Kindle 2 Won't Change Your Life, but the Next One Will [review]

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.


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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.


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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.

It's not quixotic to wait for these things: full color, full Web, full document support, touch-screen electronic ink, and natural voice have already been demo'd by some companies.

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.)


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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.


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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.

Read more Fast Company stories about the Kindle, here, and The Fast Company 50: #9 Amazon.

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34 Comments

  • aditech

    Thanks for the information for those who are really
    interested in buying the kindle

  • Kevin Ohannessian

    @ Larry White: If all you want to do it read on the Kindle, get Kindle 1. It's priced right and does all the same stuff. Kindle 2, in my opinion, is better for tech tinkerers who want to the latest and greatest, even if it's half-baked.

  • Gy Hunt

    The Amazon Online Reader now comes in three generations. The first Generation Kindle is the Original Kindle Reader released in 2006. The Second Generation Kindle is called the Kindle 2. In 2009 AMZN CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled the ultimate online handheld reading device called the Kindle DX.

    http://kindle-reader-store.rea...

  • R H

    I debated whether or not to by a Kindle or Nook and decided on the Kindle. Here is a pretty decent comparison between the two in case anyone is on the edge and not sure which one to get.

    http://www.yourhelppage.com/in...

    I hope everyone enjoys their Kindle as much as I have!

  • Chandra Vinning

    I think that the Kindle 2 is wonderful. The released it in February of this year and then turned ariund and released the Kindle DX in June. It's upgrading every several months; so it does not matter if you wait for the upgrade or not because they;re going to keep cranking them out as technology changes; just like cellular phones. I say if you want it get it, because you'll be waiting forever. To try and keep up with the ever changing technology is absolutely too expensive. Besides, you can't puchase the Kindle 1 new or used anymore. I just purchased the Kindle 2 and they even have them refurbished for $219.00.

    --
    Chandra

  • Chandra Vinning

    I think that the Kindle 2 is wonderful. The released it in February of this year and then turned ariund and released the Kindle DX in June. It's upgrading every several months; so it does not matter if you wait for the upgrade or not because they;re going to keep cranking them out as technology changes; just like cellular phones. I say if you want it get it, because you'll be waiting forever. To try and keep up with the ever changing technology is absolutely too expensive. Besides, you can't puchase the Kindle 1 new or used anymore. I just purchased the Kindle 2 and they even have them refurbished for $219.00.

    --
    Chandra

  • Monty Jones

    A review of Kindle 2 on Fast Company leads me to believe that I should wait for version 3 before buying. Version 2 is tempting to me mainly because of the opportunity to reduce dramatically the cost of buying books, but I think I'll wait for the technology to develop further. Others will read the Fast Company review and come to a different conclusion.

  • Chase Trimble

    If you start adding features such as a color display, touchscreen, wifi access, then the price and weight (due to larger battery capacity) would increase significantly.

  • Don Gray

    @joe:

    considering you can no longer buy a kindle 1 new from amazon anymore, yes the demand for it is going up in the used sector.

    concerning the kindle 2 pdf support, are there pictures displaying what kindle 2 does with a pdf? its basically the one thing that'd want me to get the 2 over the 1.

  • George Anderson

    You know, *right now*, Fujitsu is selling an e-reader with a larger screen and color... for $900. That's without the connectivity options, etc, mind you. $360 doesn't get you as much as you used to, netbooks aside (that's an entirely different rant right there: three year old technology in smaller, candy-coated shells).

    *Right now*, Sony is selling an e-reader with a touchscreen for $399! It's called the PRS-700. What's the catch? Glare and impaired visibility. Owners have been complaining about this. Each time you stick something else between your eyeballs and the e-ink you're cutting down on light that passes through. This is not a good problem to have when you're talking about an ereader. Oh, it'll take extra power too.

    You weren't asking for just a larger, color touchscreen, either. You wanted YouTube, for starters. Come on, now. Flash video hasn't even made it to the iPhone, and you want it on something as low-specced as the Kindle?

    As for PDFs, that's Adobe's fault... it's not designed for this sort of thing. PDF format specifies the absolute position of each character and element on a page. Great for keeping formatting and stuff, and publishing, too. Not so good for fitting a letter-sized page on a tiny screen. This is ok on a smartphone since you can zoom and the screen will refresh very quickly. Unfortunately this isn't the case with e-ink screens in general.

    Pamela: that is correct, no backlighting. Backlighting is incompatible with e-ink, since e-ink is opaque. The Sony PRS-700 has little lights in the bezel aimed sideways, with mixed results. Which brings me to something that I'm surprised that nobody has asked for: a built-in flexible arm or spring-loaded LED light.

  • Pamela Mickelsen

    So I have heard that either Kindle is not backlit. Is that the case?