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This is a preview of the new Amazon Kindle 2.  An actual full review will follow as soon as we get one and have a chance to use it for a while.

Based on preliminary information and comments from people who were blessed to see a unit at the New York release on 9 Feb, the new unit is a tweaked and slightly improved successor to the earlier unit.

 
 
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Amazon Kindle 2 e-Book Reader Preview

What's new, improved and different compared to the original Amazon Kindle
 

The new Kindle is a bit taller, but no wider, and with the same size screen as the earlier model - its revised design makes the sides look wider, but they're actually the same as on the earlier model.

Slight tweaks to the user interface, and minor improvements to battery life and screen display, and some hidden extra costs all make up for a lackluster product, seemingly little better than its predecessor.

See also our earlier comprehensive review of the original Kindle.

 

 

The long awaited Amazon Kindle 2 was announced on 9 February 2009, with first units to be shipped on 24 February.

It appears to be an evolutionary enhancement to the original Kindle, rather than a revolutionary leap forward in terms of its capabilities.

Disappointingly, it remains priced as high as its predecessor.  One would have hoped that after 15 months of too-high pricing, Amazon would have now shifted its pricing strategy from creaming it from early adopters to now encouraging volume sales to a broader marketplace.

If you already have a Kindle, should you replace it with this new Kindle 2?  Probably not.  If you don't yet have a Kindle, is this the device you've been waiting for, and should you again rush out and buy one?  Again, probably not.

The most important part of the Kindle 2 release, primarily focused on this new hardware, is the plan to release the underlying reader software onto other platforms.  This suggests that, before too long, the Kindle 2 may be technologically obsoleted due to the reader technology spreading to other portable platforms.  This is another reason to think carefully before purchasing a Kindle 2 reader.

Introduction - the original Kindle and its evolution

Amazon announced its Kindle e-book reader on 19 November, 2007, with units available for immediate shipment.  We reviewed the Kindle e-book reader within a few days of its release.   Clearly this timing was with an eye to getting maximum benefit from Christmas gift sales.

Within 5 hours, initial stocks of the unit had sold out, and a couple of days later, Amazon indicated that it had so many orders that its next shipment, not yet received, was all pre-sold out too.  The out of stock situation continued until mid April, 2008.

On 24 October 2008, Oprah Winfrey spoke positively of the Kindle on her show, and the apparent surge in orders from that caused the unit to go completely out of stock yet again, with it never being available on Amazon's site until now, with the replacement of the Kindle 1 by the Kindle 2 (and even this new Kindle remains unavailable for 15 days more after its release announcement - something that almost certainly was not a deliberately planned situation).

The unit has been plagued with out-of-stock problems all its life to date - Amazon says it is because sales have exceeded expectations, but the long delays in replenishing stock, and having the unit out of stock during most of its 15 month life to date seems to imply something more complicated than merely mismanaging the ordering process.

Notwithstanding problems with the unit's availability, industry observers estimate that Amazon has sold over a half million original Kindle units.

The unit was first sold for $399, but in May 2008, Amazon dropped the price to $359.

The Kindle business model

It is important to realize that, at either price point, this price is massively high.  Amazon is selling the unit directly, and having the units made under contract in China.  It has no other middlemen, is surely ordering in large sized orders to get maximum production efficiencies, and doesn't have to pay retail or wholesale discounts to anyone, so keeps every dollar of the unit's selling price (with the exception of credit card fees in the order of 2.5% and perhaps a small referral fee to an affiliate in the order of 5%).  This makes the Kindle a major profit earner for Amazon - consider a possible $200 profit on each of 500,000 units sold, and that suggests the Kindle reader has earned $100 million for Amazon so far (in total, Amazon showed a $645 million profit in 2008 and a $476 million profit in 2007).  Even if you deduct a million or two for development costs, that's still a massive profit.  On the other hand, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos maintains that he can't sell Kindles for any less than $359, so either I'm completely wrong, or he is, ahem, innocently mistaken in this claim.

On top of the profit from selling the Kindle hardware is the profit contribution from Kindle book sales.  Although a Kindle e-book typically sells for less than a hard cover book (ie $10 instead of perhaps $15 - $20), but who knows how much of the $10 Amazon gets to keep, compared to how much of the selling price of a regular book, and of course, Amazon's associated costs of sale (receiving, warehousing, inventorying, shipping, returns, etc) are all massively less with e-books.

One research analyst (Jeffrey Lindsay of Bernstein Research) estimated 2 million Kindles sold by 2012 would drive a 0.6 percent drop in Amazon's total revenues because of the cannibalization of book sales.  But new content revenues and lower shipping charges would boost 2012 earnings per share by 9 cents, he said.

If he is correct, this implies that Amazon makes more profit, on a lower dollar figure, from Kindle e-Book sales than on regular book sales.

The gradual appearance of the Kindle 2

Substantive information about a new Kindle 2 (and pictures) first started appearing in October 2008.

It seems from industry rumor and leaks that Amazon initially hoped to release a new version of the Kindle in time for Christmas 2008 sales, but some quality control issues caused its release to be delayed.

The original Kindle was an okay to good product, but had a few minor issues such as the design of the 'paddle' buttons on both sides of the unit, a design that seemed to encourage accidental pressing of the wrong paddle at the wrong time, and a poorly designed protective cover that kept falling off.

All in all, it was a good unit for a first version release of a product, but people were increasingly keen to see a second version, with hopefully further enhancements, fixes to the design limitations in the original Kindle, and possibly a new lower price point.

So how does the new Kindle 2 score on these issues?

The new Kindle 2

The new Amazon Kindle 2 is now available for prepurchase at Amazon, with deliveries to start from 24 February.

The main changes and improvements are considered under twelve headings :

Size

The original unit measured 7.5"x 5.3" and had a wedge shaped thickness profile, being about 0.6" thick at the thickest point.

The new unit measures 8" x 5.3" x 0.36".  It is slightly taller and slightly thinner.

Importance :  Minimal

Weight

The original unit and the new unit both weigh about 10.3 ounces.

The new Kindle 2 is reported to be 0.1 ounces lighter than the Kindle 1 - hardly a major change and not even one you could detect without very accurate scales.

Importance :  None

Cost

The original unit was originally $399, and then in May 2008 dropped to $359.  This price included a protective cover and free second day air shipping.

The new unit is also $359, but apparently does not include a cover ($30 extra for a cover), and you'll have to pay more ($12 extra) if you want to receive the unit via second day air shipping.

In other words, to accurately compare the two units, the new Kindle 2 is $42 more expensive than the Kindle 1.

Importance :  Moderately negative

Display

The original unit had a 6" diagonal screen with 800x600 resolution and capable of displaying (I think) 4 grey scale colors.

The new unit has a same sized screen with 16 grey scale colors.  It possibly may have slightly better contrast, and page turns happen 20% faster than the original.

This is good, but 16 grey scale images are still very limited in terms of quality, and the page turn speed, while noticeably faster, wasn't really a massive problem before - one learned to hit the 'next page' button while reading the last line of text rather than when completed reading and digesting the words, and changing pages in the Kindle is no more cumbersome or slow than turning pages in a printed book.

What people really wanted was a bigger screen (how about an 8" diagonal?), more resolution (how about 1600x1200), and perhaps 16 bit RGB color.  None of these are featured in the Kindle 2.

Importance :  Minimal

Battery life

It is very difficult to get an accurate and consistent measure of battery life on the Kindle - the battery is used up in three main ways - it is used whenever the unit is 'on', it is used to turn pages, and it is used if the wireless transceiver is switched on.

Assuming the wireless service is switched off (which it always should be unless you're about to wirelessly send a new book to your unit), your effective battery life is a combination of the number of pages you turn and how quickly you turn the pages.  Fast readers will be able to read more pages than slower readers.

Whatever the actual numbers are, the old Kindle generally had enough battery life for something like perhaps a 12 hour flight, reading most of the time, and maybe more, which is usually more than enough for most people.

The new Kindle is claimed to have a 25% greater battery life.  For sure, you can never have too much battery life, but this increase is not a huge value-add in this case - you've still got enough battery life for a single long flight, but perhaps not enough for an entire travel itinerary.

Importance :  Moderate

Battery charging

The original Kindle required its own dedicated charger, even though the unit was powered by a stock standard 3.7V Li-Ion battery.

The new Kindle allows for charging via a USB cable which can source its power from just about anything with a powered USB output.

This means you can reduce the number of charging devices you travel with, and that is definitely a good thing.

Importance :  Moderate

Wireless service

There is no difference in the wireless download capabilities of either unit.

Importance :  None

Book storage capacity

The original unit had about 180MB of free space within it for storing books, plus would take SD cards for additional book storage.

The new unit has about 1.4GB of free space within it for storing books, and is thought to also accept SD cards.

180MB was enough for maybe 200 books to be kept inside the unit.  If you had more than that, you could store them on Amazon's site and just download them when needed, or keep them on SD cards.  A single 4GB card, costing perhaps $10, would provide another 5000 or so titles that could all be inside the Kindle at the same time.

The 1.4GB is being described as giving you capacity for storing over 1500 books on the unit, and this is a fair claim.

But how many of us need more than 200 books in the unit at any one time, and, if we do, adding a $10 SD card seems as good a solution as any.

So it is nice, but not really very relevant, that the new unit has greater storage capacity.

Importance :  Minimal

New Text to Speech feature

This new feature will enable the Kindle to read a book aloud to you.  You can choose from a male or female computer generated voice, and can also adjust the speed at which the text is read.

I'll have to hear this before commenting too much more on this.  But, for now, I can't think of a single reason why I'd ever want a book read out to me.  Certainly there may be some small sectors of the community who can benefit from this, but only a very few, and I'm not sure if the people who need this feature would find a computerized reading as good as a 'characterized' reading by a professional reader and put onto an audio-book format.

This is almost surely a feature that sounds good but which no-one will ever use.

Importance :  None

Book selection and price

Amazon continues to add impressively to its range of titles available for the Kindle, and now is claiming 230,000 titles available, including 103 of the current 110 titles on the NY Times Best Seller list.

This is good, but it applies equally to the older and the newer version of Kindles.

Less positive is the increasingly less certain statements about pricing.  Initially, Amazon promised all titles would be $9.99 or less.  The current statement is "Low Book Prices: New York Times Best Sellers and New Releases $9.99, unless marked otherwise", and I've found some titles that are priced massively over $10.

This is clearly a much weaker promise.  E-books are already massively overpriced, as is the Kindle reader.  Amazon and the book publishers need to reduce their pricing to encourage more widespread adoption of the technology and greater sales of the content.

In this context, one can only hope that Amazon and book publishers will quickly learn from the extended lessons of the music industry, which is only now slowly coming to understand that, in order to succeed, they need to sell fairly priced music and free of copy restrictions.

Importance :  None

User interface

One of the problems of the original Kindle was the paddles on both sides of the unit, which were easily pressed by mistake, causing at best a minor annoyance, and at worst, resulting in you losing your place in whatever it was you were reading.

The new Kindle appears to have smaller paddles and more inert space on the sides that will make the device and its paddles less susceptible to accidental activation.

There are extra paddles - the original Kindle had four, the new one has six, providing faster navigation direct to certain features.

There is also a "new 5-way controller, you can quickly flip between articles, making it faster and easier to browse and read the morning paper.  Want to remember the newspaper or magazine article you just read?  Clip and save entire articles for later reading with a single click."

This 5 way controller - looks like a push stick that goes four ways with presumably a click down as well - replaces the scroll wheel on the Kindle 1, in a transition reminiscent of the Blackberry replacing their scroll wheel, but with a trackball rather than a 5-way controller.

This may be a good thing too, but there is a possibility that all these new things are interfering with the simplicity of operating the Kindle.  I'll know more when I have actual hands-on testing.

The original Kindle had a strange indicator/progress bar that ran vertically up/down the side of the screen, the new Kindle 2 no longer has this.

The original Kindle came with a somewhat dysfunctional protective cover that tended to keep falling off.  It appears the new Kindle has no cover at all (we consider one to be close to essential to protect the unit's screen) but Amazon sells an optional leather cover for an extra $30.  This would be very disappointing if so, and boosts the effective cost of the Kindle from $359 to $389.

Importance :  Moderately positive for buttons, slightly negative for cover

New Whispersynch feature

A new feature is the 'Whispersynch' which allows you to synchronize where you are up to in reading a book if you have multiple Kindles.

At first, this seems like a complete gimmick with no valid application at all.  How many of us will have multiple Kindles?

But the strategic importance of this new software feature is very interesting.  It seems to be the forerunner of a new paradigm - making the 'Kindle' concept device independent.  In the future, it is likely that you'll have Kindle software on your phone, PDA, laptop, desktop, Netbook, etc, all of which can access your Kindle e-books, and all of which synchronize your 'place' in the books you're reading, so you can read your books, anywhere, on any device, and have your reading position transferred from book to book.

A related part of this functionality seems to be storing your annotations centrally, so these can be available everywhere too.

Whispersynch has been added to earlier Kindle 1 units too.

It is not yet known the impact of this on the digital copy protection of the e-books you buy.  How many different Kindles and other devices can you copy a book to?  Almost certainly you still can't gift or loan either a new copy of a title, or your own main copy of a title, to someone else, alas.

Importance :  None immediately, but look for this becoming a big thing in the future.  May remove the need to buy a Kindle entirely.

New Competitors to Kindles?

Amazon's rather ambiguous commitment to the Kindle hardware seems to be underscored by its new Whispersynch software, which promises to make the Kindle hardware only one of many different solutions, all of which can potentially be used to read the e-books you buy from Amazon.

Should you even consider buying a Kindle at all now?  That is hard to say and depends on how urgently you want the e-book reading capability.  As of today, there are no good alternatives to the Kindle hardware, but who knows how quickly that might change.

Smart Phones

Some commentators have been suggesting that the entire concept of dedicated e-book readers may be a short term thing that will shortly be superseded by increasingly ubiquitous smart phones such as the iPhone and the Google G1, both of which have some limited e-book reading capabilities already.

Is this realistic?  My feeling is that it is not yet realistic - cell phone screens are just too small.  Compare the Kindle's screen, which measures 3.5" wide and 4.75" tall, with 600x800 resolution, to an iPhone (2" x 2.9", with a 320 x 480 resolution) or a G1 (1.8" x 2.7" and the same 320 x 480 resolution).  You just can't get enough text of comparable size and pixel/resolution quality on a phone's necessarily small screen.

Sure, as a gimmick, or in an emergency, or for a short term, you can read on a phone.  But to comfortably read right through a novel, you'd be 'turning pages' continually and the process would be very unnatural.

Even the Kindle screen itself is a bit smaller than a typical paperback book page and could benefit from being made bigger.  A phone screen is way too tiny for an acceptably convenient reading experience.

NetBooks

A more valid challenge might be from the new generation of Netbook computers that are rapidly emerging.

For one thing, a Netbook computer can sometimes be found for less than the cost of the Kindle - something that clearly illustrates the ridiculously high cost of the Kindle.  A Netbook has an acceptably large screen, with decent resolution, and is equipped with the ability to store, process, and display books every bit as well (or, by most measures, better than) a Kindle.

Battery life in a Netbook may be a bit of a limitation, but other than that, a Netbook with appropriate software (and we understand that Amazon is looking at releasing the underlying reader software onto other platforms) could well supplant the dedicated Kindle device as an affordable and practical way of storing and reading e-books.

Summary

If you've been planning on buying a Kindle anyway, you'll be pleased with the several small improvements and enhancements offered on this device.

If you've been sitting on the fence, unsure if you should buy a Kindle or not, the extra features in the new Kindle 2 may not be sufficient to push you over the edge.  You might prefer to wait for a revolutionary move forward (eg color larger screen, reduced price on e-books, elimination of copy-protection, etc) rather than the evolutionary enhancements of this unit.  Or maybe instead you'll wait until the Kindle software becomes available on a completely different hardware platform.

Lastly, if you already have a Kindle, you'll probably not feel the need to 'upgrade' to the newer model one, unless you are a 'must have gadget freak' - and, hmmm, come to think of it, many of the current Kindle owners probably fit into that category.  Perhaps you could gift your current Kindle to your partner, or a parent/child as partial justification for getting a new one?

Many of us might choose to wait for the Kindle 3.  But, perhaps, by the time the Kindle 3 eventually appears, it will be 'too late', and instead we'll be using a Netbook or other multipurpose device to read books on instead.

Where to Buy

Amazon's Kindle reader is only available through their website and currently lists for $359.

Read more about the Kindle and Sony eBook Readers

Read  our review of the original Kindle for much more about the unit and how it works, and also our review of the Sony PRS-500.
 

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Originally published 13 Feb 2009, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 

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