Updated: May 23, 2015
Amazon Kindle 2 ReviewMost people nowadays have heard about the Amazon Kindle electronic book reading device, though not many people have actually seen, felt, smelled, and handled one (OK, you probably don't need to smell it). Amazon released the Kindle 2 to great fanfare in early 2009. We grabbed a Kindle 2 the day it was released. Then we used it. Then we bought books and newspapers with it and spent hours and hours reading on it. Then we took it on two 10-day vacations to really put it to the test - how do Kindle batteries hold up, how does the Kindle 2 do at the beach and by the pool, how is the screen in direct sunlight and in weak airplane light? And that's what we stuff into this Kindle 2 review. We'll cover all the details from first opening the Amazon box to comments and impressions from several months of use, along with plenty of photos to let you see how the Kindle 2 looks and how the Kindle 2 works. Let's get started!
Just thinking about the Kindle is kind of strange. Amazon is a big online retailer -- they sell other people's stuff. Target doesn't design and manufacture their own electronic products, neither does Walmart. So why is Amazon making this device? Truth is, more than 50% of all of Amazon's sales these days still come from books, music, and videos. That's a huge number, and a number they want to protect. Amazon is very good at the whole e-commerce and online thing, and having watched Apple take over the whole digital music thing, they want to protect the current and future book and e-book market. Could the Kindle morph into a portable video player and internet browser as well? Not with the current screen and battery technology, but maybe some day. For now, it is designed for the book reading experience only. And as we'll see, it does a pretty good job at it.
Let's start with what you get when you order a Kindle 2. It comes in it's own custom packaging, kind of a black egg-carton kind of material, inside a custom Amazon UPS Kindle shipping box. The Kindle itself is nested inside a white plastic shell. Also in the box is the cable/plug for charging the internal battery and a 6 page fold-out "Getting Started" guide. Since there is not much in the box, let's start by talking about the battery and the charging system. First, the Kindle 2 has an internal battery that you CANNOT access or replace -- this is a reversal from the Kindle 1 that had a removable battery. The battery is meant to provide power from 4 days to 2 weeks, depending on usage levels and whether you keep the wireless function turned on (more on that later). The battery can be fully charged in just 4 hours. The charging cable has a USB connector on one side (that can connect either to your computer directly or to the electrical outlet plug connector) and a mini-USB connector on the other end, that connects to the bottom of the Kindle for charging. That means you can charge it from either any electrical outlet or from your laptop or computer. If you need to replace your Kindle power adapter, it costs $15 (sold direct from Amazon). One word of warning when connecting the charger -- even though it looks like it should fit with the Amazon label on top, it doesn't (I tried over and over to gently slide that thing in -- didn't work) -- flip it over so the USB emblem is on top, then insert it carefully into the Kindle. There is a little charging light to the left side of the port on the Kindle -- it glows an orange color when charging, and green when the battery is full. We'll talk about actual battery life in our discussion below, but this newer battery is supposed to last 25% longer than the original battery.
If your battery is totally dead, sometimes when you first plug it into the charger, the Kindle is totally unusable for a few minutes, but after that you can read or browse for books while it charges. One other thing. Assuming you bought this from your account on the Amazon.com website, it comes preconfigured to your Amazon ID, including your billing information. So any Kindle books you buy from your computer will automatically show up on your Kindle, and it will be automatically charged to your credit card, just like buying any other product from Amazon.
What's not in the box? There is no cover for the Kindle, which used to be included. You can buy a variety of covers and protective sleeves for the Kindle 2, most of which cost $20-$30. So while the Kindle 2 sells for the same price as the old model, without the included cover protector, it is really like a $30 price increase. A lot of users complain about this. The good news is that newer covers fit the Kindle 2 better since it has special slots on the side that hook into the cover and hold them in place more securely than before. I've actually been using a Belkin Neoprene zip-up sleeve to store and protect my Kindle - I like it better than the covers, just take it out when you want to read, zip it back in to keep it safe when you are carrying it around.
Kindle 2 specs - How big is the Kindle 2?The Kindle 2 is approximately the same size as the original Kindle. It is very thin at about 1/3 of an inch, about the thickness of a People magazine issue. It is 8" tall by 5.3" wide. In your hand, that means a little larger than a standard paperbook size, but significantly smaller than a magazine. It weighs 10 ounces, which means it has some heft in your hands. You do feel the weight when holding it with one hand, but it really doesn't weigh more than the average paperback, it is just denser. The screen is 6" measured diagonally (600x800 pixels) -- that is smaller than one side of an opened paperback book.
When it comes to personal complaints about the Kindle, this is one of mine -- there's a lot of page turning going on. I'd like to see them drop the physical keyboard (replace with a virtual touch-screen keyboard like the iPhone has) and extend the screen significantly so you can read more on a single screen without flipping pages every 20 seconds. Back to the specs. The screen now supports 16 shades of gray compared to the old 4 shades -- this means slightly sharper images, though text looks nearly identical to the old Kindle (which means generally great). The Kindle 2 comes with 2GB of built-in memory storage for holding all your books -- about 1500 of them. This is another complaint users have -- the original Kindle came with a slot for adding your own memory cards, giving you virtually endless storage. Not any more. You get 2GB (about 1.4 accessible to the user) and that's it. Now to be fair, Amazon stores all your purchases online so you can instantly access and download any and all of your books when and if you need them at some future date, so book storage is not a huge deal. But Amazon built-in music playing ability to this version of the Kindle, so then people want to store their music collection onboard and the 1.5GB limit becomes an issue. For me, this is not an iPod, there is plenty of space, and I imagine that for 97% of Kindle readers, there will be more than ample storage for your needs.
OK, so there is music capabilities built into this thing. That means 2 small external speaker openings on the lower back of the Kindle. It's no boombox, but the speakers can be used for either text-to-speech functions (called Read To Me, the Kindle 2 can read your texts to you kind of like an audio book, in either a female or male voice -- it is a bit robotic, but acceptable if you are driving in a car or something and want to continue with your book) or for playing back music files you load onto your Kindle. Apart from the speakers, there is also an audio jack for headphones on top of the Kindle 2 next to the power switch, and a rocker switch on the upper right side of the Kindle for adjusting the volume. The final spec is the built-in 3G wireless connectivity (called WhisperNet, it uses the Sprint cellular network), kind of like a cellphone. This lets you quickly connect your Kindle online without any monthly access fees or anything else, over this wireless network. What can you do online? You can research and buy books direct from the Kindle store, you can look up things in Wikipedia or Google, you can use a rudimentary web browser for online surfing, you can download any books or periodicals that you purchase (including sample and trial copies), and you can email yourself other documents of files that you want to view on your Kindle. It all works invisibly and pretty quickly. Basically, you can read and buy books with the Kindle even if you don't have a computer.
Using the Kindle 2 - How does the Kindle Work?Alright, let's see how this thing works. First of all, you have to turn it on - you do so by sliding the switch on the top, same to turn it off. However, it never really seems to turn off, as some screen saver image (pictures of famous authors) is always displayed. The screen uses this e-ink technology, which is kind of like an etch-a-sketch -- little pieces of black material is actually stuck against the screen when the screen draws -- after that, even without any battery or power, the screen retains that image. Turn it off, you get this author photo. Rip it open, take out the battery, the image is still on the screen. So you will never see a blank screen, but keep in mind that even with text or an image displayed, no power is being used. If you don't use the Kindle for a few minutes, it hides whatever text you were reading and replaces it with this image screen.
Interestingly enough, the Kindle is designed to work with or without a computer. I don't know if there is a significant group of readers that don't have computers, but using that built-in WhisperNet cellphone network we talked about, you can use your Kindle to go to the online Kindle store and browse and shop for books. Buy what you want, and it shows up 1 minute late on your Kindle, no computer needed. Now the wireless function is like an always on cellphone, connecting and checking with the network, and it eats up batteries. You can turn wireless off and on any time -- just press the MENU button and select TURN WIRELESS ON or TURN WIRELESS OFF. Generally, you turn it on when you want to browse the Kindle store from your Kindle or when you want to download a book, newspaper, or magazine that you have purchased. If you're like most people, you probably shop and browse online for Kindle books at Amazon.com from your home computer (while the Kindle has basic browsing and internet functions built-in, they don't compare with a computer). With one click, you can buy something and have it sent wirelessly to your Kindle. It all happens magically, but whatever you buy will show up in your booklist in sometimes as fast as 20 seconds. If you subscribe to newspapers with the Kindle (see our Kindle Newspaper Subscription page for details) and leave wireless on, your morning paper will show up long before your neighbors get it in their driveway. For me, I keep wireless off to extend battery life and only turn it on when needed (Amazon says the battery should last 4 days with wireless on, up to 2 weeks with wireless off, so you can get an idea how much power wireless chews up..).
There are plenty of detailed reviews on how Kindles work when it comes to reading. Basically, you have a homepage that lists all the books and content on your Kindle -- you can sort this by Personal Documents, Books, or Subscriptions, and by Most Recent, Author, or Title. Whatever you have read most recently moves to the top of the list, but you can page through the list using the NEXT PAGE buttons or by using the number buttons (push 4 to jump to the 4th page of the book listing). You use the little 5-way joystick controller to move up and down in the list and select things (by pushing "in" or down into the Kindle, not down towards the bottom of the Kindle). The built in dictionary is nice - just move the cursor down in front of any word and the dictionary entry instantly appears at the bottom of the screen. Reading on the Kindle takes a little getting used to. Let's start with the screen. It is best described as gray or black text on a light gray screen. It is not the stark contract of black text on white pages that you find in a book. The result is that pages are a little dim. I haven't suffered any eye-strain, but Kindle pages are not quite as easy to read as book pages -- let's say 80-90% as good. This also means you need ambient light to see the screen -- it is NOT backlit like a laptop screen. If the room has little light, you will barely be able to see the screen. So just like with a real book, you need a light on to see the screen (you may want to check out one of these mini clamp-on lights for the Kindle -- I use the Mighty Bright for reading in bed). One good note about this is that the screen is easy to see outside in bright light. Most laptops are washed out in bright sunlight, since the reflecting light overwhelms the backlight. With the Kindle, extra light just means you can see the screen better. In direct sunlight, we noticed that sometimes the display is sort of ghosted -- that is, maybe 60% as dark as it should be, as if the sun somehow affected how the e-particles were placed. This only happens when you have bright, direct overhead sunlight hitting the screen -- under normal conditions, you have your Kindle tilted slightly way from the sun, otherwise the reflections would make it too hard to read. Perhaps the biggest complaint about using the Kindle is overall response speed. Amazon improved the page turning speed on the Kindle 2 by about 20%, but there is still a noticeable lag when you push the NEXT PAGE button. Same thing with scrolling through lists - the cursor moves maybe 1/3 as quickly as you might be used to on a computer. You need to adjust your clicking and menu movements accordingly, otherwise you find yourself clicking on something, seeing nothing happen, clicking again, and again, then suddenly all the clicks catch up and you are not where you wanted to be -- a few times of fumbling like this, the whole Kindle just locked up and rebooted.
The Kindle 2 Keyboard and Text to Speech:The Kindle 2 keyboard is an improvement over the old version. The keys are small and round and work best when pressed with the thumbs, like texting on a phone. On the 8" vertical face of the Kindle, the bottom 2.5" are devoted to the keyboard and empty space. When do you use the keyboard? What's it for? For me, I might use it 1 time out of 100 when using the Kindle, if that. You only really need it when using the Kindle for either browsing the Kindle store or searching for something online (like looking something up at Wikipedia). For me, I do most of my book browing and shopping online with my computer, then zap the books over to the Kindle. I wish the keyboard was a virtual touchscreen keyboard, or a slideout keyboard hidden inside the bottom -- that front screen real-estate would be much better used for a larger reading screen. On the bottom, just to the right of the space bar, is an "Aa" button that lets you change the font size on the Kindle screen. There are 6 different sizes of font to choose from, from very small to quite large. The big fonts are great if your eyesight is not perfect, but you will be flipping pages a lot more frequently. You also use this "Aa" button to turn on or off the Text to Speech, or Read To Me feature included in the new Kindle 2. This is basically a built-in male or female computer voice that will read whatever text you have open. You can listen to it through the speakers or through headphones -- to me, I might use it occasionally while driving or something, but the semi-robotic voices just don't have the intonations and warmth that human voices have in books-on-tape. So for me this feature is not real useful. There is also 7/8" of space around the left and right side of the main screen, which accomodates the buttons along the edges and gives you room for your thumbs when you hold the Kindle. Overall, it fits well in the hands, wouldn't mind if it was a little bigger and had a larger screen, no keyboard.
Vacation Test - Using the Kindle 2 at The Beach and Pool - Kindle 2 Battery Life:Perhaps the ultimate test of the Kindle is to take it on vacation and use it for hours daily -- we did just that, twice. First stop, Maui. We only saw one other person with a Kindle throughout the trip, and that was at the airport on the return trip, so they are still pretty new and unique. We charged the Kindle 2 up prior to take-off, wanting to see how long the battery charge lasted. We had purchased several books prior to the trip (along with several free, public domain works), and we planned on picking up daily subscriptions (you get 2 week free sample subscriptions) of the USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. On the airplane ride over, we noticed pretty quick that you want and need ambient light to see the screen -- when everyone else is watching a movie, you need to turn your overhead light on to see the screen, then angle it a bit to dodge the reflection from the light. Other than that, worked great. Arrive Maui... pools, bright sun, and sandy beaches await. I keep the wireless function off and only turn it on for 60 seconds in the morning to pick up the papers, then back off. I start reading, every day, for many hours. At the pool... No problems in bright sunlight, screen looks good. I am actually pretty amazed by the screen -- the occasional water droplet hits, I wipe it off, screen still looks good. The occasional Hawaii sprinkle hits, I cover up but still a few drops hit the screen, which I wipe off with towel. Somehow, this screen does not smear and look bad like a computer monitor does when you try to clean it - I keep wiping off tiny specs of moisture and it keeps looking good.
Now we head to the beach. Here we have blowing sand, wind, water, sun. Again, this thing is surprisingly tough. The screen is slightly below the surface of the Kindle, with a slight bezel. You'd think tiny particles could get into that tiny crack, but I blow and brush out sand, nothing seems to stick. Again, wipe off water droplets, still looks good. So for outdoor use, I have to say the Kindle 2 is really pretty tough -- it was easy to clean and still looked brand new after 10 days on the beach. Very nice, Amazon. On vacation, I probably read 4 hours+ per day. How did the batteries last? With wirless OFF, I got just over 4 days use, then dead. So Amazon's claim to 14 days with wireless off obviously equates to about 1.5 hours per day use, not 4 hours per day. I tested this again on a second vacation, same results. Heavy reading of a few hours per day will deplete batteries in about 4 days, with wireless off. That's not bad, it's a lot better than a laptop or other electronic gear. But if you do a lot of reading, plan on plugging in and charging every 3-4 days, not every 2 weeks. But overall I was very impressed with the Kindle 2 -- just bring your charger cord if going away for more than 3-4 days. The real benefits of having the Kindle on vacation were not having to carry around 3 or 4 heavy books, not having to spend extra money on newspapers, and having the ability to buy a new book instantly. The Kindle 2 worked great, I had a great time with it.
Buying Books on the Kindle 2 - Kindle Books - Free Kindle 2 Books:Kindle books are easy to buy online at the Amazon.com Kindle Bookstore (there are almost a quarter of a million books available). Most Kindle books cost $9.99 -- that includes New York Times Bestsellers and most new releases. Almost all Kindle books also offer a free sample of the first chapter or introduction to see if you like the book -- be sure to take advantage of this, as it is easy and free. Instead of clicking the normal BUY IT NOW button, look just below it to where it says: "Try it free", and click the SEND SAMPLE NOW button. The sample will be sent to your Kindle, you can read it, if you like it there is a link embedded in the sample to BUY FULL VERSION NOW, and then you'll buy the whole thing if you want it. I've seen a number of Kindle books that sell for $13-$14 as well, and some are less than $9.99.
There are also hundreds and hundreds of free Kindle books. How do I get free Kindle books? The easiest way is at the Amazon.com Free Kindle Book list. You can find everything here from promotional new releases (that publishers give away to create buzz and interest or build readership for new authors) to classics like Dracula, Treasure Island, and Heart of Darkness.
Bugs/Crashes:While using the Kindle 2 over the last several months, we've seen it crash and reboot itself about 8 times. It happens in all kinds of situations, usually in conjunction with pushing too many buttons too quickly, or when doing things online. And we can never get it to do it again under the same circumstances -- it is almost random. The good news is that these crashes are relatively painless. The screen just blanks and goes into restart mode, and after 30 seconds or so your Kindle is back. No harm done, just odd.
More Kindle 2 Pictures and Videos:Amazon has done a pretty good job on their site displaying and promoting the Kindle - check out the Amazon Kindle 2 page. You'll find plenty of high quality and informative videos there, along with lot's of detailed close up photos of the Kindle 2. We include some of our own photos here, but there is no point in trying to match what Amazon has done.
Features and Changes We'd Like to See in Kindle 3:Until they figure out how to make hybrid screens that can display both easy text for long reading sessions and bright, color backlit screens for watching movies, surfing the internet, etc., we may well have book-specific devices like the Kindle for a few years to come. So, Amazon, here's our wishlist of things we'd like to see in future versions of the Kindle. Let's start with a bigger screen -- this thing won't fit in your pocket anyways, so why not make it a little bigger with a screen as large as an open paperback? Let me read for at least a minute before having to flip pages. Can we get some kind of color screen that still makes plain old text look terrific as well? If so, let's get a color screen. And we need a better user interface. With the iPhone, the touch screen is here to stay, and using a scroll thumb-button to move around on a screen when you want to reach out and touch something is painful -- give us a touchscreen. Web browser -- give us a real web browser, even without color. The built-in browser truly is "experimental", but having a fully functional web-browser would allow Kindle 3s to challenge netbooks and other devices when it comes to portable computing. If the Kindle had a fairly good web browser and email access, you've got a more revolutionary product, and people would probably gladly pay $10 a month or whatever for wireless Internet access if needed. Memory slots -- people want to expand and carry around their own digital data, so let them. Design -- how about a design that would make Apple drool? The first Kindle was very klunky looking, Kindle 2 is cleaner and handsome, but not sexy. How about a black (or red, or yellow, or..) carbon-fiber surface instead of matte white plastic? How about a way to copy and paste text excerpts so we can send part of an article or a quote to a friend via email? I'd also like a way to share books with friends or family, just like I can with a physical book -- maybe the ability to share one Kindle copy with another Kindle subscriber? There must be a way. So give me a larger screen, slightly larger device, better touch screen with good internet and email wireless access - BOOM, I'll buy it, again.
Kindle 2 Review: Conclusion and Recommendation:If you are an active reader who likes technology and can afford the $359 pricetag, then absolutely go to Amazon and buy a Kindle 2. There is no better way for quick access to books, anytime, anywhere, plus you can carry a library of 1000+ books at your fingertips. Sure there are some weaknesses, but they are more than made up for by the benefits the Kindle offers. I love the look and feel of my shelves, filled with printed paper books, but I also recognize that the digital world is all around us, and I am not afraid to move forward to this new way of enjoying the written word.
Beyond active readers, the Kindle is also great for travelers who want to be able to buy new books on the go and who don't want to lug around heavy books -- with the Kindle, travel is much easier. Overall, I think Amazon has found their target with this product. At this point, the Kindle is not going to outsell the iPod, but I would look for the price to come down to $299, and then $199, within 2 years, and then you are talking about more of a mass-market product. If the current $359 is too steep, you can also buy used original Kindles for closer to $275, but I don't think it is worth it.