Editors' note (September 6, 2012): The product reviewed here has been discontinued and replaced with an updated model (
Here it is, folks, the Kindle we at CNET have been wanting for a while: a $99 e-ink e-reader with a touch-screen interface in a smaller, lighter body and that does away with the integrated keyboard of its predecessor while retaining extras like audio support and (on step-up versions) free 3G wireless for frequent travelers.
What's not to like? Well, not much, but in the ever-competitive world of e-readers, in which your nearest competitor (Barnes & Noble) drops the price of its Nook Simple Touch e-reader to $99 in advance of the Kindle Touch's arrival, the devil's in the details, so read on to find out why we think this is an excellent e-reader--but certainly not your only choice.
If you're shopping for an e-ink Kindle in 2011, you've got several options. Amazon.com is still selling last year's model, now dubbed the Kindle Keyboard, for $99 to $189. (Unless you have a particular affinity for hard keyboards, don't buy it.) Amazon also has the entry-level Kindle, a perfectly serviceable e-reader you can buy at the insanely low price of $79 ($30 more if you don't want "Special Offers" ads). The catch? There's no touch screen.
That's where the Kindle Touch comes in. Amazon was late to the touch-screen game, beaten to the market by Sony, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble. But it's made up for that with a market-leading $99 entry-level price (now matched by two of those three competitors). The Kindle Touch comes in four versions: two Wi-Fi models ($99 for the ad-supported Special Offers version, and $139 with no ads) and two 3G models ($149 with Special Offers, and $189 without).
All those versions are enough to make your head spin. So which one's best for you? Our advice is to opt for the 3G version only if you're a frequent traveler or don't have easy access to Wi-Fi; otherwise, skip it.
More importantly, you should only buy the Special Offers versions. Remember, the ads only appear on the screensavers and as a small banner on the index screen--never within your reading material. And, frankly, we've already used the Special Offers several times--mostly to buy discounted e-books. Besides, if you ultimately decide you don't like the ads, you always have the option to pay the extra dough to have Amazon turn them off forever. It's pretty much a no-lose scenario.
While the basic Kindle is the smallest and lightest of the three new Kindles, weighing 5.98 ounces, the Kindle Touch is still quite compact, measuring 6.5 inches long by 4.5 inches wide by 0.4 inch thick. It's slightly narrower than the Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch but weighs almost exactly same, at 7.5 ounces, or 7.8 ounces for the 3G version.
When we reviewed the basic $79 Kindle, we surprisingly thought that it almost felt too light in the hand. The light weight doesn't exactly make the device seem cheap (OK, maybe a little), but it does give you the sensation that it's fragile and shouldn't be dropped. The Kindle Touch, by comparison, feels a bit more substantive.
The Kindle Touch takes its name to heart: except for the home key (below the screen) and the power switch (bottom edge), this is a buttonless device. Next to the power switch, you'll find the headphone jack and Micro-USB charging port. Amazon includes a USB cable, but the actual charger will cost you $10 extra--it's annoying, but thankfully, any PC USB port or iPod/iPhone charger and most cell phone chargers will also do the trick.
Speaking of USB--you can connect the Kindle Touch to a computer to drag and drop MP3, audiobook, or text files (such as PDFs), but there's otherwise no need to "sync" with a computer. In fact, if you're just interested in reading, you'll never need to connect a Kindle to a computer at all, as books, periodicals, and even audiobooks can be purchased and downloaded straight over Wi-Fi (or 3G cellular), directly from the touch screen.
To further emphasize its audio chops, the Kindle Touch has external speakers. So even if you don't have headphones, you can listen to MP3s, audiobooks, or the Read-to-Me feature (more on those later).
Another nice touch worth mentioning: if you order the Touch (or any Kindle product) from Amazon's Web site, it ships prelinked to your Amazon account. There's an easy option to unlink and go through a quick setup wizard for a new account, but the fact that it comes ready to go straight out of the box is yet another great "Why didn't they think of that sooner?" usability feature--you can be reading a book within 2 minutes of opening the box.
As it has with other models, Amazon has released a special Kindle Lighted Leather cover for the Kindle Touch. The cover has an integrated LED light and while it's a bit overpriced at $59.99, it's really a killer add-on for those who like to read at night (e-ink screens are not backlit and require a light source for reading). Amazon has moved away from the somewhat troublesome hook system it used for powering the Lighted Case, and the Kindle Touch has a set of power contacts at the bottom of the device.
It's important to note that this is, literally, the same 6-inch E Ink Pearl screen you'll find on all of those competing readers we mentioned. And that's a good thing. As avid readers, we prefer the look and feel of an e-ink screen, which is the closest you can get to the look and feel of real paper. The other advantage of e-ink over LCD is the lack of glare, which means you can read the Kindle Touch (and its e-ink siblings) in direct sunlight and in other bright lighting conditions.
Of course, the big attraction here is the new touch-screen interface, a first for Kindle e-ink e-readers. Like the Nook Simple Touch, the Kobo eReader Touch Edition, and Sony's latest e-readers, this one uses special Neonode infrared technology to sense when you touch the screen--and it works very well, though don't expect iPad-like responsiveness because of e-ink's inherently laggy nature.
The basic idea behind it is that small infrared sensors are built into the inside of the border around the screen and can sense where your finger is touching on the screen. In fact, you don't really have to touch the screen and can let your finger hover just a hair over the screen to get a response.
From a user-interface standpoint, Amazon has tweaked the Kindle's screens to allow easier (albeit arguably less precise) finger navigation. Most folks will probably be able to jump right in, with a menu and back buttons leading a very intuitive navigation process. As we've said in the past, the touch-screen interface really lends itself to e-reading, and we're glad to see it come to the Kindle.
If you're the type who just opens and closes books from your library and does little else, the new interface probably won't seem like a huge advancement. (And if that's the case, you may well opt for the $79 nontouch Kindle.) However, where the new touch-screen interface really improves the user experience is when performing such tasks as looking up words in the dictionary or Wikipedia, using Amazon's new X-Ray feature (more on that below), changing font sizes, and highlighting text and adding notes via the virtual keyboard (you can also share highlighted passages on Facebook and Twitter right from the device). You simply tap and hold on a word to bring up the built-in dictionary and navigate through menus by touch--no need to scroll around with a little directional pad, as on the cheaper Kindle.
Amazon, like Barnes & Noble, is continually tweaking the performance of its e-readers to improve battery life, make accessing and downloading e-books easier and faster, and speed up page turns slightly with less flashing (e-ink readers used to have to refresh the screen with each page turn but now the screen flashes only every five to six pages with the Kindle and Nook Touch).
For standard book navigation--turning pages--you simply swipe the screen forward or back or touch the right side of the screen to go forward and the left side to go back. Tapping the top of a page brings up an options menu, as discussed above.
The "touch to turn" works perfectly well, but there's one potential issue. If you're a left-handed reader, your thumb needs to tap farther toward the middle of the page to hit the "advance" area rather than the "page back" area that hugs the left border. It works if you have a sizeable thumb, but we occasionally found ourselves mistakenly hitting the "back" area instead. If--as with the Nook Simple Touch--Amazon had retained the "redundant" hard buttons, it would have been easy to navigate forward or backward with either hand. If you prefer hard buttons for page turns, you'll need to opt for the step-down Kindle and lose the touch screen, or go for the Nook Simple Touch, which has both touch screen and hard buttons. We're hoping Amazon will consider a firmware update that offers more customization of the page-turn areas.
While it's obvious, the biggest "feature" of the Kindle Touch is the Amazon store itself. We think Amazon offers the best online shopping experience on the Web (though Barnes & Noble has come a long way), and it's dead simple to buy reading material and audiobooks directly on the Kindle's touch screen. Alternately, you can buy e-books via a Web browser, and the books will automatically load onto the Kindle the next time it connects to a wireless network.
The Kindle Touch is, first and foremost, an e-book reader. It handles books with aplomb--including a host of freebie options--but it also allows you to enjoy newspapers, magazines, text documents and PDFs, audiobooks, and MP3 audio.
The most notable Kindle Touch features include:
E-book borrowing from your local library: Previously, Kindles could not be used to check out e-books from local libraries. That limitation is now a thing of the past.
Kindle Owners' Lending Library: Amazon Prime subscribers ($79/year) are now granted free access to thousands of titles that they can check out, up to one per month.
Audiobook compatibility: Unlike most readers, the Kindle is compatible with Amazon's in-house Audible brand of audiobooks.
MP3 playback: You can drag and drop MP3s (and only MP3s--AAC and M4A files need not apply) onto the Touch and use it as an MP3 player. This function is listed under the "experimental" menu, but it worked fine for us. Music can be played in the background while you read, and the virtual controller lets you skip tracks and control volume without leaving your reading material. Just be prepared for battery life to take a hit.
Read-to-Me: Another unique Kindle feature lets the device "read" the book to you. Not all titles are supported--some publishers feel that this feature kills their audiobook market--and the voice has a Siri-like robotic bent. But it's certainly a boon for the visually impaired, and can even be useful for "reading" while multitasking.
X-Ray: This new Kindle feature isn't available on other models, and it's limited to certain supported titles. It lets you explore, as Amazon says, "the bones of the book." That means characters, locations, and events are explained using detailed descriptions from Wikipedia and Amazon's crowd-sourced Shelfari service, and cross-referenced. On plot-heavy titles like "A Game of Thrones" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," one could see how the feature could be genuinely useful.
File support: Beyond the native AZW e-book format, the Kindle Touch also reads TXT, PDF, unprotected MOBI, and PRC files. The Kindle is notoriously incompatible with EPUB files, but--now that library lending is supported--that's pretty much a nonissue. (If it is, opt for the Nook Simple Touch.) HTML, DOC, DOCX, JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP files are supported through conversion.
Three-thousand-book capacity: The Kindle Touch offers 4GB of built-in memory, which Amazon says will hold at least 3,000 e-books. That capacity declines if you load up on PDFs, MP3s, audiobooks, and the like, but because Amazon stores all of your book purchases "in the cloud," you can download them again at any time at a touch of the screen. That's another reason the Kindle's lack of an expansion slot is no big deal.
Highlights, annotations, and social sharing: The Kindle Touch lets you take notes, highlight text and see what others have highlighted, and share your favorite passages via Facebook and Twitter. Heavy note takers will definitely appreciate the virtual keyboard, and should opt for this device over the nontouch Kindle.
Long-lasting battery: Amazon rates the Kindle Touch battery at 2 months with the wireless turned off. We haven't had it that long, but we know from experience that e-ink devices can go for weeks without recharging--though that will take a hit if you're a heavy wireless or audio user. Like nearly all e-readers, the Touch has a sealed battery that is not user-replaceable.
Whispersync and app support: In addition to the Kindle hardware, buying a Kindle book lets you access it on a variety of other devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android phones, BlackBerry phones, Windows Phone 7 devices, PCs, Macs--and even other Kindles) via free Kindle apps. Whispersync, meanwhile, means you can pick up and resume a title across multiple devices at the same point. Just be aware that some publishers limit the number of devices onto which you can download a book.
Two other less notable features are book lending and Web browsing. Book lending lets you "lend" titles to other Kindle users. It's a cool idea, first pioneered by Barnes & Noble, but--again--publishers limit which books are shareable, and each title can only be lent once, and only for 14 days.
Web browsing is another "experimental" feature on the Kindle Touch. It works in that you can access the Web (we checked our Gmail and went to the New York Times' site), but the black-and-white, slow-refresh e-ink screen just isn't good for surfing the Web. It may work in a pinch, but anyone interested in a real Web browser should opt for a color LCD device such as the Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet instead. Anyone interested in saving a buck should also note that the free 3G connection doesn't work for open Web browsing--it's only for accessing Amazon's site and buying content.
On the downside, the dearth of physical page-turn buttons may be a real issue for some, especially lefties. And the Touch is a tad heavier than the superslim entry-level Kindle. But there's very little not to like here.
Still, it's a very close call between the Touch and its similarly priced Amazon and Barnes & Noble brethren. The choice will come down more to personal preferences than anything else. To that end, here's how we'd suggest breaking any ties:
The entry-level Kindle is best for those who want the most affordable option ($20 cheaper) and the lightest e-reader on the market that we'd recommend. It's great if you're just reading books, and it's got the hard page-turn buttons that are missing on the Kindle Touch. But don't get it if you want a touch screen, or if you're a heavy note-taker.
The Barnes & Noble Nook Touch is a great Kindle alternative if you want a touch screen and physical buttons--and if you want an ad-free reading experience at $99. Its design is arguably a bit slicker than that of the Kindle Touch, too. But it's a no-go if you want any audio support.
The Kindle Touch is arguably the best all-around full-featured e-ink reader--if, that is, its litany of extra features (audio support, X-Ray, Kindle Owners' Lending Library) appeal to you, and if you're okay with Special Offers ads. If you don't need hard page-turn buttons, it's definitely the best bang for the buck.