Kindle 2: First Reading and Impressions [video]

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As the media huddled outside the Morgan Library in Manhattan this morning awaiting the unveiling of the Kindle 2, the big question was: when can we touch it? Sure, we came to hear Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos tell us how skinny it is (25% thinner than an iPhone, although he never mentioned Apple's phone by name) and how many books it'll hold (1,500 books), and how many are now available in e-book form (230,000). And it was a kick to hear featured author Stephen King read from his Kindle-inspired novella, Ur.

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But really, we just wanted to get our paws on the thing. Which I finally did, for a quick page-through.

I knew I'd be reading Kindle today, but I didn't expect it would read to me. The new text-to-voice feature is one of the ways that Amazon realized it could distinguish the Kindle from an ordinary book. As goofy as it sounded to hear the Gettysburg Address read by a computerized voice on the Kindle's upgraded stereo speakers, it's also easy to imagine how convenient this would be when your eyes and hands are otherwise occupied, say, while driving. You can choose a male or female voice, and select one of three speeds. (The fastest speed is best; it sounds better than Amtrak’s Julie or Hal 9000 in 2001). I couldn't tell about the volume, though. The lobby where we tried the demo units was crowded and you had to crane your neck to make out Ms. Kindle reading from The New Yorker, a new addition to the Kindle store as of today.

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Kindle 2 is more eye-catching than the original, more Apple-like. Amazon got a lot of heat for the retro look and feel when it launched in November 2007. Critics compared it to a 1970s calculator or medical device. Some said it felt like a prototype that wasn't ready for prime time.

In that respect, Kindle 2 is a big improvement. It feels sleek, with a brushed metal back and pencil-thin profile. It's as though the Kindle raided the iPod's closet and hired its personal trainer. For the most part, the much-needed makeover is excellent. Just as iPod envy befell everyone who encountered the white-earbudded early adopters, Kindle 2 ensures that Kindle envy will set in when you notice a fellow traveler reading one on the subway or on a plane. 

kindleThe paperback-size screen, which was already glare-free and remarkably easy to read, is even more satisfying. Kindle 2 incorporates the latest e-Ink technology, and it shows. Turns out, those 16 new shades of gray (up from four) make the photos in The New York Times even more vivid. The only problem is, my iPhone has spoiled me. I can read The Times on my phone and the photos are in color, just as they appear in the newspaper. 

One complaint about the original Kindle was how easy it was to accidentally turn the page while holding the device. Amazon solved that one by reducing the size of the page turn buttons on either side of the device. That's a nice fix. (Imagine Joannes Guttenberg’s press conference for the second version of his printing press: “I know some of you lost your fingers in the original press. Not to worry, the new streamlined press is finger friendly.”)

The page turns themselves take less than a second – 20 percent faster than before, according to Amazon. Searches felt a little longer but not annoyingly so. Overall, the Kindle 2 is speedier.

One of the reasons Amazon was able to make a thinner device was because it eliminated the slot for a memory card. Although this sounds like a trade-off, it’s more than justified by the seven-fold increase in internal memory. You can store 1,500 books, more than most people read in a lifetime.

The navigation is also an improvement, but it definitely takes some getting used to. It's better than the clunky original, but the five-way controller, which works like a tiny joystick, is not as intuitive and responsive as I'd like. It felt too small but maybe you get used to it. Even so, it doesn’t delight the way the way Apple’s wheel on the original iPod did. It's nice to see where the cursor is on the screen, though. Previously, Kindle simply indicated the cursor's position on a vertical bar on the right, really primitive stuff. Amazon fixed this, but again, if you're accustomed to the ease of a touch-screen, the navigation feels a little dated, circa 2004.

kindle stoweAmazon is trying, though--as evidenced by the announcement of Whispersync. This technology sounds amazing. Without explaining exactly how it works, Bezos said it will allow you to download an e-book from the Kindle store to another device, such as a cell phone, allowing you to read a book on both devices. When you pick up your Kindle again, it'll know which page you're on. That's Amazon's way of acknowledging that people aren't wedded to a single device. We read on multiple screens and multiple devices, and they should all be in sync. Personally, I'm ready for Whispersync today, but Amazon didn't say when the service will launch or which devices it'll be available on.

One of the features that’s improved considerably is the Kindle dictionary. As you scroll through a text, the definitions pop up at the bottom of the screen. No need to look it up.

The Kindle 2 battery is good news/bad news. It lasts 25 percent longer, but you can’t replace it yourself. You have to send it to Amazon to have the $59 battery installed. How often you need to charge depends how you use the Kindle. If you turn off the wireless capability and average about two hours of use a day, the unit should last two weeks.

So, should you run out and buy the new Kindle?  I suppose that depends if you're reading this while "networking" in Starbucks, having just been laid off. Folks, the Kindle ain't cheap. At $359, it remains a luxury item for most of us. And with the latest upgrades, you can see what a luxury it would be to carry over 1,000 books, newspapers, magazines and blogs around on a single device. 

Bezos is right when he describes it as a device suited for long-form reading. You can lose yourself in the text easily on a Kindle.  But in the current recession, when everyone's working harder to do more and saving at every turn, the new Kindle will most likely be a nice-to-have, not a must-have.

A few other highlights from today's event:

While we were waiting for presentation to begin, Amazon displayed a variety of quotes extolling the joy of reading or the power of a good book.

“Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one's hand.” – Ezra Pound

“Outside a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside a dog. it’s too dark to read.” – Groucho Marx

The Morgan Library was a curious setting for Amazon to unveil its new electronic reader. Imagine the launch of the new robot dog taking place at the Westminster Dog Show. Or a jet-pack inventor taking the stage at the Detroit Auto Show.

Bezos inadvertently reenacted the scene from 30 Rock in which Alex Baldwin’s character doesn’t realize his mic is on while he’s talking backstage. Moments before appearing on stage this morning, Bezos’s voice could be heard in the packed auditorium saying, “Hey, what can I say?” In the name of Jack Donaghy, check your mics next time, gentlemen!

Stephen King was today's featured novelist and Kindle fan. He bought his a month after the original came out. The only thing scarier than a good King story? King reading his literary product placement with a straight face. Actual dialogue: “It’s pretty neat. You can download books from thin air. Also, books are cheaper.” But he did promise that the Kindle in his story has more imaginary features, such as access to other worlds. No word, though, on if his Kindle kills off any characters.

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