Amazon today announced the new Kindle e-book reader, which, in accordance with its past naming traditions, is simply called the Kindle. The name hasn't changed, and there are no crazy new advances—color e-ink and video are still years off, and may never be worth the trade-offs in price and quality over LCD—but this is definitely the most lust-worthy Kindle yet.
After the (now last-gen) Kindle was mysteriously out of stock yesterday, our own Kit Eaton made some predictions. His third guess was pretty much right on the money, but there's more to it than that.
The big changes: The new Kindle has a significantly smaller design—21% smaller than the previous generation, to be exact, while still retaining a 6-inch screen. That smaller size really works to the device's benefit: it simply looks better than before, without the large areas of empty plastic that bordered the screen in the previous version. It's available in both black and white. It's still significantly bigger than, say, the Sony Pocket Reader—you won't be fitting it in your back pocket like a pulp paperback anytime soon—but it's still very thin and light. The weight has been decreased as well, down to only 8.7 ounces, a 15% drop.
The interface has been changed only marginally. The page-turn buttons are now symmetrical, so there's a "next page" and "previous page" button on both sides of the screen. The little joystick has been swapped for a five-way directional pad, which is a good call, as the d-pad is a bit more finger-friendly than the slightly sharp little joystick. The buttons are also "quieter," in case your oafish button-clacking was keeping your partner up at night.
There are a few new features as well, the most important of which is a new WebKit-based browser. WebKit is the open-source base for all of our favorite mobile web browsers, including those used by the iPhone, iPad, Palm Pre, and various Android devices. The Kindle's web browser is, due to hardware limitations, not going to be replacing your iPad for web browsing anytime soon, but I was pretty surprised at how usable it is. For any kind of reading (news, blogs, comedy, Wikipedia, that kind of thing), it's really not bad.
For me, the most impressive new feature is the screen. Amazon's previous e-ink screen was fine, but some other readers (like Sony's Pocket Reader and, arguably, Barnes & Noble's Nook) packed clearer, sharper screens. Well, not anymore, because the new Kindle's screen is, bar none, the best e-ink screen I've ever seen. It's fantastically sharp, with excellent contrast (Amazon claims 50% better contrast than any other e-ink display on the market), and it refreshes noticeably faster (Amazon says 20% faster) than the previous generation, which was already pretty quick for e-ink. Amazon has also taken the time to work on the fonts, offering new, more precise font sizes as well as custom-made, very pretty fonts.
Amazon has also doubled the storage of the new Kindle, so it can store up to about 3,500 books, and has, more impressively, doubled the battery life. With wireless turned off, Amazon rates the Kindle's battery life as up to one month (and a comparatively pitiful 10 days with it on). A month of battery life! That might get glossed over, but it's insane that an electronic device (with a 6-inch screen, no less) could last for an entire month on a single charge.
The price is where I think Amazon really hits it out of the park. Like the Nook, Amazon is now offering the Kindle at two price points: a traditional one, with an always-on, no-monthly-fee "Whispernet" 3G connection, and one with only Wi-Fi. The 3G version, of course, also packs Wi-Fi, in case you're out of range of AT&T's Whispernet network. The 3G version will come in at $189, $10 cheaper than the equivalent Nook, and the Wi-Fi-only version checks in at a checkout-counter-worthy $139. I think the cheaper Kindle will sell by the boatload—that's an extremely attractive price point, especially for a gadget that until a few weeks ago cost nearly twice that.
Amazon is also introducing a nice case accessory. It's book-styled leather, with an integrated reading light that actually runs off the Kindle's own power. So when you turn off the Kindle (or when it turns off automatically), the light turns off too. Nice touch.
The Kindle is the undisputed king of e-book readers, and I think Amazon will sell tons of these new ones, but that doesn't mean they're perfect. The Kindle still does not support library e-book lending—Amazon told me that the process of getting library e-books onto readers is not standardized and is sort of tricky, which is true, but doesn't have to be. The Nook and various Sony readers support library e-books, the Kindle does not, and it's a feature that I personally use a lot. The Nook, the Kindle's closest competitor, also packs an Android-powered color touchscreen, which opens it up for lots more development and extras than the Kindle is capable of, including video playback, advanced games, messaging, and more.
But Amazon still has arguably the best hardware, given its ease of use and design (and now, price), and its store is the most prevalent and often the cheapest. Amazon says the Kindle store is up to 630,000 books, with more added every day, and the company just announced its first million-selling Kindle author: Stieg Larsson, author of the Lisbeth Salander/Mikael Blomkvist trilogy. A million e-books sold is a huge achievement; hell, a million of any books sold is a huge achievement. And though Amazon won't release specific sales numbers, they do say that after the price was lowered to $189, the sales growth tripled. I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that'll continue, at the very least, with the new $139 model.