The "Me Too" Kindle 2 Review

The "Me Too" Kindle 2 Review

Summary: Amazon's Kindle 2 is sleek, stylish, and has a crisp and easy-on-the eyes "electronic ink" display. But it only does one thing -- read books.

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Amazon's Kindle 2 is sleek, stylish, and has a crisp and easy-on-the eyes "electronic ink" display. But it only does one thing -- read books.

After all the relatively hostile things I have said about Amazon's Kindle e-book reader in the past, I didn't actually expect that the company's official PR firm, Outcast, would actually send me one to play with. In Mid-March, they contacted me to inform me that they were going to loan me one for ten days, after which I had to send it back, this due to the extreme demand for review units. Ouch! The first Kindle I looked at, I had 30 days to play with the device.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

Of course, I was literally on the bottom of their list to receive one, no doubt due to my less-than-warm opinions of their product that were expressed during the launch and the actual release timeframe. Our gallant Editor-In-Chief, Larry Dignan, got one first at the end of February, along with the other "Tier 1" consumer electronics writers like Walt Mossberg and David Pogue who had their widely-publicized reviews published weeks ago. I think Larry took one look at it and put it on the shelf and gave it a thorough ZDNet Labs (TM) dust accumulation benchmark before sending it back. Gee, thanks boss.

Also Read: Kindle Economics 2

So none of what I am going to say is probably going to be new or interesting. But since Amazon was nice enough to send me one, even though I hardly feel timely, I sort of feel obligated to write something. Note to Amazon for future reference: sometimes it makes sense to send review units to your harshest critics at the same time as your adoring fans. 'Cause they might, like, you know, say something constructive.

First, the hardware. I must admit, that the Kindle 2 is one slick device, particularly from an ergonomics perspective. It's a lot thinner than the previous model and takes up a lot less space in a briefcase, a large handbag or backpack. Those of us who travel frequently know that carry-on space is at a premium, so it's great that Amazon spent a lot of time streamlining the second generation unit. Additionally, all of the previous faults with accidental page turns due to weird button placement and the awkward wedge shape of the original Kindle have been addressed. It's much more comfortable to hold and is an extremely pleasant device to use.

The 16-level black and white digital ink screen on the Kindle 2 is also an improvement from the first generation model (which could only represent 4 levels of grey) particularly from the perspective of reproducing of diagrams and greyscale artwork from printed media. This is immediately noticeable with the Kindle "screen saver" which depicts a different author each time from classic literature whenever the device enters idle state. Some of the pictures are actually quite stunning, giving an almost scrimshaw-like or woodcut appearance. The "screen saver" on the Kindle isn't actually a screen saver per se, as Digital Ink technology doesn't actually use power when the unit is idle, it only draws power when the page is being re-drawn. Essentially, the Kindle's screen is one big computerized Etch-a-Sketch, so it can't be "burned in" for that matter either.

From a User Interface and Software perspective, the Kindle 2 is nearly identical to that of the first generation device -- a home screen shows the library of content stored on the device, and each item which can be highlighted and selected in order to begin reading. The menu button allows you to enter the settings screen or browse the Amazon Kindle store and purchase books directly on the unit using the device's integrated Sprint "Whispernet" 3G wireless data service, the cost of which is compounded into the purchase of the unit and the price of the books.

The major UI change on the device is the elimination of the thumbwheel and illuminated line bar display with a five-way directional thumb pad similar to what you might find on a Game Boy, which I am not sure is really an improvement -- I actually liked the thumbwheel on the older unit and felt it was a more natural menu selection device, particularly with the visual indicator. The split and stiff/angled key keyboard of the original Kindle has been replaced with circular membrane stud keys, not unlike a circa 1980's Speak & Spell. Obviously, Amazon really hasn't intended this device for extended text entry, it's really just for using for book searches on the Amazon Kindle Store. The much smaller BlackBerry series of smartphone devices have a much more useful and tactile keyboard by comparison.

Much has been said about the Kindle 2's integrated voice narration feature and the audiobook industry backlash it has generated. Frankly, I'm not so sure what all these folks are so worried about, as using this feature is about as entertaining as listening to Professor Stephen Hawking do a stand-up comedy routine. I found it amusing and appropriate only as much when listening to a few sexually explicit passages of the Charles Stross novel Saturn's Children, which is an (excellent) Asimovian/Heinleinesque-style science fiction yarn told in the first person from the perspective of an unemployed  Sex Robot turned secret agent. I highly recommend reading it, and I think it should get the Hugo even though it's overshadowed by Anathem this year in the best novel category. Even still, I had to turn the voice feature off after about five minutes because its incessant yammering and mispronunciation was driving me absolutely batty and detracted from the reading experience. For Sci-Fi erotica, the Kindle 2's electronic female voice is the ultimate buzzkill. I also tried using it in both the male and female versions with Neal Stephenson's Anathem, but that only made the difficult novel with it's unique vocabulary even more ponderous.

For straightforward book reading, however, the Kindle is great, and if I could justify the $360 for a unitasker device, I'd probably become an e-book addict. The fonts can be easily adjusted to several comfortable point sizes (I find the middle setting to be the most optimal for my level of eye strain) and the integrated dictionary is helpful particularly when you reach weird words or clarification on their use in a particular context.

However, I really feel Amazon could have gone a bit farther with the dictionary capabilities. In the case of 960-page Anathem, which has a significant glossary addendum of the many neologisms used in the book, it would have been nice if those words were actually added or referenced by the dictionary lookup during the course of reading that book electronically. Obviously, this would take some extra work on the part of the publisher to do this -- as well as an API for Amazon to create to allow access to specialized dictionaries, but the benefits would have been well worth it. I essentially gave up on reading Anathem on the Kindle because it was too cumbersome to electronically jump back and forth between the body text and the glossary section at the end -- in this case, the paper version of the book would have been much easier to read.

There are a lot of instances where I think custom dictionaries for certain books might be helpful -- such as those using foreign or technical words not within the scope of the New Oxford American Dictionary. Particularly, I can see where scientific, legal and medical texts might benefit from alternative dictionaries.

This is exactly the sort of application where opening up certain aspects of the Kindle to developers might be beneficial to Amazon. For example, in the case of Anathem, there is a  wiki that has been set up on the Web for discussing various aspects of the book. While full-blown web applications on the Kindle might be difficult to present on the Kindle's Digital Ink screen, a Wiki API or viewer to talk to sites like Wikipedia or Wikia for retreiving text data might be useful.

Which gets to the unitasker conundrum of the Kindle. I really wanted to justify paying $360 for it and keeping it beyond the review period, because I genuinely enjoyed reading books with it. However, I would find myself during the course of a relaxing evening reaching for my BlackBerry when I would hear my email alerts go off. Now, I'm not saying that a Kindle should do virtually everything a BlackBerry should do, or that it should even be a full-blown Web tablet -- the refresh rate of current Digital Ink techmology would make normal web browsing cumbersome  -- but I would expect that a text-based application such as email reading and responding to messages would be a good feature to have and easy to add in. Additionally, something like Bloomberg stock quotes or an RSS news aggregator would be neat to have on a larger format tablet device like a Kindle. Amazon offers blogs by subscription at the Kindle Store, but you actually have to PAY to read them. Pay to read blogs that I can normally read for free on my computer or my BlackBerry? Are they on drugs?

These are precisely the types of things that could be implemented on this device if Amazon opened the Kindle up for development, a la iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry. They already have the online store for books, so why not apps that could exploit the digital ink technology?

If you're satisfied with a $360 unitasker that does one thing very well -- which is to read electronic books -- I can reccomend the Kindle 2 wholeheartedly. But for skinflints like me that expect an expensive device like that to do more, I'll wait for the price of the technology to go down.

Did you break for the Kindle this time around? Or did you pass? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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Topics: Laptops, Amazon, Collaboration, Hardware, Mobility, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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Talkback

6 comments
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  • Buyer beware

    http://blogs.sun.com/joehartley/entry/caveat_emptor_don_t_buy

    Ciao!
    enigmaforce
  • I have One - A Good E-Reader

    I at first balked at the pricy Kindle 2, but ended up buying one anyway. (Gotta do my part for the economy :)) I am happy with my decision and use the Kindle all the time. Downloads of books are effortless. Reading on the Kindle is easy and it seems I read faster than when reading a paper book. You can take it anywhere. Battery life is very good. I bought a subscription to The Atlantic for $1.29 a month. No more wasting paper! If you have the extra money, the Kindle 2 is an excellent choice. The fact it is a unifunctional device doesn't bother me. I was looking for an e-reader, and that's what I got. I didn't need yet another phone/camera/email/video/web surfing/music playing/twittering device.
    jpr75_z
  • It does more than one thing though

    I use the Kindle 2's basic web browser anywhere I want but especially for googling info on products when at stores or checking the next ferry departure as I did at Angel Island's outdoor cafe Saturday. I also can check the email although writing email is a klunky process, but it can be done.

    This "basic" web browser has an 'advanced option' that allows javascript code to run and is a much smoother experience than with the Kindle 1 although wireless access can be slow on complex pages.

    And this data access to the global net costs us exactly $0 per month whereas a cell phone's will usually cost from $30 to $150 per month.

    I list the various reasons I love -- and you might someday enjoy :-), the Kindle 2, at http://kindleworld.blogspot.com/2009/03/is-kindle-only-e-reader-why-360.html

    That entry is more about why it costs so much, actually.
    andrys1
  • Mostly rant....

    I received my Kindle for my birthday at the end of March. And my biggest pet peeve is the utter inability of the Kindle OS for any kind of sorting/filing/folder/indexing system. I read LOTS of books. I read LOTS of books VERY fast. So how does Amazon envision I keep the 1500 books I supposedly am able to load on the reader in any kind of logical order? Currently I have downloaded six pages of books, newspapers and blogs. I have read several books so far and I read the newspapers and blogs every day. I never fail to grit my teeth when I start wading and sorting through the STUPID interface. You can't review the Kindle without addressing this HUGE flaw.
    Or why is it that I can receive e-mail on Kindle, but I can?t send it? Huh? Especially given a full QWERTY keyboard, a keyboard which I rarely use, why bother. Why is it that even the simplest blogs or subscriptions are often anywhere from 24.00/year and up. When I can read those same or better/bigger versions on my computer at home for FREE or get a print copy for less. Why is the Kindle version of a book the same or just slightly less than the published printed version? No tree, no paper, no printing, no delivery, no storage, no store shelf, no store clerk, no shop fee, etc. And yet a paperback book on the Kindle can cost as much as a book purchased from a brick and mortar store. Why? The publishers costs are reduced dramatically wouldn?t you agree, why is it not passed onto the consumer in greatly reduced book prices. Those reduced prices would potentially make all avid readers eager for one of these. I am not going to even mention the ability to blog or Twitter.
    I do like the sweet little reader very much. But I feel as though Amazon castrated this lovely little device to the determent of the consumer. In this age of ever better electronic toys and gadgets Amazon seems to have pigeonholed this device when it could have been so much more.
    MariannaV
  • Wiki

    You say
    "in the case of Anathem, there is a wiki that has been set up on the Web for discussing various aspects of the book. While full-blown web applications on the Kindle might be difficult to present on the Kindle?s Digital Ink screen, a Wiki API or viewer to talk to sites like Wikipedia or Wikia for retreiving text data might be useful."

    Have you not used the integrated search function? It allows you to search either the book you are reading (find), your onboard library (my items), the Kindle Store (store), Google (google), WIKIPEDIA (wikipedia), and the onboard dictionary (dictionary.) All you have to do is start typing (or highlight, copy, and past text) and push the 5 way to the right to choose one of these 6 options. It'll take you directly to your choice of Wiki page right from there. I'm also pretty sure that using the find option would allow you to find the glossary entry in the back of the book.

    There are also instructions out there for replacing the onboard dictionary with one you find more appropriate to your needs.

    While the price of the books themselves (from Amazon, anyway) seem higher than one might wish, there are a plethora of free ebook sites out there. And you can get classic books from Amazon for free, or nearly so. I got 65 books today for the grand total of $5.58. (they are the Edgar Rice Burroughs collection of 50 books for $4.49, and the entire Oz series of 15 books for $.99.) Try getting prices like that on actual books.

    I also used my Kindle 2 to get directions last night via Google Maps, in a place where I had no wifi connection for my iPod Touch. I can also get the blogs I want via Google Reader, and read them for free, no subscription fees. I read my email via Gmail, having all 3 of my email addresses forward to it.

    Hope this helps!
    Danariel
  • UniDevices

    I'm glad there are early adopters out there. They advance the product lines, etc; however I will not be one.
    I want a unit slightly larger than my 4.5" GPS, that, in addition to telling me where to go, will take my phone calls, play movies, present books in a readable format, allow me to surf the web, send and receive email, take pictures & videos, and watch TV. It needs to seamlessly connect to my PC network, connect me to wireless broadband when I leave the house, and automatically connect me to a WiFi network on the campus I happen to work in or be visiting.
    The company that does this will make a fortune.

    Next phase (and I believe the ultimate killer app) will be a virtual personality who inhabits my AIO (All In One), talks to me, and handles my every electronic desire with plain english conversation, is able to answer my phone calls and respond. It would also help if she did any paperwork I find boring!
    jpfingst