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Kindle 2 Improves Design, Not Features

Amazon’s Kindle 2 should have been its Kindle 1. That might be a left-handed compliment from this southpaw, but I found the original Kindle electronic book reader to be awkward in design, navigation, and handling.

Fundamentally, the Kindle 2 retains the same software, type display, restrictions on content, and technology as the previous release. Nonetheless, the new version makes a better case for itself.

Function Follows Reform — The Kindle 2 ($359) eschews the first model’s overly designed form in favor of a flatter, thinner, more conventional, rounded-corner rectangle. Instead of a strange iridescent vertical selection bar, designed to avoid a refresh delay issue in the display, there’s a tiny square joystick nubbin for navigation and selection. It’s a huge improvement.

Amazon also rearranged the tiny keyboard into a more sensible, simpler layout: a regular matrix of circular buttons with a spacebar lozenge at the bottom, instead of the simulacrum of an ergonomic split keyboard found in the original Kindle.

These changes aren’t cosmetic. They take the device from feeling like a version 0.5 prototype to having the polish and fit of something that deserves to be released.

Redesigned buttons for navigating to the next page, previous page, or home, moving back to the previous action, and bringing up a contextual menu are all enormously improved, even though they’re all smaller. On the original Kindle, it was sometimes hard to press the correct button, and easy to trigger the wrong action by accident.

The Kindle 2 sports 2 GB of storage built-in (though no option to add more), with most of that initially unused. Amazon estimates 1,500 books could be stored in the available space. The built-in battery can’t be replaced by a user, but Amazon says the battery life was improved.

The Kindle 2 can be charged via a USB cable, and Amazon includes a nifty iPhone-like sleek adapter that’s distinct from Apple’s, but is similarly compact.

When T-Mobile released its Android-based G1 phone, I complained that the maker, HTC, had given little thought to power adapters, providing a cheap and generic brick. Amazon is clearly on Apple’s page about small touches paying big dividends.

Toning Up — The E-Ink-based screen continues to be the star of the Kindle, improved on by what Amazon claims is a 20-percent-faster refresh. I know that the flash of the pixels being rewritten is less disturbing to my eye than the original Kindle. It’s also clear that Amazon and E-Ink have made it simpler for small areas of the screen to be rewritten more quickly to show selections, a spinning progress icon, and highlighting.

The screen now shows 16 levels of gray instead of 4, and it’s remarkable how so few distinct tones actually dramatically improve an image’s display. Dithering can barely work with 4 tones, but with 4 times as many, it works much better.

E-Ink and other firms are working like mad to produce better versions of their paper-like displays, and it’s easy to imagine that with a slightly denser screen with a faster refresh and – dare I dream – 256 colors or grays, a much more general-purpose device would be possible.

Mehr Licht, Said Goethe — The biggest remaining lacuna is the lack of illumination. The E-Ink screen is designed to draw no power when changes aren’t being written to it. It’s the closest thing to paper that you can read on today. But the contrast isn’t high enough for me to read comfortably without direct illumination.

I’ve been reading on the device in a variety of places since receiving a review copy, and most of them don’t work well with my otherwise perfect (with correction) vision. On a tabletop at lunch, I can read a newspaper or book just fine with bright overhead indirect fluorescents, but the Kindle needs to be propped at 45 degrees to get the right illumination. The matte screen avoids reflections at a large range of reading angles.

At home, on a couch on which I routinely read paperbacks with small print, I could barely read the Kindle. As someone who finds direct lighting unpalatable (to mix senses), the Kindle doesn’t meet my needs.

Whisper Me a Book — The Kindle 2 is equipped with the same Sprint cellular data connection for downloading files. The original model had a hardware switch for disabling the wireless connection to increase battery life or when using a Kindle on an aircraft. The Kindle 2 puts the wireless switch into software, available at the top of every menu no matter the context.

As before, the cell data connection is the Kindle’s secret weapon. You want a book? Navigate through what’s available for the device in the Kindle Store, which is linked to your Amazon account, and thus presents you with recommendations based on your past buying habits. Select a book, click buy, and it’s on the Kindle in under a minute.

There’s no monthly charge for the Sprint network; the price of its use for downloads is apparently built into what Amazon charges for books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers.

Amazon calls the delivery system WhisperNet, and it’s rather nice when you’ve subscribed to, say, The Washington Post, to have it simply available each morning, stored on the device.

If you drill down, there’s an experimental Web browser, seemingly unchanged from the original Kindle’s version, which needs an extra advanced setting turned on to support CSS. The browser is fine in a pinch, but it’s not something you’d use on a regular basis.

I’m still surprised Amazon didn’t go for the gusto and put in an 802.11g Wi-Fi chip. With an antenna and certain radio components already in place, adding Wi-Fi might have cost Amazon just a few dollars, and made the Kindle more usable in a greater variety of places. The Kindle 2, like its predecessor, can’t be used outside the United States with its radio on, and Amazon won’t sell a Kindle 2 to anyone without a U.S. delivery address and a U.S.-based credit card.

The other kind of whispering built into the Kindle is text-to-speech synthesis. The Kindle can read whatever text is on screen in a perfectly pleasant voice through its built-in speakers or while wearing headphones. I found the default voice just fine; it might become boring on a long flight or drive due to the lack of human inflection, however.

After some opening salvos by the Authors Guild about this feature, Amazon agreed to make changes that would allow publishers to turn the read-aloud option on or off for individual titles. The issue at stake is whether Amazon is purchasing just the right to sell onscreen reading or also the right to sell audio versions. Amazon says there’s no problem but is trying to assuage publisher and author concerns.

(I’m a member of the Authors Guild, and the group has done a great job in preserving the eroding rights of authors for the last several decades. This may appear to be about readers being denied access, but it’s actually about authors wanting to be paid for their words by those who resell them. I wrote a thorough explanation to accompy this article: “Why the Kindle 2 Should Speak When Permitted To.” You can also read Guild president Roy Blount, Jr.’s amusing editorial on this matter from before Amazon changed its policy last week. And you can listen to Harlan Ellison rant in this NSFW-language YouTube clip, “Pay the writer.”)

Rights Remain Silent — So far, so good. But behind this new hardware sits the soul of the old machine. For the Kindle, Amazon sells only books that are in its proprietary, digital rights-managed format. You’re not buying a book; you’re licensing a specific use on any Kindle you own.

Amazon may extend that to smartphones. The company has made noises about something like Kindle reader software that could access the same library of 230,000 titles. If Amazon follows the policy it uses for video purchases and rental, the media you buy would be stored at Amazon and available on any supported device.

Adam wrote more about this in his preview of the Kindle 2, “Amazon Announces Kindle 2 Ebook Reader,” 2009-02-09. In short, Amazon has locked formats available, and books you buy in Kindle format can’t yet be viewed anywhere else.

Lighting the Fire — The Kindle 2 is a superbly updated ebook reader, and worth considering for any frequent traveler who is also a voracious reader. Instead of carrying pounds of books or facing the horrors of boredom on a plane or in a distant hotel room, the Kindle 2 neatly lightens the load and fills the gap.

For me, the price of the device and its minor flaws keep it off my wishlist: I travel little, have a short commute by bike or car, and read widely enough that the current Kindle library likely wouldn’t satisfy my needs.

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