With so many new Kindles to choose from, it's important to make the right decision for you and your family. Do you go all-in with a Kindle Fire? Skate by with the bargain basement Kindle? Or, like Goldilocks, do you choose something in the middle? The $100 Kindle Touch ($139 without ads) is that middle option. While the touchscreen might feel like a "new and fresh" twist on the typical e-reader, in reality the device is still riffing on Amazon's original Kindle, with few tweaks to shake up that landmark experience. It's still about reading books. So, what's new, and how well does it work? Well, that's what the review is for.
Hardware / design
There's minimal perfection and there's bland
Unlike some products (the Droid line, for instance), the Kindle seems more staid design-wise with every generational refresh. The last generation (now known as the Kindle Keyboard, still available for $99), a minimal, razor-thin work of art, might've been Amazon's peak. There's nothing wrong with the Kindle Touch's looks, they're just plain. Amazon might argue that this is all about making the device "disappear" while you read a book, which certainly still holds true, but there's minimal perfection and there's just bland.
Fun anecdote: my dad is sort of "gray blind," which means, among other things, that he sometimes has trouble seeing gray cars. I've been in a couple near-accidents with him driving because he simply didn't see the car in the intersection. If I threw the Kindle Touch at him, he might not be able to catch it. The device is coated with quality gray ("gunmetal") plastic, with the back's two-toned assembly reminiscent of the Nexus One, and it's easily unnoticed.
The front of the device is a screen and solitary home button. The button is just a series of ridges, ostensibly meant to represent the list of books they pull up. The screen is relatively deeply inset, thanks to the optical touch recognition (the same tech, and the same inset, is present on the Nook Simple Touch), and the surrounding gray bezel is just wide enough to be comfortably braced by a thumb when in the Standard Reading Position. The last Kindle's screen was almost exactly flush with the surrounding plastic, but to the Kindle Touch's credit, there's such a thing as too thin, and I actually find the slightly chunkier Touch more comfortable to hold for long periods of time.
There's such a thing as too thin, and I find the chunkier Touch more comfortable
The only other button on the device is the lock / unlock / power button on the bottom, which is situated right next to the headphone jack and USB plug. While tapping a button to unlock the device seems totally reasonable, the Nook's slide-to-unlock is much more intuitive to me. If I set the Kindle down for a couple minutes and the screen locks, it seems weird to have to go to the bottom of the device to be able to interact with my book again — a combination of the home button and the touchscreen should suffice.
As for the topic of battery life: there is no topic of battery life. It's not something I worry about with e-readers, even with the 3G review unit I have. Amazon predicts a couple months, with live ads being pushed and regular 3G use it might be closer to a week or two, but either way it's not something to worry about.
Overall, Amazon is right, the device does disappear in your hands. I just wish that when I am paying attention, it was a little more striking.
Old fashioned books are still the readability champ
With the hardware out of the way, that just leaves you, Jeff Bezos, and the touchscreen. To be clear, this screen is the same "E Ink Pearl" screen that's been kicking around the e-reader space for a couple of years. What's new (at least as far as Amazon is concerned) is the touch sensing, which is actually embedded in the bezel and works optically, meaning you can use it with gloves on, and there's nothing on top of the E Ink to lessen readability (a problem with early touch e-readers).
Amazon's picked up the same tricks that the Nook Simple Touch uses to speed up page turns. The technique is pretty simple: instead of wiping the screen with each page turn, the E Ink beads only change the necessary pixels to show the new data. There's a small amount of artifacting, which gets cleared out every sixth page turn with an old fashioned wipe, but the page turns are near immediate, and much less jarring. It's a great hack that makes E Ink page turns finally completely tolerable. I don't have any science to back this up, but I'd say the Nook's page turns (which recently benefited from a software update) are just a hair faster. Also, for whatever reason, the Nook's screen feels like it has slightly better contrast as well. I don't know if this has to do with different E Ink crops, software optimizations, or what. Either way, it's not a major difference.
Speaking of contrast: E Ink still lacks it. Despite all the improvements to E Ink over the years, E Ink still looks like dark green on light green, and black ink on a printed white page is still vastly easier to read, especially under indirect light. The irony is that E Ink really looks the best under direct sunlight or at least a nearby lamp, while LCDs are best kept out of the sun. Meanwhile, old fashioned books aren't going anywhere yet as the readability champ, no matter what the light is like. Maybe Amazon's plan is to get you to buy a device for each lighting condition —hey, that's what Whispersync's for, right?
Software / touch
Now that there's a touchscreen, I start to think of the Kindle OS as an OS
The Kindle Touch's most obvious addition is a touchscreen, and it works flawlessly. You can swipe or tap to turn pages, and I had little problem doing either — I usually switch back and forth between the actions, but I'd say tapping is my default. Amazon has split the screen into virtual sections, with the top third or so meant for pulling up the menu, the majority of the right for advancing to the next page, and a small section of the left side for reversing directions. Swiping works from anywhere, and if you hold down and drag you'll select text. I never accidentally selected text when I meant to turn a page, but the opposite happened numerous times.
There's a touchscreen keyboard, which works great (just like the Nook's), but excuse me if I'm a little spoiled by the 21st century: shouldn't this thing have auto-correction? As-is, the keyboard is only useful for jotting a sentence or two of misspelled notes, while on my phone I frequently write a couple hundred words of notes in one sitting.
It's interesting how touchscreen interaction can make you perk up and pay attention to software. When all I have is a D-pad, I just want to scroll down my list of books, choose one, and get to reading. Now that there's a touchscreen, I start to think of the Kindle OS as an OS, with features and menus and interesting possibilities — most of which are lacking compared to a full-fledged version of Android.
Still, Amazon has added a couple new features to match that expectation:
My hands-down favorite thing about the Kindle Touch's software. Basically, when you're in a book you can pull up the menu and select "X-Ray" in the bottom right corner, and the feature takes the proper nouns from your current page and shows you how much they repeat throughout the book, in a totally glance-able graphical form. For instance, in the Steve Jobs biography, John Sculley and Steve Jobs are mentioned in the page I'm on. X-Ray shows a bar for Sculley, with a blip at the beginning, a strong appearance in the middle, and then a couple blips near the end. Meanwhile, Jobs's bar is nearly black. X-Ray also works by chapter, or as a view for the full book (sorted by People or Phrases): basically, an index cranked to 11.
X-Ray is basically an index cranked to 11
Amazon has had some hard-to-find games available for the Kindle for a while, but with a touchscreen it becomes much more compelling. There's Number Slide, where you slide tiles around to get them in order — with the black and white graphics, I felt like I was back on my Macintosh SE — and a much more entertaining game called Every Word, reminiscent of popular flash games where you try to guess all the possible words from a set of letter tiles. This isn't exactly Infinity Blade 2, but I had fun, and there's a development kit coming that should hopefully open up the possibilities.
Amazon has had a Kindle browser, labeled "experimental," for as long as human history. I think it's time to take it out of the shed and promote it on the home screen — especially with the touchscreen helping out interaction. It's totally competent for reading the mobile versions of sites (like this one), and I'd rather not have to jump through hoops to pull it up.
Still, none of this stuff has been pulled together in a cohesive "OS." Overall, I think Amazon's key software problem begins and ends with the homescreen. In theory, a simple list of books sounds nice and straightforward, but the reality of this device is more complicated — and the homescreen should reflect that. I'd like to at least see an option to turn on a Nook-style homescreen, which could offer a couple website favorites, the recent books I've been reading (with covers!) and maybe even some purchase suggestions from Amazon's vaunted recommendation engine.
Speaking of recommendations, I should mention the other major tweak with the software: Special Offers. If you want to save $39, the Kindle Touch is available with ads. In reality, it's not that obtrusive. The lock screen, instead of showing a famous author or your JPEG of choice, shows an ad. The same ad is represented in a low-profile bar at the bottom of the home screen. What sorts of ads you get depends on a few factors: if you live in a city with AmazonLocal, you might see Groupon-style ads. Sometimes Amazon has deals on books or other products in its store, and sometimes plain-old ads pop up (did you know there was a new Twilight movie coming out? Now you do, thanks to my Kindle's lock screen).
Now, Chris Ziegler reviewed the new Kindle, and he likes the ads enough to opt-in. I'm not so crazy about them, however. There's something really personal to me about reading books, and it really bugs me having an ad hover next to that experience. I don't like the ad-supported versions of Spotify or Pandora for similar reasons. The other problem is that if you just have the device out and about, you never know what ad it's going to show. I felt like flipping the device over on its face the other day due to a local pilates ad — complete with awkward pilates stock photo — that cropped up while I was at a coffee shop. It's almost like I'm not only being advertised to, but that I'm becoming an ad purveyor myself. The good news is that you can always pay Amazon to get rid of the ads, so there's no harm in going for the cheap version and upgrading when you scrape together the cash.
I know there are several paragraphs above this one, but for me, this is where the decision is made. In fact, this is where my decision was made before I even got this device to review (bias!). I loved the Nook, but I'm invested in Amazon's ecosystem. Hundreds of dollars invested, with both e-books and Audible books (I might be near the $1,000 mark in Audible alone, if you go by MSRP). Sure, I can always listen to my audio books on my phone, and just buy new books on the Nook, but let's not kid ourselves: the Kindle devices make my prior investment even more valuable, and for me there's little alternative in the dedicated reader space. Plus, Amazon's Whispersync puts the competition to shame when it comes to page place and notes sync.
If you're just getting started with e-books, the in-store integration of the Nook is compelling (and the ePub support is a big win for some), but Amazon has plenty to offer there, with a huge library and a commitment to aggressive pricing. The good news is that this is really a mature market now (both Amazon and B&N offer "over one million" titles in their libraries) and between library lending, friend-to-friend lending, public domain books, and the sheer inevitability of e-books-as-the-future, you'll be well served by a number of products on the market — you'll just probably be best served by Amazon.
Amazon's Whispersync puts the competition to shame
Pretty soon Jeff Bezos will show up at my house and pay me to take a Kindle
Overall, I really like the Kindle Touch. Hardware-wise, I found the Nook Touch more responsive and more comfortable to hold, and software-wise I found the Nook Touch more intuitive and mature (outside of the Kindle's amazing new "X-Ray"). But if I needed a touchscreen E Ink reader right this second, I'd get the Kindle in a heartbeat — home is where the ecosystem is, after all, and there are zero dealbreakers here, just slight preferences. Still, do I really need a touchscreen E Ink reader? That's the bigger question. Between the Nook Tablet and the Kindle Fire, there are two great, cheap tablets available — which do a lot more than just books. Plus, with bigger and better phone displays at every turn, E Ink is started to look seriously dated. It might be worth waiting for another generation of E Ink to up the resolution and improve contrast and response even further, but I might just have to admit to myself that E Ink will probably never read as well as a real book, or interact as well as an LCD — although if you've ever tried to read on an LCD in sunlight, E Ink will be an absolute godsend.
More likely? Jeff Bezos will show up at my house and pay me to take a Kindle, and I'll join the E Ink revolution after all, despite my retinas' best intentions.
Too many words? Check out how the Kindle Touch measures up against the Kindle and the Nook Simple Touch using our product comparison tool!