
In case you haven't heard already, the Kindle 2'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 2 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. According to the specs, the screen itself is a 6-inch (diagonal) electronic-paper display, with a 600x800-pixel resolution at 167 ppi. 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
One of the key differentiators of the Kindle 2 is 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 Sprint's EVDO cellular data network. (Sony's forthcoming PRS-900 Reader Daily Edition and Barnes & Noble's future Plastic Logic e-book reader are both said to have free AT&T cellular connections as well.) Travelers and non-U.S. residents should note that the Kindle's wireless connection will only work stateside. While there's no word yet on a European or Asian version of the Kindle, you can "sideload" e-books from a Windows PC to the Kindle via a USB connection when there's no cellular signal available.
For the Kindle 2, Amazon has broadened the device's wireless footprint by allowing it to also access Sprint's slower data 1XRTT network when it can't tap into Sprint's 3G network. (Amazon has posted a Kindle 2 wireless coverage map as well.) 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. That said, 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. Alternatively, you can shop for Kindle books from your computer (or any other browser-enabled device) and have them wirelessly sent to your Kindle 2 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, subscriptions are somewhat overpriced. For example, a monthly subscription to The New York Times is $13.99. It should really be less than $10, because the fact is you can access a lot of the same articles for free on your cell phone or the Kindle 2 itself--and the content can be fresher (there's only one morning-Kindle edition of The New York Times). But pricing complaints aside, having the newspaper delivered to your Kindle each morning 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 ability 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. 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.