Amazon's Kindle family finally includes an eReader with a touchscreen. No, we're not talking about the Fire, but the Kindle Touch 3G, which uses infrared sensors to enable finger input on a crisp E Ink display. New features such as the Kindle Owners' Lending Library for Amazon Prime members and X-Ray are also intriguing additions. But, at $149, is this version worth the splurge?
Simple would be the best word to describe the Kindle Touch 3G's design. Its gray face is a shade lighter than the non-touch Kindle, which we found kept our eyes better focused on the screen.At 6.8 x 4.7 x 0.4 inches, the Kindle Touch is more rectangular than the Nook Simple Touch (6.5 x 5 x 0.5 inches). The Kindle Touch and Nook Simple Touch both weigh 7.5 ounces, but the 3G version of the Kindle Touch is 0.3 ounces heavier. We found the Touch 3G easy to hold in either hand for extended periods of time.
Along the bottom of the screen is a home button made up of four horizontally stacked lines, which doesn't indicate "home" to us. The On/Sleep/Off button sits on the underside--only a minor inconvenience--along with the microUSB port and headphone jack. Two speaker grilles, which put out crisp but soft audio, line the bottom of the backside.
What makes the Kindle Touch 3G truly different than its Kindle cousins is the lack of physical buttons in favor of an IR-based touch interface. Two thin sensors sit along the sides of the screen, and when your finger interrupts the infrared beams, the device registers a touch. This is the same method used by the Nook. Other than the physical home button, everything is done via touch, including device navigation, page turns, note taking, and searches.
The familiar-looking home screen is organized in the same manner as other Kindles: a simple text list of content, which can be sorted into collections, by title or author, or by date added. By comparison, the Nook home screen is much more graphically appealing, thanks to the use of thumbnail book covers.
At the top of the Kindle Touch 3G home screen is a new tool bar that includes a back arrow, a search box with a drop-down Menu, and a Menu button. This Menu gives you the options to search your device, the Kindle Store, Wikipedia, or the built-in dictionary.
Smartly, the Menu options change based how you're using the Touch 3G. On the home screen, the Menu pop-up includes options for archiving content, creating collections, and syncing the device to look for new content. Inside of a book, the Menu button pops up options for turning on/off wireless, shopping the Kindle store, syncing the book to the furthest point read, bringing up a book description, adding a bookmark, viewing notes and marks, and turning on/off the text-to-speech feature.
Within books, the navigation system, called EasyReach, separates the screen into three basic regions. Tapping the top of the display launches tool bars at the top and bottom of the screen. Tapping the far left of the display turns to the previous page, while tapping anywhere else moves the content forward. To turn pages, you can tap either side of the screen, or swipe from left to right. Swiping from top to bottom (or visa versa) jumps from one chapter to the next.
Once we understood how EasyReach worked, we found it easy to use and responsive, but we had to read the user guide first. We would have preferred to have physical buttons as an additional option, like Barnes & Noble offers with the Nook Simple Touch.
There are a ton of hidden features in the Kindle Touch, if you know where to look. For instance, long-pressing on a title on the Home screen displays a thumbnail of the cover and a menu of options, including sorting that book into a collection, jumping to a specific spot in the book, reading a book description, and viewing notes.
Tapping the top part of the screen from inside a book also launches a bottom tool bar for customizing the font, jumping to a specific place, or syncing to the furthest point read. Beneath this tool bar, Amazon now displays the matching page number in the physical book to the one you're currently reading, but this feature only works in some eBooks.
Also available in some eBooks, the Sync button in the bottom tool bar is replaced with the new X-Ray feature. X-Ray offers information you might find in Cliff Notes, such as how often and where in a book a specific character or term might appear. In Heat Wave by Richard Castle, touching the character Matthew Starr's name in the X-Ray window brought up a brief description of the character, along with the option to find out more on Shelfari. Beneath that was a listing of each page and passage where he appears in the story.
Selecting Shelfari inside X-Ray opens the browser to Shelfari.com, so you'll need to be connected to the web. As Amazon's online social reading community, this site offers user-generated descriptions of books, characters, reviews, and readers' favorite quotes. It's like Wikipedia for eBooks.
Overall, the X-Ray feature, which worked on four out of five books in our library, was interesting. However, unless you're writing a term paper, we're not sure how useful this feature will be for casual readers. And for the crime novel lover, X-Ray gives away some of the mystery of the story.
The Kindle Touch supports non-Latin characters for those who prefer to read in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Russian.
Keyboard & Ads
We found the on-screen keyboard much easier to use than the one on the base Kindle model which requires the directional pad. When you touch the search box at the top of the home screen, for example, small white square keys appear on a black background toward the bottom of the page. Pressing a key causes it to blink black for a brief moment. There is a good deal of space between the keys, but we were able to type as accurately on the Kindle Touch 3G as on our myTouch 4G Slide smartphone's touchscreen. We did notice some lag when we went too fast for the device.
At the bottom of the unit's home screen, Amazon discretely presents advertisements. You also get ads as a screensaver instead of the traditional book covers. Types of offers vary from half off at a local spa to an ad for the Amazon.com Rewards Credit Card. We were not bothered by the ads, and found the offset well worth keeping $40 in our pocket. If you are interested, you can see more offers by selecting the Menu button from the home page and clicking View Special Offers.
Display and Reading Experience
Reading books, even in direct sunlight, is a pleasure on the Kindle's screen. The 6-inch E Ink Pearl display, with a 800 x 600-pixel resolution at 167 ppi, is comparable to what's found on the Nook. Cartoons in The New Yorker were reproduced well. However, illustrations of warriors on horseback in Sun Tzu's Art of War weren't as crisp as we'd like.
There are eight font sizes, three typefaces (regular, condensed, and sans serif), and options to shorten the space between words and space between the lines. You can manually change the screen orientation in all four directions.
Electronic page turns took just a second on the Kindle Touch, and it exhibited minimal flickering. We couldn't detect any difference in page-turn speeds between the Kindle Touch 3G and the Nook Simple Touch.
Wireless and Whispernet
Unlike the Barnes & Noble eReader, the Kindle Touch 3G offers 3G connectivity through AT&T--a.k.a. Whispernet--but it also includes 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and free access to AT&T hotspots around the country.
Via a 3G connection in midtown Manhattan, the Kindle Touch 3G downloaded The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (a 985KB file) in 15 seconds and Heat Wave by Richard Castle (354KB) took 9 seconds. With Wi-Fi on, the same books downloaded 15 and 6 seconds, respectively. These speeds were on par with our experience using the Nook Simple Touch.
With 4GB of internal storage, the Touch 3G can hold up to 3,000 books. Amazon boasts more than 1 million titles with 800,000 for less than $9.99. We found all the top 10 hardback fiction books on The New York Times' best seller list.
Amazon lets anyone download and read the first chapters of a book for free. But if you subscribe to the Prime membership service (One month free trial followed by $79 per year), you can borrow from among 5,000 books, including more than 100 current and former New York Times best sellers. You only get access to one book per month, but there are no due dates. Some big-name options include Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
Students can rent eligible Kindle textbooks for 30 to 360 days. When you select the end date, the price is displayed. Buying the book later only costs the difference between the purchase price and rental cost. When a rental expires, you retain access to your notes and highlights.
Amazon, like Barnes & Noble, lets users lend some Kindle books to other Kindle or Kindle app users. Eligible books--those marked as Lending Enabled on the product details page--can be lent for up to 14 days. Recipients have 7 days to accept, or the book is returned to your archives.
Kindle Newspapers & Magazines
Kindle Touch owners can subscribe to periodicals, such as USA Today and San Francisco Chronicle, starting at $5.99 per month with the Kindle Touch 3G. Most titles are available for free as a 14-day free trial. Magazine subscriptions for 130 titles, such as Shape and Time, start at $1.29. Updates from your favorite blogs, such as ESPN, Gizmodo, and TechCrunch, cost $0.99 per month.
Outside the Amazon ecosystem, the Kindle supports PDF, unprotected MOBI, and PRC eBook formats. That means you can load any of millions of free, out-of-copyright books. At Amazon.com/kindletouch, you'll find directions for loading books from archive.org, gutenberg.org, manybooks.net, and openlibrary.org.
One of our favorite sources for free eBooks, the public library, is now accessible from the Kindle Touch 3G. eBooks from 11,000 local institutions retain Kindle features such as notes and highlights. And when your eBook checkout expires, you can check it out again or buy it from the Kindle store. When you buy the book, it preserves all those notes and bookmarks.
You can add Doc/DocX, PDF, TXT, RTF, HTML, JPEG, GIF, PNG, and PNG files of your own to your Kindle via e-mail, as long as the files are 50MB or less. Transfers over Wi-Fi are free, but using the 3G connection will cost you $0.15 per megabyte from inside the U.S. Or you can plug the microUSB cord into the device to drag and drop files from your PC for free.
With the Text-to-Speech feature, Amazon's Kindle Touch 3G can read some periodicals and books to you. Your spot is saved when you switch back and forth between reading and listening. Text-to-Speech will also read menu options aloud if you turn on the Voice Guide feature in the Settings menu.
You can transfer MP3 music files to play on your Kindle by connecting the device to your PC via USB.
Amazon's partnership with Audible.com brings Kindle owners access to up to 60,000 books as read by authors and actors. Downloading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett from our Amazon account (which was automatically linked to our Audible account) took a couple of minutes over Wi-Fi. Listening to John Lee's smooth narration sounded just as good through the headphones as when we listened via the Audible app on our smartphone. Audible subscription starts at $14.99 per month, which earns you one free credit each month (most Audible books cost one credit).
Notes, Share, and Dictionary
Highlighting important passages is more convenient on this Kindle than on the base model and the Kindle Keyboard, because it only requires your finger--not a tiny d-pad. You simply press and hold, then slowly drag your pointer finger over the text you want. When you release, three buttons appear in a pop-up that allow you to Highlight, Add Note, or Share. Clicking Add Note brings up a blank box and the keyboard, with options to Delete, Cancel, or Save your thoughts. Once you select Save, a footnote number appears at the end of the highlighted text.
The Share feature connects to your social networks, allowing you to link to a passage within the book. In Twitter, the service automatically adds the hashtag #Kindle to the message, and in Facebook it pulls up a thumbnail image of the book's cover. We did miss the physical keyboard when typing notes or sharing passages, because our hunt-and-peck typing was error-ridden.
We did like that we could see in a book exactly what other Kindle readers think are important passages. When you come to such a section, an underline beneath the text displays a small annotation showing the number of users who selected this sentence. You can turn this feature off in the device Settings.
On the final page of a Kindle eBook, Amazon invites you to share your thoughts on that book. You can also rate the book.
Public Notes is another way to connect with your fellow readers. By visiting kindle.amazon.com, you can search for and follow other Kindle readers. As long as they have Public Notes enabled on their device, when they make a note you'll see the passage highlighted along with their name. You can turn this feature off in the device Settings.
When we encountered the word "gesticulating" in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, we long-pressed on the word to bring up the New Oxford American Dictionary definition in a pop-up box with the option to get the full definition or highlight, note, or share the word.
While not a gaming device, the Kindle Touch 3G is compatible with some games, both free and paid. Thread Words, a Boggle-like word game, was diverting for a few moments, but it won't keep you engaged for long periods of time.
Web Surfing and Searching
The Experimental WebKit browser shows stripped-down web pages, and it requires a Wi-Fi connection. When you click in the URL bar, the keyboard pops up. We appreciated the dedicated www. and .com keys. Loading the graphically heavy mobile version of National Geographic took 6 seconds, but the photos looked pixelated.
Options and Accessories
The Kindle Touch 3G costs $149, but you can shave $50 off the price if you opt to go without 3G access. That's the version we would recommend for most buyers. For $189, you can get an ad-free version of the Kindle Touch, but we don't think the ads are that intrusive. Amazon also offers a base Kindle for $79, which lacks a touchscreen. Or you can get physical buttons on the Kindle Keyboard starting at $139, but that doesn't have a touchscreen either.
There is a whole world of Kindle Touch cases available from Amazon.com, which radically range in price and style, starting as low as $19.99. You can also purchase a USB-to-wall power adapter for $9.99 from Amazon.
Amazon claims that the Kindle Touch 3G will run for two months on a single charge with wireless off and up to 10 days with wireless on. If you read for one hour a day with wireless off, you should get a month of battery life. With 3G on and an hour of use for three days, our Kindle Touch lost only about one-eighth of its juice.
It might not have the buzz of the Fire, but Amazon's other touch-enabled eReader has plenty going for it, too. The $149 Touch 3G has anywhere connectivity, a great E Ink screen, and innovative features such as X-Ray. Still, we prefer the Barnes & Noble Nook Touch, which has a more intuitive interface and physical page-turn buttons (though it lacks a headphone jack). Plus, even though they're not a big deal, you don't have to put up with ads on the Nook. But if you believe that touch and 3G access is the way to go, the Kindle Touch 3G is the eReader for you. It's pocket-friendly, easy on the eyes, and offers tons of ways to get content.