For the legions of fans still devoted to the e-ink reading experience — easier on the eyes, the batteries and the biceps — the big news to come out of Amazon’s recent high-profile product launch wasn’t its fancy new Android tablet with a backlit 7-inch screen. It was the line of new e-ink Kindles.
Amazon’s new Kindles bring an updated hardware design to its family of popular black and white e-readers. There are different configurations — touch and non-touch, Wi-fi only and 3G cellular data-enabled — all being sold at different prices, and all of them cheaper than the $200 Kindle Fire tablet. They’re made for people who don’t want the tablet, those who just want to read comfortably in a way they’ve grown familiar with, thank you very much.
The Kindle’s new form factor is noticeably smaller than the previous versions. It’s been shrunk down to about the size of its closest competitor, Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader. The keyboard is gone, shaved from the device’s chin like the beard of a reformed hipster. In its place are four buttons: “back,” “menu,” “home” and a button that brings up an on-screen virtual keyboard, plus the Kindle’s familiar five-way controller situated in the middle.
Amazon loaned me the cheapest one, which sells for as little as $80 (subsidized with advertising, $110 otherwise) and doesn’t have a touch screen. There are also two versions of the Kindle Touch arriving next month, one with only Wi-Fi connectivity for $100 ($140 without ads), and one with both Wi-fi and free 3G for $150 ($190 without ads). The Fire, a full-color, $200 tablet that runs Android, also arrives in November.
I’ve been testing it for five days, and I can tell you that as an e-book reader, it’s better than the old Kindle in almost every way. It’s about 20 percent lighter, weighing six ounces to the older Kindle’s eight and a half ounces. It’s also about 30 percent smaller, though the screen is exactly the same size. The new Kindle’s screen does look slightly larger when you place it next to an older one, but that’s only an optical illusion caused by the new beveled edge around the screen. Other improvements include a slight boost in page-turning speed, as well as new page-turning buttons that are not only more satisfying to click, but more attractively integrated into the bevel that runs around the entire edge of the device.
But the real win here is the smaller size. It slips into jacket pockets and pants pockets the older Kindle couldn’t. It’s also easier to hold while reading, and the absence of the keyboard results in fewer unintentional button presses.
So. No keyboard? I’m not going to lie — typing anything is a chore. To enter text, you click the keyboard button to bring the keyboard up on the screen, then navigate from key to key using the five-way controller. It’s about as painful as it sounds. Entering Wi-Fi passwords or buying books require extreme fortitude — Over, over, down, “M.” Over, over, over, “i.” Down, over, over, “t,” and so on. It’s like trying to master the most complex special move ever on Street Fighter.
Thankfully, you won’t need to do this very often. Buying books can be accomplished primarily on your desktop or your tablet, and you don’t need to type a word to sync the book to the device. In theory, you’re only required to type when joining a Wi-Fi network, and since you only have to do that once or twice, it’s not a big deal. There’s also the option of password-protecting your Kindle, which is probably just there to please masochists. Actually, you could easily set up a one- or two-letter password and leave it at that, since any petty thief confronted with such a terrible text-input scheme would probably rather just huck the thing than try to hack into it.
Whether or not the non-touch version is for you comes down to how you want to use your Kindle. Whereas the older, keyboard-bearing Kindle (which you can still buy for $100) could be leveraged in a pinch to answer an e-mail or call up a web page, that’s not really an attractive option here. If you like to annotate your books, this isn’t the Kindle for you. You’d probably be better off with the $100 Kindle Touch, which, except for the touch screen and the absence of a few buttons, is just like this version. However, I haven’t tested the Touch yet, so I can’t tell you if the technological advantage of a touchscreen is worth the $20 price bump (though I imagine it is).
However, as an e-book reader, this new Kindle has everything else you’d want. It’s lighter, faster, cheaper, and easier to carry around.