The text-based e-reader isn’t ready for the dustbin of history quite yet.
The Amazon Kindle was supposed to be slaughtered by the advent of the multi-use touchscreen tablet. And next to today’s shiny glass slates, the original Kindle, now four years old, looks as antiquated as, oh, the first iPod.
But like the iPod, the Kindle sparked a revolution, feeding a hunger few of us knew we had. As such, it has remained miraculously resilient and amazingly relevant.
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The new Amazon Kindle Touch resembles the original Kindle in function only. It now has a touchscreen. Gone, finally, is the keyboard, which seemed out out of place even on the first model (though in the pre-tablet era, it presciently provided the owner with a way to make a brief pit stop, dashing off a mail or checking out a link). Gone as well are the page-turning buttons as users, even infants, assume and insist the screen be the sole interface.
The Kindle is the last of the three major e-readers to switch to touchscreens. Kobo was first, followed by the Barnes & Noble Nook. But this is not a space where being first matters. It’s the other stuff — the subtle enhancements that solve little problems, and the impressive ecosystem of content you use to fill it — that elevates a device.
These are the things that create a critical mass, and these are the reasons why you should consider an Amazon Touch instead of a touchscreen Nook or a touchscreen Kobo.
Let’s start with the biggest of the little things: the lack of page-turning buttons. Kobo eschews them, and uses each edge of the “page” to go forward or back. But two hands, really, are required for this. Nook uses two configurable buttons on the each edge of frame, so that you can also advance and retreat one-handed. But … isn’t this about being a touch device?
The Kindle Touch re-maps the e-ink page so that touching a thin, one-inch strip of the screen on the extreme left serves up the previous page. Touching any part of the rest of the screen, from the edge of that first inch all the way over to the right edge of the screen, goes to the next page. If you’re holding the Kindle with your left hand, it’s an easy stretch of the thumb.
Yes, we all switch hands, and going back a page while holding it right-handed becomes more complicated. But we go forward a page much more often than we go back a page, so going right-handed as your “resting” mode means this is a giant leap forward. And it’s not hard to imagine a next small step: a software upgrade making left/right implementation an on-the-fly user option.
There’s a thin strip at the very top of the screen which brings up a pop-up menu. Within that menu is another differentiating feature: Amazon’s X-ray service.
When you load up a book (some books, not all), additional data about proper-noun-type references like people, places and events, are loaded as well. All this data is held invisibly in the background inside a small, pre-loaded file. You can call up that info at any time while reading by touching the screen. So, if you’re reading Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs and you want to know more about Joanne Simpson, just tap on her name. Within a click or two are a comprehensive bio and a list of the other places in the book where she is mentioned. Amazon culls this data from Wikipedia and Shelfari, and since it’s pre-loaded, you don’t need an internet connection to access the goods.
This is a godsend when you have put a book down for a while and forget who the players are — even if the book includes a section for cast of characters, pop-up trumps look-up every time.