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Wednesday, March 04, 2009, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

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

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.

Kindle2


Kindle2


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.

Kindle2


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.

Kindle2


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.