Amazon's [AMZN] new Kindle 2, shipping this week, shames the original Kindle with a host of improvements: better enclosure, faster page-turns, a better Web experience and seven times the memory. But the Kindle 2 is put to shame by the someday-Kindle 3, which exists, for now, only in our collective imagination.
Don't get me wrong; the $360 Kindle 2 is cool. Very cool. But not yet cool enough for the price. In fact, if anything, the Kindle 2 has made me more inclined to buy the original Kindle at its new discounted price of $220.
After spending a week using both Kindles intensively—I adopted a collegiate slacker-at-finals reading pace—I can say that neither device fulfills even a sliver of its potential. But when the next version bursts from CEO Jeff Bezos' bird-like head, I will picket tirelessly for its universal adoption. (Listen to Fast Company's interview with Bezos below.)
I'm usually an early adopter; I've recommended the original iPhone, the BlackBerry Storm, and the VooDoo Envy. But several of the incipient features that debut in the Kindle 2 leave me wanting.
The first is the improved screen, which is especially useful when viewing Web pages on the Kindle's built-in browser. From the beginning, Kindles have had wireless cell-phone radios inside them that allow you to download books from anywhere, usually for $10 a pop. Now the power of that built-in radio is being put to use, with a bare-bones HTML browser that lets you see Web pages in good-looking grayscale. Granted, they look like Web pages circa 1998; the Kindle 2 can't render many of the modern graphics and code that we're used to today. Being a technophile, I want more; color, Flickr, YouTube, and please, oh please, a touch-screen. Imagine something that looks like paper, but when you touch it, contains hyperlinks. That's the Kindle I'll drool over.
Another promising feature is the Kindle 2's ability to display all kinds of documents—not just books, newspapers, and magazines. The old one supports Microsoft Word files, nobly enough. But the new version can display Microsoft Word, PDF, HTML, TXT, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, PRC and MOBI files, giving it real potential as a document repository. You load them by emailing them from your computer to your Kindle's dedicated email address, where they are wirelessly synced to your device.
The Kindle's keyboard—on version 1 and 2—is a piece of crap. I imagine Kindle 3 as having a real input device, letting you edit documents, not just read them. And a lot of PDFs don't render correctly because of the Kindle's 2 simple (but improved) screen; I want to be able to read anything. The new 5-way directional button is an improvement over the old Kindle's up-down scroll wheel, but it's about as convenient as those pencil-eraser mice that used to come on PC laptops. Which is to say, not very.
Stupidly, Amazon charges you $0.10 for every document you email to your Kindle. This is because there is no monthly subscription fee for using Kindle's wireless connection; you pay for it all up-front with the fat $360 sticker price. They presumably don't want users abusing their bandwidth, so they discourage wireless uploads with the fee. You can load documents (plus MP3s) on the device for free using the included USB cable, which doubles as a wall charger. There's about 1.5GB of storage on the device, which Amazon says will hold about 1500 books.
The Kindle 2 can also read to you, in a computerized voice that is by turns natural and hilarious (at one point, I believe my compu-narrator pronounced “dash” instead of pausing at one). It takes much more effort to listen to the text-to-speech readings than it does to listen to an audiobook, since you have to account for its occasional mispronunciations and wacky emphasis. (That hasn't stopped the Author's Guild from attacking Amazon for infringing on audiobook copyrights.)
But as I wrote recently, the text-to-speech feature has the potential to make reading more fluid than human beings have ever known it to be. Read on the train until your stop; plug in headphones and listen to the book as you're walking. Read on your porch until it gets too dark, and then listen to the rest of the chapter. Have Kindle help your kid learn how to pronounce big words, even when you're not around.
Once the voice becomes more human, these scenarios will be practical realities. And once screen technology improves, the menus won't feel so ungainly; right now, the whole screen must refresh every time an aspect of the page changes.
Both Kindles are available exclusively from Amazon, and as I mentioned above the latest iteration will run you $360. Kindle 1 can still be had cut-rate for about $220. The differences will only be appreciated by a true tinkerer, so if you're actually just interested in reading books and magazines without carrying books and magazines, well, get the Kindle 1. (True green-o-philes, however, may want to get Kindle 2 just for the new, no-nonsense recycled packaging.)
In a sense, the Kindle 2 is an incredible improvement because it's bumped the Kindle 1—which is slightly thicker and less refined—down to a reasonable price point. It will eventually pay for itself in cheaper book prices, if you're a big reader; book prices are half-off when you get them in Kindle format.
All the major niceties of Kindle life—Wikipedia access, a built-in dictionary, a word-search function, bookmarking, variable print size, wireless bookstore—are also all built into the cheaper Kindle 1. Amazon claims the Kindle 2's battery lasts 25% longer, but I went days without charging either device and hardly cared about the difference.
Amazon's zippy ad copy isn't lying; you really can settle into reading on a Kindle (1 or 2) and forget about the technology. It's durable and light enough that you can read one-handed or curl up and fall asleep on it by accident.
If you're an inveterate book monster, get the Kindle 1 and be happy with cheap books, a cheap device, and no subscription cost. If you're a gear geek looking for a cross-over device, Kindle 2 isn't it. At least, not yet.