Review: Amazon Kindle 2 5-way controller more significant than form factor improvement

Summary:You can check out my image gallery that includes comparison shots between the Kindle 2, Kindle 1, and Sony Reader 505. I also shot a video of the Kindle 2 showing comparison between it and the Kindle 1 in regards to the new Whispersync capability, searching, scroll wheel versus 5-way controller, and the text to speech functionality. There are several small surprises in the Kindle 2 that I haven't seen mentioned by others yet that actually make it a bit more compelling above the major form factor improvement. So far, I am quite pleased with my new Kindle, but there are still some changes I would like to see in Kindle 3.

Back when the original Kindle was announced I hesitated about buying one because I wasn't that impressed with the form factor. A few days later I decided I would probably enjoy the device only to then find out they were sold out for quite some time. Josh Bancroft then posted an article that further aided in my purchase justification so I bought my Kindle a few months after they were released. This time around I decided to order the Kindle 2 as soon as it was announced a couple of weeks ago and yesterday it arrived. I didn't want to be stuck waiting for them to come back in stock again, but see they are actually still listed as In Stock on the Amazon site so either the demand is not as great as last time or the supply is better than last time. In today's economy, I can see more people hesitating to buy such a device so believe the demand is less than the Kindle 1.

You can check out my image gallery that includes comparison shots between the Kindle 2, Kindle 1, and Sony Reader 505. I also shot a video of the Kindle 2 showing comparison between it and the Kindle 1 in regards to the new Whispersync capability, searching, scroll wheel versus 5-way controller, and the text to speech functionality. There are several small surprises in the Kindle 2 that I haven't seen mentioned by others yet that actually make it much more compelling above and beyond the major form factor improvement. So far, I am quite pleased with my new Kindle, but there are still some changes I would like to see in Kindle 3.


Image Gallery:Check out some unboxing and comparison photos of the Amazon Kindle 2, Kindle 1 and Sony Reader 505.
Image Gallery: Kindle 1, Kindle 2, and Sony Reader 505
Image Gallery: Kindle 2 in hand

Hardware - What's in the box?: The Kindle 1 came in a cool white box and I enjoyed the unboxing experience. The Kindle 2 has a completely different packaging scheme, but still is a bit unique and makes the buyer feel like they purchased something special. The box is only about an inch and a half thick and the wrapping is integrated into the cardboard shipping box. There are a couple of pull down perforated strips to open the outer box and the internal box. There is some cool black packaging with glossy letters all over it as you dive into the Kindle 2 packaging.

The original Kindle also came with a basic carrying case (that didn't hold the Kindle very securely), but the new Kindle does not include any case at all. I LOVE the M-Edge case and e-Luminator light and plan to pick one of these combos up for the Kindle 2 as well.

In addition to the Kindle 2, you will find a USB 2.0 cable with A/C adapter plug and Quick Start Guide. The Kindle 2 charges via the bottom microUSB port and I verified that my Nokia microUSB charger works just fine to charge it as well. microUSB is becoming the new standard for charging mobile phones so I personally liked seeing the Kindle use this same port for charging. The cool USB adapter wall plug uses universal prongs so it should be easy to use on the go if you don't want to just use the USB cable to charge it up. Unfortunately, the Kindle 1 and Kindle 2 charging ports are different so you can't use the same charger. The Kindle 2 User's Guide is preinstalled on the device in PDF format. Your Kindle comes with a 1 year limited warranty and there is an option to purchase a 2nd year as well.

Hardware - so what's different between the Kindle 1 and 2 models?: I mentioned the differences in an earlier post, but am reposting them here now that I have both Kindle models side-by-side in my hand and can offer my personal experiences and thoughts.

The new features of the Kindle 2 over the existing Kindle 1 include the following:

  • Weight reduced from 10.3 to 10 ounces
  • Thickness reduced from 0.7 (thickest area) to 0.36 inches
  • Display improved with 16 shades of gray compared to 4 shades in Kindle 1.0
  • Integrated available 1.4 GB of memory to store 1,500 ebooks (Kindle 1.0 had 180MB and SD card)
  • 25% longer battery life (this will take me some time to verify myself)
  • 5-way controller compared to previous scroll wheel
  • Pages turn 20% faster (actually seems even more improved than this in side-by-side usage)
  • New text-to-speech feature (check out my video to hear the male and female voices)
  • Rear mounted stereo speakers (Kindle 1 had a single mono speaker)
  • Whispersync feature (view my video to see this feature in action on both Kindles)

These things remain the same:

  • Whispernet wireless service, provided by Sprint
  • QWERTY keyboard (though it is redesigned in Kindle 2.0)
  • 6 inch 600x800 pixels display
  • USB 2.0 port
  • 3.5mm headset jack

Go to the next page to read more about some new improvements »

More subtle differences that greatly improve the usability of the Kindle 2: After spending a few hours with the Kindle there are a few other subtle differences you will notice as well. On the original Kindle there was a button labeled Search that you pressed and then entered a search term in the text entry field. On Kindle 2 there is no Search button, but even easier you just start pressing keys on the keyboard and the search box appears on the bottom automatically and lets you quickly search just by typing the term and pressing the return key. You can also access Search by using the option in the Menu.

The 5-way controller also makes looking up words in the dictionary MUCH more intuitive and faster and I actually think I will use it quite a bit now. In the past you scrolled up and selected a line, scrolled up to lookup, and then the meanings of all the unusual/longer words in that line appeared where you then had to press in and go to a final definition page. On the Kindle 2 with the 5-way controller you simply move the cursor to a place just in front of a single word you want to look up on the page and a brief dictionary meaning appears at the bottom. You then simply hit the return key to see the full dictionary entry for that word. You can also now just begin typing at that cursor location to create a note. Pressing in on the 5-way controller again will start the highlight and then move the cursor to finish the highlight. The 5-way controller makes interacting with the Kindle 2 an experience that is loads better than what took place on the original Kindle.

The 5-way controller also helps you avoid jumping through multiple menus as you are now able to select specific items on the page rather than a block of items that you then have to drill down through using the scroll wheel.

There is also no longer a wireless activation button on the back of the Kindle and the new button on the Kindle 2 is a slider button on the top next to the 3.5mm headset jack. You simply slide and release the switch to lock and unlock the Kindle 2. To actually turn off the Kindle 2 you slide and then hold the slider. This should make it easier for case manufacturers since it was a challenge to hold the Kindle in a case and still let people access both the power and wireless sliders on the back of the original Kindle.

To manage your wireless connection you use the Menu option and the 5-way controller. There is no longer a hardware button to toggle your wireless connection.

Walk around the Kindle 2: Holding both devices in my hands makes it even more apparent that the Kindle 2 is the form factor that should have really been released in the first place. The Kindle 1 has a geeky, 1980's look to it and I think the Kindle would have been an even better seller if the Kindle 2 was the device released initially.

The first thing that really struck me after taking the Kindle 2 out of the box was the amazingly thin form factor it now has. The first Kindle is made to look even chunkier than it already was when compared to the new Kindle. Then again, the Kindle 2 is also a bit long and I would have like to have seen the same length in the new model with the slimmer form factor.

On the front of the Kindle 2 you will find the 6 inch E-Ink display centered in the upper portion. There are 2 buttons on the left for previous page and next page and 2 buttons on the right of the display for Home and next page. The unique "magic" scrolling wheel and silver mirror slider has been replaced by a 5-way directional joystick/controller positioned at the bottom right of the display. Moving the controller moves around a cursor on the display (for document titles they are underlined as they are selected) for quick and accurate navigation. Pressing in on the controller selects the item you have the cursor positioned over. I would like to have seen an eraserhead-type of textured top on the controller as I do tend to slip off of it every once in a while.

Around the 5-way controller on the right side of the front you will see the Menu and Back buttons.

Below the display you will find the QWERTY keyboard that has been modified over the original Kindle QWERTY keyboard. The keys are rounded and offer a small amount of travel when pressed in, pretty much the same as the original Kindle. There is one shift key, a large space bar, a symbol key, font changing button and full number row. There is no longer a Search button, but as I explained earlier the new method for searching is MUCH quicker and more intuitive.

On the right side you will find a volume rocker up towards the top of the Kindle 2.

There is nothing along the left side, but a couple of small openings that look like they are there for the back attachment.

On the bottom you will find the charge indicator light (glows yellow and then changes to green when fully charged) and microUSB port that is used to charge the Kindle 2. You can charge via USB and Amazon states it fully charges in about 4 hours and should last for up to 4 days with wireless turned on. With wireless off it should last you up to 2 weeks between charges.

The power switch and 3.5mm headset jack are located along the top. The power switch is spring loaded and slides back in place when you move it. Sliding once will toggle the screen lock on and off. Sliding and holding for more than four seconds will turn off the Kindle 2. This button does not control the wireless radio as that is managed in the Menu.

The only thing you will find on the back of the Kindle 2 are the stereo speakers down towards the bottom. Most of the back is brushed metal and feels good in your hand. The top of the back is plastic to allows the Sprint wireless radio to get good connectivity.

Go to the next page to read more about the new features »

Whispersync functionality: One new capability in the Kindle 2 that I believe also now applies to the Kindle 1 is the Whispersync technology that keeps your reading location synchronized between Kindle devices. I tried this on my new Kindle 2 and existing 1 and as shown in my video, it worked flawlessly as long as there is a wireless connection.

While this is a nice to have feature for those select few of us that have multiple Kindle devices, I am not sure how necessary it is. If families have multiple Kindles, they are not going to want to associate them all with a single account since people read at different speeds and don't need locations synced between different users.

Text-To-Speech capability: Another new function found in the Kindle 2 is the capability to have the Kindle read every book, blog, magazine and newspaper out loud to you. The Kindle comes with a single male and single female voice for you to select and use. The pages automatically turn while the content is being read as well. You can speed up or slow down the reading speeds.

While the Text-To-Speech feature can be handy for those who really want to finish up that heated book in the car or something, I agree with Larry Dignan that this capability is not a replacement for real audio books that completely engage the listener. It actually would be very cool to see Audible throw in a title or two with the Kindle purchase to give listeners a chance to experience what a high quality audio book experience can be like that might encourage future purchases. There has been some debate about Amazon adding this capability, but I think it is really a non issue since the voice quality is just not even close to that found in an audio book and will not be used by people to listen to hours and hours of book content.

Content: Amazon currently has over 240,000 books, magazines, and newspapers available for the Kindle so there is very little that you should be missing when you buy the Kindle 2. I personally subscribe to Reader's Digest and U.S. News and World Report for a low monthly fee and enjoy both of these periodicals on the Kindle.

The Kindle supports the following types of content: Kindle (AZW), TXT, Audible (formats 4, Audible Enhanced (AAX)), MP3, unprotected MOBI, and PRC. PDF, HTML, DOC, JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP files can be viewed through different conversion processes. You can pay the 10 cent fee to have document converted or send them via email to your "name"@free.kindle.com address and get them converted for free.

It is nice to know that a copy of every book you purchased is backed up online at Amazon.com in case you ever need to download it again. With the installed non-expandable memory there is the potential that you could reach this maximum capacity over time. I like the way Amazon puts it as having a bookshelf in your attic--"even though you don't see it, you know your books are there".

Upgrading from an original Kindle: For those of you like me that are upgrading from an original Kindle device you will find an Upgrading to Kindle 2 document on your Home screen. Selecting it gives you directions and options to easily transfer your subscriptions or Kindle email address to your new Kindle by simply selecting a hyperlink with the 5-way controller. The experimental web browser opens up and you select what you want to transfer to your new Kindle. I checked both the email address and my two magazine subscriptions to transfer over. You can transfer content back later too by going to your Amazon Kindle account from a PC web browser.

One thing to note is that current magazine and newspaper issues on your original Kindle will not be transferred to your new Kindle. You will get the next edition of your subscribed content delivered if you choose to transfer the subscription to your new Kindle device. I personally have a couple more magazines to read on my original Kindle as a result.

Directions are also present to tell you how to bring your past book purchases to your new Kindle. I could not find a way to batch these book transfers and found I had to go into my Archived books menu and then select a book to open/download it from the Amazon library to my new Kindle. It was pretty speedy over a good wireless connection.

If you go to the Home screen on both devices, you will find that the fonts for the document titles are much bolder on the original Kindle than on the Kindle 2. I can't find a way to change that setting and am not sure why there is such a difference here. The bolder titles are much easier to see on the original Kindle.

Pricing and availability: The Kindle 2 is still shown as In Stock on the Amazon site for $359. This is the price that the Kindle 1 was lowered to after several months in which it started out as $399 at launch. While I would have liked to have seen it priced at $299 or $249, I am a mobile enthusiast and am used to paying a premium for the latest and greatest tech gear. Considering that the Whispernet wireless network provided by Sprint is a free service on the Kindle, the $359 really is not that bad of a price for a device and service that entertains for hours and hours.

Go to the next page to check out my closing thoughts and ideas for Kindle 3 »

Closing thoughts and experiences: I am pleased with the device that arrived and the slimming down of the Kindle may result in it ending up in my hands even more than my Kindle 1. After discovering those other subtle improvements I can say for sure that my Kindle 1 is now obsolete and will most likely end up on the auction block. I do wish this was the Kindle that was launched initially, but that has passed so it is time to forget that desire and move on. I think new Kindle buyers will be very pleased with the Kindle 2 since it has a similar look and feel to the original iPhone with aluminum backing and sleek design. I think this model could have been a bit shorter and closer in size to the Sony Reader, which is also a very slick piece of hardware, since there does seem to be a lot of empty space on the front.

Reading content on the Kindle 2 has been very nice so far and it helps that there are still six adjustable font sizes on the Kindle 2 (same as on Kindle 1) compared with only three on my Sony 505.

The Whispernet wireless service and Amazon store is the main differentiator that makes the Kindle a valuable ebook reading device and updating the form factor to a more modern design was necessary and welcome.

Please let me know if there is anything you want me to check out on the Kindle 2 that I can address in a follow-up article.

If you can stomach it, then you may want to also check out the Kindle 2 disassembly article that reveals all the details about the internal workings of the Kindle 2.

What would I like to see in Kindle 3?: After a few months of using my Kindle 1, I find I rarely even used the keyboard and am much more of a consumer of content rather than someone who annotates or searches a lot on the device. I could easily be satisfied with a very compact keyboard or even a SureType keyboard and think both Kindle models have keyboards that take up too much room on the front of the device. I would love to see something like an 8 inch display rather than a 6 inch display with less space around the display and a smaller keyboard.

Unlike others I have heard from, I do not want to see a color display and think the current 16 grayscale display on the Kindle 2 is just fine for reading books. I want a reading experience similar to a book experience and color makes it more like a computer display and the hit in battery life isn't worth it to me. If you read a lot of magazines on your Kindle rather than books, then I could understand more why you would desire a color display. An OLED display may work here, but I haven't seen any even close to this size yet and still think the eInk display is perfect for eliminating eye strain.

I would like to see a backlight option only if it could be done while maintaining the high contrast display. The Sony Reader 700 has a backlight, but it doesn't seem very even and it is just as easy to have a case with an integrated book light to solve this issue.

I was going to buy a Sony Reader 700 device with the backlight and touchscreen, but after comparing it to my existing 505 model I am unwilling to accept the hit on contrast and clarity for the touch interface. Touch is not that important to me as long as page turning buttons are done well and the new button configuration in the Kindle 2 meets my needs.

The Kindle 2 lost external storage capability, but with internal memory to hold up to 1,500 books I don't think that is really an issue at this time. Still, I would like to have an external storage card option because over time my collection will grow.

Lastly, I would like to see an integrated WiFi radio that supplements the Sprint wireless radio. I actually have rather poor coverage in most of my house with Sprint and would like to be able to use WiFi as a backup connection. This would also allow me to use my Kindle while traveling outside the country when I have a WiFi connection available.

Go back to the beginning »

Topics: Mobility, Amazon, Hardware, Wi-Fi

About

Matthew Miller started using a mobile devices in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since. He is a co-host with GigaOM's Kevin Tofel on the MobileTechRoundup podcast and an author of three Wiley Companion series books. Matthew started using mobile devices with a US Robotics Pilot 1000 and has owned over 200 d... Full Bio

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