At a press conference today, Amazon.com announced the Kindle 2, the second generation of the bookseller's ebook reader. The redesigned Kindle - thinner, with a refined industrial design, and featuring text-to-speech capabilities - sells for $359 and is available for pre-order now, with shipments starting on 24-Feb-09.
The Kindle 2 improves on the original Kindle in a number of ways. It's less than half as thick (0.36 inches, or 9.1 mm) as the previous model while retaining basically the same dimensions (8 by 5.3 inches, or 20.4 by 13.5 cm) and weight (10.2 ounces, or 289 g). And although the screen remains the same size (6-inch diagonal) and shows the same number of pixels (600 by 800), it now offers 16 shades of gray (up from 4) for clearer text and crisper images.
Amazon refined the Kindle's industrial design as well. Its corners are rounded, and the device is more symmetrical than before, giving it a sleeker look. The next and previous page buttons are smaller, and click inward to prevent accidental page changes when you pick up the Kindle by its edge. Gone is the awkward navigation slider, replaced with a 5-way controller that's reminiscent of the nipple-like joystick controller used for a long time by PC laptops from IBM and other manufacturers. Curiously missing is some sort of a light to make the Kindle usable in dimly lit situations.
Moving to the inside, Amazon beefed up the Kindle 2's battery, claiming a 25-percent improvement. The original Kindle's battery life was already impressive, thanks to the miserly power usage of the E-Ink screen, and Amazon is now saying that the Kindle 2 will let you read for up to 4 days with the Kindle's 3G wireless access on, or up to 2 weeks with it off. As always, battery life varies with usage, and in areas where there's only the older 1xRTT coverage instead of EVDO, the Kindle's battery will drain more quickly. The Kindle 2 can also now charge via USB as well as from its included power adapter.
Also supposedly improved is page turn time. Unlike a normal LCD display, where every pixel is addressable independently and instantaneously, E-Ink screens must be written a screen at a time, and that process isn't quick. With the original Kindle, there was a noticeable page flash as the page was redrawn; Amazon is claiming 20-percent faster page turns with the Kindle 2. Without being able to compare them side-by-side, it's hard to know if a faster page flash will be less distracting. Many Kindle owners have said that they don't find the page flash disconcerting, though there were also plenty of people who found it sufficiently annoying that they either didn't buy a Kindle or returned one. Despite Amazon's claims, TechCrunch has a video that shows no speed improvement at all.
Another enhancement that may appeal to serious Kindle users is the massively increased internal storage. Whereas the original Kindle had about 180 MB of space available for storing content, the Kindle 2 provides a whopping 1.4 GB of storage, which Amazon says is enough for 1,500 books. Though this sounds good and is a no-brainer given the cost of memory, I tend to think it's irrelevant in most cases, given the number of books most people would buy.
Perhaps the most significant new feature in the Kindle 2 is the addition of text-to-speech. The Kindle 2 offers male and female voices that can be sped up or slowed down and turns the pages automatically to sync with the text that's being read. Most interesting is the way that the Kindle 2 lets you switch between reading onscreen to having the text read to you, enabling multiple modes of interacting with the same text without needing to find your place each time you switch. The sample of the voice I heard on Amazon's promotional videos sounded good, but not as good as the Alex voice in Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. It would be nice if the Kindle 2 had a sleep-timer capability, as does the iPod, so you could have a book read to you as you go to sleep at night, something we find highly effective (see "iPods Defeating Insomnia", 2005-02-25).
When it comes to the Kindle's internal software and Amazon's policies, I can't find any indication that anything has changed. In particular, it seems that Amazon has not improved the layout capabilities of the Kindle 2 at all. The original Kindle can't handle even HTML tables, much less CSS styling, making it acceptable only for text in very simple layouts. That's fine for novels, but completely worthless for modern magazines and highly designed books that go beyond a simple column of text with the occasional picture.
Also unchanged is the fact that Amazon sells only DRM-protected books, which is sad in comparison to the company's sales of DRM-free music. I'm sure the requirement for DRM-protected books comes from the publishers, but you'd think that publishers would have more foresight after the recording industry was finally dragged (kicking, screaming, and suing everyone in sight) to realize that DRM didn't help their business. That's especially true with books, where sharing has long been built into the culture. We have intentionally avoided buying certain books for the Kindle because we wanted to have the option to share them with friends and family.
And of course, although the Kindle provides access to 230,000 books, along with lots of newspapers and blogs and Wikipedia, it offers only an experimental Web browser. That may be because the 3G wireless access from Sprint that Amazon provides as part of the Kindle's purchase price would be far more heavily used were the Kindle to be a halfway decent Web browser. And as before, if you want to convert your own documents so you can read them on the Kindle, you can either get the documents converted for free and transfer them to the Kindle via USB yourself, or pay $0.10 per document to have the converted document sent to your Kindle wirelessly.
In the end, the Kindle 2 is a welcome update to the original Kindle design, but still doesn't change the ebook game in the way that the iPod did for digital music. I can't see most existing Kindle owners paying another $359 to replace their existing Kindles (though you can at least transfer all your purchased ebooks to a new Kindle for free). Were Apple to create a larger-screened version of the iPod touch to compete with the Kindle, I think it would eat the Kindle for lunch.