Editor's note: the RRP listed is in US dollars and is subject to fluctuations in the current exchange rate between the US and Australian dollar. The price is also listed minus postage.
Just as Apple's iPod wasn't the first MP3 player, Amazon wasn't the first company on the block to release an ebook reader, but it's hard to argue that the online retailer's Kindle isn't the iPod of the ebook reader market. The Kindle has helped usher the ebook reader from gadget curiosity to a burgeoning mass market device, all in less than three short years. And now after finally being available in Australia for almost one year and amid a much more competitive market, Amazon is debuting the third-generation Kindle.
The first thing you should know about the "Kindle 3" is that it's more evolutionary than revolutionary. Most importantly, Amazon has made its 6-inch e-reader smaller and lighter, and it has improved the screen.
In fact, this Kindle comes in a couple of versions, one with both Wi-Fi and 3G wireless for US$189, and a Wi-Fi-only version that costs US$139. Each version is available in graphite or white and — on top of the more compact design — some other key additions include more memory (4GB instead of 2GB) and double the battery life (four weeks instead of two weeks with the wireless turned off).
Here's a rundown of the key specs:
- 6-inch E Ink display
- 21 per cent smaller than previous Kindle
- 15 per cent lighter (247 grams)
- like the new Kindle DX, screen offers better contrast
- faster page turns (we confirmed they are slightly faster; Amazon says 20 per cent)
- 4GB built-in memory (stores around 3500 ebooks)
- improved battery life (up to a month with the wireless turned off)
- smaller page-turn buttons that are also quieter (clicking noise is nearly silent)
- up to four weeks of battery life from sealed-in battery (wireless turned off)
- new "experimental" WebKit-based browser works better than previous browser, especially using Wi-Fi
- expanded text-speech options. New text-to-speech-enabled menus allow you to navigate the Kindle without having to read menu options. You can not only listen to books aloud (certain ones, anyway), but also content listings on the home screen, item descriptions and all menu options
- new built-in PDF reader, with new dictionary look-up, notes and highlights, and support for password-protected PDFs
- no cover is included, but Amazon sells two covers.
Clearly, one of Amazon's primary goals was to make the device smaller and more pocket- and purse-friendly so that users would be more apt to see the Kindle as an everyday gadget they can carry around with them at all times. We can say that Amazon has certainly achieved that, and the device, at least when held without a cover, feels lighter and more comfortable in your hand and easier to hold for longer periods.
The new Kindle is 21 per cent smaller and 15 per cent lighter than its predecessor. (Credit: CBS Interactive)
Though the Kindle offers some additional functionality beyond reading, Amazon has been careful to market it as a "purpose-built reading device" in order to contrast it with the multifaceted Apple iPad, which features a backlit touchscreen LCD instead of an E Ink screen.
That E Ink screen is both the Kindle's strength and weakness. On the upside, the latest Kindle's display looks really good. When compared side by side with the older Kindle, the letters appear slightly darker and pop a little more (Amazon has also optimised the fonts so letters appear sharper). It's not a huge difference, but it's noticeable. Turning "pages" is also considerably faster. (There's still that somewhat jarring photo negative look when doing so, however).
The other upside to E Ink displays is that they aren't backlit, which not only is supposed to reduce eye strain but it also allows you to see the screen — better, in fact — in brightly lit environments, including direct sunlight. By contrast, the iPad is hard to read outside because its LCD gets washed out in direct sunlight and the glass covering the screen is reflective and creates glare issues.
The Kindle's screen can be toggled from portrait to landscape mode — particularly useful for certain PDFs and websites — but the process requires manually accessing the menu. By contrast, it's an automatic feature on the Kindle DX or iPad, thanks to their built-in accelerometers.
At night, however, you have to have a light source to use the Kindle, which is part of the reason why Amazon has designed an optional protective cover (none ships with the unit) that includes a retracting LED light that's brilliantly designed. The slim light draws power from the Kindle and tucks away into the case (at first glance, you don't even know it's there). The only downside is it's expensive at US$59.99, but we have to say, we really liked it.
Amazon also sells a US$34.95 protective case and plenty of third-party companies make nice covers and lights for the Kindle. But just factor the price of a cover into your purchase because it's not a great idea to carry your Kindle around naked. Like the iPhone, the Kindle is prone to serious injury when dropped from moderate heights to a hard surface (eg, a concrete footpath).
In shrinking the Kindle, Amazon has made some noteworthy changes to the button design. Most are good; for instance, the new page-turn buttons on each side of the device are smaller and make only a muffled clicking sound when you depress them (that's important if you're reading while someone is trying to sleep in bed next to you).
Amazon has also modified the joystick-like main navigation button and moved it lower and integrated it into the more tightly spaced keyboard where the Enter key on a computer keyboard would typically be. This makes a lot of the sense, and the new four-way navigation button is fine, but we did find that the back button and menu buttons are a little too close to the up/down portions of navigation button. As a result, we sometimes ended up accidentally hitting the back or menu button, and we expect that users with larger fingers will have to take extra care when using the navigation button. We also have a feeling some folks will miss the older nub-style button.
Aside from those button adjustments, very little has changed in terms of the overall experience of using the Kindle. Yes, there's now Wi-Fi on board, and it also offers a faster connection for browsing the Kindle Store and browsing the web using the new "experimental" WebKit browser.
The combination of Wi-Fi and the new browser makes for better surfing, but it still remains a somewhat sluggish, less than fluid affair. The browser's more usable overall, and more web pages will display properly formatted. But using the navigation button to jump from link to link on a web page can become a little tedious. And we didn't have much luck logging into our Yahoo or Gmail webmail accounts. (In fact, the Gmail attempt locked up the browser, and forced us to do a soft reset.) But the browser does work well enough for those times you need to log-in to a password-protected Wi-Fi access point or click on a splash screen in order to jump online.
As we said, the E Ink screen is both the Kindle's strength and a weakness. Though Amazon has improved the page-turn speeds and made the device feel slightly zippier, E Ink still exhibits some latency and using a four-way button to navigate menus can seem weird after playing around with your touchscreen smartphone all day. Perhaps that's why using a Kindle gives you the odd sensation of using a futuristic device that also feels somewhat archaic at the same time. The same cannot be said for the iPad (which, admittedly, is far more expensive).
For version 3.0 of its Kindle firmware, Amazon has enhanced the text-to-speech capabilities of the device, extending it to the menu system (some publishers allow the text-to-speech feature to be enabled in their books, some don't). The device also appears to have a built-in microphone near the USB connecting port at the bottom, where you'll also find volume buttons; yes, the Kindle has two small speakers on the back and you can play MP3 audio as you read. However, the microphone is currently disabled, though that hasn't stopped some blogs from speculating that Amazon may someday add voice note-taking, Skype calling capabilities or even voice-recognition features.
Another recent addition to the Kindle world is games. There are only a handful so far, but it could be a precursor to a wider app store that may someday be available on the Kindle.
The device is not particularly good for viewing PDF files (the iPad is much better for that), nor does it support the industry standard ePub format. Having the latter format would be useful because some libraries have begun lending ebooks in the ePub format, and there is a wealth of free public domain books available from sources such as Google Books. That said, Amazon offers more than 4000 free public domain books for the Kindle including many of the most desirable classics, so the lack of ePub compatibility shouldn't be a stumbling block for most users.
In addition to its lack of ePub compatibility, there are a few other Kindle shortfalls. The Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader is not yet available in Australia, but it illustrates quite a few features coming out on next gen e-readers that the Kindle doesn't offer. For instance, Nook has a lending feature that allows Nook owners to "loan" an ebook (on those titles for which the publisher OKs it) to fellow Nook owners. Each title can only be lent once, and the loan period is only two weeks — but, at present, there's no comparable feature on the Kindle.
The Nook's other advantages over the Kindle are its user-replaceable battery and expandable memory. Again, however, the latter issue really isn't a big factor for two reasons: the Kindle's 4GB of memory will hold around 3500 books, and — even if you need to make room for other files, such as music or PDFs — you can always re-download ebooks you've previously purchased from Amazon for free in less a minute.
Some people also like the Nook's colour touchscreen for viewing book covers and navigation, but its inclusion does affect battery life and we should note that the Kindle's four weeks of rated battery life with the wireless turned off is currently tops for e-readers.
The Kindle can access books on other devices, however. Buy a book on the Kindle, and you can also access it on the Kindle app on iPad, iPhone/iPod Touch, Android phones, BlackBerry phones, Windows PCs and Macs. So, should you ever trade up to an iPad — or nearly any other popular OS — you should still have no trouble accessing the books you've purchased previously. (By contrast, ebooks purchased in Apple's iBookstore are currently only available on iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch.)
All in all, we really didn't have any serious gripes with the new Kindle. There are those out there who would like to see Amazon ditch the built-in keyboard and trim the device down even further and some folks are still waiting to see the Kindle drop to US$99 or less before they buy one. (Barring a major price war, it's probably not going to happen in 2010, but with e-reader prices falling the way they have, a US$99 Kindle in 2011 seems quite possible.)
If you're trying to determine whether you need a 3G connection or not, we can see how it would come in handy for frequent travellers who like the idea of being able to access an ebook store at a moment's notice. Though free Wi-Fi hot spots are becoming more widely available, they certainly aren't ubiquitous yet.
But if you're the type of person who doesn't need instant access to the store at all times (or wherever you can get a data connection), you'll probably be fine with just a Wi-Fi connection. For instance, you could buy five or six books at a Wi-Fi-enabled airport lounge before departing on a long vacation.
In the end, much as Apple tends to do with its mobile devices, Amazon has simply taken an e-reader that was already good and improved it. Those improvements aren't so great that it will make owners of the second-generation Kindle feel bad about what they've already bought. But if you're already a Kindle fan, you'll most likely be tempted to pawn off your older model on a friend or family member and purchase this model.
And, if you're new to the whole e-reader game, US$139 or US$189 may not be dirt cheap, but it's a whole lot more reasonable than the US$399 that the Kindle cost when it first came out in late 2007. At these prices, we can actually say the latest Kindle is a solid value for readers looking to make the jump to ebooks.