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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


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.

Kindle2


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.

Kindle2


Amazon Kindle


Amazon Kindle 2


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.

Amazon Kindle


Amazon Kindle 2


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.