Friday, February 27, 2009

Amazon Kindle

In association with Amazon, buy the Amazon Kindle 2 and all its accessories at Amazon Kindle 2. Read a review of the new Kindle here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Amazon Kindle 2: Review

Product summary

The goodThe good: Slimmer and sleeker looking than the original Kindle; large library of tens of thousands of e-books, newspapers, magazines, and blogs via Amazon's familiar online store; built-in free wireless "Whispernet" data network--no PC needed; built-in keyboard for notes and navigation; a faster processor speeds up the device; with 2GB of internal memory, it's capable of storing 1,500 electronic books; font size is adjustable; improved battery life; displays image files and plays MP3 and AAC audio; compatible with Windows and Mac machines; new Text-to-Speech feature allows you to have text read aloud.

The badThe bad: No expansion slot for adding more memory or accessing files; files such as PDFs and Word documents aren't natively supported, and need to be converted at 10 cents a pop by Amazon; no protective carrying case included; battery is sealed into the device and isn't removable; hardware and content is still too expensive.

The bottom lineThe bottom line: While it's still short of perfection--and has a price tag that's too high--the Amazon Kindle 2 offers a range of improvements that makes it the best overall e-book reader we've seen to date.

Price range: $359.00

CNET editors' review

  • Reviewed on: 02/24/2009

Editors' note: This review is based on our first hours with the Kindle 2. We'll be updating our impressions of the unit--including information on battery life, features, and performance--in the days and weeks ahead.

There's been a lot of anticipation about what Amazon would do for an encore to its much-hyped e-book reader, the Kindle, and now that it's finally here we can say that the Kindle 2 is about what we expected it to be. Talk of it being a huge leap forward or going from generation one to generation five in one fell swoop was really, well, just talk. In reality, the Kindle 2 is a nice upgrade over the original Kindle; yes, it leaves off a couple of key items--most importantly removable memory and a protective carrying case--but it makes up for it with a slicker design, improved performance, increased internal memory, built-in speakers, and a new feature, Text-to-Speech audio reading.

The Kindle 2 is thinner--it measures a svelte 0.36 inch at its thickest point--and weighs 10.2 ounces. For the record, it's not the thinnest mainstream e-book reader. That distinction belongs to the Sony PRS-505, which comes in at 0.3 inch thick (the PRS-700 is 0.5 inch thick).

One thing that hasn't changed much is the height and width of the new Kindle. 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.

The keyboard
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.

The Kindle 2's keyboard is an improvement over the one found on the original--though some will question the need for it at all.

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.

The screen
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.

The e-ink screen delivers 16 shades of gray and offers user-adjustable font sizes.

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 between the Kindle 2 and other e-book readers 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 (sorry, overseas readers, there's no word yet on a European or Asian version of the Kindle).

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 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. At the time of this writing, 31 Kindle newspapers are available for download, including 7 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.

Aside from the 1XRTT support, Amazon hasn't made any other changes to Whispernet, though it did make one important 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 press the Alt and Home keys in tandem. That's an improvement, as well.

Both Kindle devices now include a new feature called Whispersync (the internal software on your original Kindle should have automatically updated itself to access the new feature). 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. The word is this feature will eventually apply to other wireless mobile devices (read: perhaps the iPhone), though no details were given at the launch.

Additional features
What else is new? Well, Amazon has upgraded the processor in this model, so the screen refreshes about 20 percent faster 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're still testing the battery and will add our results to the review when we're done).

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 (this would come in handy if you were driving, for instance). 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.

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 Micro-USB 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 Micro-USB 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.)

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 Micro-USB 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 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 interface
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 Reader. 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's worth noting that the Sony PRS-700 allegedly has the same processor as the Kindle 2, so they should run at very similar speeds.)

While we're comparing the Kindle 2 to the Sony PRS-700, 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-700, you can zoom in and out on PDFs. 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.

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 $359, 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.

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.

Of course, many people think $400 is a lot to pay for an e-book reader. We agree and would like to see the Kindle 2 come in at $299 and, ideally, at less than that. 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 simply 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.

Kindle 2: Amazon's New Wireless Reading Device (Latest Generation)

Kindle 2: Amazon's New Wireless Reading Device (Latest Generation)

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