Amazon Kindle 2 hands-on review

It’s been nearly five months since we scooped Amazon’s Kindle 2 and earlier this week, after what seemed like an eternity for anxious e-book fans, Amazon finally began shipping its new reader. We unboxed it for you this past Tuesday but you know we couldn’t leave it at that — it’s full-on review time! Leading up to the Kindle 2 we’ve been through a Sony PRS-505, an Amazon Kindle 1 and an Irex Iliad so we had high hopes for Amazon’s new Jesus-reader. Is it up to snuff? Did it fall flat on its slim, sexy, 3G-connected face? Grab a cup of coffee and a snack pack, then hit the jump to find out.

Hardware and Aesthetics

To kick things off, let’s start with the guts. The Kindle 2 packs a 532 MHz ARM-11 processor, a 3.7 V 1530 mAh non-removable lithium polymer battery, a Sprint compatible EV-DO antenna and 2 GB of internal storage. The choice to abandon the external SD card slot and the removable battery of the Kindle 1 are a source of contention amongst current Kindle owners and rightfully so. Yes, the internal memory of the Kindle 2 can hold close to 1,500 books and the battery does promise longer life but people paying $360 for a reader don’t want to be limited — especially when the first generation Kindle didn’t have such limitations. You can’t carry around your whole library if your collection exceeds 2GB and the device is only useful for the life of the battery (unless you want to fork over $60 to Amazon to replace it).

For the average user who upgrades devices regularly, these limitations are nothing to be concerned about of course, but to the power user or pack rat, the lack of an SD card slot and replaceable battery may be a deal breaker. Just a warning to all of you “I am not going to buy the Kindle 2 because it does not have an SD card slot or replaceable battery” folks, the allure of this sexy new device may soften your stance on this issue so don’t handle a Kindle 2 as you may not be able to resist. And so we come to the design…

Fresh out the box, the Kindle 2 is a gorgeous looking device — rounded edges with a brushed aluminum back, and ohhhh so thin. Sorry original Kindle fans, we don’t mean to be offensive but the Kindle 2 brings some style to what had previously been a very clumsy-looking device. Despite its thin profile, the Kindle 2 feels very solid and not at all flimsy. At the top of the device, you’ll find a sliding power switch and a 3.5mm audio jack. The left side of the device has two small slots for a cover (optional purchase and not included in the box) while the right side has a volume rocker toward the top of the device. The bottom has a mini-USB port and small reset button. The back is brushed aluminum with a non-removable cover — no cracking this Kindle open unless you’ve got some tools on deck. The only items of interest on the backside are the two speakers at the bottom and the device information like the serial number, FCC ID, etc.

The front of the device is where all the action takes place of course. In the center you have a 6-inch, 800×600 e-ink display touting 16 shades of gray. On the left hand side you’ll find the previous page button and a next page button. What an improvement these buttons are, by the way! Gone are the paddle-like Kindle 1 buttons that would navigate pages with the slightest accidental touch. With the new style buttons, you have to push firmly on the edge of the button closest to the screen; there will be no accidental page turns from simply picking up or putting down the device. It is a bit awkward at first to push the inner portion of the button but you quickly get used to it and appreciate the feeling of control with regards to page navigation. Finally, at the bottom you’ll find the bubbly QWERTY keyboard which is an improvement over the Kindle 1 “chicklet” keyboard for sure. It’s most definitely not the greatest keyboard we’ve come across but it’s fine for searching and typing brief notes.

The right hand side of the device has the menu button and back button, both of which flank the 5-way directional control which may be the Achilles heel of the Kindle 2. It is an improvement over the scroll button and the funky vertical navigation display on the Kindle 1 but the 5-way controller itself leaves much to be desired. It is sturdy and has a nice satisfactory click but it’s small. Too small. It is fairly easy to move up and down but moving left and right can be tricky at times. We’re not talking “throw this thing out the window because it’s impossible to use,” but people with any dexterity problems will likely be less than happy with the performance of the controller. A slightly larger d-pad with a center button/click may have been a better choice.

Above the 5-way controller, you have another next page button and finally the home button. The button layout is quite comfortable over all, and you can perform just about any common function without having to shift your grip. The exception is probably the previous page button on the left which is placed a bit too high on the device for our taste. Despite the two main flaws we mentioned however, the Kindle 2 is definitely a winner in terms of look, feel and overall design. It is not perfect but it is pretty close.

Display

Amazon made a huge deal out of the Kindle 2’s snazzy new 16-shade display so our expectations were sky-high. Unfortunately without having another reader to do a side-by-side comparison (we’ve long-since ditched the Kindle 1 and other readers), it is difficult to rate the overall quality of screen as it relates to its predecessor or competition. As a stand alone device however, the text on the screen is crisp and the images have a nice appearance. The display response is definitely spry it supports the dynamic rendering needed for the on-screen cursor. Page to page refreshes are also quite snappy, though you do get the typical e-ink inverting and flashing when you switch pages (albeit very briefly). You really only notice it during the first 10-15 minutes of usage when you first get the device. After that initial adjustment period, the flickering anymore as the pages turn smoothly and quickly.

As for the flip side of the coin, light source is a necessity for the Kindle 2 as it lacks backlighting. This is a limitation of e-ink technology and affects all e-ink based readers. The latest Sony Reader, the PRS-700, includes external side mounted LEDs to alleviate the problem but the Kindle provides no such solution. If reading in a dimly lit area, you will definitely need a stronger light source. In a fully lit room or in the sunlight however, the Kindle display is perfectly crisp and the glare is minimal making the Kindle 2 a real pleasure to read.

Reading with the Kindle 2

The home screen is where all the fun begins of course. When on the home screen, the menu key provides access to core features including settings, search, a link to the Kindle Store, the experimental applications and the ability to sync your Kindle data and the command to check for new items. Outside the menu, the home screen itself contains a list of all the books on the Kindle. Sorry folks, as most of you Kindle 1 owners already know, the Kindle 2 does not support folders leaving all of your books to sit in one giant list. This might not be a problem for the new Kindle user who may have 5-6 books but watch out experienced veterans; you still have to scroll through your 100+ titles. This is a feature that has been requested a million times and may be added in a future update but don’t count on it. Purchase the Kindle 2 with the knowledge that you cannot use folders to organize your book collection.

When you select a book, you are brought to the beginning of the book if it is your first time opening it and the most recently finished page will appear if you have already begun reading. At the bottom of the page is a progress bar that indicates your location (locations are the digital equivalent of pages) within the book and highlights your progress. A percentage indicator is also present on the left side. Beyond the next and previous page buttons which allow page-by-page navigation, the 5-way controller allows you to jump from chapter to chapter which is a nice feature. Navigation through the book is further simplified by the menu button which provides access to the clickable/linkable Table of Contents, the beginning of the book, a page jump that allows you to go to any page or straight to the furthest page read. The “in-book” menu also lets you create a new note, highlight or bookmark, access your saved notes and bookmarks within a book and search an individual book. Last but not least, you can toggle the wireless off and on, hop to the Kindle store, or start Text to Speech from this menu. All that from one click of the menu button!

The 5-way controller is used to navigate the contents of the page you are on. When scrolling though the text with the 5-way controller, a definition of the selected word appears dynamically at the bottom of your screen – a great convenience when you hit unfamiliar words. The controller can also be used to navigate to and select any links that may be present within the text. The onscreen cursor will switch to a finger when a link is selected and a click of the 5-way controller will bring you to the linked location. Lastly, the controller can also be used to zoom in on images within a page. A zoom icon will appear over the image and a quick click zoom while a second click will zoom back out to the full page.

The Kindle 2 provides several different methods for annotating the text within a book, allowing you to add a note to a portion of the text, highlight a portion of the text or bookmark a page. If you are reading a periodical or a blog, you can also take a clipping of the any section you choose. When a note, bookmark or highlight is added to the text, the Kindle 2 indicates the specialized status of the text by displaying a folded page corner for a bookmark, a superscript number for a note or an underline beneath the text for a highlight. Pretty nifty. Reading a periodical, blog subscription or non-Kindle e-book is similar to reading a Kindle e-book. The overall navigation is the same but you have different menu options that reflect whichever type of content you are reading.

The Kindle Store: Searching, Previewing and Purchasing Books

The biggest advantage the Kindle has over its competition is Whispernet, the wireless connectivity that makes browsing and buying books ridiculously simple. The wireless coverage is provided by Sprint and, depending on your location, can be a high speed 3G EV-DO connection. Why bother with wireless connectivity? To browse and purchase books directly from the Kindle, of course! You can browse books by genre with almost every category broken down into subcategory upon subcategory. You can also view the National Bestsellers list, a new and noteworthy book list and the top Kindle books as ranked by Amazon.

If you prefer a more direct approach, you can search the book catalog using the search field and the QWERTY keyboard. When browsing categories or search results, the books appear in a scrollable list with the book cover, title, author and the review ranking (up to 5 stars) of each book. You use the 5-way controller to move up and down the list and the previous page and next page buttons to advance forward and backward through the list.

Clicking on an individual book will bring you to the the book detail page which has a link to the author’s other available Kindle books, a short list of details and a brief description of the book, the ever important “buy” button, a link to user reviews and finally, a helpful “what others have bought” section. If this book is not what you expect, you can use the search field at the bottom to start over. You can also select to “Try a sample” or “Save for later” if you want to mark the book for further review. The “Try a sample” option is another ingenious idea from Amazon and is present in the Kindle 1 as well. You can liken the experience to sitting in your local bookstore, grabbing a book off the shelf and thumbing through it before purchasing. You lose the ambiance of a bookstore with the Kindle of course, but you retain the ability to try before you buy which is most definitely appreciated. It is also handy if you have 20 minutes to fill and want a quick read.

Once you pick a book that warrants a purchase, buying it is a breeze — it’s almost too easy as a matter of fact. Hit the “Buy” button and Amazon will process the purchase using your Amazon One-Click settings. You do have to log in to your Amazon account using your PC and setup One-Click prior to purchasing of course, but once One-Click is configured, purchasing is a one step, no hassle process. The delivery of the book is equally elegant. In matter of a minute over the 3G connection, your book is downloaded to your Kindle 2 and is ready to read. If you were the proud owner of a Kindle 1, you can also use Whispernet to sync all your previously purchased books to your new Kindle 2 which certainly makes things much easier. Amazon really has captured here with Whispernet, what Apple has captured with the iPhone and its App store. Elegant and easy over the air purchasing.

For those who prefer purchasing books from sources other than Amazon, the Kindle 2 provides several methods for getting non-Amazon content onto your reader. The Kindle 2 supports the Kindle format (AZW), TXT, Audible (format 4 and Audible Enhanced AAX), MP3, unprotected MOBI and PRC natively. No conversion is needed for these formats and the content can be dragged over to your Kindle 2 via USB or sent wirelessly for a fee of $0.10 per item. It also supports PDF, HTML, DOC, JPEG, GIF, PNG and BMP but these formats require conversion. Amazon provides an easy to use email-based service for converting these documents to a Kindle 2 friendly format. Basically, each Kindle 2 is assigned a unique email address (“your_kindle”@kindle.com) and you send the item for conversion to this address. Amazon will accept the content, convert it to a Kindle-friendly format and forward it on to your Kindle. It is easy but as you might imagine, it’ll cost you $0.10 per item.

If you need the conversion and don’t want to pay Amazon $0.10 to forward the book to your device, you can instead use your Kindle’s “free” email address (“your_kindle”@free.kindle.com) and Amazon will send the book back to you via email. You will need to connect your Kindle via USB and drag the newly converted content to your Kindle, but for frequent flyers this could save you a bundle in the long run. For security and privacy and purposes you can’t send content from any email, you must pre-designate a list of acceptable email addresses from which content will be sent.

Web Browsing/MP3Player/Text to Speech

The Kindle 2 also comes with a few “experimental” features including a web browser, an MP3 player and the much talked about Text to Speech function. The web browser works but don’t expect a Safari or even Opera Mobile-like experience here. You’re looking at a browser for mobile web sites only, and it’s a bit sluggish and clunky to navigate. Despite its unpolished nature, the browser does work and is convenient if you really need to check out the latest news headlines, read/post to a forum or search Wikipedia. The same applies to the MP3 player. It works and provides decent-quality background music through the small speakers, but don’t fire it up expecting to be wowed.

Last but not least is the Text to Speech function. This experimental feature actually works better than expected. It reads the text back in a computerized voice but does so with surprising clarity and proper enunciation. It is not as “sterile” and “robotic” as expected. It won’t replace audible and all those folks upset about this feature should not be concerned about book lovers opting for the Kindle audio version of a book over the audible version. The Text to Speech lacks the intonations, inflections and drama that a real person reading would bring to a book. Nonetheless, the Text to Speech is quite listenable and is a great accessibility feature to boot.

Overall Conclusion

Kindle 2 PROS:

  • Whispernet service makes book searching and purchasing a breeze
  • Kindle 2 is thin, well-balanced with a nice layout of buttons
  • QWERTY keyboard makes entering text easy and allows for features like note taking and web browsing
  • Text is crisp and easy to read with minimal glare and the screen refresh is quick
  • Navigation is easy and intuitive

Kindle 2 CONS:

  • Device is a bit long due to the presence of the QWERTY keyboard
  • Side buttons are a bit awkward to press as you have to push the inner edge and not the outer edge of the button
  • 5-way controller can be difficult to use
  • Cost is a bit prohibitive and you need to purchase a case asthe retail pack does not include one

Overall, the Kindle 2 is a gorgeous looking device that makes digital book reading a joy. For those looking to make the jump into the digital book reading experience, the Kindle 2 is an excellent choice and the experience it provides will be tough to match with a competitive reader. The price tag of $359 is a bit high, especially when you consider the extra $30 you’ll need to shell out for a cover. Never the less, the ability to have all your books on one device and new content accessible via a wireless connection is indispensible and lessens the sting of the high price tag. If you are an avid book reader and have the cash on hand, the Kindle 2 is definitely the way to go. Amazon did a fantastic job and while it might not live up to the hype surrounding its launch, it most definitely came a whole lot closer than we expected.

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