As an early and vocal proponent of Amazon's Kindle e-book reader (see my review), and a daily user ever since the first generation device showed up at my home in November 2007, I feel more experienced than most to review its sequel, the Kindle 2. Other reviewers have spent, perhaps, too much time focused on the Kindle 2's svelte, more iPod-like form factor and too little time on what really matters in what is, after all, just an electronic book. That is, while the Kindle 2 is certainly prettier than its predecessor, I feel that a more important question is whether the new device is "better" than the original. And I mean that from a number of perspectives: Value and cost, usability, and functionality.
Too often, the answer is no. The Kindle 2 retains the absurdly expensive price of its predecessor, a whopping $360, which I feel is about twice as expensive as it needs to be. For all the oohing and ahhing over the new form factor, many reviewers--largely, I'm guessing, people who haven't actually been using the first Kindle every single day since it first shipped as I have--have simply ignored the fact that the new device is actually worse from a usability perspective in many ways. And while I appreciate the many software advances that Amazon has provided this time around, let's face it: These improvements can and should be provided to first generation devices too. How about rewarding the early adopters in some way?
Now that I've raised your eyebrows a bit, let me be very clear about something: The Amazon Kindle 2 is absolutely wonderful for all of the same reasons the first device was (and remains) wonderful. And Amazon has certainly improved some things in appreciable ways. It's just that I'm not sure the improvements outweigh the issues, not to mention the shameful price of this device. And there's absolutely no reward here for potential upgraders at all. If you own a first generation Kindle, there's no reason to even consider this version.
Let's take a look.
When you first see the Kindle 2, you immediately think Apple. Obviously, this is on purpose. Where the wedge-like first generation Kindle looked like a device that might have come out of a 1970's Soviet car factory, the new version is unbelievably thin, a thing of beauty. You know, like an iPod or an iPhone. An item that was not so much constructed as designed.
And yes, there are some improvements. While the Kindle 2 has almost as many buttons and other controls as its predecessor, it manages to appear less busy-looking. And the bizarre navigational well, or gutter, and its associated clicker/scroll wheel is gone, replaced by a more logical four way nob that you can press for selection. It took a little bit of getting used to--hey, so did the gutter/wheel in the previous Kindle--but I'm A-OK with it now. And it works nicely with a new PC-like hand cursor that lets you more easily select text on the device. (It is a lot slower than the gutter/wheel, though.)
Much was made of the first generation Kindle's side-mounted buttons, but like so many reviewer complaints--where someone uses a product only briefly and then just condemns it--the reality is that the original Kindle worked really well. When actually reading on the device, the form factor retreats into the background, and those buttons, well, those buttons are not a problem at all. I had to slightly adjust the way I held the first Kindle, compared to how I would typically hold a paperback, but the adjustment was quick and easily made.
With the new Kindle, the side-mounted buttons (Prev Page and Next Page on the left, and Home and Next Page on the right) are now far more difficult to click accidentally. But they're also more difficult to click, period, and I actually miss the old design, especially the pleasing contour of the beveled right edge. The new Kindle, while more attractive, actually gets in the way with its sharp edges and too-hard-to-click buttons. Too often, I find myself being pulled out of what I'm reading and having to fidget with the device. That never happened with the first generation unit.
There are other things I don't like about the Kindle 2 compared to its predecessor. The new On-Off switch is awkwardly located on the top of the device and requires an uncomfortable shifting around to use; on the Kindle 1 you could simply click two of the keyboard buttons simultaneously to switch the device on and off, a much simpler and natural movement. (The first Kindle also had a rarely-needed phyiscal on-off switch.) Also, the Kindle 2 lacks the physical Wi-Fi switch found on the original. That makes turning off wireless--say, for a plane trip, or simply to preserve the battery--more painful. (If infrequent.)
I've also read a lot about how the Kindle 2 is supposedly "faster" around screen refresh and so on. This is most definitely not the case. I don't find the Kindle 2 screen refresh--where the screen flashes briefly when you turn the virtual page--to be much quicker than that of the original. On the other hand, this isn't particularly annoying on either device. And battery life is certainly not better, another frequent accolade I've seen directed at the new device. I'd call these features comparable between the two devices.
Where the Kindle 2 far outstrips the original Kindle is in its built-in software, which has been dramatically improved. The Home screen is much tidier, and instead of stacking periodical back issues in a sub-page under each magazine or newspaper heading, they're tucked away in a new Periodicals: Back Issues heading, which quickly gets relegated to a secondary Home page, since it's rarely used. Smart.
Contrary to the comments of one particularly out touch reviewer (cough, Mossberg), the Kindle 2's display of periodicals has also changed dramatically, and for the better. In the old device, to read the current issue of a newspaper, you'd select the name of the paper from the Home page, navigating you to a subpage. From there, you'd select the most recent issue, which would bring up an Articles List. This Articles List would vary wildly between publications. For example, The New York Times provided an excellent list with titles and blurbs for every single story. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal (you just can't trust those guys) had a paltry Articles List, where most articles provided only a title, and no blurb. Good luck figuring out what to read.
In the Kindle 2, the presentation of all periodicals (including newspapers, magazines, and blogs) has been made consistent and, I think, better. Taking the NYT model from the previous generation and turning it up a notch, the Kindle 2 experience for newspapers (and magazines and blogs) is much more refined. Now, when you select the new issue of a newspaper from the Home page, you're brought right to the front page of the paper, and you can read it as you might a paper, from front to back. If you prefer to jump around, you can click the selection nubbin once to access the Sections list. And if you click on a number next to a section (indicating the number of articles), you can navigate via an article list. And this time, every article has a blurb, even those from The Wall Street Journal.
Reading books, however, hasn't changed all that much since the first Kindle. Which makes sense, as Amazon nailed this experience with the first device.
Kindle 2 also makes it much easier to access Archived items, which are books, magazines, and other content that you've purchased from the Kindle Store but removed from the device to save space. These items are archived for you up in Amazon's online service, and you can view them on the new device, pick items you'd like to download, and read them again at any time. On the first generation device, you had to use a balky Content Manager that listed every issue of every periodical separately, making for some painful navigation.
The biggest problem with the Kindle 2 is the price. Back in late 2007, when Amazon first introduced the original Kindle, the high cost of the device ($400) was somewhat justified because it was a financial risk for the company and these types of things typically come down in price over time. And sure enough, Amazon lowered the price of the Kindle to $360 in 2008, leading me to believe that this device was following the traditional consumer electronics pricing model.
Since then, there have been no further price cuts. And the Kindle 2 ships at exactly the same price--$360--as its predecessor. And it's even missing a few niceties, like the protective jacket that came with the first unit. (It's $30 extra on Amazon.com.) This is unacceptable. It's unacceptable because the Kindle will never been a mass market device at this price level, and I'd argue that it needs to start below $200 to be truly interesting. As it is, the Kindle 2 is a niche device for people with too much money to spend. What it should be is a "Do More with Less" solution for heavy readers. Now, I happen to read a lot more than the average American, and while I can't justify the cost of this thing per se, I do love it. I just can't recommend it at this price. It's simply too expensive.
That said, once you get over the upfront cost, Kindle economics are sound, mostly because Amazon is selling books at a loss. Electronic versions of magazines like Time and Newsweek are only $1.49 a month (!!!). Newspapers are typically $10 a month. And most new hardcover best sellers are just $9.99 each. This is the type of pricing that readers could really rally around ... If they could simply get over the enormous and unjustifiable upfront cost.
I absolutely adore my Kindle 2, and as with the first generation device, I continue--and will continue--to use it every single day. I subscribe to two daily newspapers and a handful of weekly magazines on the device. And I always look for a Kindle version of any book first (followed by Audible and then an old fashioned paper version) because they take up no space and can be filed away electronically on Amazon's servers for future re-readings if needed. The new form factor, while in some ways less usable than that of its predecessor, is at least attractive and the type of thing that will drive new users. Overall, I think it's a wash: I actually prefer the original form factor, slightly. But I prefer the new Kindle 2 software, especially its treatment of periodicals.
But the cost. Oh my, the cost. At $390 with the very-necessary protective cover, the Amazon Kindle 2 is simply too expensive for most people. And that alone means I cannot with a clear conscience recommend this to anyone but the most determined of readers. Amazon needs to get the price down on this wonderful device so that the wider world can rediscover reading and understand what the fuss is all about. But until they do, it will remain what it's been since inception: A niche product. And that's a shame.
April 2, 2009
Updated November 30, 2009
In the months since I posted this review of the Amazon Kindle 2, Amazon has updated the device in several importants ways, addressing most of my complaints and adding new functionality. This has altered my score for the device. The improvements include:
Better battery life. Thanks to a firmware update, the Kindle 2 provides 85 percent battery life than before.
International support. The latest Kindle 2 units provide an international-compatible Whispernet feature, eliminating the need to manually copy content over to the device while traveling. The Kindle 2 is now available to customers worldwide as well.
Lower price. When I wrote this review, the Kindle 2 cost a whopping $390. Today, the Kindle 2 is a more reasonable $260.
Native PDF support. Thanks to a firmware update, the Kindle 2 can now accurately display any PDF file. This feature was previously only available on the high-end Kindle DX.