I've been a fan of the Amazon Kindle platform since the first device in 2007 and have happily upgraded each year as new versions appeared. My advice to similarly voracious readers has always been the same: Just browse to Amazon.com, buy whatever the latest Kindle device is, and enjoy yourself. There's never been a better eBook reader backed by a better ecosystem.
But then things got complicated. First, Amazon began expanding its platform with a selection of Kindle apps for devices, some of which could logically replace a real Kindle device, like the iPad. And some of these apps, including that for the iPad, include features you can't get on traditional, e-ink-based Kindles, including color, of course, but also interesting new A/V capabilities.
And now Amazon has really mixed things up. This fall, it's significantly upgraded its Kindle device lineup, making what used to be a clear-cut decision very complex indeed. In addition to the renamed Kindle Keyboard--the same device as last year's Kindle 3, which comes in both Wi-Fi and 3G versions--Amazon now offers three completely new Kindle devices.
It's an embarrassment of riches. And if you're an avid reader, as I am, you have some decisions to make.
First, why Kindle?
Amazon's Kindle platform is the only eBook reader platform that matters, thanks to three simple factors: size, availability (on different devices), and trustworthiness. The other possibilities, Barnes & Noble's Nook and Apple's iBooks, just don't measure up. With the Nook, you're tying your book collection to a company that may or may not be around for the long haul. And with iBooks, you're locked into Apple's devices only. (You can't even read iBooks-based books on a Mac, which is unbelievable.) But neither platform can touch the sheer size and depth of Amazon's library of electronic books. So this question is essentially rhetorical. One would have a hard time justifying the other two platforms.
OK, so the Kindle platform is the clear choice. Now, where do you want to read those books and periodicals?
If you own a PC or Mac, you already have two free options: A native Kindle application and the web-based Kindle Cloud Reader, an HTML 5 web app that works in Chrome, Firefox, or Safari. Reading books on a PC isn't ideal. But Amazon also offers Kindle apps on a variety of mobile platforms, including iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Blackberry, Android, and Windows Phone 7. Of these, only the iPad version could be considered a full-time reading device, thanks to its large size and popularity. But the Kindle app for smart phones provides a nice companion for quick reading on the go, and thanks to the Kindle platform's automatic syncing capabilities, you can read a portion of an in-progress book on your phone and then pick up right where you left off on a Kindle device later.
If you do have an iPad, you should at least try out the Kindle app, since you already plunked down $500 to $830 for that overly expensive hunk of glass and plastic anyway. But if you're looking for something smaller, lighter, and a lot less expensive, Amazon has you covered. And for pure reading experiences, as with a typical novel or newspaper, where text is the primary communications vessels, Amazon's e-ink-based Kindles are the best bet of all.
But as noted previously, you now have a lot of different devices to choose from. This year, Amazon offers the following Kindle devices:
Kindle. New for 2011, this base device costs just $79 to $109, provides Wi-Fi networking capabilities, a 6-inch grayscale e-ink screen, and 2 GB of storage. Navigation occurs via a mechanical 5-way controller.
Kindle Touch. New for 2011, this device comes in both Wi-Fi ($99 to $139) and 3G/Wi-Fi ($149 to $189) versions and provides a 6-inch grayscale e-ink screen and 4 GB of storage. Navigation occurs via its multi-touch screen and a mechanical Home button.
Kindle Keyboard. Carried over from 2010 but renamed, the Kindle Keyboard comes in both Wi-Fi ($139) and 3G/Wi-Fi (also $139) versions and provides a 6-inch grayscale e-ink screen and 4 GB of storage. Navigation occurs via multiple mechanical buttons and full QWERTY keyboard.
Kindle DX. Also carried over from 2010, the Kindle DX is the large-format Kindle and somewhat of a niche device that's tailored for text books and periodicals. It comes in a single version with 3G and Wi-Fi networking, costs $379, and features a 9.7-inch e-ink screen and 4 GB of storage. Navigation occurs via multiple mechanical buttons and full QWERTY keyboard.
Kindle Fire. New for 2011, the Kindle Fire is an iPad-like tablet computing device that costs $199, provides Wi-Fi networking capabilities, a vibrant 7-inch LCD screen, and 8 GB of storage. In addition to Kindle book and periodical content, the Fire is also compatible with digital music, photos, videos, and Android apps, and works seamlessly with Amazon's various services, including cloud storage, music store, TV show and movie store and streaming service, apps store, and more. Navigation occurs via a highly-responsive multi-touch screen.
Discounting the nichy Kindle DX, that's just five models. That's not too bad, right? Not so fast. Two of those dedicated eReaders actually come in separate Wi-Fi and 3G/Wi-Fi versions, as noted above. So that's seven choices.
And then it just gets weird. For the Kindle, Kindle Touch, Kindle Touch 3G, Kindle Keyboard, and Kindle Keyboard 3G, Amazon actually offers two versions each, one that comes with "Special Offers" and one that doesn't. So if my math is right, and please, call me on this if not, then Amazon actually sells a whopping 12--yes, TWELVE--Kindle versions, including the DX. Actually, it's really 13, since the Kindle Keyboard 3G can be had in white or graphite. Yikes!
So what is this Special Offers stuff?
A Kindle device that comes with Special Offers replaces the normal lock screen graphic--revolving grayscale imagery of authors, mostly--with ads from Amazon and its partners. Also, on the device's home screen--where you see and choose from the list of on-device books and periodicals--there's a small banner ad on the bottom of the screen. You choose a device with Special Offers, over one without, because they're less expensive. Often, much less expensive. But here's the catch: I actually prefer the versions with Special Offers over those without. And while that may change in the future as Amazon's ad system gets more sophisticated, for now at least, I actually--kinda sorta--recommend that you get the Special Offers version when one is available.
What? I recommend an ad-based Kindle?
Here's why. While there are exceptions--like the annoying ads running currently for the latest insipid entry in the "Twilight" movie series--most of these are for things I actually want. So for example, thanks to these ads, many of which are actually exclusive offers for the device, I've gotten such things as a half-priced Kindle cover, money off electronics and video games, special deals on MP3 albums, and so on. These are all items I would have bought anyway, or was happy to get.
Your needs, as always, may differ. But when you're buying into the Kindle platform, you're also buying into Amazon. Chances are you shop there already, and frequently, Furthermore, you would probably appreciate some of their deals. Just a thought.
Looking back over the various Kindle device models above, this Special Offers thing explains the price ranges you see on some devices. So with the base Kindle, the $79 version comes with Special Offers. If you want it without the ads, the device costs $109.
Expanding on my advice about Special Offers, I'll add that I'm only personally interested in Kindle devices that come with 3G networking as well. This is a particularly nice service on the Kindle, because it's free forever, and it means that you can download new books--and periodicals--wherever you are. (Extra charges apply if you're out of the country; don't worry, it's opt-in.) You can also browse the Kindle Store from the device for free over 3G. It's so useful, my infamously tech-adverse wife has insisted that her next Kindle come with 3G. She's just run into too many times when she's been out and about with the device--perhaps at a kid's sports game or whatever--and wanted to browse the store but couldn't because her current device is Wi-Fi only.
With all this in mind, here's how I'll be handling the new generation of Kindle devices. The base Kindle is out of the equation because it offers only Wi-Fi networking. I wish that weren't the case, because I think I'd honestly prefer its mechanical button navigation to the Kindle Touch's touch-based interface, but there you go. I do have, and will be reviewing, the Kindle Touch 3G. The version I got has Special Offers too, of course.
And I'll be reviewing the Kindle Fire. I wish Amazon's iPad Killer came in more versions, ironically--I'd like a choice of storage sizes--but even in this first release it's very clear that the company has out-maneuvered Apple. This is a very high quality device that costs just $200, a price that makes the iPad look ridiculous by comparison. Yes, the Fire is a game changer for the tablet market just as surely as the iPad invented that market. And yes, Apple should be very worried: The Kindle Fire is that good.
But I'll save the rest of my opinions for the reviews, both of which should be available this coming week.