My first experience with a device with features similar to the Kindle was a Handspring Visor. Via the separate offerings of AvantGo and MobiPocket I was able to get my daily dose of news (from the likes of The New York Times and USA Today) in addition to reading my first eBook ever. ("The Hound of the Baskervilles" for anyone who cares.) Every time I synced my Visor with my (parents') computer, AvantGo would update any feeds to which I was subscribed, assuming something new had been published. Meanwhile MobiPocket offered me many free books to choose from, and a wealth of books at various prices should I happen to have a credit card. (I didn't.)
Strangely enough, the Kindle seems to be very similar to the very setup I had on my Visor, minus the PIM features. Gone is the touchscreen as well, but added are a hardware keyboard and wireless modem. All-in-all, this would sound like an extremely capable hardware platform, assuming content distribution is as painless as possible. Seeing how Amazon is the name behind the product, that worry is easily laid to rest.
Does Amazon have the next big thing or is the eBook idea destined to never take off? Do they have what it takes to capture the market or will Apple swoop in and dominate the field? (Thanks to my delaying of completing this review, I now have the ability to compare the Kindle 2 to the iPad.) Let's dig in.
The designers of the original Kindle seemed to have drawn inspiration from a bunch of different locations and then attempted to combine them all into one. The device featured a very usable e-Ink display, handy keyboard, and a unique LCD-strip with jog-dial for navigation. The device was made mostly of white plastic and had good build quality with the thickness roughly equaling that of a paperback. While quite impressive from a technical standpoint, the original Kindle was plagued by a variety of interface problems. For starters, the Next Page / Previous Page buttons were far to easy to be depressed. Coupled with extra-large buttons essentially comprising the entire right-hand side of the device, and the annoyance here was amplified significantly.
The jog-wheel-LCD combo seemed (and in some ways, still seems) a great method to solve the issue of navigating multi-hundred page books. But it also served little purpose other than itself, and took up a significant amount of usable space (at least in a visual sense). The whole device was very angular and brought to mind images of the PCs of old... big off-white boxes that were hideous to look at and a pain to lift and move about. The gray leather backing with stamped typography on the rear of the device was, as anyone could tell you, dated even at the time of the original Kindle's release. It did, however, add a decent amount of texture to aid in holding the Kindle, should one have excessively oily hands.
All of this is excusable for two reasons. The first being that it was Amazon's first foray into creating a physical product to be sold under its own name. Second, as a first-gen eReader device they really could have done a LOT worse, as many other historical examples stand proof of. That said, with Sony's initial e-Ink offerings displaying significantly more suave and sexiness than the Kindle, it was apparent that a re-do was in order before the general public became bored with novel technology and sought a better user experience. The design team put their heads together and the resulting product is worlds better than the initial offering from Amazon.
Amazon managed to incorporate all of the things which made the original Kindle great into the newly designed Kindle 2. The same 6" e-Ink display found on the original is found here, too. (Albeit with a few technical improvements mentioned later.) Gone is the LCD + Jog Wheel combo, and in its place a more traditional directional pad now serves all navigational needs. The page-control keys have been shrunk and their pivots redone, eliminating the problem of unintended page turns. Text input has been greatly improved by a more traditional non-split keyboard (the Space key is now a lot more normal!). In addition, the keys on the keyboard have been made circular and more chiclet-like, in addition to molded in a way that they "bulge" out of the face of the device as opposed to merely sticking out. In fact, all of the keys have had their gaps and tolerances tightened up, eliminating unnecessarily unsightly gaps and bothersome key wiggle.
Flipping the device over reveals that not only has the device been thinned from 1" (Kindle) to 0.7" (Kindle 2), but also that the back now sports a nice mostly-aluminum backing. Two perforated grills hide the (quite good) stereo speakers, located towards the bottom. A small plastic portion near the top exists (I assume) to allow for better radio reception. Some technical/legal details are etched into the aluminum in addition to an Amazon Kindle logo, neither of which pose an aesthetic issue. I have seen many people opt to laser-engrave this space, with quite profound results. This, of course, is probably a violation of your warranty, so be warned.
I'm a rather big fan of the speaker grilles... I just wanted to say that. (It's the only reason for the above picture.) I once had the device set face-down on a counter playing some tunes and got most through two games of Billiards before my opponent (Dad) realized that the music playing wasn't being pumped out of the nearby computer but rather by the very-thin device lying nearby which he hadn't quite noticed till then. We were both impressed by the audio quality... a point I will discuss further later on.
The bottom of the device is home to a lone MicroUSB port with a small accompanying LED. A nice touch here is the plug's ability to serve as both a data connection AND charging point. The LED glows yellow when charging (or connected to a computer) and then turns green when fully charged. It's a nice little indicator, although not entirely necessary. A MicroUSB-to-USB cable is shipped with the Kindle 2, as is a very compact AC-to-USB charge adapter. These make charging a breeze, be it through a powered USB port on your computer or a wall-plug.
Moving to the top of the device finds ourselves a 3.5mm stereo audio jack and the power/standby spring-loaded latch. While I found this latch to be quite useful an well-placed, I have to question the placement of the audio jack. It would seem to me that having headphone cables draping around the back of the device would be rather obnoxious in practice, however from a purely aesthetic standpoint (combined with rather poor quality out of this jack), I really can't complain all that much.
On the right-hand side of the device a lone volume rocker exists happily. Its placement is much improved from the original Kindle (where it existed on the bottom of the device). The button travel is just right, and it's easy to use without being prone to accidental use. The left-hand-side of the device is a blank void with the exception of two screwdriver recesses, probably for the purposes of assembly or dismantling.
New page-navigation keys exist on both the left-and-right-hand sides of the front-face. Their hinge exists on the outermost edge of the face, to facilitate in preventing accidental actuation. In addition their firm-yet-solid keypress helps further avoid any unintended use without hindering intentional use. I have yet to figure out why a Previous Page button is only to be found on the left-hand side, but I assume it has something to do with attempting to emulate reading a real physical book.
The space laying directly below the display is used up by a rather useful keyboard. While not large enough to touch-type with, the keyboard is still roomy enough for even the largest of thumbs to find letters with high accuracy and quickness. I'm not sure it can be stressed enough how much more pleasing to look at these keys are as opposed to the original Kindle's. As a tactile sensation they keys are a joy as well, with good physical feedback complemented by soft audible clicks. The one fault to be found here is in the Kindle's odd inclusion of only one Shift key. Initially this struck me as being no big deal, seeing how my phone has the exact same design quirk, but when I realized the Kindle 2 lacked any sort of Sticky-Keys functionality, the occasional awkward finger stretch to capitalize certain letters became more of an annoyance than a mere quirk. That fault aside, I found the keyboard to be perfectly executed and hope they choose not to "fix" what isn't broken in future models.
The last remaining interface with the device to mention is the new directional pad. This is a welcome addition over the laughable previous method of navigation, even though the original Kindle's jog-wheel and LCD-strip was more or less a necessity at the time of the device's release. (Clicking through menu items would have been a chore because e-Ink displays at the time were not capable of fast enough refreshes. If anything, Amazon should me commended for their unusual solution, as Sony's PRS-300 of about the same time chose to instead employ 10 buttons lining the side of the display.) In this case, it's essentially a five-way joystick (up, right, down, left, press) that is surprisingly useful even given its small size. It has Menu and Back keys serving as neighbors; the appropriate locations for these crucial navigation features, in my opinion.
When I first took possession of my Kindle 2 I was a bit apprehensive over how my user experience might shape up to be. I'd heard that the Kindle interface has quite a learning curve that is only made steeper by the e-Ink's refresh rates and processing speed. Much of what I'd heard was correct, however my nervousness was most unnecessary thanks to Amazon having figured out a lot of things for me on my behalf.
For example, the Kindle 2 came to be in a rather understated yet fitting brown cardboard box (adorned with a fitting amount of monochrome decoration/typography). Opening the lid reveals the Kindle which has had its screen frozen on a quick-start guide of sorts. It instructs the user on how to charge the device in preparation for its first use. This is clever use of the e-Ink technology (which only requires power to change what is being displayed) but which, I fear, might be mistaken for being a sticker by some less-educated consumers. I decided to bypass charging and instead flicked the power switch. A brief boot-up sequence occurred, followed by the opening of the User's Guide. I read about 50 pages and then decided I'd have more fun if I found stuff out on my own.
The first thing I noticed was that the Kindle supported partial screen refreshes. For example, menu items were now navigated with an underline-bar that would jump from selection to selection with each toggle of the joystick. However, if a significant portion of the screen needed to be changed, then the entire screen would briefly flicker black to "clear-out" its content. I wasn't quite able to capture that moment, but you can see above part of the refresh process, in which the standby screen is being changed to the home screen. When changing pages in an eBook or loading a new webpage a full-screen refresh would occur (except the very top status bar... this rarely refreshes). Toggling amongst links on a webpage or words in a text, however, wouldn't refresh. (A side effect is that ghosting would appear until a total screen refresh did occur, one of the drawbacks of e-Ink technology.)
Here you can see the home screen. The thick bar underneath "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" is the selector-underline-bar I mentioned earlier. The little dots under the other items show current reading progress as a visual representation... you can see I'm a sixth of the way through "Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows" and barely made any progress into the User's Guide. The top status bar shows radio reception strength, battery status, and the title of the screen currently being displayed. (This will change to the title of a book, the current menu, the title of a webpage, etc.) The bottom bar is useful for determining progress through a text in statistical terms... ie. Page 3 out of 5. This is useful because, when web browsing, there is no scroll bar to alert users to how much content is left on the current page.
Weirdly enough, my favorite features of the Kindle 2 are found in its "Experimental" menu. Text-to-speech is shockingly good, but I have to quickly state that it's not one of my favorite features. The MP3 Player and Web Browser are, though! I wonder why this menu is called "Experimental." For a start, these features have been around for as long as I've been reading articles about Kindles. Second, if Amazon were to pull these features someday from their devices they'd undoubtedly lose a bunch of customers, so why not make them official? My guess is that Amazon sees their usual Kindle customer as being someone who bought their Kindle for books. All the techies out there, me included, aren't really bothered by the hassle of a few extra key presses to get to our extra goodies so there's no harm done leaving them where they are.
I mentioned earlier that the stereo jack isn't exactly stellar. Now's when I get to explain. MP3 players come with built-in speakers, they're usually kind of gimmicky, designed for demoing songs to friends but not actually enjoying music though... that's what the stereo jack is for. Strangely enough, Amazon seems to have missed the memo on this trend, and has equipped stunningly vibrant and clear built-in speakers while somehow managing to pump out sub-par audio out of the stereo jack. It seems to me that either there's a disconnect between the audio clarity being pushed to the speakers versus the jack or the speakers manage to gloss over the abysmal quality remarkably well. (I honestly don't know which of the two it is.) When I plug in my favorite in-ear Sony earbuds, I hear a lot of muddy noise in the background which just drives me nutty. However I decided to try my iPod 'buds to see if I could bear to listen to the output then, since my Sonys happen to be quite sensitive to indiscrepancies. Nope, no cigar their either, it turns out I can hear all the white noise even using Apple's cheap cans. Not that I can complain too much- I rather like a good set of loud portable speakers! (And the poor quality of audio out of the jack enables me to forgive the awkward (but good) placement of the stereo jack on the top of the unit.) With a 2GB total memory built into the unit, it's easy to forget to leave room for eBooks. This is also a problem, as without a built-in file explorer it's impossible to erase MP3s on-device. Then again, with no now-playing readout, the Kindle 2 is essentially a giant iPod Shuffle so I doubt anyone will be utilizing more than a gigabyte for MP3 storage.
Web browsing. Anywhere. Free. Those words were what ran through my head when I was reading reviews of the Kindle 2 online prior to getting mine, and let me tell you, I haven't been let down. My Kindle 2 is the one equipped with international radio frequencies enabling theoretical use anywhere in the world. Here in the States, though, my Kindle piggybacks on AT&T's 3G network. With a web browser that is best described as elementary at best, this high-bandwidth almost appears overkill until the real purpose (eBook downloads) are remembered.
That said, if you have no problem viewing WAP/Mobile (or very basic HTML) versions of your favorite websites, the Kindle 2 will be a surprise! Equipped with its 16-shade display (as opposed to the original Kindle's 4) even pictures are rendered remarkably well. Just look at that picture above and it's hard to not superimpose colors onto Google's logo in one's mind. Weird, huh? I won't go into much detail but let's just say I am impressed with the Kindle's webpage rendering abilities, even though they are quite basic. If only the screen was fast enough for significant text input I might be able to call the Kindle an email device! (As is, it's really only useful for reading. The screen cannot refresh fast enough (even in the non-total-refresh mode) to keep up with typing rates easily attainable on the keyboard. It also seems that the processor starts to drag.)
At the end of the day, the Amazon Kindle 2 is still an eReader device. So why haven't I mentioned reading books even once during this entire review? Because that's not why I purchased one. I have completed a few books, but the experience requires no commentary besides I loved being able to leave my big hardcover at home and instead grab my slim Kindle. Add to that the fact that my Kindle also packs the internet and I'm as happy as can be! The only improvement I can think of might be to somehow attain a Kindle DX... I don't mind the extra size as it'll spend most of its life in my backpack, and the extra screen real-estate will save me some page turns.
With a new lease on life, the original Kindle underwent significant surgery and came out on top in the form of the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX. Coupled with theoretically unlimited lifetime internet, there's really no reason everybody shouldn't own one. Unless, of course, you're one of the brainless fools pegging for an Apple iPad. Somehow Apple has managed to scare Amazon into thinking that a touchscreen-LCD-WiFi version of the Kindle is what's best for the next version of their product. I humbly disagree, thinking they'd be far better off with a price-cut and perhaps another minor refresh (maybe eliminate some of the margin between the screen and edges of the device). The Kindle 2 already underwent a software upgrade as well, and the theoretical Kindle 3 could become killer with a more powerful web browser (but keep it free!).
I want to thank Amazon for achieving the impossible. No, they didn't create a revolutionary device (*ahem* crappy Apple marketing), and neither did they pioneer a radical new service. But rather, they got me, a guy who's daily reading for the past two years has consisted of only online content, to read two complete books cover-to-cover. I did it with the assistance of their device and services, and really enjoyed the process. Thanks, Amazon.