In-depth review: Kindle 2, the Apple TV of books

Posted:
in Current Mac Hardware edited January 2014
For its first year anniversary, Amazon gave its Kindle an all around hardware upgrade that has turned the quirky, cheap looking appliance into a streamlined and slick looking device. Will it be enough for Kindle 2 to hit a mainstream audience?



As our original review of the first-generation Kindle pointed out, Amazon's entry into the e-reader market wasn't entirely trailblazing. Sony's Reader and a variety of competing devices had already failed to make much of an impact on the market, despite a decade of trying. A marketing partnership between Sony and Borders to promote the Reader in the year prior to Kindle's debut made little headway.



With the Kindle however, Amazon applied its global mail order experience and leveraged its enormous catalog of titles (and subsequent pull among publishers) to put additional momentum behind the push to drive print publications into ebook territory. However, the first generation Kindle also demonstrated the company's lack of experience in building hardware.



The original Kindle was ugly and looked flimsy and cheap, ensuring that only the most avid of ebook users would pay for the privilege of test driving Amazon's e-reader experiment. The company only shipped about a half million Kindle devices last year. That's perhaps a significant achievement among e-readers but hardly the launch of a new mainstream way to access information.



This year, Kindle 2 (which we unboxed earlier) revamps its overall package considerably and drops its price slightly from $399 to $359, but retains E Ink, the core technology that is both the differentiating value of dedicated e-readers and their Achilles' Heel. E Ink uses much less power than a backlit LCD screen and is considerably cheaper to manufacture, but it also has a very slow refresh rate that makes it feel frustratingly plodding to an audience familiar with the rapid pace of the web.











For the leisured act of reading novels or long articles, Kindle 2's slight improvements in its screen refresh rate and its new ability to display 16 shades of grey make it about as ideally comfortable as any electronic replacement of the paper book could hope to be. Users can't expect the Kindle 2 to perform well outside of its core competency of book reading though.



Where the Kindle crumbles



In addition to reading books, Amazon presents the Kindle as a way to read newspapers and blogs, and even gives the device "experimental" software for browsing the web. However, as it moves from its sweet spot as a paperback novel proxy to become a general purpose browser of hyperlinked information, the wireless Kindle's premise begins to rapidly fall apart.







Kindle 2's browser isn't experimental because the software isn't finished; it's just that the Kindle 2 makes a really poor web browser because E Ink screens simply can't rapidly scale, display color or animation, input text rapidly in a non-frustrating way, rapidly jump between pages, or scroll across a page to enable a rapid inhaling of information.



Given that most people's experience (and particularly those in the Kindle 2's target demographic) with reading newspapers and blogs has already largely shifted to skimming articles within a web browser in full color, with video clips and user comments and social networking features, the E Ink-equipped Kindle can't pretend to keep up in that area.



The killer app that doesn't work so great



For books that serve as reference material rather than sequential reading, the same problems apply. It might seem that the extremely light weight and nearly pocketable Kindle 2 would make the perfect replacement for a heavy backpack full of textbooks, but the problem is that the swift shifts between sections in a textbook is simply a huge pain on an E Ink based e-reader device.



One can search for words and set up virtual bookmarks, but the relatively small screen of the Kindle 2, which is closer to that of a paperback novel than a full textbook, combined with the loss of the tactile page flipping we all use to dive into a large volume to find what we're looking for, and compounded by the limitations on presenting large color graphics and illustrations, simply add up to a second-class alternative to the paper textbook, even when considering the expense and weight that comes along with hundreds of pages of dead trees.







The fact that many textbooks aren't available in e-book formats is also a problem. Given the random-access needs inherent in textbooks, it seems like PDF editions suitable for reading with a notebook computer would make more sense than the form factor and technology used by Amazon's Kindle and similar e-readers.



On page 2 of 3: Kindle's sweet spot; Read it to me; and Cheaper, simpler, classier.



Kindle's sweet spot



That restricts the Kindle 2 largely to reading novels and longer newspaper and magazine articles. The more navigation involved, the less attractive the Kindle 2 becomes. For exploring a simple page turner, the Kindle works pretty well. Its display readability is enhanced over the already suitable original version; it lasts nearly forever on a charge; and it can download fresh content pretty rapidly from nearly anywhere without needing a PC to sync content to it.



While the population of serious readers with long attention spans appears to be receding, that market is closely tied to Amazon, the world's leader in hooking up readers to publishers. That makes the company's Kindle 2 the best positioned e-reader available. Digitally sending reading material to Kindle 2 users over its 3G mobile "Whispernet" service is also clearly more cost effective (not to mention environmentally sound) than printing books and mailing them around the country, particularly as fuel prices complicate shipping expenses.



However, that perfect target market for the Kindle 2 is also largely already attached to the visceral experience of curling up with a physical book. This promises to prevent the Kindle 2 from becoming the "iPod of books" that Amazon hopes it will become.



When Apple pounced upon the emerging MP3 player market earlier this decade, it didn't set out to fill the needs of audiophiles who sit in specially built rooms designed to ideally reproduce sound. Instead, Apple targeted a new class of music consumers: mobile, active people who casually listen to music in the background. Since then, the iPod has moved into audiobooks, pioneered podcasting, and adding gaming features. The latest iPod touch browses the web and handles push messaging and runs a variety of mobile software.



Kindle 2 does just the opposite however: it aims to replace how people have read books in the past, rather than guiding them to experience information in a new way. Its E Ink technology and form factor are all designed around replicating the ink on paper experience of a paperback, just as if Apple had attempted to introduce its iPod as a laser read, vinyl record player hooked up to a vacuum tube amp via gold plated connectors. That product would have only appealed to a limited niche, and likely would have offended a large chunk of that group. The Kindle 2 similarly only appeals to limited niche of hardcore readers, and can't hope to please those who prefer paper.



Read it to me



The closest Kindle 2 comes to breaking away from its attempt to copy the traditional past in electronic form is its support for audiobooks and for text to speech technology. Unfortunately, its size and shape makes it fairly ridiculous to use as primarily an audiobook player, a task already adequately handled by the pocket-sized iPod.



The Kindle 2's text to speech function, new to this revision, is more interesting. It allows readers to give their eyes a rest and be passively read to by the configurable speech synthesis technology. As the voice reads, the display is updated to stay on the same page, making it easy to follow along.



Nobody would confuse Kindle 2's synthetic voice with a human reader, but the new feature is quite usable and easy to understand. The Writer's Guild has complained about Amazon adding the feature, saying that ebooks aren't licensed to Amazon for performance. That has caused Amazon to promise to allow individual works to opt out of support for the speech reading feature, something only the most absurd of authors could possibly demand given the irritation it would invoke among users.



Cheaper, simpler, classier



Faced with the very real limitations on selling an E Ink e-reader, Amazon did its best to make its revised Kindle as attractive as possible to win over its frequent readers. Following cues from Apple, the Kindle 2 drops its user replaceable battery and its memory card reader to streamline the device and lower manufacturing costs.







It now ships with 2GB of installed memory, suitable for holding thousands of books. It also drops the original model's separate wireless switch entirely and combines its DC power plug and USB port to end up with a USB-powered device with a single sync and power cable similar to the iPhone.















Also like the iPhone, it moves the headphone jack to the top edge and centers its power/sync mini-USB connector at the bottom. The volume rocker switch is also moved from the clumsy original location on the bottom edge to the more accessible top right side. Its internal speakers are significantly improved, and navigation is greatly enhanced using a standard menu button together with a five way joystick controller, rather than the former model's oddball thumb dial and silvery LCD track.











The Kindle 2's page forward and back buttons are also placed more sensibly as discrete buttons rather than the 'active edges' of the original model that were just too easy to accidently bump when holding it. The keyboard is also enhanced, and while it remains less than ideal for entering more than a few words, at least it doesn't feel like a cheap plasticky mess or sharp-edged, oddly angled keys like the first model.



On page 3 of 3: The ebook catalog; Kindle 2.5: the same content on your phone; and The wrap.



The ebook catalog



Over the past year, Amazon has done more to improve the state of e-readers than simply improving its hardware. There have been significant advancements on the content side, too. A year ago, Amazon boasted 94,000 titles; today it offers 240,000 books for the Kindle.



The original eight newspapers offered last year have expanded to 31, 24 of which are from the US. The eight magazines available a year ago have expanded to 24, including "The New Yorker." The 310 different blogs offered last year have swelled to 1315. Of course, most blogs don't translate well to the Kindle's screen. And who wants to pay a couple dollars a month to access blog entries that are freely available on the web?



There are also libraries of free public domain books that can be read on Kindle, including those offered by Mobipocket, which Amazon also owns. Mobipocket's selection of paid e-books do not work on the Kindle however (nor do Amazon's Kindle titles work on platforms supported by Mobipocket's incompatible e-book format). The serviceable integrated Amazon Store isn't difficult to navigate, although it is hampered somewhat by the slow E Ink screen. The included wireless service, which works nearly anywhere Sprint's 3G EVDO service is available, makes obtaining content easy, although it takes a second or two to load pages in the store.



Kindle 2.5: the same content on your phone



In introducing the new Kindle 2, Amazon also announced plans to open its Kindle content for consumption through the devices users already have: mobile phones. The company hasn't revealed all the details yet, but just today introduced a new application will let iPhone and iPod touch owners access the same array of Kindle ebook content on their Apple device.



It will be interesting to see how consumers react: will they embrace e-books that come in a form they can consume without resorting to buy another $360 device to carry around, will they use the Kindle together with their smartphone to create a sync-able ecosystem of e-book readers to fit their needs of the moment, will they prefer the more book-like Kindle, or will they simply continue to ignore digital books and stick with paper?



The jury is still out, but that question is likely to be answered rather decisively within the next year.



The wrap



Kindle 2 strengthens Amazon's efforts to resuscitate ebooks and significantly improves upon its earlier hardware. While it's no iPod of books (perhaps its the "Apple TV of books" that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos should start referring to as his "hobby"), it might tempt an increasing share of avid readers to invest in a convenient and fast way to obtain and read material without the weight and wait of paper volumes.



If Amazon can triple its sales this year, it will at least achieve parity with Apple TV, establishing Amazon with a decent foothold in the e-reader market, which seems to be about as difficult to crack into as the digital video TV set top box.



Even with modest success, Amazon should begin to realize significant savings from digital delivery as it also helps green up its operations by doing away with unnecessary physical packaging and delivery in the publishing business in the same manner iTunes has for music and video. That's good news for the planet even if Kindle 2 doesn't ever achieve blockbuster sales.



Rating: 3 of 5





Pros



Dramatically improved form and finish

Better screen refresh and enhanced display

Navigation improved

Long battery life

Decent, expanding selection of content



Cons



Very slow E Ink display makes browsing clumsy and slow

Size is not really pocketable

Web, blogs, and reference material ill suited to e-reader technology

Lower price is still fairly high, particularly compared to a netbook



Where to buy



Amazon.com Kindle 2: $359
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 47
    abrooksabrooks Posts: 66member
    Darn, I must have typed www.kindleinsider.com into my address bar.
  • Reply 2 of 47
    palex9palex9 Posts: 105member
    The device is sooo slick it will fall off tables, couches, beds frequently, and thats exactly what happened to me. Fell off a couch (not even 2 ft. in heigh) onto a hard wood floor and that somehow destroyed a corner of the e-ink which stopped displaying anything even though there is no visible damage!



    Before the Kindle shills attack me for not being more careful, negligent etc. may I add that my Iphone has fallen to the ground many times yet continues to work fine.



    Another major gripe is this: I subscribe to the WSJ. I go to a section, such as technology, and expect to see a list of stories.... right?.... WRONG! The Kindle just takes you to the first story and there is NO WAY to pick an choose which one you want to read. You have to go from one to the next. This is so brain dead that i decided not to keep this beautiful but fragile and counter intuitive product.
  • Reply 3 of 47
    irelandireland Posts: 16,090member
    Apple TV of books? It that saying the Kindle won't be a success?
  • Reply 4 of 47
    kasperkasper Posts: 939administrator
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post


    Apple TV of books? It that saying the Kindle won't be a success?



    I think Prince is suggesting it will take a little more from Amazon for the product to break out. And the sluggishness of the eInk display impedes the Kindle's ability to serve as a feasible web reader, etc. So right now he believes it will garner most attention from die-hard readers in the same way the Apple TV caters to videophiles but not the broader market.
  • Reply 5 of 47
    gumashowgumashow Posts: 37member
    An App is now on the iTunes store for the Kindle library of books. Article here along with download link: http://apple20.blogs.fortune.cnn.com...ce=yahoo_quote
  • Reply 6 of 47
    auxioauxio Posts: 1,685member
    I think that if I were in the market for such a device, I'd get a netbook rather than Kindle.
  • Reply 7 of 47
    ireality85ireality85 Posts: 316member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post


    Cons



    Very slow E Ink display makes browsing clumsy and slow

    Size is not really pocketable



    I don't see how these two are even relevant as Cons. First, you don't expect to be able to pocket a regular sized book, do you? The Kindle is marketed towards those who love to read BOOKS (e.g. not surf the internet) and want to do so electronically without the bulkiness of a book, and still have it maintain the same size form factor and appearance of a typical printed page. Seems more to me that AppleInsider is trying to compare it to the features and capabilities of a netbook, when the fact is an e-reader like the Kindle and a netbook are two very different products.



    Seriously?
  • Reply 8 of 47
    djames42djames42 Posts: 298member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by auxio View Post


    I think that if I were in the market for such a device, I'd get a netbook rather than Kindle.



    With which you'll likely make it through at best a chapter or two before the battery dies.



    It's certainly a valid point that the price of entry for a single-use device is a little bit high, esp when compared to a virtually limitless device such as a netbook. However, I'd argue that the Kindle almost certainly handles that single use far better than a netbook would.



    If the cost were brought down to $199, a lot more people would jump, especially anyone who commutes. I'm sure a lot of people said that about the iPod once upon a time too. Its price came down (and down and down) over time; so too will that of the Kindle.
  • Reply 9 of 47
    djames42djames42 Posts: 298member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by iReality85 View Post


    Seriously?



    Perhaps I read into this wrong, but reading the article felt as though the author had made up their mind before even touching the device and was really stretching to find something, anything to make it positive.



    That said, web browsing (albeit in a limited fashion) is advertised as a feature. It's good to know that it's not a particularly practical feature
  • Reply 10 of 47
    teckstudteckstud Posts: 6,476member
    I think the seamless integration of purchasing the media itself is pretty revolutionary. And it has received 4 stars from 649 cunstomer reviews so people do like it.

    However I'm not surprised that it won't be liked here at AI.

    Afterall this is not the Amazon Insider.
  • Reply 11 of 47
    teckstudteckstud Posts: 6,476member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by djames42 View Post


    Perhaps I read into this wrong, but reading the article felt as though the author had made up their mind before even touching the device and was really stretching to find something, anything to make it positive.







    Agreed.
  • Reply 12 of 47
    djames42djames42 Posts: 298member
    I find it slightly funny, and a bit ironic, that Google AdSense has placed a Sony Reader advertisement at the bottom of the page when reading comments
  • Reply 13 of 47
    kasperkasper Posts: 939administrator
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by teckstud View Post


    Agreed.



    There are many criticisms, but I don't agree that it's a flat-out negative review. And I read it several times while proofing it.



    Prince gave the first incarnation of the Apple TV the same exact rating.



    K
  • Reply 14 of 47
    I absolutely love the Kindle 2!



    I'm also anxious to see the Kindle FOR STUDENTS (Kindle 3) that's coming out this year.



    Right now I'm reading one of the best autobiographies I've ever read in my life on the Kindle (warning--it's not a book for the faint of heart/weak of stomach). It's the memoir by Bin Laden's mistress Kola Boof "Diary of a Lost Girl" and when you have really great books that mix literary sense with high entertainment then you get hooked on these E-readers pretty quickly.



    My only complaint about these things are the price. I think Amazon really needs to find a way to lower the price on the Kindle or they won't be competitive.
  • Reply 15 of 47
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by djames42 View Post


    I find it slightly funny, and a bit ironic, that Google AdSense has placed a Sony Reader advertisement at the bottom of the page when reading comments



    LOL!



    Me, too.



    That's cute.
  • Reply 16 of 47
    ireality85ireality85 Posts: 316member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by djames42 View Post


    Perhaps I read into this wrong, but reading the article felt as though the author had made up their mind before even touching the device and was really stretching to find something, anything to make it positive.



    That said, web browsing (albeit in a limited fashion) is advertised as a feature. It's good to know that it's not a particularly practical feature



    I also agree. Trying to draw comparisons between the Kindle and a netbook is a bit unfair to the Kindle, no? I'm in no way trolling for the Kindle (lol), but I call things like I see it, and this article does a bit of bemoaning when it comes to the Kindle's features. Actually, scratch that, the experience of using those features. E-Ink is still relatively new, so I wouldn't necessarily expect that it would be capable of having lightning fast refresh rates and doing what standard LCDs can. As for web-browsing/Wi-Fi, I think that it is there merely as an added convenience. IMO, who would want to surf the internet in monochromo? Heck no, I'd want to do that in fantastic, glorious technicolor on any one of various other devices. But the Kindle does great what it is supposed to do, and this is to make ebooks look like the real thing.
  • Reply 17 of 47
    teckstudteckstud Posts: 6,476member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Kasper View Post


    There are many criticisms, but I don't agree that it's a flat-out negative review. And I read it several times while proofing it.



    Prince gave the first incarnation of the Apple TV the same exact rating.



    K



    We're not saying it's flat out negative but it does read a tad more than slightly biased.



    I also don't recall the Apple TV ever being referred to as an experiment.
  • Reply 18 of 47
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by teckstud View Post


    I think the seamless integration of purchasing the media itself is pretty revolutionary. And it has received 4 stars from 649 cunstomer reviews so people do like it.

    However I'm not surprised that it won't be liked here at AI.

    Afterall this is not the Amazon Insider.





    Well hold your horses. I happen to be an Apple Girl and I love the Kindle 2.



    A huge reason is the Text-to-Speech feature.



    I have a fettish for "erotica" (mainly Jackie Christian in the Kindle Store) and

    let me tell you--until you've heard the Kindle 2 Female Robot reading you a

    good down and dirty Jackie Christian sex book, you haven't lived!







    The other book I mentioned in my first post is good for that, too, but that one's

    more serious and I gotta actually read it.



    Has anyone else notice that when you have an E-reader you seem to read

    a lot more books? I certainly do.



    If anyone knows any other great reads (I'm talking really sensational books

    that you read in like one day), please turn me on to them.



    I'm almost done with Bin Laden's mistress and I just barely got it. I need a new

    page turner caliber type book!
  • Reply 19 of 47
    djames42djames42 Posts: 298member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Kasper View Post


    There are many criticisms, but I don't agree that it's a flat-out negative review. And I read it several times while proofing it.



    Prince gave the first incarnation of the Apple TV the same exact rating.



    I apologise if I seem overly critical of the review; there are certainly some pros mentioned in the review, it just sounds as if it was written by someone who doesn't think an E-Reader device will ever take off (which in point is debatable - as you said, most avid readers love to hold paper, and I'm one of them - but I think it will just take some time to accept the tradeoff of convenience of being able to carry a virtual library of books, much as most people have accepted the tradeoff of diminished sound quality of MP3/AAC with the ability to carry a huge collection of music).



    As for the AppleTV review - I may have to go back and read that again, as it seems to be a very unpopular device (especially amongst AI readers who don't own one). I, on the other hand, while recognising that it does have flaws, find it to be the single best addition to my home theatre. It gets twice as much use as my HD DVD, Cable, Wii, and all my other devices combined (of course hacking it to play DivX content has allowed me to virtually disconnect my old Philips DVP642, but I digress).
  • Reply 20 of 47
    I think Amazon Put a gun in there mouth and pulled the trigger when they released an iPhone version of the Kindle. So if I can download this app for FREE, and then just pay for my books from Amazon, whats the point of spending $200+ on a Kindle?



    The iPhone is basically a kindle. BUT, with a better internet browser, e-mail, an iPod, and a cellphone all in one... and of course no E-ink.



    I understand this is Amazons way of getting people to buy a Kindle. But, I think its too soon to put this App out on Apple's app store.
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