Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Amazon Kindle 2 Review

My Kindle 2 arrived from Amazon today! It appears that I am lucky in this respect, because Amazon had originally announced the ship date as February 25th, and most people are still waiting for their unit to show up. But I had ordered mine literally within 10 minutes of the announcement - so I guess being an early adopter finally got awarded...

As I had promised a few weeks ago, I am providing a review of the new Kindle 2 as a follow-up to my popular original Kindle Review from November 2007. Just like with the previous review, this one is based on unpacking the Kindle 2 and working with the device for about 2-3 hours. I plan to add information about long-term issues such as battery-life in a future blog posting once I have accumulated several days of usage of the Kindle 2.

Unpacking the Kindle 2 is fun. Just like the Kindle 1 the packaging is well-designed and this  resembles a shipping box with a "tear here to open" strip on one side. The package contains the Kindle itself, a thin "Read me" brochure, and the charging cable. The screen of the device shows instructions to plug it in and then push the power switch on top of the unit - for those that hate even the shortest of manuals.

Once you turn the Kindle 2 on, you immediately get to read the User's Guide on the screen, or you can skip ahead and press the Home button to get to your main library page.

Before I talk about the improvements in the software, let's take a look at all the improvements in the hardware of the device compared to the Kindle 1:

  • The Kindle 2 looks much more polished or refined and gets rid of some of the edginess of the original unit. It feels more "solid" and less flimsy, which may also be due to the fact that it is about 10g heavier (468g with book cover for the Kindle 2 compared to 458g for the Kindle 1).
  • The Kindle 2 now locks into place in the book cover / sleeve that you can order from Amazon. The original Kindle fell out of that cover far too often, so this is a great improvement.
  • Another annoying "feature" of the Kindle 1 is now a thing of the past, too: accidental clicks on the Next or Prev buttons. The buttons on the Kindle 2 are still on the very edge of the unit, but the buttons now have their pivot point on the outside edge and need to be clicked inward, which completely prevents accidental clicking. Very clever design change!
  • The new Kindle 2 gets rid of the shiny silvery and strange LCD sidebar that the old unit used to provide a selection cursor on the page or within a menu. Since the new display is much faster and more responsive, the selection feedback is now directly shown on the main screen.
  • The Kindle 2 has a better position for the power switch (top left of the unit) and gets rid of clumsy wireless on/off hardware switch on back of unit, too.
  • It comes with a better power adapter (mini USB plug on Kindle, charger cable can either use desktop USB plug or wall outlet), which is similar to what the iPhone charger from Apple does.
  • I'm lucky to be in a Spring 3G network coverage area, and so I found the unit to have much faster downloads using Amazon 3G Whispernet (only in areas where 3G EVDO service is available). This was especially noticeable when I downloaded all my previous purchases to the new device.
  • The new 16-grayscale display is great, especially for viewing web content, such as Wikipedia, newspapers, or blogs. It's probably not the most important feature, but certainly nice to have and much easier on the eyes than the old display when rendering images.
  • I never really liked the hardware on/off switch in the back or the sleep mode on the old Kindle, but this is now all much more user friendly and consistent: wake-up from sleep mode is now done using power-button instead of "Alt-AA", and it is much more responsive; pushing the power button briefly puts Kindle in sleep mode (artwork screen saver is shown); and pushing the power button for 4-5 sec turns the Kindle off.

In addition to these hardware changes, the Kindle 2 also apparently offers some improved software that contains several usability enhancements. Some of those are more network features and I assume they will be available as an upgrade on the old units, too, but I haven't heard any details about such an upgrade yet. Anyway, here are the software enhancements that I found notable:

  • The first positive surprise was how easy it was to migrate books from my old to the new Kindle. There are essentially two different upgrade paths: you can either just turn on the new Kindle and from the home page access "Archived Items" and it will show you all previously purchased books that are available in your Amazon account and you can download them right there. Alternatively, you can user your computer to go to the Amazon.com website and use the "Manage your Kindle" page to view a list of all your previously purchased Kindle books and send them to the new Kindle from that list.
  • The Kindle 2 apparently has a faster processor, so it comes with Text-to-Speech software built in. You can turn this on from the font-size menu or from the main menu, and you can customize reading speed as well as male/female voice. A nice feature is that the Kindle auto-turns the pages for you if you are using Text-to-Speech so you can still follow the text as it is being read to you. A neat feature, but the Text-to-Speech engine makes the usual pronunciation errors...
  • Another neat feature is the ability to sync devices, if you have more than 1 Kindle. This lets you read a book on one device and then continue from the exact same page on another device, if they are both linked to your Amazon account.
  • The search function now offers 6 choices: search my items (i.e. all books, documents, subscriptions on the Kindle locally); search the kindle store; search google; search dictionary; search wikipedia; and go to web, which lets you enter a URL. The same choices are also directly available from the address bar in the built-in browser, which seems to have gotten some improvements in usability.

So much for the positive experiences with the new Kindle 2. But not everything is perfect and there are a few disappointments that I experienced when playing with the device on the first day:

Mainly, the built-in browser still leaves much to be desired. It is not quite clear to me why it is not built on WebKit like Safari or Chrome to provide proper rendering of HTML pages. If a device like the iPhone that is less than half the Kindle's screen size can render web pages beautifully and accurately, then why can't the Kindle? This is a very bothersome oversight - especially when open source browser packages are readily available in the form of FireFox or WebKit.

Another issue: no doubt it is great that one can shop in the Kindle Store on Amazon.com using the Kindle, which allows you to buy new books on the road and has been a feature of the Kindle 1 from the start (see left). But the world has changed since November of 2007! On my iPhone I can use the Amazon.com iPhone app today and shop all of Amazon.com - not just the Kindle store. Why can I not order a DVD from my Kindle or shop for new electronic gadgets? It doesn't make any sense to just limit the Kindle application to shopping for Kindle books only....

Also, Amazon has unfortunately failed to address the following points that I had raised in my initial Kindle 1 Review over a year ago:

  • It is great that I can send PDF and Word docs to my Kindle via my personalized kindle.com e-mail address. But that is not enough. When I place annotations, notes, and highlights in such documents on my Kindle, I now want to be able to e-mail them back to my office e-mail address and I want to see those comments, annotations, notes, and highlights back in the Word or PDF doc so that I can send it to others in the company. This would allow me to use the Kindle for actually reviewing business documents – it would be fantastic!!!
  • How can I get additional blogs on the Kindle? I am happy to pay extra, but I want to be able to enter any RSS feeder URL into my Amazon account and create a Kindle blog feed for it. Blog authors can now sign up with Amazon to publish their blogs on Kindle, but as a consumer I would like to be able to pick a niche blog and pay for it myself - that still doesn't work.
  • It would be nice, if Amazon could integrate some Social Networking aspects into the Kindle. How many of my friends are reading books on it? What are they reading? How can I post comments about a book to my blog? How can I tell my friends about comments I have on a book?

Last, but not least, I wanted to test whether the Kindle 2 can now receive and process Open Office XML (OOXML) documents via the personalized e-mail address, and I was indeed able to receive, read, and review a DOCX document in WordprocessingML that I had created from an XML source with Altova StyleVision 2009.

So the overall verdict is: definitely a great improvement over the first generation Kindle, and still one of the best eBook readers in my opinion. But it leaves a few things to be desired - especially in the iPhone-age....

Is it worth to upgrade from the Kindle 1? I would say only if you have kids or other family members whom you plan to give the Kindle 1 unit to. The improvements from the Kindle 1 are certainly nice, but they are more incremental than revolutionary.

UPDATE: The Kindle's Secret has been revealed by XKCD:


BeanMa said...

Great review! I love your point about adding some social networking functionality to see what friends are reading, reviewing, etc. - that would be very cool (and would easily lead to some upselling for Amazon too).

Sally Church said...

Can you use it in the dark? Is there a backlight for this purpose?

XML Aficionado said...

No, there is still no backlight. The ePaper display technology is great with any external light-source, though. Works well in a variety of ranges from sunlight on the beach to the typical lamp on the night-stand.

Sally Church said...

Hmmph, not much use in bed on on a dark plane/train then. The beauty of reading on an iPhone is the backlight in dim conditions. You don't need to rely on an external light :-)

XML Aficionado said...

Sorry, but I disagree. I find the bright backlight of the iPhone to be very tiresome for the eyes especially in low-light conditions. Even with the built-in dimming it is just too bright for me to read anything but a few short e-mails or twitter messages.
The Kindle, on the contrary, behaves just like good old paper books. I can read it on the plane with just the personal light for my seat, or I can read it in bed with the night-stand for hours.
On the iPhone I cannot read more than 15 minutes - on the Kindle I have read entire books in one big gulp over 2-3h...

Joe Wikert said...

Regarding your RSS feed question about blogs... You should try the FREE KindleFeeder service. I've been using it for months and I love it.

Joe Wikert
Kindleville Blog (www.kindleville.com)

XML Aficionado said...

Joe, thank you for the suggestion (love your Kindleville Blog, btw). I was aware of KindleFeeder, but didn't reference it in my blog because I had noticed some performance issues in the past. Coincidentally, it was just today that the following announcement appeared on the KindleFeeder site:

"The Kindlefeeder user base is quickly reaching the point where the current server and software architecture can't keep up with delivery volume. To deal with this, I'm going to have to rewrite the software and move the service to a more capable server."

Robert said...

I Loved your review. I got one last week and have been finding it a Joy. Many thanks to you for being an early adopter of all sorts of cool stuff.

Your point about a social networking app is very interesting indeed. Which brings up the question of whether the kindle will have any open social functionality.