By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, February 24, 2009 at 6:10 pm
A really good idea with some clever touches and multiple obvious flaws. That was the critical consensus on Amazon.com’s original Kindle e-book reader when it debuted in November of 2007–here’s my review–and it left the kingpin of online retailers with a pretty obvious to-do list for the second-generation Kindle.
That new and improved model–the $359 Kindle 2–is here, and it’s rife with evidence that Amazon was paying attention. Critics said the first one was chunky and homely; the 2009 model is both thinner and slicker. You only needed to use the Kindle 1 for a few minutes to discover that it was way too easy to press its page-turning buttons by mistake and unwittingly fast-forward through a book; with the Kindle 2, accidents are far less likely to happen. Many people panned the first version’s odd split keyboard for being weird, or argued that the gadget shouldn’t have a keyboard at all; the new one keeps the keyboard, but it’s no longer distractingly peculiar.
Just as important, Amazon has kept just about everything that wasn’t broken in the original Kindle–most notably its superb wireless book delivery, which sends your purchases so quickly and seamlessly that stocking up on e-books is irresistable. (The wireless capability involves no service cost, and books tend to cost much less than hardcovers, helping to compensate over time for the gadget’s initial cost.) Amazon now offers almost a quarter-million books, plus magazines, newspapers, and blogs; it’s still a bit of a gamble whether any particular item you’re looking for will be available in Kindle format, but your odds are far better than with any other e-book option (including Sony’s Reader).
Order a Kindle 2, and you’ll get a compact shipping box (smaller than the ones most of my Amazon dead-tree books come in) that contains the device, an instruction manual, and a power cord:
The AC adapter is an improvement on the one that came with the first-generation Kindle; the power plug is more trim and wall-friendly, and you can pop it off to use the cable as a USB charger. On the other hand, the first Kindle came with a cover and the new one doesn’t. But given how woefully inadequate the first one was–it tended to slip off if the device was jostled inside my briefcase–that’s not a huge omission. Still, I’d be inclined to buy one of the optional covers Amazon hawks (starting at $25) to ensure that my Kindle 2 didn’t get roughed up in transit, and hope that they improve on the original cover’s design.
The Kindle 2 retains a familial resemblance to its predecessor, but nearly every specific detail of its design is different. Here are front, back, and side views of the two Kindles–that’s the new guy on the right:
Kindle 2 is a bit taller than its ancestor, but the most striking change to the form facter is how much thinner it is–Amazon shaved away much of the device’s thickness by embedding 2GB of memory (rather than providing an SD slot) and sealing up the battery. The first change isn’t an issue, since 2GB is enough for 1500 books; the second might be a pain if your Kindle’s battery life dwindles to the point where you need to ship the reader back to Amazon for a battery swap. On the upside, Amazon says the new battery runs 25% longer on a charge than the old one–four days with the wireless turned on, or two weeks with it shut off.
Not a radical departure from the first Kindle, and still pricey–but lots of little improvements add up to by far the most highly-evolved e-reader to date.
In the box: Kindle 2, power adapter/USB charger, manual.
(Full disclosure: Technologizer receives a commission on sales made through the links in this article.)
The first Kindle had a wedgy shape that was thicker on the left side–presumably in imitation of a real book’s binding–and a rubbery back. The new model is uniformly thin, and most of its backside is brushed metal; it’s impossible to glance at it without mentally comparing it to an iPod. I never found the dimensions or feel of the Kindle 1 to be a problem, but the new model is unquestionably slicker, and it’ll fit into my bursting-at-the-seams briefcase more easily.
Then there’s the Kindle’s E-Ink screen–which is either one of its highlights or greatest disappointments, depending on your perspective. The device’s remarkably long battery life is all due to the minimal power requirements of the monochrome screen, which isn’t backlit and draws a charge only when you turn the page. Amazon touts the technology as “read(ing) like real paper,” and many folks praise it for doing away with the glare and eyestrain of color LCDs such as those built into laptops and phones.
Me, I wasn’t enthralled with the first-generation Kindle’s display. Its dark-gray-on-gray look doesn’t remind me of real paper, and it needs plenty of light to be legible. (The Kindle is a near-perfect gizmo for the beach, but on planes I’ve found I need to precisely aim my overhead light at the screen.) And the Kindle 1’s screen only offers four shades of gray, which left photos looking like they were done on an Etch-a-Sketch.
The Kindle 2 incorporates an improved E-Ink display. It’s not a radical departure from the first one, and doesn’t address all my gripes. But the contrast is better enough that I notice and appreciate it, and it sports sixteen shades of gray. That’s not enough to make photos pleasing, but it assures that they’re legible, at least. Here’s a boyhood photo of a noted comedian from his memoir (it looks a bit crisper in real life, but still feels more like a simulation of a photo than a photo.)
Amazon says that the new E-Ink screen refreshes pages 20 percent faster than its predecessor. It’s still sluggish enough, however, that I’m sometimes uncertain whether the Kindle has noticed I’ve pushed a button. The user interface of the new reader has been completely redone, and is mostly an improvement: The page-turning buttons only click on their inner edges, not the outer ones, so you won’t flip through a few dozen pages by mistake when you pick the device up or put it down. And the Kindle 1’s eccentric menu system, with a thumbwheel and an elevator-like cursor in a separate window, has been discarded for a five-way joystick and an on-screen cursor that remind me of the controls on a garden-variety point-and-shoot camera. I’m still getting used to it, but it’s reasonably intuitive and permits a new feature that lets you highlight and save text from any book.
And oh, did I mention that E-Ink doesn’t require much power? Just to prove the point, Amazon ships the Kindle with its screen turned on and a welcome message on the display. It’s going to be a very long time before anyone can accomplish that feat on a phone, MP3 player, or laptop.