Amazon Kindle (second generation)
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.
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.
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.
What else has Amazon upgraded on the second-gen Kindle? Well, the processor in this model is faster, so the screen refreshes about 20 percent quicker between page turns. All and all, the thing just feels zippier, but it's important to note that while you'd think that a monochrome system would be lightning fast at this point, the Kindle 2 still exhibits some slight lag.
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 Kindle 2, 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 another 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 2 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 Kindle 2, 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 USB 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. It's a nice improvement over the most recent Apple USB charger, but--annoyingly--it seems incompatible with third-party USB chargers.
Storage and file compatibility
Amazon has upped the amount of onboard memory to 2GB (from 256MB), 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 2 (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 ="http: www.cnet.com="" ipod="" "="">iPod anytime soon. 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.
The original Kindle had a little rolling wheel to assist with navigation. The Kindle 2 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. While we're comparing the Kindle 2 to 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 2 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 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 Kindle 2, but we prefer this model's smaller form factor).
Another warning: as we mentioned in the intro, the Kindle 2 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 2 completely naked. So, while the price of the Kindle 2 is $299, you can expect to tack on another $20 to $30 for a protective case. On a positive note, Amazon's official Kindle 2 case, which costs $29.99, 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.
We'll end by saying what we expect a lot of other reviewers will say: the Kindle 2 is clearly better than the original Kindle, particularly if you're willing to forgive the sealed battery and lack of a memory-expansion option. And while it's not without its shortcomings and quirks, the Kindle 2 is a sexier device now, and the overall experience of reading, buying, and even listening to electronic books has taken a nice step forward.
While we applaud Amazon's move to lower the price from $349 to $299, we still think $300 is a lot to pay for an e-book reader. We'd also like to see e-books and subscriptions to Kindle newspapers, magazines, and blogs cost less. Eventually, of course, natural market forces (read: supply and demand) and the size of the Kindle's overall user base will dictate where prices go--both for the hardware and the software.
But for now, the price of admission to Amazon's electronic book world is what it is, and when you combine the new design and built-in wireless connection with enhanced syncing features for multiple Kindles, and the impressive integration with Amazon's online Kindle Store, the Kindle 2 is still the best e-book reader out there--for people who live in the U.S. anyway. Sorry for that caveat, but for the rest of the world, which can't tap into Sprint's network, it's a harder call, and the door remains wide open to other manufacturers.