Hands On With Amazon's Zippy, Alluring Kindle
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; 12:19 AM
It didn't take long to realize that this Kindle was unlike any other I'd handled before--including the new Kindle DX (Graphite). Maybe 20 seconds, tops. Never mind the obvious giveaways--smaller size, less wasted real estate around the edges, new button design, new color. As soon as I took it in hand, I knew that this Kindle marked new territory. The third-generation Kindle comes in two versions: The Kindle Wi-Fi costs $139, while the Kindle (as Amazon calls it) has both Wi-Fi and 3G and costs $189, the same as what the 3G-only Kindle 2 cost previously.
For the first time, I could comfortably hold a Kindle e-reader in one hand. At 8.7 ounces, the Kindle is not the lightest such device on the market--the Kobo eReader, which also has a 6-inch display, is nearly one ounce lighter; and the Bookeen Cybook Opus is lighter still, at 5.3 ounces. But the Kindle is lighter than Barnes & Noble's Nook (11.6 ounces for Nook Wi-Fi, 12.1 ounces for Nook Wi-Fi + 3G). And the new Kindle is 15 percent lighter than its predecessor (which weighed in at 10.2 ounces); between its lighter weight and its more compact design, I could immediately tell that using the third-generation Kindle would be a more pleasing experience than with earlier models. The unit felt very balanced in the hand, and the buttons felt like they were in convenient, ergonomic places (more on that in a moment).
What's notable is that Amazon achieves its design improvements even while adding features (notably, Wi-Fi) and boosting the screen technology.
The new Kindle looks vastly different. For starters, it now comes in graphite, like its big brother, as well as in white; in my experience, the darker border enhances readability, as would be expected given the visual perception a dark border provides. But the display itself is dramatically better: Like the Kindle DX (Graphite), the Kindle now has a 6-inch E-Ink Pearl display, which boasts faster refresh rates and 50 percent better contrast. As on the Kindle DX (Graphite), blacks look more solid, and text is smoother.
The physical design is smaller, too--by 21 percent, according to Amazon. If you look at the numbers alone, it doesn't feel as if that much has been shaved off: The new model measures a stout 7.5 by 4.8 by 0.34 inches, versus the 8 by 5.3 by 0.36 inches of the Kindle 2. But the difference felt more dramatic when holding the device (an act also made easier by the rubberized backing).
To achieve this smaller design, Amazon has essentially trimmed the white space around the bezels, so that the device is now dominated by its 6-inch screen, although there's still enough room around the edges for your fingers to comfortably rest. The keyboard has been tightened, with the keys slightly closer, the row of numbers removed (to get to numbers, you now have to press the symbol button, much as you do on a touchscreen cell phone's keyboard). The navigation buttons have been clustered together and rearranged; and more notably, the page-forward and -back buttons have shrunk dramatically, to just one-quarter of an inch wide.
Indeed, all of the buttons have been redesigned on the new Kindle, to great effect. The screen is now flanked by simple forward and back buttons, mirrored in size and shape, and denoted by arrows, as opposed to words (as on Kindle 2). By having these buttons on both sides, the Kindle is especially handy for both left- and right-handed users.
One of the things I disliked about the Kindle 2 was that the page-forward and -back buttons depressed inward, into the screen. The much slimmer buttons for this third-generation Kindle now depress away from the screen, like a rocker-style button that melds into the edge of the device. I prefer this approach, as my finger didn't need to hover in a single place to turn the page; instead, I could mix up my hand location, and still turn the page with my palm heel, or even the length of my thumb--a vastly superior experience.
The keyboard buttons are more rounded, and as they're closer together, I found this keyboard easier to type on than that of the Kindle 2, and typing was more akin to what I'm used to on a physical cell phone keyboard.
As already noted, the navigation buttons are completely overhauled. The Home button has moved to the bottom of the keyboard, and the joystick navigation cluster of the Kindle 2 has been replaced by a D-pad-like approach with a five-way navigation square, with an oval Menu button above it and a Back button beneath it. In my limited use of the new unit, I found this organization easy to adapt to, and certainly better than the comparatively stiff joystick. I look forward to trying a shipping unit for a longer period to see how well the navigation works in practice.
Speaking of navigation, it's noticeably faster. I could breezily scroll through menu items with practically no lag; previously, I'd have become frustrated by the sluggish responsiveness of the Kindle 2 (never mind competitors like the Kobo, which is interminably slow). Page turns are 20 percent faster, too; based on my limited hands-on, that stat translates into a more zippy experience, but again, the full impact will be more obvious when I get to use the device for hours, not minutes.
Though e-reading on the device overall remains unchanged, Amazon has added some new and noteworthy features. For the first time, you can change line spacing (choose between small, medium, and large), and you can finally change typeface (choose from regular, condensed, and sans serif). While I would have like to see some other options, and see the names presented in sample text, much like how the font-size options are presented, I'm glad to see Amazon add the ability to change fonts, since that's a feature that Nook and most all LCD-based e-readers have had for some time.
Like the Kindle DX (Graphite) and the updated Kindle 2, this Kindle supports sharing passages via Facebook and Twitter. It also supports viewing popular highlights (aggregated from the data of what passages Kindle users are sharing). Uniquely new for this Kindle: a WebKit-based Web browser. The browser is still classified as experimental, but it provides a better experience than before.
The new Kindle doubles the internal memory from 2GB to 4GB, which Amazon says translates into 3500 books (up from 1500). Amazon now claims Kindle has up to one month of battery life; the company says its battery technology hasn't fundamentally changed, but rather it has achieved double the performance of Kindle 2 through software. And the 3G wireless continues to be delivered with no contract via AT&T.
In my limited hands-on time with the new Kindle, this gadget made an unusually quick, and positive, impression. While I need to spend more time with it to confirm my initial impressions, the new Kindle's solid build quality, improved design, integrated store, and cross-platform transportability (books are usable on any Kindle reader app, including iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry, and PC) all add up to a winner poised to top the pack.