Like the iPhone 4S is merely an update to the insides of the iPhone 4, the Kindle Keyboard 3G is simply an evolution of the Kindle 3G that was released last year. It sports the same physical QWERTY keyboard, 6-inch E Ink screen, and soft-touch finish. In fact, if you have a Kindle 3G, you can upgrade the software and people will think you have the latest Kindle. But it's the features inside that software update--combined with new features Amazon has rolled out over the last year--that make this device newsworthy.
Now you can lend books to other Kindle owners, borrow books from your local library, rent textbooks, easily toggle the voice guide feature on and off, and download your archived personal documents on your eReader. Plus, you can use Whispersync to automatically keep your personal documents up to date across devices, and, of course, read books, magazines, and newspapers on the easy-on-the-eyes screen. So how do these features affect our impressions of Amazon's top-of-the-line eReader?
Right down to the graphite paint job and soft-touch back coating, Amazon's Kindle Keyboard 3G looks identical to the Amazon Kindle 3G. At 7.5 x 4.8 x 0.3 inches and 8.7 ounces, the Kindle Keyboard 3G isn't as small or light as its little brothers--the Touch and ad-supported base Kindle--or the Nook Touch. But that's because of the QWERTY keyboard that sits beneath the 6-inch E Ink display.
The On/Sleep/Off slider is on the bottom--not the most convenient, but it's only a minor annoyance--along with the microUSB port, headphone jack, and volume toggle. The buttons on the sides and lower portion of the device's face are streamlined.
The page turn buttons are only 0.2 inches thick. We had feared that the narrower buttons would affect ease of use, but all four are firm but easy to press, making for good feedback and a sturdy feel. Next and Previous Page buttons are on both sides, so both left- and right-handed readers can use their dominant hand. The Next Page buttons remain elongated, allowing users to rest their thumbs comfortably without blocking any text.
User Interface and Keyboard
The interface looks and acts nearly identical to what was on the previous generation Kindle. Most of the changes, such as library lending and textbook rentals, happen in the Kindle Store, not on the device. And other changes, such as adding real page numbers to books, would otherwise go unnoticed. The most recent update just makes your device better able to handle those features once you access the store.
You can update your existing 3G by updating your device's software to version 3.3. The update happens automatically when connected via Wi-Fi. If, for some reason, you have trouble with the automatic update, you can download it to your PC, plug the Kindle Keyboard 3G in via USB, and drag-and-drop the file.
The small, round keys responded well when we searched for bestsellers in the Kindle store, and typing notes was a cinch. We found the physical keys refreshing in an eReader market flush with touchscreen keyboards.
The joystick of Kindles past has been replaced with a directional pad that sits next to the keyboard. The arrow keys are very narrow, and occasionally caused us to accidentally hit the Menu and Back buttons, which have moved down to the keyboard area along with Home.
Display and Reading Experience
Reading books is clearly the Kindle's main purpose. 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. Side by side, the devices' screens looked identical. Just as with a paperback book, outdoor reading was a delight, and direct sunlight didn't distract us from reading Dead Reckoning by Charlene Harris.
While still only black and white, images appeared clear and crisp. A photo of Tawakkol Karman from The New York Times clearly portrayed her joy at winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
As before, there are eight font sizes and three typefaces (regular, condensed, and sans serif). Users can also fit more text on a page by shortening the space between words, as well as condensing the amount of space between the lines. There's no built-in accelerometer, but you can manually change the screen orientation in all four directions.
The electronic page turns took just a second and exhibited minimal flickering. We couldn't detect any difference in page-turn speeds between the Kindle and the Nook.
On thousands of bestsellers, Amazon has conveniently added the ability to tell you what page you're reading in the physical book, which will come in handy for book clubs and school reading assignments. To find your book's "real" page number, click the menu button and the numbers appear at the bottom of the screen. This feature worked on eight out of 11 books from our library.
The Kindle supports non-Latin characters for those who prefer to read in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Russian.
To help keep the price competitive, the Kindle Keyboard 3G doesn't show book covers as a screensaver. Instead, you'll see special offers after your device has been inactive for 10 minutes, and ads line the bottom of the home screen at all times. However, they weren't distracting or intrusive to our actual reading experience.
Wireless and Whispernet
The Kindle Keyboard 3G still offers 3G connectivity through AT&T--a.k.a. Whispernet--but also includes 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and free access to AT&T hotspots around the country. Whispernet works globally, so users can download content even if they're travelling abroad. By default, the device uses its 3G connection, but once users connect to a wireless hotspot, the Kindle will automatically switch whenever it's in range.
On our wireless tests, the Kindle Keyboard 3G proved faster than the Kindle 2. Downloading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (a 545KB file) took 16 seconds, the Federations anthology (717KB) took 15 seconds, and How To Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier (443KB) took 10 seconds. Overall, the Kindle Keyboard averaged a speed of 336.8 Kbps over Whispernet.
With the Wi-Fi on, we downloaded a copy of the King James Bible (4,491KB) in 7 seconds, Jane Austen's Persuasion (315KB) in 2 seconds, and Warchild by Karin Lowachee (644KB) in 3 seconds, for an average of 2,703.2 Kbps.
With 4GB of internal storage, the Kindle can hold up to 3,500 books--and with more than 1 million options, Amazon certainly offers enough content to max out that space. In fact, Amazon boasts more than 800,000 titles for less than $9.99. And we had no trouble locating all of the top 10 hardback fiction books on The New York Times' bestseller list, including A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin.
To help avoid reader's remorse, Amazon lets you download and read the first chapters of a book for free. Amazon also offers a daily discount on a specific book.
Students can rent Kindle textbooks for 30 to 360 days. Eligible titles say Rent This Book on the product detail page. 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. If your book rental expires, you can still access your notes and highlights from your Kindle account online.
Introduced in January 2011, Kindle Singles are meant to be short and interesting bits of content, such as essays and short stories that cost as little as $0.99. TED Talk transcripts can be found here as well.
Amazon added a helpful organizational feature called Collections, which effectively creates folders of content. This could be useful for separating books by topic, as you would do for a college course or your personal bookshelf. We easily created a Collection for our Sookie Stackhouse books, and then added three from our library by checking them off and clicking Add.
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. You can attempt to re-loan it out later. Right now, publishers determine which titles are eligible for this feature.
Kindle Newspapers & Magazines
Users can also subscribe to periodicals, such as USA Today and San Francisco Chronicle, starting at $5.99 per month. Most are available for free as a 14-day free trial. Our copy of The New York Times downloaded automatically. Magazine subscriptions for 130 titles, such as Readers' Digest, Shape, and Time, start at $1.29. New issues arrive in an abbreviated and text-heavy format. You can also get updates throughout the day from your favorite blogs, such as ESPN, Gizmodo, and TechCrunch, most for $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/kindle, you'll find directions for how to load these books on your device based on where you find your books online. Options include archive.org, gutenberg.org, manybooks.net, and openlibrary.org. We picked up The Time Machine by H.G. Wells from openlibrary.org by simply clicking the Send to Kindle link on the site. It was then downloaded to our Kindle in about a minute when we connected the device via Wi-Fi.
The Kindle can now connect to more than 11,000 libraries in the U.S. for borrowing eBooks for free. Those eBooks retain all the fun Kindle features such as notes, highlights, and last page read. 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. A 10-page, 23KB Word document arrived in less than 3 minutes when we e-mailed it to ourselves. Transfers over Wi-Fi are free, but using a 3G connection will cost you $0.15 per megabyte from inside the U.S. International document transfers via 3G costs $0.99 per megabyte. Fees are rounded up to the next whole MB. 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 Keyboard 3G can read periodicals and books to you, as long as the publisher allows that. 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. Or, now Kindle Keyboard 3G users can quickly turn this feature on and off by holding the Shift key and pressing Spacebar.
You can transfer MP3 music files to play on your Kindle by connecting the device to your PC via USB.
Thanks to Amazon's partnership with Audible.com, you can also listen to up to 60,000 books as read by authors and actors. Listening to Ken Follett's Fall of Giants: The Century Trilogy read by John Lee sounded as good through the headphone port as when we listened via the Audible app on our smartphone. Sound from the two speakers on the back of the Kindle Keyboard 3G was clear and crisp, even while the eReader was flat on a table. An Audible subscription starts at $14.99 per month, which earns you one free credit each month (most Audible books cost one credit). New purchases will be added to your Amazon account automatically, and you can download them from your archives to your device from the Menu.
Notes & Dictionary
Highlighting important passages is possible, but it requires using the five-way controller with its tiny square of buttons. Even better, you can see what other Kindle readers think are important passages. When you come to such a section, you'll see an underline beneath the text with a small annotation showing the number of users that selected this sentence. You can turn this feature off in the device Settings.
By using the QWERTY keyboard, we were able to add notes to text easily. You can edit, delete, and export your notes, too. And now, Whispersync will keep your place in personal documents across Kindle apps and other devices.
When we encountered the word "sangfroid" in Dead Reckoning, we simply moved the cursor in front of the word and the included New Oxford American Dictionary offered up a brief explanation at the bottom of the page. Highlighting the word pulled up a full definition.
As with the previous Kindle, you can post on Facebook or tweet your favorite quotes of what you're reading. On the final page of a Kindle book, Amazon invites you to share your thoughts on that book via Twitter and Facebook. You can rate the book and let everyone know you've finally finished War and Peace.
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's settings.
While not a gaming device, the Kindle is compatible with some games, many of which can be downloaded for free. We tried out Thread Words, a Boggle-like word game, and Dots and Boxes, which reminded us of Go. Both were diverting for a few moments, but won't keep you engaged for hours at a time.
Web Surfing and Searching
The new WebKit browser is an improvement over previous versions, but it still isn't as seamless as the surfing experience on the iPad. Users still have to hit Next Page to scroll down a page, which isn't intuitive. Still, multimedia-heavy sites such as Nationalgeographic.com look mostly as they should; even the rotating feature art at the top refreshed on a regular basis and the complex style sheet rendered as a users would expect. We still wouldn't user this browser for anything but quick searches, but at least the experience is no longer as tedious.
Using the Search feature on the 3G Kindle Keyboard, you can quickly search your library, the dictionary, the Kindle store, Wikipedia, or all of the web for any term.
Want to protect your device from prying eyes? You can set a password to unlock the device from screensaver mode. Using the physical keyboard, we found this an easy way to keep others out of our business.
Options and Accessories
The Kindle Keyboard 3G costs $139, but you can shave $40 off the price if you opt to go without 3G access. Since you do have free access to AT&T hotspots and you keep Wi-Fi connectivity, this is a very compelling option, and the one which we would recommend. For $189, you can get an ad-free version of the Keyboard, but at that point, we'd rather spend $60 more to get the Kindle Fire with its full-color screen and access to Android apps.
There is a whole world of Kindle Keyboard cases available from Amazon.com, but the most useful might be the $49.99 Kindle Lighted Leather Cover (available in nine colors). This book-like cover snaps shut with an elastic band and includes a Kindle-powered reading light that stows away when not in use.
Amazon claims that the Kindle Keyboard 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, we noticed a loss of about one-eighth the battery life.
Between library lending, friend-to-friend lending, social sharing, access to more than 1 million pieces of content, and a full QWERTY keyboard, the Kindle Keyboard 3G brings a lot to the table. While it's not a new device in the strictest sense, the Kindle Keyboard 3G is a sturdy, useful, and enjoyable eReader that we would readily recommend to friends and family who want an E Ink eReader. However, we'd recommend the ad-supported, Wi-Fi-only model for just $99.