Amazon Kindle 2 | Review by Lance Ulanoff

The amazon kindle 2, a fair review.

by Lance Ulanoff  Editor in Chief, PC Magazine 

I want a Kindle 2. In fact, I’ve wanted a Kindle for almost a year now. The fever reached its height right around the holidays when I thought I’d buy my wife one. My attempts failed, but my techno lust for the device did not. When I heard about the new Amazon Kindle 2, I tried to ignore it. I was still smarting from Amazon’s rejection. Of course, in the days leading up to the Amazon Kindle 2 announcement, you couldn’t turn a virtual corner without stumbling over leaked information about the second-generation e-book reader.

Now, sitting at my desk after my first lengthy encounter with the new device, I realize just how much I want a Kindle 2, and you should, too. No, I’m not blind to the issues surrounding this product and the technology it uses. I still want it. To be fair, let’s look at all that’s good, bad, and ugly in this elemental, 21st-century device:

  1. It’s too expensive. In talking to friends and followers on Twitter I found that more than one would prefer a sub-$299 e-book reader. One even suggested a price of $199 (in yer dreams, buddy). Sony’s starts at $299 and it has a touch screen. I’m not sure why Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos insists on selling the Kindle for $359. Perhaps the funniest part of the press conference (which was pretty short on laughs) was when Bezos said that Amazon had a deal for Kindle 1 owners: If they ordered within the next 24 hours, they could jump to the front of the queue. There’s no discount or even an upgrade price, just the privilege of spending $359 a little bit faster. Gee, how thoughtful. Thing is, the Kindle really isn’t too expensive. Have you looked at the price of books lately? I’m talking about new books and best sellers. They’re still pretty expensive at Barnes and Noble. Even on Amazon, you’ll pay $15.39 for the Malcom Gladwell bestseller Outliers. Most e-books are $9.99 or less.
  2. Where’s the color? For now, commercial e-ink is still limited to gray scale. Amazon did bump up the technology from 4 to 16 shades of gray, which makes the photos a lot more detailed, but no amount of gray can turn a black and white face into flesh.
  3. The five-way joy stick is simply replacing one bad navigation metaphor (the scroll wheel) with another. I tried out the five-way navigation (it’s like what you find on some smartphones) and found it pretty intuitive though not perfect. The joystick felt a bit stiff under my thumb and because of the idiosyncrasies of e-ink, it’s not always obvious where you are on the screen. I wasn’t sure, but there also seemed to be a momentary delay between moving the joystick and the screen highlighting the next item. I actually wish Amazon would replace the joystick with something like a BlackBerry track ball (or glowing pearls).
  4. It only does one thing. One Twitter follower called the Kindle 2 “monotasking hardware.” I don’t mind single-purpose gadgets. My favorite digital camera really only does one thing very well. Yes, I also like the point and shoots that add video, but ultimately, I want a good camera that can help me take excellent photos. Video recording is just a nice extra. Plus, the benefits of the Kindle 2’s do-one-thing status—even at $359—are pretty significant. You’re not sharing storage for all kinds of content, so you can store 1,500 books on it. You’re not multitasking (watching for calls, downloading maps, mashing in GPS, etc.), so the hardware can apply all its processing power to your reading activities. The network, which is free to use, is dedicated to helping you download more content. If you finish a book, you simply download another one (as long as you’re within 3G wireless access, which you usually are). Also, the Amazon Kindle 2 may have one broad purpose—reading—but it lets you read a number of different content formats: books, newspapers, magazines, and blogs.
  5. It doesn’t always tell you what it’s doing. The Kindle 2 is easy to use. During the presentation, Bezos showed a video where one beta user said he never read manuals (who does?), and he had no trouble using the Kindle 2. I agree, for the most part. However, I did notice that the Kindle never tells you what it’s doing. When I selected the new Text-to-Speech feature, I waited about 20 seconds for the computer-generated speech to start. In that time, there was no visual indication of what the Kindle 2 was doing. I kept flipping over the device, and pressing my ear to the stereo speakers to see if maybe I just couldn’t hear it. When the speech abruptly started, it almost blew my ear out. If Amazon really wants to replace books with Kindles, there should be no surprises.
  6. It’s still too slow. Amazon sped up the Kindle 2’s page turning by 20 percent. I noticed the difference. The screen flash—a function of the e-ink refresh—was much faster than in the previous version. But, it’s still a bit slower than I would like. Plus, loading books and navigating menus was, in my opinion, at times too slow.
  7. It’s too fragile. This is a tough one. Nothing can replace the durability of a good-old-fashioned book. You can drop it, kick it, soak it (but not burn or tear it), and it will still be readable. The Amazon Kindle 2 is a complex piece of technology. Yet, it doesn’t feel flimsy at all. The screen is, of course, the primary concern, and I can understand that. I jam a lot of books and magazines into my backpack, along with my laptop. There’s a lot of pressure in there. Could a Kindle 2 hold up to that? I don’t know. However, if I had a Kindle 2, I’d be carrying half as many magazines and books. Problem solved.
  8. I can already read books on my laptop and iPhone. True. In fact, this past weekend I downloaded a $0.99 novella to my son’s iPod touch. The iPod book reader has gesture-based page turning and is pretty easy to read. However, it really doesn’t fit enough text on the page and I could feel my eyes strain as I stared too intently at that backlit screen. Likewise, I stare at a computer monitor all day. I really want my leisure reading to be far less visually stressful.
  9. Why no touch screen? As I held the Amazon Kindle 2, I had to fight the impulse to touch the screen and navigate and turn pages with gestures. This, too, is something the Sony Reader offers, as does, as noted, the iPod touch and iPhone. While my hope is that Amazon will address this shortcoming in the Kindle 3, this isn’t a deal killer. The Kindle 2 provides ample hardware controls on both sides of the screen—you can operate it right- or left handed (usually with just one hand).
  10. E-books will kill books, publishing, and reading. Bezos’s presentation featured testimonials from Kindle 2 users, saying that they read now more than ever. I buy this. I often leave heavy books and past issues of my favorite magazine (The New Yorker) at home because I simply can’t carry all of them. Plus, I only read what I have on hand. In addition, I tend to end up in the same sections at Barnes and Noble, buying the same kinds of books over and over. I can imagine that the Kindle, with its instant access to a vast number of books (over 230,000) would expand my reading horizons. As for the Kindle killing books or publishing, I think I have to side with author Stephen King (who gave a reading of his new Kindle-inspired novella at the event). He said, “E-books and books are not in conflict. They’re like peanut butter and chocolate. When you put them together, you have a whole new taste.

So, yes, there are many reasons to dislike the Amazon Kindle 2, but as I see it, the benefits still far outweigh the disadvantages. Trust me, you’re going to want a Kindle 2.

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