Review: Third-generation Kindle

Amazon brings slew of refinements to the new Kindle (September 12th, 2010)

As competition amongst e-book readers continues to heat up, Amazon has introduced the third iteration of its best-selling Kindle device. The revision offers a variety of refinements packed into a sleek housing. In our full review, we take a look at how the design tweaks stack up against the Kindle's peers and predecessors.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Amazon

Price: Wi-Fi for $139, 3G for $189

The Good

  • Improved contrast ratio
  • Faster page turns
  • Smaller, lighter
  • One month battery life
  • Basic WebKit browser
  • 4GB integrated storage
  • Lower price points

The Bad

  • Lacks ePub support
  • No touchscreen input

Design

Amazon has continued to shave weight from the Kindle, bringing the latest model down to just 8.5 oz. Although the third generation is only 1.7 oz lighter than the first- and second-generation offerings, the savings becomes noticeable through an extended reading session. Weight is one of the selling points that differentiates e-book readers from tablets, such as the 1.5-lb. iPad. We easily handled the new Kindle for several hours without feeling the need to anchor the device on a table to avoid muscle fatigue. The user experience is now even closer to reading a typical paperback book.

Aside from the weight savings, the new design is also more compact and sleek than the previous Kindles. Amazon has adopted a slightly curved backplate, which further promotes comfort. We also liked the rubberized texture that helped maintain grip.

The basic Kindle is now offered with Wi-Fi connectivity, while the upgraded model adds support for 3G cellular networks. Amazon likely made a great decision by following Apple's strategy for the iPad. Most users, aside from daily periodical subscribers, will be satisfied to download books when in range of a Wi-Fi connection, which brings the Kindle price down by $50 compared to the 3G model.





Display

The improved E-Ink display is arguably the most important enhancement of the Kindle design. Whereas earlier Kindles and other e-book readers have a noticeable lack of contrast, similar to a newspaper, the third-generation display looks much closer to ink printed on a book. Although we did not scientifically test Amazon's claim of a 50 percent improvement over the Kindle 1 and 2, the difference is noticeable.

The new display is particularly stunning in direct sunlight, while helping to improve readability in low-light settings. Like most E-Ink devices, the display lacks a backlight for reading in the dark. We did not test Amazon's $60 lighted leather cover, although it seems to be a potential workaround for the limitations of using E-Ink technology in the dark.

The new display helps to overcome the annoying refresh time as the screen wipes away the previous page and builds new text and images. The transition, inherent to E-Ink technology, is still noticeable but much faster.

Despite the smaller housing, the 3rd-gen Kindle retains the same six-inch display size and 600x800 resolution of its predecessors. The resolution seems sufficient for reading e-books, however a higher resolution would be a welcome change when using the 'experimental' browser.

We were disappointed to find that the latest Kindle does not support touch input. While a touch-based UI is not necessarily important for a dedicated e-book reader, it has become a commonplace feature among devices of similar size. Navigating the web browser is cumbersome without a touchscreen, although the Internet experience is still a bottom-rung priority for the Kindle.





UI and controls

The shrunken housing has brought changes to the button layout, while bringing the directional pad closer to the bottom edge of the facade. We did not have a problem acclimating to the changes, however many users might find the directional pad awkward to use without holding onto the device with both hands.

While the Kindle 2 brought ambidextrous page controls on both sides of the housing, users could not skip backwards without using the left-side buttons. The page forward and page backward controls are now mirrored on both sides, with smaller and quieter buttons. The changes also allow users to actuate a page button by pressing from the top or directly from the side. We welcomed the sensible adaptations, which allowed us to change between different grips without interrupting the reading experience.

Amazon has left the user interface mostly unchanged from the previous Kindle firmware. Navigating the UI is slightly faster than previous generations, but still sluggish. The barebones approach is arguably suited to the single-purpose focus, as most users will spend most of their time flipping through pages rather than jumping through the UI.

The new Kindle offers new options for text-to-speech conversion, which now vocalizes the menus if necessary. Users can listen to content listings on the home screen, item descriptions, and menu options.

Browser

We were surprised to see a WebKit-based browser on the new Kindle. Amazon appropriately labels the new function as an 'experimental' feature, however it did exceed our meager expectations. Despite the lack of color, the browser proved capable of loading many complex websites.

Website presentation on the monochrome E-Ink display is naturally limited, while the slow refresh rate eliminates the possibility of maintaining smooth scrolling motions. Image quality tended to be reduced by ghosting, another attribute of E-Ink technology that is ill-suited for media presentation.

The third-generation lacks a proper control for navigating through websites. Users are limited to the four-way directional buttons, causing the cursor to skip around between links on a page. The joystick-style control of the Kindle 2 might have provided a way to precisely control the cursor position.

Although the Kindle browser is a far cry from that of the iPad or many smartphones, it is an interesting addition that can be used to enhance the Kindle's intended experience. We expect many users to take advantage of the browser for Wikipedia searches or e-mail, especially while on-the-go and away from a computer. The browser even works for free via 3G when a Wi-Fi connection is unavailable.



Battery life, storage

Amazon managed to extend the Kindle's battery life to an entire month with the wireless radios disabled. The feat is impressive even among other devices utilizing power-sipping E-Ink displays, and particularly extraordinary when compared to LCD-equipped tablets.

Leaving the Wi-Fi constantly enabled brings the battery life down to three weeks, while turning on 3G components drops the duration down to 10 days. We have not had the new Kindle in our possession long enough to test Amazon's claims.

The third-generation Kindle now offers 4GB of internal storage, enough space for thousands of books and additional content such as MP3 tracks. We welcome the capacity upgrade for the budget-price Kindle, which is now capable of storing as much data as the expensive Kindle DX.

Final thoughts

We were mostly impressed with the long list of refinements that Amazon has brought to its latest Kindle. Although the WebKit browser creeps toward tablet territory, the new Kindle helps to defend its position atop the e-book niche. The compact housing and modernized form-factor also bring a fresh look to the simple device. As a pure-blooded e-book reader, the third-generation Kindle has edged its way to the top. Potential customers who cannot live without a touchscreen interface or support for ePub files, however, may want to look elsewhere.

Amazon has managed to adjust its business model to offer the new features at a lower cost, bringing the entry price to the Kindle realm down to $139 for the Wi-Fi model or $189 for the 3G variant.





by Justin King


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