Like other Kindles, this one includes an "experimental browser." It's always been a little crude and e-ink is sluggish by nature, but it worked better than we thought it would--we loaded a Gmail account and NYTimes.com--and would certainly do in a pinch. Again, we expect browsing to be a better experience on the Touch.
Another nice Amazon benefit: Kindles get free Wi-Fi access to AT&T hot spots throughout the U.S.
Aside from the smaller dimensions, the lack of a keyboard is really the biggest physical change to the Kindle from last year's model. While some people liked having a keyboard for basic Web browsing and searches in the Kindle Store and within books, we never found it to be an essential feature. Yes, manually moving the cursor around the pop-up, onscreen keyboard is a little tedious, but we didn't find it to be as big of a nuisance as we thought it would be. That said, being able to type with your fingers on the Kindle Touch's virtual keyboard will surely be easier and faster, if the Nook Touch and similar touch-screen readers are any indication.
There are some other feature step-downs from most other Kindles. If you choose this model instead of the Kindle Touch, you get no audio--this guy is silent. That means if you're a fan of audiobooks, playing background music while you read, or using Amazon's text-to-speech ("read-to-me") feature, you should opt for the Touch instead.
Likewise, the new Kindle has "only" 2GB of storage and no expansion slot, versus twice that for other models. But that's still enough for 1,400 books, and if you ever have need to go beyond that, your book purchases are stored "in the cloud"--you can delete and redownload purchases as needed in less than a minute.
Amazon says you can get up to a month's use from the device before needing to recharge the battery, based on 30 minutes of reading a day and keeping the Wi-Fi turned off. That's half the battery life of the previous Kindle, so to shrink the device Amazon appears to have had to go with a smaller battery. In case you're wondering, the battery is sealed in and not user-replaceable, which seems par for the course for most e-book readers these days.
It's also worth noting that Amazon doesn't ship an AC adapter with this Kindle (or with the Touch); it's a $10 optional accessory. Only a USB charging cable is included. That's somewhat annoying, but because the Kindle has a standard Micro-USB port, any modern cell phone charger should do the trick. We tried a generic AC charger, and it worked fine.
This Kindle--like the 2010 Kindle, the Nook Touch, the Kobo Touch, and the latest Sony Readers--uses E Ink's Pearl screen technology. In other words, the text on the screen looks exactly like it did on the previous model, which is to say: it looks good, but don't expect any improvements in contrast or sharpness.
As with all e-ink displays, it's easy to read in bright light, as it doesn't get washed out in direct sunlight the way LCD does, but since the screen isn't backlit, you do need a light source to read. Amazon sells leather covers with built-in LED lamps, but at $60, they cost almost as much as the reader itself.
Amazon claims that a new processor has increased the speed of page turns, but when we compared this model with the Kindle Keyboard side by side, we barely noticed a difference in the speed of the page turns. Any increase is very slight.
While the previous Kindle models "flashed" (refreshing the screen like a photographic negative) between every page turn, the new Kindle seems to have followed Barnes & Noble's lead and cut the flashing to once every six pages or so.
The long and the short of it is that this Kindle, aside from the shorter battery life, seems to perform the same as or very slightly better than the previous model. That's good, considering it costs less.
So long as you're not a fan of the 2010 Kindle's keyboard or audio features, you'll think this new base Kindle is a nice advancement, with a smaller, lighter form factor and an overall sleeker look. In fact, if given the choice between this model and the Kindle Keyboard, we'd have no hesitation taking this one, and it's a good value at $79. Yes, we'd suggest buying the Special Offers version over the version that isn't ad-supported unless you are vehemently opposed to seeing any form of ad on your Kindle.
The Barnes & Noble Nook Touch edges out this version of the Kindle by virtue of its touch screen--but it currently costs $60 more, and $30 more than the Special Offers version of the Kindle Touch. That is cash you could use to buy yourself a lot of e-books instead.
At the end of the day, the 2011 Kindle is a great entry-level e-book reader. That said, if you can afford the extra $20, the $99 Kindle Touch, with its more intuitive and fluid touch interface and audio extras, is going to be the better bet and better buy.