Issue #69

Last Update October 31, 2010

Technology  Kindle 2.0 by David Katz February 28, 2009   After using the Kindle 1 electronic book reader for a year, I am an enthusiastic ebook fan. Now that the Kindle 2 is out, I have purchased one and passed my old Kindle on to my wife.  How do the Kindles compare? Has the Kindle 2 corrected the faults of the Kindle 1. Has it added functionality not present on the original Kindle? If you have a Kindle 1, should you upgrade to a 2?  Is there a better reader out there? If so, at what price?

First, let's review the Kindle 1's capabilities and problems (see our earlier New York Stringer review, "Kindle"). The Kindle is about 8" x 5.3", with a 6" diagonal e-ink reading surface on top and an odd, qwerty keyboard with slanting rectangular keys at the bottom. E-ink makes for a screen almost as readable as the printed page, with minimal eye strain. Still in black and white, with no backlighting to wear down the battery and give eye-strain, the "printed" page is static and draws no battery current until the page is turned, resulting in a very satisfactory battery life for reading. Type size can be changed at the push of a button, a very handy feature for people with vision problems, and for reading in dim light, where a larger than usual font size would help. A cellular broadband facility is included (internet access free of charge to the user), with an on/off switch in the back of the Kindle controlling it. Use of the broadband capability shortens battery life considerably, so the switch is best kept off unless buying reading material from Amazon or doing limited web surfing, such as checking Wikipedia or MSNBC news. The ability to play MP3s as background music is included.

The Kindle 1, however, has some problems. The size and location of the page turning (Next and Previous Page) keys makes it easy to turn the page inadvertently. Other navigation is by means of a cursor wheel, which gets you to a particular line of a menu or text, but does not permit you to home in on a specific word. The MP3 feature is almost useless except as background music, since you have little or no control over what is being played. The browser has minimal capability, making web surfing a frustrating experience, and email almost impossible to get on this gadget (this is understandable, and even forgivable, since Amazon is paying the internet bill and has an interest in limiting your air time. Connecting to and using the Amazon site, Wikipedia, and a few other designated sites is a perfectly acceptable experience). A removable battery allows you to take the worry out of running out of power, while an SD card slot allows you to increase the memory size from 124MB (enough to hold almost 800 books, if they don't have graphics) to over 2 gigabytes, enough, if not for the Library of Congress, certainly for all the reading material you would need for a round-the-world cruise. Of course, some of the memory is taken up by the Kindle's software, and you may choose to fill up some of the rest with audiobooks (the Kindle supports Audiobooks format), photos and MP3s, which are hogs for space compared to books and magazines.

The major fault is in the limited number of e-book formats the kindle will read. It is restricted to three: Amazon's own format for Kindle, Mobipocket non-DRMed format, and plain text (.txt). The inability to deal with such useful formats as PDFs, Word documents, HTML (browser documents and pages) and other common business document formats limits the usefulness of the Kindle as a compact, light weight document reader. There are workarounds for this. Amazon allows you to upload PDFs, .doc and .html items to them. They will then convert these to Kindle format for free, if you download these back to your computer, or at a small charge (measured in cents) if you want the document downloaded directly to your Kindle. You can also make use of Mobipocket Creator, a free software package that will convert these formats into an e-book readable by the Kindle, if you are uncomfortable with putting what might be confidential documents in the hands of Amazon.

What does the Kindle 2 bring to the table? In the first place, it is really Kindle 1.1, as many reviewers have noted, in that it is an incremental improvement on the Kindle 1. First, the physical characteristics: It looks pretty much the same at first glance. Although it is thinner and lighter, which is nice, and the same width, it is a fraction of an inch longer, which means that the book cover that you got with the Kindle 1 to protect it when you carry it around won't fit the Kindle 2, which does not come with a book cover. The navigation wheel has been replaced with a 5-way switch (left, right, up, down and in) which allows for more sophisticated navigation, and the menus have all been revamped to take advantage of this. The wireless broadband on/off switch, which is inconveniently located in the back of the Kindle 1, requiring you to take the reader out of its book cover to turn the radio on or off, has been replaced with a conveniently located menu choice. The Next Page and Previous page buttons have been shortened, and rock toward the center of the device instead of toward the edges, making it difficult to turn the page by accident; definitely an improvement. A menu button and a Home button have been added. The menu button brings up whatever menu is appropriate to wherever you are at in the navigation cycle. You then use the 5-way switch to make your choices. The large Home button replaces the small button on the Kindle 1 keyboard that returns you to the list of books and periodicals stored on your Kindle. There is a font-size button on the 2, as there was on the 1, but the navigation switch makes size selection easier that the roller wheel on the 1. Putting the Kindle to sleep (it doesn't really save battery life, but it inactivates the keyboard and all other buttons, preventing accidental stuff from happening) has changed. On the 1, you pressed two keyboard buttons simultaneously to put it to sleep or wake it up. On the 2, you briefly push the power button at the top of the Kindle, which feels a little less convenient. The qwerty keypad is also somewhat improved, with small round keys instead of the slanty lozenges, and a fairly easy way to get to special characters.

Charging is by USB, and Amazon has been clever about it. The Kindle 1 charger, while lighter and more compact than most charging bricks, is nevertheless somewhat bulky and uses a special power tip not common to your other gadgets (phone, PDA, personal media device). The Kindle 2 has a USB cable with a micro USB B tip, common enough in small devices, and plugs into a wall plug not much bigger than any standard plug, saving space and weight and making the charger a multi-device accessory. (If your other small devices use a mini USB cable rather than a micro USB cable, an inexpensive adapter will allow you to use the older cable with the Kindle 2, and the Kindle 2's smaller, more convenient wall plug, or directly from a computer USB port, eliminating the need to carry two sets of cables when you travel.)

On the negative side, the battery is not replaceable, which is a double disadvantage despite the promised longer battery life: If you run out of power, you have to find an outlet or USB port to recharge, which may not always be available, instead of popping in a spare battery; if the battery fries or otherwise dies altogether, you can't fix the machine simply by using one of your spares. The internal memory size has been increased to 2 gigabytes, but the SD card slot is gone, so although total capacity hasn't changed, you lose the convenience of being able to pop out the memory card to transfer data to another device.

Besides the navigation menus, there are only a few real software changes visible to the user: an improved underlining, note taking and annotating module, the ability to go from song to song (although not to choose the song sequence) in the mp3 module, and, biggest of all, a text-to-speech module that allows the Kindle 2 to read to you. This works surprisingly well, and while the voice is not as expressive as an actor's rendition of the book being read, neither is it the annoying Stephen Hawking robot voice. This is a handy feature in several respects: it allows you to hear a book that may not be available as a audiobook; it allows you to listen to a book while driving, and, since the Kindle screen is not illuminated, it allows you to read in bed at night with the lights off. There have been slight improvements to the browser, but, as noted above, not enough to make make this your web utility of choice. The most important change, or lack thereof, is in the continued refusal to deal with PDF, .doc, .html and .rtf formats natively.

Should you buy a Kindle 2? If you already have a Kindle 1, and are not interested in text-to-speech, wait for the real version 2.0. The 2 doesn't bring any substantial advantage to the table. If you don't have a Kindle 1, or want to share books with your wife, girlfriend or other close acquaintance, the Kindle 2 is what you get, since the 1 has been discontinued. As long both (actually up to 5) Kindles are registered to the same person, content can be shared among them. Be aware, though that for this to work, all content will be charged to the same credit card, no matter which Kindle orders it. I enjoy the Kindle reading experience, and prefer the Kindle 2 to the Kindle 1 by a small margin, but the Kindle (and all the competing ebook readers) are overpriced. At $360 per, the Kindle takes a while to pay for itself in reduced book prices and travel convenience. At $100 or $150, these would be gobbled up by the public. Amazon: take a tip from Gilette - sell the blades, not the razor.

As far as other readers are concerned, the Kindle has two things the others don’t have: the largest selection of books to buy, and the wireless cellular broadband connection. Both are critical to the enjoyment of this medium. Other readers are roughly the same price (you can get a Sony for about $50 cheaper), are not quite as satisfactory in other respects, although several support more book formats. The only reader that equals or exceeds the Kindle in overall quality is iRex’s Iliad, which has a bigger screen in the same form factor, and a huge variety of native formats it can cope with. At $700, it would make a good corporate document reader, but is way overpriced for the consumer market and, while it has wifi, it does not have cellular broadband and the large number of book offerings that Amazon has.

New York Stringer is published by For all communications, contact David Katz, Editor and Publisher, at

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