Slimmer, faster, smarter: The Kindle 2 is a worthy sequel to Amazon’s first ambitious digital-reading device. It still offers lightning-fast wireless downloads of thousands of available titles in less than 60 seconds but boasts a design that’s thinner than the iPhone 3G, an improved E-Ink display, an integrated dictionary, and enough storage to hold 1,500 books. Plus, you can subscribe to magazines, newspapers, and read your favorite blogs.
On the other hand, the text-to-speech feature pales in comparison to traditional audiobooks, and Amazon still doesn’t stock many popular titles like the Harry Potter series. And although prices for books are cheap at $9.99 a pop, $359 is a lot to ask for an e-reader when you can get a netbook PC for the same price. Nevertheless, the Kindle 2 is worth the splurge for heavy readers.
While you may not think of e-books as fashionable, you’ll change your mind when you hold the Kindle 2. It’s much more slender than the original. At just 0.36 inches thick, it’s almost twice as thin as the first Kindle and weighs a similar 10.2 ounces. The Kindle 2’s 6-inch E-Ink display offers the same 600 x 800-pixel resolution, but it has an improved 16 levels of gray scale, up from 4 levels.
The brushed-aluminum back of the device contrasted with its white face makes the Kindle look like an Apple-designed product—which is a compliment. In our hands, it felt more like a premium slate than an awkward, big plastic device like the original Kindle. On the previous Kindle, you could remove the back to access the battery and the memory card. While the Kindle 2 ditches the memory card slot, it can also store 7 times the amount of books that the original could (more than 1,500).
The Next Page keys are now smaller and inward-facing to prevent the accidental page-turning issue that was prevalent on the first Kindle. The added Home button gives quick access to the home screen, instead of having to search for the small Home icon on the keyboard. Two stereo speakers now sit on the rear of the device and a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top.
The scroll wheel has been replaced by a stiff but usable five-way controller. We preferred the scroll wheel on the first Kindle for quickly scrolling through pages instead of having to push down repeatedly, but the new controller allows for more precise movement. You can also use it to highlight text and look up words.
A new QWERTY keyboard with rounded keys is a pleasant addition to the new Kindle, which you can use to create notes, search, enter Web addresses, and more. The space bar is comfortably front and center instead of off to the left like before.
Content Selection and Whispernet
More than 240,000 books available (up from 90,000 when the first model launched) for the Kindle, including 103 of the 110 New York Times’ Best Sellers. Hugely popular books, like the Harry Potter series, are still missing, as are some titles from authors such as John Updike. Books range in price, but new releases are typically $9.99.
The Kindle 2 runs on Sprint’s 3G EV-DO network, called Whispernet, which means you don’t need a PC to load it up with content. The integrated Internet connection enables users to download books on the go, even in places with no Wi-Fi coverage, like in a car, for example.
You can manage your Kindle 2 remotely by logging into www.amazon.com/manageyourkindle. Here you can add subscriptions, resend books to your device that you have paid for, or transfer them from one Kindle to another. (There are rumors that Amazon will enable Whispersync on other devices, such as the iPhone, but the company hasn’t revealed any specific plans for the technology going forward.)
Buying and Reading E-books
We fired up the Kindle and bought a copy of Dave Eggers’ What Is The What and Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency. Both books took only 15 seconds to download. Everything you purchase is sent to the main home screen, which lists the texts you have available. When we launched What Is The What, it popped up on the E-Ink display in about 2 minutes. We noticed a percentage bar at the bottom of the page indicating how far into the book we were.
Text looks noticeably crisper on the Kindle 2. If you looked closely at the original Kindle, you could make out lots of tiny flecks, and the screen almost had a smudged look to it. The new Kindle has the same gray background but the smudged look is gone. Images look sharper and more detailed. The 16 levels of gray scale add a lot of detail to pictures. For example, the front page of the New York Times looks much more photorealistic, rather than a sketch made with a graphite pencil.
Reading the Kindle 2 over two days of commuting was a pleasure. The display doesn’t induce headaches or eyesores like a computer monitor would; the text is, instead, crisp yet soft and reminiscent of a page in a book. Just keep in mind that the Kindle 2 was designed to be used with ambient light; there’s still no built-in backlight.
While you’re reading, you can change the size of the text by clicking the Aa button. Pages turn in less than a second, which Amazon claims is 20 percent faster than before. Though it’s barely noticeable, the screen still flickers. My Clippings, on the home screen, displays your typed notes and favorite clippings from books and places them in an organized page view with the date you read the book and the time you made the note.
If you click Menu inside a book, you can choose to turn off wireless to save battery life, shop in the Kindle store, view the cover, or jump to the table of contents. You can jump to the beginning of the book or a specific location, bookmark a page, add a note or a highlight a passage, or read a description of the book. These items appear under the aforementioned My Clippings section, which you can access from the home screen.
Blogs, Magazines, and Newspapers
You can also subscribe to magazines, newspapers, and blogs for a monthly fee. New partnerships include The New Yorker, USA Today, and technology blog Gizmodo.com.
Currently, 22 magazines are available; you can purchase single issues or pay for a subscription. Subscriptions cost anywhere from $1.25 to $3.49 per month. A single issue of The New Yorker costs $1.99 while others, like Newsweek, are just .49 cents. A subscription to The New Yorker will set you back $2.99 per month while Newsweek costs $1.49 per month.
The 31 newspapers available are sorted by country (U.S., China, France, Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom; the International Herald Tribune is also available under “International.”). Like the magazine option, you can choose to buy a single issue or a subscription; subscriptions range in price between $5.99 and $14.99 per month. The New York Times, for example, costs 75 cents for a single issue or $13.99 per month. The Wall Street Journal, by contrast, also costs 75 cents, but a monthly subscription is a cheaper $9.99. If you purchase a subscription, new editions are sent automatically overnight or whenever you reactivate the Wi-Fi.
We downloaded The New York Times to check out the newspaper experience. Thankfully, ads are not included. The list of sections, which included Arts, International, and National, was convenient; it let us skip around the paper efficiently. Clicking the Next Page button each time we wanted to read further down the page felt a bit disorienting at first.
Blog subscriptions start at 99 cents, and 1,280 blogs are available to choose from. The Amazon store doesn’t let you subscribe to blogs for free—as you would with an RSS feed on your phone—so you may want to take advantage of the free Web browser for accessing your favorites where an EV-DO connection is available. We subscribed to BoingBoing.net for $1.99 per month (a free 14-day trial is included). Once you’ve subscribed to a blog, the title shows up on your home screen; click it to display the first post. Selecting View Articles List below the post brings up a list of the latest articles published by that blog. You can’t view videos on the Kindle 2.
If you hover over a word while you’re reading, the Kindle 2 automatically searches for it in The New Oxford American Dictionary (which includes more than 250,000 definitions) and displays the definition at the bottom of the screen almost instantly. To view a larger definition of a specific word, press the Enter key on the keyboard; press the Back key to return to the text. This feature is handy and minimizes distraction while reading.
A brand new feature called Text-to-Speech will read the text on any page out loud to you either through the speakers or through the top-mounted 3.5mm headphone jack. The idea is that this function could let you enjoy content when you have your hands full, say, while driving.
You can choose between a female and a male voice by selecting the Aa key. Choose from three speed options: slower, default, and faster. Default sounds the most normal; slower sounded like the voice is speaking underwater and “faster” sounds too jumbled.
Overall, the voice feature sounded too robotic. When using this feature for reading a book, the emotion and context of the story was utterly lost. Text-to-Speech didn’t work very well in a fairly dry New York Times article about the economy, either. The pace of the voice seemed inconsistent; it spoke some words quickly and others slowly, so sentences sound like words strung together out of context.
Web Browsing and Music
Clicking Menu on the home screen and selecting Experimental will bring you to a page of prototype services, which includes the aforementioned Text-to-Speech reader as well as an MP3 player and a free Web browser. We loaded the text-only BBC News page in about 8 seconds and appreciated the formatting. Just as with digital newspapers, though, to scroll farther down the page, you have to hit Next Page instead of just scrolling down. The multimedia-heavy NationalGeographic.com homepage loaded incorrectly but included links for the main story categories. The Kindle 2 isn’t meant to be a Web-browsing device, however, so we’ll forgive its mediocrity.
If you like the idea of listening to music while you read, the Kindle 2 makes transferring songs to the device relatively simple. Unplug one end of the Kindle 2 cable from its small power adapter and plug it into your PC. We transferred two Radiohead tracks over to the device and played them back using the MP3 player. Audio sounded much better than we expected: Music played loud and clear through the Kindle 2’s two speakers.
Amazon assigns each Kindle a dedicated e-mail address, so you can send Word, TXT, HTML, or PDF files to it. Unfortunately, Amazon charges 10 cents for each conversion if you decide to have it sent directly to the Kindle 2 over Whispernet. We suggest transferring docs from your computer to the Kindle for free, especially since Amazon doesn’t guarantee that complex PDF’s will format correctly.
Our review unit came with Amazon’s own leather cover, but it will cost you $29.99. Still, we highly recommend getting a cover since the display may get bumped around or scratched by keys inside a purse or backpack. The Kindle 2 leather cover was very attractive, and the new hinge locks tightly. If you press a small button on the hinge, it will release the device from the cover.
With a full charge, Amazon claims the Kindle 2 will last 4 to 5 days with wireless turned on. With EV-DO off, however, the Kindle 2 should last more than 2 weeks, or 25 percent longer than the first Kindle. We will update this review after we’ve tested those claims, but we can confirm that after many hours of usage, including 2 hour-long train commutes, the battery meter didn’t budge. Unfortunately, the battery cannot be removed by the user and must be replaced by Amazon.
The Kindle unit itself costs $359, and best-seller books are $9.99 each. If you read ten hardcover books a year, at roughly $17 each, then you would spend $170 on books. Those same ten books would cost you $99 on the Kindle on top of the device’s price. At that rate, you would save $71 per year with the Kindle 2, but it would take almost 5 years to make up the $349 cost of the Kindle 2 itself. But that’s just if you’re reading books.
If you decide to subscribe to The New Yorker as well, which costs $39.95 per year in print or $35.88 per year with the Kindle, then you’re saving both a few bucks and the environment. If you tack on a New York Times subscription to your monthly Kindle 2 bill, then you’ll be paying $167.88 per year, compared to $487.60 for a print subscription. (However, you won’t get bonus features like the crossword.)
Over time, you’ll certainly save money using the Kindle 2, especially if you do more than read books, but the true value of the device lies in having all this content available in a single, lightweight device. However, for some it will be hard to overlook the value to having hard copies of content to share with friends and family.
The first Kindle was a little too bulky for our tastes, but the Kindle 2 is a vast improvement both in terms of usability and design. Amazon is missing many popular books, and its magazine selection is a bit thin at the moment, but overall, content selection is quite good, and there’s certainly plenty of space for storing a massive library on this sleek device. The bottom line is that—if you can afford it—the Kindle 2 looks great and works well.