The Kindle Touch



A few days ago, a lightweight cardboard box was delivered to the doorstep, and in it was the first Kindle I’ve ever owned: an Amazon Kindle Touch. Not only is this the first Kindle to take residence in the Blanc household, this is the first Kindle I have ever held in my hand. I’ve seen them in passing at Best Buys, coffee shops, and airplanes, but never have I picked one up, held it in my hand, and read.

I was familiar enough with the Kindle to know that it is lightweight and great for reading. I knew that they are famous for how effortlessly you can hold it with one hand and how great the E Ink text is for reading.

For the past year and a half I’ve been reading books on my iPad and never felt a need for a Kindle. However, after now using the Kindle Touch for several hours a day over the past few days, I feel as if all the accolades I ever heard about the Kindle were vast understatements.

A nice combination: the Kindle Touch and a cup of coffee

Hardware

Hardware-wise, the Kindle Touch has several positive things going for it. Most notably:

  • Size: The Kindle is small and lightweight; easy to hold with one hand and read for long periods of time.

  • Battery life: Extremely long battery life; rarely do you need to consider charging it.

  • Touchscreen interface: The only buttons are a lock/wake button and a Home button; the touch UI (though slow to respond in heavy-input areas such as the Home screen or the Kindle Store due to the nature of E Ink) feels natural and is easy to use.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into a few of these:

Size

After using only an iPad for reading ebooks over the past 18 months, it’s impossible not to noticed how incredibly small and light the Kindle Touch is. Moreover, the Kindle’s smallness and lightness are accentuated by a sturdy build and an attractive, simple design. It’s small and light but not cheap or flimsy.

My Kindle weighs 7.375 ounces. The custom box it shipped in, with the Kindle and all other contents still inside, weighed a mere 14 ounces. My iPad alone weighs 1 pound, 6 ounces.

Upon opening up the top of the box the Kindle is sitting there with a plastic sheet attached to the front of the device. There is an image which demonstrates you should plug your Kindle into a computer. When I peeled off the plastic I found that the image was actually being displayed by the screen. I did a double take because it looked so much like a printed image and not like something electronically displayed using a screen.

I plugged the Kindle into my MacBook Air and let it charge. When charging, a small yellow light is on. Once charged, that light turns green. It took about 90 minutes via the USB plug on my MacBook Air to get the Kindle fully charged.

Charging the Kindle Touch

While charging, I registered my Kindle with ease by simply by typing in my Amazon.com email and password into the device. Then I spent some time browsing the Kindle Store, buying a couple books which I am currently reading in iBooks. It’s unfortunate that I’ll have to finish all the iBookstore books I’m reading. The cost of buying those books again just so I can read them on the Kindle Touch is not something I want to do.

Holding, Reading, and Turning Pages

The iPad just cannot be held with one hand. Its weight, size, and slippery aluminum back all force the use of two hands or one hand and a prop. That is not to say the iPad is awkwardly heavy, but it’s not easily held up with two hands for a long time (such as an hour or more).

The Kindle, however, is extremely easy to hold with one hand thanks to its weight, size, and grippy plastic back.

Naturally, when holding the Kindle one-handed, it’s important to be able to progress to the next page without requiring two hands. The past Kindles, and the new D-Pad Kindle, all do this by placing hardware page-turning buttons on both sides of the Kindle. When holding the device (regardless of which hand) you can easily rock your thumb over the button and turn the page.

The Kindle Touch has no such hardware buttons. I was fearful that the lack of buttons would make it difficult to turn pages when holding the device with just one hand. Fortunately that is not the case.

The screen of the Kindle sits about an eighth of an inch deeper than plastic bezel surrounding it. I have found it very easy to simply roll my thumb over the edge and onto the touch screen, and this is all that’s needed to activate a page turn.

The Kindle Touch screen bezel

Holding the Kindle Touch with one hand

However, if you are holding the Kindle in your left hand, rolling your thumb onto the screen will turn the page back, not forward. That is because the left-hand side of the screen is the touch target for previous pages.

The tap targets for the Kindle Touch

Of course, as you can see in the image above, the touch target for turning to the next page is significantly larger than for the previous page. And so, for the times I am holding the Kindle in my left hand, I can still turn to the next page by using my left pinky to support the bottom of the Kindle and then move my thumb over half an inch to reach the touch target for the next page.

Also worth noting is that swipe gestures will turn the pages as well. Left-to-right for the previous page; right-to-left for the next.

The Screen

I had two fears related to the Kindle Touch’s screen: (a) that without the hardware page-turn buttons it would not be easy to turn pages while holding the Kindle in one hand; and (b) that it would gather all sorts of fingerprints and muddy up the reading experience.

Both of those fears, however, were unwarranted. As I mentioned above, turning pages on the Kindle Touch is no trouble whatsoever.

Regarding fingerprints, the Kindle’s touch screen is not a fingerprint magnet. The screen is very matte — like the matte screens on Apple’s laptops from yesteryear but even more matte than that. The screen on the Kindle touch is the least fingerprint attracting screen in my house. Certainly more than the glass on my iPhone and iPad.

A third issue that I’ve heard people talking about is the new way that pages refresh. Now, instead of the full-on black-to-white blink that the Kindle used to do between every page turn, the page only blinks once every 6 page turns. This supposedly causes an increase in E Ink artifacts which get slightly left over from page to page. But with my naked eye I barely tell the difference at all between the sixth page just before the Kindle blinks, and the seventh page just after a blink.

Regarding the E Ink screen, I am still not used to just how kind E Ink is on the eyes. I have read for many, many hours on my iPad and have never thought anything of it. Perhaps my appreciation will wear off a bit once I become more used to the Kindle or when the iPad ships with a Retina display. But after three days with the Kindle I am still very appreciative of its screen.

The only disadvantage to the Kindle’s screen is that there is no light for it whatsoever. I often read through my Instapaper queue or a few chapters of a book when in bed before I go to sleep. But the lights are usually out and I rely on the self-lit screen of the iPad to read in the dark. The Kindle will not be able to replace my iPad for these times of reading.

You can get clip on lights, but I wonder why Amazon hasn’t incorporated something similar to the Timex Indiglo backlight system? Or, why not put a dozen small LED lights around the inner edges of the screen that could illuminate it.

Software

Not only have I found the hardware of the Kindle Touch to be impressive, but so also the software.

Touch-Based OS

I ordered the Kindle Touch rather than the D-Pad Kindle because I was anticipating that the touch screen and its user interaction would be more natural and convenient than using the physical controller.

Of course, I haven’t actually used the non-touch Kindle and its D-Pad controller, and so I can’t fairly judge one over the other. But I can say that the interacting with the Kindle Touch OS has been just fine.

Though the UI is designed for touch input, I still haven’t fully acclimated to the concept of touching the E Ink device. The screen does not look like the backlit touch screens I have been using for the past 4 and a half years. The Kindle looks like an actual printed page, not a screen. And since the display is not manipulated by touch input the same way an iOS device is, I don’t always feel like I’m supposed to be touching the display.

But, despite its vast differences when compared to any other touchscreen device I have used, the Kindle Touch only has one caveat in my opinion: There is no immediate feedback upon tapping a touch target.

On the iPad, tapping a button or a link will cause the state to change as if you’ve truly pressed that button. On the Kindle there is on immediate feedback, you simply wait for a second, and then the screen refreshes to display whatever it is you activated via your touch. (Note that page turns are quite speedy.)

But there are a set of buttons which do show an immediate change of state when tapped: the keyboard. When typing, the keyboard buttons turn black underneath your finger taps. No other buttons in the Kindle OS do this.

And, speaking of typing, I don’t find it difficult at all on the Kindle’s soft keyboard.

The Kindle Touch Keyboard

Lastly, in addition to tapping buttons and items, you also use scroll gestures to navigate lists or pages. You can swipe your finger from top to bottom or bottom to top on the list view as if you were scrolling it and the list view will refresh with the items moved in the direction of your swipe.

It is a much different feeling compared to iOS where you feel as if your finger is literally manipulating the pixels you are touching. But it is something that I quickly got used to. And, considering the limits of E Ink, I think the way the touch interface works and responds is completely fine. It’s different, but not worse.

Instapaper

Amazon gives you an email address for your Kindle. You can then send articles and documents to your Kindle via that Kindle email address.

Instapaper uses this as a way to send you the 20 most recent items in your queue every 24 hours. You cannot archive or favorite the articles, you can only read them in their purest form: a personally-curated periodical.

Does Instapaper on the Kindle even come close to comparing to Instapaper on the iPad or iPhone? No way. Is it nice to have it there? You bet. Even though I know Marco won’t do it, I’ll still say it: a native Instapaper app for the Kindle would be awesome.

The Kindle Store

Shopping for books, magazines, and newspapers on the Kindle Store is extremely easy. When you find a book you like it’s just one tap to buy and the download begins in the background immediately. If you didn’t mean to purchase an item you are given the opportunity to cancel your order.

The Kindle Lending Library

When I was on Amazon.com making some adjustments to my Kindle options, I went ahead and set up a free one-month trial of Amazon Prime so I could check out the Kindle lending library.

Basically, if a book is available to borrow for free it will say so on the book’s page in the Kindle store. If you are a member of Amazon Prime then you can go ahead and borrow that book. But, alas, right now it sounds cooler than it is.

The Lending Library works like this:

  • You can borrow up to one book per month. This limit is not a big deal for me because I cannot remember the last time I finished more than one book in a month. Also worth noting is that it’s one book per calendar month, not one book per 30 days. If you borrow a book on November 30, you can borrow again on December 1.
  • You can only borrow one book at a time. So even if it is a new month, you cannot borrow another book unless you’re ready to give up the one you’re currently borrowing (previously borrowed books are removed once a new one is downloaded).
  • The Lending Library is sparsely populated. As of today, there are 5,464 total Kindle Books available in the Lending Library. However, there are 1,078,735 total Kindle Books. Which means that just one-half of one-percent of the total Kindle eBook selection is available to borrow. This is due in a large part to the fact that the Big Six publishers (Random House, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan) have not joined the program.

To get to the Kindle Lending Library you go to the Kindle Store home page, tap “All Categories” (which is just under the Menu button), and then tap “Kindle Owners’ Lending Library”. From there you can browse all the items in the Lending Library.

When you find a book is just like buying it for $0. You get an email receipt from Amazon thanking you for your purchase, yet the cost is $0.00.

Right now I am borrowing Do the Work by Steven Pressfield. It is great to see that the books published under Seth Godin’s Domino Project are available on the Lending Library.

Newspaper Subscriptions

I signed up for a free, 14-day trial subscription of The Denver Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Since then, each morning they all 3 have been updated and then automatically moved to the top of my Home screen’s list of items, sitting there just waiting to be read.

Maybe it’s just the honeymoon period of a new device, but having the day’s newspapers pre-downloaded and waiting for me on my Kindle when I get up is pretty darn cool.

But where did yesterday’s papers go? Well, down the list on the Home screen there is an item called “Periodicals: Back Issues”, and it holds the previous issues. So the old ones are never gone, but are always out of the way when the new ones download.

Magazine Subscriptions

The Kindle store has 133 different magazine titles. The top 10 most popular include Reader’s Digest (at number 1), The Economist, The New Yorker, Time, and others. Up until yesterday I was completely unaware of the availability of magazines on the Kindle. I naively thought that when many of these magazines came to the iPad it was their first venture into the non-printed space beyond the World Wide Web.

I subscribed to a free 14-day trial of The New Yorker. The visual layout of the magazine is completely forgone on the Kindle and you get a Kindle-optimized text-version instead. And it would seem that the price reflects the text-only versions. In the Kindle store, a single issue of The New Yorker costs $3.99, and a monthly subscription is $2.99/month; on the iPad, The New Yorker costs is $4.99 and $5.99 respectively.

Special Offers & Sponsored Screensavers

I bought the $99 Kindle Touch with special offers, and so the bottom-half-inch of my Home screen displays an ad. At first I didn’t think this would be a big deal because I expected: (a) that I wouldn’t be spending a lot of time on the Home screen; and (b) even when I would be on the Home screen the ads are minimal and unobtrusive.

However, after a few days with the device the home screen ads feel more intrusive than I thought they would. I think, in part, because not all the content which is on my Kindle is displayed on the first page of the Home screen. And, knowing that there is additional books and periodicals further down the page, it seems that the (albeit minimal) ad is in the way. Or, put another way, it feels more like one of those ads which are right in the middle of two paragraphs of text on a website, rather than an ad on the sidebar.

You can pay Amazon to remove the ads by “Unsubscribing from Special Offers & Sponsored Screensavers” by paying the difference of your subsidized purchase: $30 for the plain Kindle and $40 for the Kindle Touch.

Playing MP3s

The Kindle can play MP3 files, and only MP3s, that you transfer to it.

You transfer the MP3s onto the Kindle when it’s plugged into your computer. To play them go to the Home screen and tap Menu → Experimental → MP3 Player.

A basic player UI will pop up at the bottom of the screen offering you to skip forward and backward to different tracks, play/pause the audio, and adjust the volume. The MP3 player will always appear at the bottom of the screen, even if you’re not playing audio. It will always be there until you turn it off.

When you are playing music you can either plug in headphones, or listen via the stereo speakers on the back of the Kindle which sound about as good and bass-free as you’d expect on such a device.

Coda

Because it is so inexpensive and all of its content is backed up on Amazon.com, the Kindle Touch is a stress-free device you can take to the beach, the pool, the mountains, etc. Compared to the “eReader” I have been using for the past 18 months — an iPad — the Kindle’s primary user experience is significantly different. For the single-purpose device that the Kindle Touch is meant to be — a device that’s easy to hold and to read — the Kindle does this exceptionally well. And, in many settings, better than the iPad. Moreover, the iPad isn’t something you would take to the beach or the pool without at least thinking twice.

Of course, not every context finds the Kindle better for reading. Obviously in low-light or no-light situations the iPad is better because of its backlit screen. But also the iPad is significantly better for reading RSS feeds and my Instapaper queue. This is not only because the iPad has a stellar RSS app and the Kindle has none, but also because when reading feeds on my iPad I like to fly through them. On the Kindle, tasks take a little more time due to the nature of E Ink.

It is also arguable that the iPad is better for reading magazines. While I like the text-friendly version of The New Yorker that is served up on the Kindle, magazines have always been more than just text. And though I do think that the magazine reading experience could be significantly better on the iPad, I do appreciate the full-color graphics and customized layouts (most of the time).

But who says the Kindle has to replace the iPad? It’s not uncommon for people to own both. I know people who use their Kindle and their iPad. Of course, I also know others who abandoned their Kindle back in April 2010.

For me, I can see the Kindle becoming the reading device I keep on the coffee table and take on vacations. But, if I’m going to head out the door and am going to take just one device, you can bet it’ll be the iPad.

On the other end of the spectrum, what say ye about the Kindle versus a good ole book? Well, compared to a physical book the Kindle is at least as easy to hold and just as easy read from. And if you’re outside on a windy day or if you’ve got a big fat hardcover novel, then I would argue that the Kindle is even easier to hold.

The other advantage of the Kindle over a physical book is that you can have an entire library of content on a device the size of an extra-large wallet. And finding something new to read (a newspaper, magazine, new book, etc…) is just a few taps away. That is why the Kindle has appeal beyond just nerds who practically have it in their DNA to love a new gadget.

Overall I am extremely pleased with the Kindle Touch. Even more than I expected to be when I pre-ordered it so many weeks ago. The quality of the hardware and the usefulness of the device betray its exceptionally low price.


Affiliate Plug

If you decide to get a Kindle Touch, use this link and I’ll get a small kickback from Amazon which helps me to keep writing here. Thanks.