Hands-On With the Amazon Kindle 2

Hands-On With the Amazon Kindle 2

Critical design changes make the Amazon Kindle 2 more appealing than the preceding model--but while Amazon has succeeded in enhancing its e-book reader, it has done little to advance the device to the next stage.

The first-generation Kindle weighed 10.3 ounces and offered a paperlike E-Ink display that keeps eyestrain at bay (as compared with the backlit displays of cell phones and other mobile devices). The first Kindle was readable in sunlight; it also offered long battery life and allowed you to look up words on the fly, as well as to take notes and highlight passages at will.

The Kindle 2 retains all of those capabilities, in a slimmer form (it's 0.36 inch thin). I appreciated the thinner profile: The new device felt better in my hands, and I could see that it would be easier to pack alongside the other devices in my gear bag. At just 10.2 ounces, the device's weight is virtually the same as before.

Enhanced E-Ink Screen

The 600-by-800-resolution screen is the same size, measuring 6 inches; but now, packing the latest E-Ink technology, it gives you 16 shades of gray versus the 4 shades available on the original Kindle.

The improved screen technology is somewhat noticeable on text--I found text on the Kindle 2 slightly crisper and clearly tighter, with less ink-like bleed-in to the virtual page behind it. But the real difference was evident in images, which had far greater gradations. The background of the screen itself has changed, too: Before, the screen appeared to have a slight texture, almost like newspaper, but now the surface is completely smooth. As for the purported speed boost (pages supposedly turn 20 percent faster), I can't say I noticed more than a subtle difference between Kindle 1 and Kindle 2 in turning pages. (I was not using identical content, though. When PC World receives a review unit, I plan to put the Kindle 2 through more-detailed comparisions.)

Design Changes

Aside from the screen, the Kindle 2 packs a slew of design changes. The power switch moves to a more convenient location at the top of the unit (previously it was on the back--an awful place for a power switch). But the handy wireless off switch, which was also on the back of the first Kindle, is gone entirely; now you must turn off the wireless radio in the Home menu (annoying for us frequent flyers who will do so far too often). The volume buttons are no longer on the bottom of the device; instead, the rocker switch is at the right spine.

The navigation keys have been completely redone, too. At left are Previous and Next buttons, with the former half the length of the latter; at right are a Home button and another Next button. The Next button ran the length of my thumb, and it was comfortably situated in relation to where my hands rested while holding the device at its midsection.

I can't say the same, unfortunately, about the new five-way navigation joystick. In my brief hands-on, the joystick felt stiff and awkwardly placed relative to where my hand was for the paging buttons. The scroll wheel moved much more smoothly; I've used other joystick designs that operate more smoothly than the one on the Kindle 2.

As for the menu interface, though, I preferred the new device's approach: No longer do you have an awkward column on the right of the screen, with a sliver of silver denoting which line you're about to select. Now, the E-Ink screen technology's speed is fast enough to enable the joystick to move through options directly on the screen, highlighting your selection as you go along. Huge improvement.

The keyboard has been completely redesigned, to more closely resemble what you find on a cell phone with a QWERTY keyboard. I found the circular keys easy to press and incredibly handy. In my brief usage, the closer spacing worked better than the angled spacing and more-rectangular keys of the Kindle 1.

Some Kindle Features Added, Others Missing

One addition is speech-to-text capability. This feature, powered by technology from Nuance (makers of Dragon Naturally Speaking) and accessible either via a menu option or a keyboard shortcut, offers two digital voices--Tom and Samantha--and up to 3X reading speed, in case you're fast-forwarding. The voices are clearly computerized but tolerable; I could see using the feature in a pinch, such as if you're following a recipe or needing to be lulled to sleep.

The Kindle 2 now powers up from USB--a boon for all of us who hated carrying an extra charger with the original device. The mini-USB port at the bottom works not only for power but also for allowing the Kindle 2 to act as a USB mass-storage device, in the event you want to drag and drop files to the handheld.

Regrettably, Amazon has ditched the SD Card slot; instead, you get 2GB of on-board storage (a typical audiobook ranges from 40MB to 80MB, while a typical Kindle book ranges from 700KB to 800KB, per Amazon's own estimates). Amazon claims that the Kindle 2 will hold over 1500 books. Your book selections are stored in the cloud on Amazon's servers, so if you ever have to erase something to free up space on the unit, you can redownload books later as needed.

You don't get a case anymore, either. Instead, the Kindle 2 has two holes on its right edge; those holes allow the unit to snap into any of a selection of third-party cases. The design effectively creates a hinge, which makes handling the Kindle 2 easy. Amazon's no-frills leather case will sell for about US$30.

Another drawback is that Amazon hasn't changed the device's file handling. That means you still have to go through the awkward conversion process of sending a file (such as a PDF or a Word document) to yourself if you wish to view it on your Kindle.

At least that leaves Amazon room for improvement on the Kindle 3.

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