Kindle 2: Evolutionary, not Revolutionary

Kindle 2

Me and my Kindle 2

My Kindle 2 arrived today! I’ve only used it for a bit, but I thought I’d share my initial impressions of how it compares to my Kindle 1.  (My Canon digital camera was at work, so most of the photographs I’ve thumbnailed here are shoddy ones taken with my iPhone’s camera.)

WhisperSync

The Kindle 2 has an entry in its main menu for your past electronic book purchases from Amazon’s Kindle Store.  So it was simple to get the ones I was currently reading ported over via the Sprint network.  Sprint’s 3G EVDO network works okay, but my Kindle 2 shows a weaker signal than my Kindle 1, perhaps due to the switch from a plastic to a metal back.  Unlike the Kindle 1, the Kindle 2 can also use the older and slower 1x network, so coverage has improved.  I had to hook the Kindle up to the computer as a USB drive, however, to transfer my public domain books which I’ve downloaded from Project Gutenberg and converted over to the Kindle-friendly “.prc” format with the MobiPocket Creator.

You can still email documents to Amazon for conversion to the Kindle format, and I successfully created a “pictures” directory on it  for image collections.  But unlike the Kindle 1, I couldn’t get my 600 by 800 images to show up on the Kindle 2 until I hit the F key to make them fullscreen, and I was disappointed that the old keystroke trick to make one of my uploaded pictures the screensaver no longer works.  Hopefully someone can find a simple keystroke hack for that feature, since I want my screensaver to show my name and contact information.  I wish they would let the contact info you put into the Kindle 2 show up on the screensaver, but no such luck as of yet.

UPDATE: On March 3 Amazon released a Kindle app for the iPhone.  I can now use Whispersync to download electronic books I purchase from Amazon to both my iPhone and my Kindle, and my current reading location is kept in sync between the devices.  Too bad this only works for books I purchase from Amazon – I’d really like it if my public domain books could also be loaded and synced on my iPhone, and if the two devices kept in sync on where I am in reading a long web document from Instapaper.

Thin is In

Thickness of Kindle 1 and 2

Thickness Comparison (click to enlarge)

The Kindle 2 is much thinner than Kindle 1, although I never found the original model to be too thick.  The feel is a bit better, and the newer unit is just a bit longer than the older one.  They moved the power slider from the top right of the back side to the very top of the unit.  I actually find it easier to reach back and flip the power on/off switch of the Kindle 1 than fumble with the spring-loaded power/sleep switch on the Kindle 2.  I miss the wireless on/off switch on the back of the Kindle 1 – the Kindle 2 only lets you switch the wireless radio on and off via the menu system, which isn’t all that bad but does take more steps.

Recharging now uses a mini-USB port on the Kindle’s bottom edge instead of the old proprietary connector.  So you can hook the Kindle 2 to your laptop computer, etc. and recharge it or stick the normal-sized end of the USB port into the included wall transformer/adapter.  This is a great improvement for travelers, since the wall wart is now optional.  Battery life is supposed to be improved.  I found that using the wireless to read webpages on the Kindle 1 drained its battery pretty quickly, and leaving the unit out in the car in winter time also reduced the battery life.  One minor downside for the Kindle 2 is that its LED light glows yellow while charging and green when charged up, and my deuteranomaly (green weak colorblindness) makes it quite difficult for me to distinguish the two.

Apple-Influenced Design

Back Comparison (click to enlarge)

Back Comparison (click to enlarge)

That power cord/adapter design is like that of the new iPhone, and several other aspects of the redesign reflect the choices Apple has pioneered in its mobile electronic devices.  The ultra-thin case requires a non-accessible battery and provides no expansion options.  The back of the Kindle 2 is much like a 1st generation iPhone with a smooth metal back and plastic top portion for the wireless antenna.  It has two embedded speakers as well.  I like this flat rounded case better than the wedge forms of the Kindle 1’s all-plastic case.  The Kindle 1’s gray “gripper” insert on the back tends to slip out and there is nothing removable on the Kindle 2.  But I may find I miss the higher friction coefficient of that plastic insert.

Thankfully they’ve increased the built-in memory from 256 kilobytes to 2 gigabytes, which will hold more books than you’ll ever need at once, so I won’t miss the SD card slot.  With the limited memory the built-in audiobook and MP3 player capabilities are afterthoughts and not primary features, although the new text-to-speech feature of the Kindle 2 could be useful at times.  I find the male voice less grating than the female one, but they are both quite mechanical and fail to pause for periods, etc.  This feature certainly won’t displace audiobooks for most folks.

Navigation

Kindle 2

Kindle 2 (click to enlarge)

The biggest design mistake in the Kindle 1 was the enormous Page Forward and Back buttons on the sides, which were too easy to depress when picking up or holding the unit.  A rubber band under the right-side Page Forward button helped a lot, but the Kindle 2 solves the problem entirely with smaller buttons that bend inward rather than outward.

I like the little push-to-click joystick on the Kindle 2, which allows you to move a cursor around the screen.  The Kindle 1’s scrollable magic sidebar was adequate and interesting, but more limited.  There are lots of little tweaks in the new software, allowing you to more easily conduct Google and Wikipedia internet searches and re-sort your list of content.  Speaking of the internet function, it is still quite slow and limited compared to an iPhone, but you do get a progress report as pages load up and the movable cursor makes selecting links and filling in dialog boxes far less cumbersome.  Instapaper is still the way to go in saving long articles off the web for later reading.

The new keyboard is a slight improvement over the original, although both are minimalist and one really misses those symbol keys when accessing the internet.  Here is where the old magic scrollbar was better – zipping up and down a vertical symbol list is easier than using the joystick to maneuver around a grid of symbols on the newer unit.

The new display is no larger in size or pixel count than before, although it does refresh a bit faster, has that movable cursor, and provides 16 instead of 4 levels of gray.  Book illustrations look a tad better, but they are still pretty lousy.  The Kindle is still very much a text-focused device that presents clear, resizable fonts and avoids the eyestrain inherent to the iPhone’s small backlit display.  I have used the ebook applications for the iPhone and I would never read a novel on it, yet I’ve happily read over two dozen on my Kindle 1.

Cover Story

Cover Comparison (click to enlarge)

Cover Comparison (click to enlarge)

Taking yet another cue from Apple, Amazon no longer bundles a leather cover for the Kindle 2.  I really liked the cover that came with the Kindle 1, especially with its elastic strap to hold it shut.  The new $30 leather case is stylish, but I miss that strap.  One thing they did fix was how the Kindle 1 cover can come loose at times.  The new one uses two metal hooks to ensure a firm hold.  You can also buy a variety of different covers for the Kindle 2, but I like the default just fine.

Experiments

The limited web browser and audio functions are still considered “experimental” on the Kindle 2, along with its new text-to-speech feature, which is easy to control from the font size menu.  The Kindle 1’s experimental NowNow ask-a-question service was discontinued – it had already disappeared in the recent firmware update for the Kindle 1.  I never used it, so I certainly won’t miss it.

Initial Verdict

Amazon made many right choices in this redesign, but there are some downsides as well.  Should you upgrade from a Kindle 1 to a Kindle 2?  I’d say no.  The enhancements are not all that significant – they will certainly help sales, but the Kindle 1 is still quite worthy.  So if you’ve been reluctant to invest in a Kindle, you might consider grabbing a Kindle 1 on eBay if you can get a good price.  If you like to read novels and long textual web articles, you might get a kick out of the portability of a Kindle 2.  And if you’re both a heavy reader and a frequent traveler, the Kindle 1 or 2 is made for you.

I look forward to future E Ink displays that are larger color touchscreens for newspapers, journals, and textbooks.  But for reading a novel, the Kindle 1 or the Kindle 2 are more than good enough.

UPDATE – three days later:

Having used the Kindle 2 now for a few days, I can reaffirm that the device is great for text and terrible for most else.  The web browsing experience continues to be extremely slow and painful unless you are reading lengthy text passages.  For long text articles, however, the Kindle is great if you save your webpages to Instapaper and then use its Text output function rather than trying to view the webpages in their original formats.  With the text mode of Instapaper the pages load up quickly, and the Kindle 2 improves on the Kindle 1’s web experience by overlapping each page view with a line of repeated text, allowing you to use the joystick to scroll down to see the next page rather than having to always use the Next Page buttons, and making it much easier to enter login usernames and passwords.  But loading graphics still takes too long and the Kindle 2 takes its own sweet time formatting lengthy pages that include graphics, oddly not displaying its “processing” wheel in the upper left corner as it slowly renders the page for later display.

I am becoming more fond of the joystick, although when scrolling down lists I still miss the scroll wheel of the Kindle 1.  The battery life is noticeably better, but powering the wireless on and off still takes a heavy toll on the remaining charge.  The buttons are superb, although there are occasions when I think I’ve pressed a button and it hasn’t registered because they have far more resistance than the click-happy controls of the Kindle 1.  My remaining pet peeve is that I have yet to find a way to change the default screen savers.

Ars Technica now has an informative and well-reasoned Kindle 2 review.

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife Wendy and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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