Amazon has offered budget e-readers for years, but its newest Kindle now sports a touch screen, double the on-board storage and pretty zippy performance. Plus, with Amazon's outstanding parental controls--as well as its massive library of e-books--this $79 e-reader deserves a spot on your shopping list.
Click to EnlargeLacking the soft touch feel and rounded corners of the $119 Kindle Paperwhite, the $79 Kindle definitely feels cheaper than its more expensive Amazon relatives. A sizable black plastic bezel surrounds a recessed touch screen on the front, and the sides are relatively flat and unadorned. However, the slanted edges on its back make the Kindle comfortable to hold.
The only button on this e-reader is the power button on the bottom. Gone are the page-turn buttons that used to edge the sides of the Amazon Kindle; instead, you now use the touch screen to flip back and forth.
A microUSB port, used to charge the device, is the only port. There's no audio jack--no big loss--but I would have appreciated a microSD card slot for additional storage.
The 6.7 x 4.7 x 0.4-inch rectangular Kindle felt hollow. However, at 6.7 ounces, it's just a hair heavier than the 6.5 x 5 x 0.42-inch Barnes & Noble Nook GlowLight's 6.2 ounces. The 6.7 x 4.6 x 0.4-inch Paperwhite weighs 7.3 ounces.
Click to EnlargeThe Kindle sports the familiar 6-inch screen common to most e-readers, but the pixels aren't quite as dense as more expensive models. Similar to every base-model Kindle since 2010, this year's model has a pixel density of 167 ppi with 16-level gray scale. By comparison, the Kindle Paperwhite and the Nook GlowLight have densities of 212 ppi.
When viewed side by side with the Kindle Paperwhite, the same passage from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn looked bolded on the Kindle. The Paperwhite was distinctly sharper and looked more like a paperback book than either the Kindle or the Nook GlowLight
The Kindle's touch screen was responsive and sensitive. In fact, in side-by-side testing with the Paperwhite and Nook GlowLight, the Kindle was faster at turning pages by a fraction of a second.
Unlike the Paperwhite and the Nook Glowlight, the Kindle lacks backlighting. In a dimly lit restaurant, the Kindle's screen was harder to read than a menu.
Inside a book, Amazon offers the same eight font sizes and seven fonts that are available on its other e-readers. You can pick between three margins and line-spacing options, too.
Click to EnlargeFor previous Amazon e-reader owners, the Kindle's interface will look pretty familiar, and is as easy to navigate as always. Once you swipe past the ad-based lock screen (the $99 Kindle is ad-free), the home screen displays thumbnail images of the covers of books you've recently read. The top bar has icons for home, back, shopping, search, Goodreads and settings. This navigation bar follows you into books and periodicals.
Just below, you can toggle between your Amazon library of content in the cloud or what's on the device. You can sort this content by type, title, author and most recently received. The second row of thumbnail images shows book recommendations. You can swipe across either row to advance the lists' content.
The menu button reveals options to shop, view ads, change to List View, create a content collection, check for new items, tweak the settings and open the browser. Within a book, the same menu also allows you to read book or author descriptions, switch to landscape mode, sync to the furthest page read, bookmark and open notes. Within a periodical, this bar allows you to "Clip This Article" for reading later.
The menu button also houses a couple new additions. FreeTime is Amazon's parental controls, extended even to e-readers. You can create profiles for up to four children, which allows you to block access to the Kindle store, Web browser, Wikipedia and social sharing.
Click to EnlargeThere are no physical page turn buttons on the Kindle, but you can turn the pages on the device with a touch or a swipe of the screen. As with previous Amazon e-readers, however, you have to tap the correct part of the screen to get the appropriate response. The majority of a page is dedicated to paging forward; a narrow bar along the left edge flips back. Another narrow strip at the top opens the navigation window. Once I got the hang of it, it was easy enough to remember.
Vocabulary Builder not only lets you look up words, but saves them in a list for later reference.
Press and hold over a word, and a pop-up window appears with options for Dictionary, X-Ray and Wikipedia. At any point you can tap Vocabulary Builder from the menu and test yourself (or your child) with flashcards.
X-Ray, which offers a CliffsNotes-like experience of a book, is still a unique feature to Amazon. We can see how those writing college papers would appreciate knowing at a glance how often and where in a book a specific character or term might appear. For example, using X-Ray when reading Winter of the World by Ken Follett, I could easily see that mentions of Nazis dominate much of the book that covers the World War II era.
Amazon plans to roll out an update later this fall that will add even more functionality. Word Wise is targeted at those who are learning to read, such as children and non-native English speakers. When turned on, this feature will automatically display very short and simple definitions above difficult words. You can adjust how the device determines difficulty by moving a slider.
Family Library solves one of my biggest gripes since the beginning of e-readers; how to share content across a family. Coming soon, you'll be able to link to adults' accounts. That means you'll have access to your e-books as well as your partner's.
As with previous generations, the on-screen keyboard of the Kindle features small square keys; tapping one causes it to blink black for a moment. The predictive typing helped compensate for errors created by my fat fingers, but the typing lag is still noticeable, so don't expect to leave detailed messages or notes.
Click to EnlargeNot only does Amazon offer millions of books, newspapers and magazines, but it's also home to a huge library of exclusive titles (600,000). Amazon has doubled the storage space on the Kindle to 4GB, which is the same as on all its other e-readers, as well as the Nook GlowLight. Of course, Amazon also offers unlimited online storage for your library.
Among the most recent top 10 e-book fiction bestsellers, as listed by the New York Times, Amazon offers the best prices, with an average of $10. Barnes & Noble charges $10.47 and Kobo e-books will cost an average of $12.19.
Amazon also offers more than 1 million titles for $4.99 or less and millions of out-of-copyright books for free. Anyone can download and read the first chapters of a book for free via Amazon's Sample feature. But if you subscribe to the Amazon Prime membership service (a one-month free trial followed by $99 per year), you can borrow from among hundreds of thousands of e-books. You get access to only one book at a time, but there are no due dates.
With the Kindle Matchbook feature, you can purchase Kindle editions of Amazon print books you purchased as far back as 2007, for $2.99 or less. Also, Amazon now offers a Kindle First program where you can access one e-book a month ahead of its official release date. For Prime members this is free; otherwise, it costs $1.99 per month.
Amazon, like Barnes & Noble, lets users lend some Kindle books to other Kindle or Kindle app users. Eligible books -- those marked as Lending Enabled -- can be lent for up to 14 days. Recipients have seven days to accept, or the book is returned to your archives.
Outside the Amazon world, the Kindle supports TXT, PDF, DOC, DOCX, MOBI, PRC and HTML formats. That means you can download any of millions of free, out-of-copyright books from such sources as archive.org. The Kindle can also read JPEG, GIF, PNG and BMP image files.
Public libraries are also accessible from the new Kindle. E-books from more than 10,000 local institutions retain Kindle features such as notes and highlights. And when your e-book checkout expires, you can check it out again or buy it from the Kindle store.
Click to EnlargeDespite it having been around for years, the Amazon browser on its e-readers is still considered "experimental." It requires a Wi-Fi connection and is very bare-bones. From the home page Menu button, you're presented with a page of bookmarks that includes Amazon, Google.com, Yahoo and NYTimes.com. It look 7 seconds to load Laptopmag.com, 16 seconds to load NYTimes.com and 10 seconds to load ESPN.com. We wouldn't recommend using this browser for real searches, as it was buggy, crashing twice. But, it will do if you're in a pinch and very patient.
According to Amazon, the Kindle should last for up to four weeks on a single charge. That's based on a half hour of reading per day with wireless off. That's half the time promised by the Amazon Paperwhite and the Nook GlowLight.
At $79, the Kindle is the least expensive of Amazon's handheld devices, but it still offers the enormous selection of content and impressive features that you'll find on any of its other e-readers. While the Kindle lacks backlighting--which will make reading in the dark practically impossible--this e-reader boasts a touch screen and speedy page turns. I wish its battery lasted longer, but overall the Kindle is a great pick for any bookworm on a budget.