Thursday, February 26, 2009

Kindle 2 Review: Sleeker, faster, sharper -- Kindle evolves

Many biologists believe that evolution is a matter of gradual change punctuated by sudden leaps ahead, such as those caused by helpful mutations. The Kindle 2 is more gradual change than a great leap, but the changes are welcome.

Look and feel: Streamlined. iPod-like rounded corners. Thin-- .9 cm at the widest point, .6 cm at the leading edge (the iPhone has an extra .2 cm or so of gut). Brushed-metal backing is firmly attached and doesn't pop off, as the battery and SD card cover of Kindle 1 sometimes does (there's a price to be paid, though--to be discussed later). Extremely tight and well-built. One could see James Bond with this device; with the Kindle 1, one could see one's unkempt and abstracted college English professor.

In the hand. The feel in hand is the improvement you notice out of the box. The entire device is thinner, so thin it makes my iPhone seem fat, and slips easily into a man's jacket pocket (it can also slide out just as easily; I wouldn't make a habit of carrying it that way in crowded places). And when you grab it, or hand it to a friend, it is much, much less likely that buttons will be pushed and pages will accidentally turn. This is for three reasons: the buttons no longer take up the entire side of the device; they are tighter and harder to push (indeed, the whole device seems better constructed than Kindle 1); and they work by depressing the edge nearest the screen, rather than the outside where one tends to casually grab the device. You can now safely show a specific page to a non-Kindle using friend with reasonable confidence that the page will still be there when they look at it!

The buttons require a firm click to navigate, and all the controls you need are at the front save for the on/off/sleep sliding button, which is at the top. The days of fumbling for the back of the device to turn it on and off, or turn the cellular radio off to save the battery, are over.

Finally, while some tech writers have criticized the "bezel" as too wide, on the analogy of a computing screen, these critics miss the point. This is a book. The wide white space around the screen is something literary types (you know, people who read) call the "margin." It's where you put your paws when you're holding the thing! It is a very welcome development, and more than compensated by the extreme thinness of the device.

One thing I miss. I do miss the "prev page" button on the right side, because I'm left-handed and my left hand might well be occupied by holding onto a pole on the metro (subway, to you New Yorkers). If I need to go back using only my right hand, I have to fuss with the toggle (more on the toggle in the "navigation" section). Or briefly let go with my left. Or learn to hold on with my right hand. This is a minor issue and one that will not affect many people; on the left side, one has both buttons in easy reach. And wouldn't we all rather be sitting at a cafe table where this wouldn't be an issue anyway?

I don't care how it looks; how does it read? Very, very well. While the screen is the same size and resolution, it now has 16 gray scale tones, which improves immeasurably both reading and viewing of images. For example, look at these details of the Dame Agatha Christie screen saver (note that these are details of pictures taken at an angle, hence the skewed perspective, which has nothing to do with the Kindle):

The one on the left, from the Kindle 2, has smooth gradations of shade, especially in the skin tones, and looks more like a black and white film photograph, while the one on the right has a lot of pixelation and unnatural, sudden changes in tone.

Turning the page. Although it can be said to have turned the page on the future of reading, for fast readers, the slow page turns of the Kindle 1 is a slight frustration, until one gets trained to the rhythm of the device. Amazon states that Kindle 2 pages turn 20 % faster. My somewhat unscientific timing shows that the Kindle 1 takes about 2 seconds to turn a page, and the Kindle 2 slightly over 1 second. It is noticeably quicker immediately. If you're a fast reader hot on the trail of Elmore Leonard's next plot twist, this makes a difference, believe me. Even if not, it is more satisfying not to have to wait for the page to turn.

Navigation. First, there is one disappointment: A file system or tagging system, which many critics and users have been asking for, has not come to pass. Instead, as with Kindle 1, your books, periodicals, and items you have added to the Kindle are simply listed. Using the right toggle button, the list can be easily organized by "most recent first," "title," or "author." "Most recent first means that whatever one is currently reading will be at the top of the list, which I find most convenient. By toggling to the left, one can screen by "personal items," "subscriptions," or "books." It's better than Kindle 1, but only by a little. The ability to add genre tags or even just your own screens ("classics," "hard-boiled," "humor," etc.) would add to the ease of use considerably.

A huge improvement in overall navigation, however, is the five-way toggle (up, down, left, right, and press). In general, the toggle, which replaces the comparatively cumbersome button press to pop-up menu, and scroll method used in Kindle 1, is significantly more efficient. If you want to search for a word or phrase, there is no button to push at all; you just start typing, and a small "find" window appears at the bottom of the screen in a way that does not interfere with whatever you are reading. Push the toggle to the right to "find" the term in your document or on your device; continue to the right to search the store, Google, Wikipedia, or the built-in dictionary. It's nice.

Speaking of the built-in dictionary, the method of scrolling to a line and pressing to retrieve a pop-up with definitions for every word in the line is a thing of the past on Kindle 2. Instead, you simply toggle through the text to the word, and the first couple of lines of a definition pops up unobtrusively at the bottom of the screen. The definition doesn't get in the way of the text, so if it is sufficient, you can just keep reading, or, if the window bothers you, just hit the "Back" button to get rid of it. If you press the enter key, you go to the page in the dictionary with a lengthier definition; select "Back" to return to the text. It sounds more involved than it is; it's really a huge improvement, as is the "symbols" screen, which is now a pop-up window in which you toggle to the needed symbol and press.

It's a small thing, but highlighting is much improved. First, using the toggle, you can more specifically select the text to highlight; no more including the whole line if it's not needed. Second, the highlight actually looks like a highlight instead of a box around the text; it uses a thick, medium grey underlining. Third, if your passage spans a page break, when you get to the bottom of the page, press the toggle button to the right to continue the highlight to the next page. This saves extra keystrokes and some aggravation.

The cloud comes to Kindle. At the end of the list on the Home page are the "Archived Items." Selecting this item on your Kindle 2 shows a list of whatever you have purchased from the Kindle Store that is kept on a server there for you, and any of these items can be transferred back to your Kindle via Whispernet. I find it significant that one can now access the Amazon archives directly via the Kindle; previously, on Kindle 1, these could only be recovered from the computer. Also, if you move an archived item to the Kindle via Whispernet, then delete it from the Kindle, it is returned to the Archive. In effect, this is a form of cloud computing, where the "cloud" takes the place of the SD card for storage. Be aware that this only works for items purchased from the Kindle store; to archive other items, since there's no more SD card slot, you have to back up on your computer via USB connection.

Whispernet. Whispernet is now 3G.

Storage. The Kindle 2 comes with about 2 GB of storage, with about 1.45 GB of actually available storage (Mine actually seems to have more, but Amazon is saying 1.4 GB; Kindle 1 only had 256 MB), so the sleek little reader can hold quite a bit of material. When you press the "Menu" button at the Home screen, you will see at the top of the page, to the left of the time, the amount of free space. Of course, one can move items off the Kindle onto a computer or to Amazon's "cloud" server (although, if section 5 of HR 1076 passes as drafted, many might hesitate to do so).

Something gained, something lost. The sleek design, tight construction, and brushed-metal back plate comes at a cost: there is no SD card for added personal storage, and the battery is not user replaceable (has Bezos been talking to Steve Jobs?) I'm not so worried about the battery--it's supposed to be a much improved battery over the Kindle 1, and I'd wager that by the time it ends its useful life, most of us will be on Kindle 4 (color, 3-D imaging, makes your coffee in the morning). The loss of the SD card bothers me, the cloud server and USB cable notwithstanding. SD cards are small, personal, and convenient. I'm not sure I want my reading list where anyone can get at it. Tethering to a computer, even only occasionally in order to back up groups of files, is relatively inconvenient. I should mention that USB transfer on Kindle 2 is very fast, much faster than Kindle 1--another small but welcome improvement.

A big hiccup for those upgrading. Unfortunately, back issues of periodicals that you bought for Kindle 1 that you want to save cannot be read on Kindle 2. You can transfer them, but if you try to read one, you get an error message. Here is the explanation from Amazon Kindle tech support (who have been very fast and responsive):

"The content that you have saved on your SD card is in fact licensed specifically for your Kindle 1 and unfortunately we are not able to transfer the licensing from one Kindle to another and I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause."

They did send the issue to the Kindle team as a possible future improvement, but this is DRM run amok, and needlessly anti-consumer. I'm not trying to cadge a free issue, get my subscription on two devices, or anything underhanded. I simply want to de-register my old Kindle and make Kindle 2 my one and only, and to be able to continue to re-read a few special issues of old subscriptions. This needs to be fixed, and right away. There's no such problem with books and future issues of subscriptions; those transfer seamlessly.

The Kindle will by default keep 7 issues of any subscription and then start removing them to save space. There is a menu option to "keep this issue," but I would back up any treasured issues to the computer to make sure. This is one area where not having an SD card makes things less convenient.

There was one small bump in the road. Out of the box, the Kindle 2 was already registered to my account, but I found downloads and transfers between the device and the archive on the cloud server quite slow--like 15 minutes to a half-hour slow. A restart through the following route solved the problem, and things are now nice and quick: Home to Settings menu. Press the Menu key. Select "Restart." As a test, I just downloaded the free public domain edition of Stevenson's Treasure Island. Total time: a rocking 20 seconds. If you're getting significantly slower results, try the restart.

Keyboard. The keys are easier to work, but I still don't understand why common symbols are relegated to a pop-up instead of the shift row above the number keys, like most other keyboards. Not a big deal, especially with the new pop-up and toggle method.

It speaks! In a computer voice that is either male (Think HAL from 2001) or female (Think your GPS device). It misses the normal inflections so it takes some getting used to. I'm not sure I'd listen to a novel that way, but for a little diversion in the car, why not? It would be pretty funny to make it read the beginning of Moby Dick by Melville.

The cover. What cover? It's now an extra. No big loss: the Kindle 1 cover is pretty awful. The inside looks like an old piece of shirt cardboard.

A few tips and hints: If you want to find the free public domain items that Amazon now offers from the Kindle itself, search the Kindle store for "public domain." You will get some items that simply have those words in the title, but you will also get to the free works. You can sort further by genre. Quick and you don't need to be at your computer.

To take a screen shot of any page, hold down the ALT and shift key, and press G on the keyboard. To see the screen shot, tether the Kindle to your computer with the USB cable. The screen shots will be .GIF files in the "documents" folder.

Finding a bookmark is a slightly different process from the Kindle 1. In a book, press the "Menu" button and go to "My notes and marks." The screen will then show all your bookmarks, notes, and highlighted passages. Use the toggle to move the cursor to the top of the window, and toggle left to select only your bookmarks (or notes, or highlights).

As mentioned above, if downloads seem slow, restart.

Final verdict: Kindle 2 is a fairly large, if evolutionary improvement. To me, the immediate access to your archives on the device itself in place of the SD card is the most significant change. The improved screen is a close second. Navigation, page flipping, and downloading are all faster. The buttons are more ergonomically placed and operated. However, Amazon missed a chance to improve the file system by making it user-modifiable, and the increased dependence on a remote server may raise privacy issues depending on future legal developments. The device is nice to hold, and feels good on the eyes and in the hand. If you're a Kindle 1 owner with the coin, or if you've been waiting to get a Kindle, now is a good time. If you have a Kindle 1 and don't feel like spending another $359, keep in mind that this device is not radically different and your Kindle 1 is still perfectly good!

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Anonymous said...

Finally, a kindle 2 review that I can trust. Thanks, kindledude.

KindleDude said...

Thanks Anonymous! Hmmm, maybe I should make that my blog's subtitle: "Reviews you can trust!"

Las Vegas Baby said...

Nice review! The Kindle 2 is on my wish list and I can't wait until I can afford one of my very own.

KindleDude said...

Thanks for stopping by, LVB! Hope your wishes come true!

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