- Review Date: 10/12/2011
Lowest-priced Kindle to date. Significantly smaller and lighter than before. High-contrast screen. Kindle Store is fun to browse and is packed with books, lists, and customer reviews.
Ad-free version costs $30 extra. Page turn buttons are a little awkward to press. No memory card slot or ePub support.
The new Amazon Kindle rings in at a bargain $79 price, establishes the new class standard for affordable ebook readers, and still features the best ebook store on the market.
Over a decade after the first ebook readers launched, and four years after Amazon debuted the original Kindle, we finally have a device that could conquer the mainstream. At just $79, the fourth-generation Amazon Kindle is the least expensive, lightest, and easiest to use reader we've ever tested. If you don't need a touch screen or hardware keyboard, and just want to read books, there's little reason to pay more. As a result, it's our new Editors' Choice for ebook readers, toppling the reigning Barnes & Noble Nook Touch ($139, 4.5 stars).
Design, Screen, and Setup
The new Kindle measures 6.5 by 4.5 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and weighs six ounces. It's made of a matte gray plastic, with a soft touch back cover that makes it easy to grip. There are prominently sized Next Page buttons on both sides on the frame, along with smaller Back Page buttons. They're a little awkward to press, because you have to do it at an angle. This is probably the biggest concession to the new tiny size, aside from the lack of the QWERTY keyboard. I got used to them quickly, although using the Kindle one-handed felt a little awkward. Beneath the screen are Back, Keyboard, Menu, and Home buttons, along with a nicely raised, five-way control pad. The bottom edge holds the microUSB charger port and the power button.
Amazon includes a USB cable, but no longer bundles an AC adapter; this means you must either charge the Kindle from a free USB port on a computer, or order the optional $9.99 AC adapter from Amazon's Web site. Amazon also sells a nice executive-style leather case for the new Kindle for $34.99; we received one with our test unit. It opens like a book, and feels sufficiently sturdy to survive plenty of jostling in a bag, although it adds significantly to the Kindle's thickness (if not its weight).
The 6-inch E Ink display features Amazon's latest proprietary waveform and font technology. To my eye, it looks sharp and has plenty of contrast, although the text is ever so slightly dimmer than the previous generation model, as well as a nearby Kindle DX ($379, 4 stars) I had on hand for comparison. The screen offers 600-by-800-pixel resolution (167 pixels per inch), and 16 shades of gray. It's the same size as before; the rest of the Kindle shrunk, not the screen, which is great. That said, the display is still not a touch screen; for that, we'll have to wait for the Kindle Touch, which should arrive sometime in late November. The base model supports 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, but no longer has a 3G option. For that, you'll need to step up to the upcoming Kindle Touch or Kindle Fire tablet, or buy last year's renamed Kindle Keyboard ($139, 4 stars), which is still available.
Getting started is easy: Plug the USB cable into the Kindle, and plug the other end into your computer. While it's charging, you can set it up by following the on-screen prompts to choose the interface language and connect to your Wi-Fi network. If you're not planning to take notes on the Kindle, the only time you'll use the on-screen keyboard is for entering your Wi-Fi password, and running the occasional book search in the Kindle Store. Since there's no touch screen, it works like the on-screen keyboard on a game console: you move the cursor to each letter with the control pad.
Reading Books, Interface, and Page Numbers
Reading using the Kindle was just as comfortable as with earlier models—if not more so, thanks to the new version's smaller, lighter form factor and faster 800MHz processor. One notable difference is that the page refreshes, which usually black out the screen after every page turn in order to refresh the E Ink, are now only every six page turns, thanks to a new caching scheme Amazon uses. The rest of the time, you just see the letters fade out and new ones take their place. This more or less mirrors what Barnes & Noble already accomplished with the Nook Touch, but it's nice to see it here as well.
You get eight different font sizes; small, medium, or large line spacing; regular, condensed, and sans serif fonts; and a choice of default, fewer, or fewest words per line. You can also rotate the screen to any of four positions, although there's no built-in accelerometer. As before, you can take notes and annotate text, and also share them with Facebook friends and Twitter followers. You won't want to do much of this without a hardware or touch keyboard, though; I'd strongly suggest getting one of the other Kindle models for these purposes.
Page numbers will always be an issue with ebook readers, since the font size throws off the page count and puts you out of sync with other people reading the same book—and that's to say nothing of different editions. Amazon's way of handling the problem is evolving over time. For now, the Kindle displays a percentage graph showing how far you are into each book, as well as its traditional, four-digit position number. Some Kindle Store books now come with actual page numbers, which sync to a specific ISBN in print, but plenty of books (especially free ones) still don't display page numbers.
Shopping, Apps, and Special Offers
The Kindle Store and related ecosystem remains the single biggest reason to choose a Kindle over a Nook or another ebook reader. Essentially, it works a lot like Amazon's desktop site. The store is easy to browse from the device, unlike Sony's Reader Store, and you get the benefit of both Kindle and print edition reviews, meaning that there are far more to browse through. The store offers plenty of lists, and browsing each page requires just one fast page fresh; Sony's store has a penchant for flashing the screen several times with each page turn for some reason. You can go forward or back one page with the page turn buttons, or click Back beneath the screen to return to the main store page. Each book, newspaper, or magazine category immediately opens to the bestsellers first, in order; you can also select subcategories and view those.
One of the best things about the Kindle ecosystem are its cloud-based backup and available free apps; you can read books on this Kindle, a Mac or PC, an iPad, an iPhone, or an Android device. You can also sync content and even the current page you're on across all of them, or redownload books on any device at any time. In general, Kindle apps are slicker than their Nook counterparts. Sony's Reader Store ecosystem has Android, Sony Tablet, PC, and Mac apps, but nothing for Apple devices, as Apple rejected Sony's Reader app earlier this year.
So, about those special offers: Periodically I'd return to the Kindle and find a full-screen ad about bedding and bath products, Amazon MP3, or Amazon's credit card. These actually were offers, not just straight ads; for example, you get $20 off those bedding products, a $2 discount on a specific MP3 album, or a $50 gift card for signing up for the credit card. Those ads looked attractive enough, as if they belonged in a Crate and Barrel catalog, but it was still a little disconcerting to be "advertised at" on my bedside table.
I also saw occasional banner ads at the bottom of the screen, which appear on the home screen and in the settings menu. You can view all the special offers at once, via an option on the home screen pop-up menu. However, not all ads were special offers; I saw one from a cellular carrier that was plainly just a full-screen ad. Overall, the ads are less obtrusive than I expected, but if the idea bothers you, you can buy an ad-free Kindle for $109, or $30 more than the base model.
Other Features and Conclusions
There are a few other downsides to the new base model Kindle, most of which are concessions either to the price point or the unit's small size. Notably, Amazon removed support for MP3 playback, audiobooks, and the ability to read books aloud (text-to-speech). The 2GB of internal storage is good enough for 1,400 books, since about 1.25GB of that is free for user content. There's still no memory card slot, which is another place the Nook and Sony Readers hold an advantage. Amazon says the new Kindle's smaller rechargeable battery is good for a month of average use with Wi-Fi turned off, or about three weeks with Wi-Fi turned on. That's less than what the previous model offered, but given the tiny form factor, I'm willing to give it a pass.
There's still no ePub support, although you can sideload PDFs and .TXT files using the included USB cable. For the first time on a Kindle, you can borrow books from the public library, but for now, that's less impressive than it sounds. Essentially, Amazon has left us in the dark; you have to go on a library-by-library basis, either on foot or via the library's individual Web site, to see if it supports Kindle ebook lending.
Unless you plan on taking plenty of notes in the margins, most folks will be happy with this latest, least expensive Kindle. For the past year or so, analysts have talked about $99 as the magic price point for mass adoption of ebook readers. Whether or not you believe that, at $79, the new Kindle is practically an impulse buy. Even if you have an iPad or other tablet, there's no denying that E Ink is easier on the eyes, works better in bright sunlight, and results in smaller and lighter devices that are a cinch to carry.
Other options: The Barnes and Noble Nook Touch offers a touch screen, and access to B&N's equally-good Nook Store, although the Nook Touch is a little clunkier and heavier than the Kindle. The new Sony Reader WiFi (our full review is coming soon) is as svelte as the Kindle, and even packs a touch screen, although it's double the price, and Sony's Reader Store still needs work. Finally, the Kobo eReader Touch Edition ($129, 3.5 stars) is still worth considering, even without Borders brick and mortar stores around, since it's often available at a discount and has more features. All told, existing ebook fans have a host of reasons to go for a more expensive model. But for basic ebook reading, a solid shopping experience, automatic cloud-based backup, and an under-$100 price, the new Kindle is tough to beat.
More Ebook Reader Reviews:
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Kobo eReader Touch Edition
iriver Story HD
Aluratek Libre Touch Ebook Reader
Barnes & Noble Nook Touch Reader