One thing I've learned in the years I've been reviewing products is that design details matter, even if the eye at first skims over them. The shape of a button or placement of a key can mean the difference between delight and drudgery. So it's not surprising that subtle changes in Amazon.com's (AMZN) second-generation Kindle e-book reader make it a vastly better product than the original.
Introduced in late 2007, the Kindle was a breakthrough in the long-disappointing field of e-book readers. Despite its mediocre hardware design, Amazon's elegant solution for buying and downloading content over an invisible network made it a winner. With the Kindle 2 ($359), Amazon is at last offering a device that is as good as the rest of the system. The combination of the new hardware and its superior book-buying experience puts the Kindle 2 miles ahead of its only real rival, the $300 Sony (SNE) Reader.
Using the new Kindle is nothing like reading e-books on a laptop. You can enjoy the device anywhere you can whip out a regular book and not worry much about how you hold it. This wasn't necessarily the case with the Kindle 1. So much of its surface was covered with buttons that I never knew quite where to put my hands, and I was forever unintentionally turning pages, jumping to the menu, or triggering some other disruption.
The Kindle 2's buttons are much smaller and better placed. The ones that turn pages have been redesigned and no longer respond to a stray press on the edge of the reader. The odd scroll wheel on the original Kindle has been replaced by a more traditional five-way navigation control of the sort used on many cell phones. These changes—a cleaner look overall and half the thickness (just over a third of an inch)—add up to a far more pleasant experience.
Amazon also either left alone or improved the parts that worked well. Delivery of books, magazines, and newspapers is done over the Sprint (S) wireless broadband network and requires no user registration or extra fees. Purchases are billed to your Amazon account, and the cost of the network is built into the price. (One downside: Amazon's choice of network technology, along with content-licensing issues, limits the Kindle to the U.S. market, at least for now.) A redesigned keyboard lets you check for titles in the Kindle store, search for text in a book, or add annotations or bookmarks.
There are other nifty improvements: The display, based on technology from E Ink in Cambridge, Mass., supports 16 shades of grey instead of 4. Power consumption, low to begin with, has been cut further, so the battery lasts for days at a stretch. Pages turn a bit faster, and the Kindle can even read text to you—though no one will confuse its synthesized voice with that of an audiobook. There's enough memory to store 1,500 books, so managing your library is likely to be a bigger problem than running out of space. If you have multiple Kindles, new or old, linked to the same Amazon account, downloaded content appears on all of them. And Amazon promises, a bit vaguely, the future ability to load Kindle books onto other devices.
Not Perfect in Dim Light
There are things that could be done to make the Kindle even better. The E Ink display, which relies on reflected light rather than the backlight used by a computer or phone screen, is easy on the eyes, provided the lighting is good. But, as with Kindle 1, the letters are dark grey on light grey rather than black on white and thus a little hard to read in dim conditions. And too often I find that the book I want isn't available, even though Amazon offers more than 200,000 titles. (Prices range from $1 to around $15, with most books going for $10.) One last gripe, which isn't going to change: Unlike a paper book, a Kindle title can't be sold or given away when you're done with it.
Ultimately, the best market for the Kindle may be as a replacement for huge, expensive textbooks. But textbooks need a low-cost, large-format display and, especially for K-12 education, color. E Ink is working on both, but neither is likely in the near term.
I still prefer the old-fashioned pleasure of reading ink-and-paper books. But a couple of weeks with the Kindle 2 is converting me. The ability to carry a whole library in a 10-oz. package makes it a reader's treasure.