Meet the New Kindle

This morning, Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos unveiled the Kindle 2, a thinner, sleeker device than its predecessor. It will ship on Feb. 24 for $359, the same price as the previous version.

It was no secret that Amazon planned to unveil a new version of its e-book reader at the press event in New York’s Morgan Library. But a lack of any other clues to the new device’s looks or functionality led to a flurry of wide-ranging speculation: Would it fix the many design flaws criticized in the original Kindle? Would it have a better screen — capable of touch control, color, or even video? Would it be cheaper?

With the Kindle 2, Amazon has chosen to focus on form over new functionality or mass market pricing. The device is essentially the same weight, but it’s significantly thinner at 0.36 inches. On stage at the announcement, Bezos made a point to show this is about 25% thinner than Apple’s iPhone 3G.

The most-requested design improvement — page-turn buttons that were susceptible to accidental pushes — have been rejiggered: Now, the buttons lean inward when you press them, rather than outward. The screen looks about the same, but Amazon says pages turn 20% faster, and it shows 16 shades of gray rather than four.

A new control, the “5-way button” allows you to move an on-screen cursor to navigate pages, or select a word to look it up in the dictionary.

The most awkward point in Bezos’ demonstration came when he demonstrated the Kindle 2’s ability to play any text out loud, in an automated voice. It sounds much better than most robotic voices I’ve heard, but it’s still too stilted for anyone I know to actually cook or clean the house while they’re listening to a novel, as Bezos suggested. For example, the device pronounced the word “dedicated” as “dadicated.”

The price point stays the same at $359. That will be a major barrier if Amazon expects to see the kind of mass market adoption Apple did in the first few years after it released the iPod.

Starting at $229, Apple’s line of iPod Touch and iPhones have more robust feature sets than the Kindle at a lower price. And now, thanks to wireless applications like the new Google Books, many people are reading books straight from these devices.

Rather than compete with Apple, perhaps Amazon can work with it. During Monday’s press event, Amazon announced a new content management feature — called Whisper Sync — that will allow you to keep your place in a certain book, magazine, or newspaper on multiple devices. For now, that means only the original Kindle and Kindle 2s, but Bezos said the company is working to make Kindle sync work on multiple platforms, including cellular devices.

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