Walt Mossberg

Amazon’s Kindle 2 Improves the Good, Leaves Out the Bad

Amazon.com has fixed the worst design flaws in the Kindle, its popular electronic-book reader, while maintaining the excellent book-buying experience that made the first Kindle model tolerable despite those problems.

This week, the company released the Kindle 2, a new version that is much thinner, a tad lighter and a bit taller. It has much more built-in memory, better navigation controls and a slightly improved screen. I’ve been testing the Kindle 2 for a few weeks and consider it a vast improvement over the first Kindle, released in late 2007, which was clumsy and annoying to use. Overall, I found the Kindle 2 to be a well-designed, satisfying piece of hardware.

The new model carries the same relatively high $359 price tag as its predecessor, but it offers faster page rendering and 25% better battery life. The catalog of books available on both Kindles has now swelled from about 90,000 in 2007 to over 230,000 today, and titles still typically cost around $10. You can still subscribe to periodicals and blogs, and there is still a crude Web browser built in — but this gadget is mainly for reading books.

Like its predecessor, the new Kindle has a built-in cellular wireless modem that allows you to download books or update periodicals on the fly, without using a computer. As before, there is no monthly fee for this wireless service.

Most important, Amazon (AMZN) has remedied the most irritating flaws of the original model. It’s no longer easy to accidentally turn pages, because the page-turning buttons have been redesigned. You no longer have to reach around to the back of the device to turn it on or off. You no longer scroll through menus and text with an odd little wheel whose progress was only visible in a thermometer-like strip separate from the main window. And the book-like cover no longer falls off.

But the improvements in this dedicated e-book reader, while admirable, may pale beside Amazon’s next move. Amazon says it is working to make the Kindle e-book catalog available on other mobile devices, such as smart phones, that people already own. The online merchant, which is so secretive it makes Steve Jobs seem like Joe Biden, isn’t saying which devices will get the Kindle service or when. I would bet it will be sooner rather than later.

Kindle 2
Amazon’s Kindle 2

This makes perfect sense. While the Kindle project has often been compared with Apple’s iPod, because both are hardware devices seamlessly connected to online-content stores, there is a fundamental difference. Apple (AAPL) offers content to sell hardware. Amazon offers the Kindle to sell content.

If, say, this electronic content were available not only on the Kindle reader, but via Kindle software apps on Apple’s iPhone or the BlackBerry, the e-book market could explode.

Meanwhile, Kindle’s design has gone from chunky and clunky to smooth and sleek. The power switch is now easily reachable on top of the device, and the all-important buttons for paging forward and backward through a book are now smaller — and work by pushing them firmly inward toward the screen instead of outward toward the edge of the device. This means they can no longer be easily activated by stray finger movements.

The weird thermometer system has been replaced by a little joystick that moves an on-screen cursor. The Home button is now large, and has been moved off the keyboard, which has been reduced in size, but is still quite usable.

The screen is the same 6-inch, high-resolution E-Ink display, which has a comforting contrast ratio for reading and uses battery power only when you turn the page. But, while it still can’t display color and still can’t be read in the dark, its gray-shade graphics are much more detailed.

The battery is now sealed in, but it is larger. Amazon claims you can read for four or five days with the wireless turned on, or up to two weeks with it turned off. In my tests, those claims proved true. I took the Kindle on a trip for a week with the wireless turned off and the battery indicator barely budged.

Memory has been greatly expanded, so you can store 1,500 books, up from 200, though you can no longer add extra memory.

There are also a few cool new features. The Kindle 2 looks up words in the dictionary automatically, as soon as you move the cursor to them. It can optionally read books aloud in a computer voice that’s surprisingly decent. And, if the wireless function is on, the Kindle service will remember the last page you read in a book and synchronize a second Kindle to that same place in the book.

There are some drawbacks. You still can’t organize your books into groups of your choice. Amazon now charges $29 for the cover, which was formerly free. And the Kindle still doesn’t work with some of the open e-book formats that other devices support.

But for serious book readers who are tired of toting around stacks of books and periodicals, the new Kindle is finally a pleasure to use.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.


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