Editors' note (September 6, 2012): The product reviewed here has been discontinued and replaced with an updated model (Kindle 2012) as of September 2012. Read Amazon's new Kindles: Everything you need to know for more information.
A lot of people have been waiting a long time for Amazon.com to drop the price of its Kindle to less than $100. Well, that day is here, but Amazon has thrown a little wrench into the equation: it's offering two sub-$100 models, the $79 entry-level Kindle reviewed here and the $99 Wi-Fi Kindle Touch, which is due to ship in mid-November.
To be clear, to get that sub-$100 pricing for the devices, you'll have to purchase the ad-supported Special Offers versions. The ad-free versions cost $30 and $40 more, respectively. The Touch is also offered in a version that adds free 3G wireless for $149 (Special Offers) and $189 (ad-free).
Whether you opt to pay more for the ad-free version is up to you, but we must say that we didn't find the ads to be intrusive (they don't appear in books; they only appear at the bottom of the home page and as screensavers when you turn off the device). That issue aside, the bigger question is whether you should choose the budget $79 Kindle or hold out to spend the extra $20 on the Kindle Touch.
The short answer is: hold out for the Kindle Touch if you can afford that extra $20. That doesn't mean the non-touch Kindle isn't good--it's a perfectly decent e-reader that's slimmer and lighter than the 2010 Kindle (which has now been redubbed "Kindle Keyboard"), and it's the only current Kindle with hard buttons for turning pages (if that's your preference). If you don't need to use the virtual keyboard too much and you're just looking for a no-frills e-book reader, it's hard to argue with the $79 price tag.
The first thing you notice when you take the new Kindle out of the box is how light and thin it is. In four years, the Kindle has gone from being pretty ungainly to now being a fetching electronic device (Jeff Bezos said that Kindle 3 owners would be upset when they saw the new Kindle, and he's mostly right).
Since this Kindle lacks a touch screen, page turns are accomplished via buttons mounted on either side of the screen. We didn't like the page-turn buttons quite as much as those on the earlier Kindle, but they're basically fine. (The $99 Kindle Touch has no physical page-turn buttons--you tap on the screen to go back or forward.)
Below the screen is a five-way directional pad for navigating menus (and working the virtual keyboard), and four other keys: a back button, home, keyboard toggle, and menu. "Typing" on the keyboard requires shoving the cursor around, similar to entering onscreen text with a video game controller.
We've always found the Kindle interface simple enough to navigate and use, but we do prefer touch-screen navigation. While we haven't used the Kindle Touch yet, we have seen in-person demos, and just as with the Nook Touch, touch navigation offers a better user experience.
Though Amazon has moved from the Kindle 3.1 OS on last year's Kindle Keyboard to Kindle OS 4.0 on this model, we really didn't see any significant changes to the user interface; it's basically the same.
Amazon natively supports its Kindle (AZW) format for e-books, along with TXT, PDF, unprotected MOBI, and PRC files (you can drag the latter four file formats onto the device from your computer). It also supports HTML, DOC, DOCX, JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP through conversion.
Like the Nook, the Kindle supports limited lending of e-books: publisher-approved titles can be lent out once for two weeks to one fellow Kindle user. Kindles also now support library lending. If your public library offers e-book lending, you can "check out" e-books for free for one or two weeks. Only certain titles are available to check out, but the list is growing.
The latest models, like all previous Kindles, use Amazon's WhisperSync technology. That means you can download books in less than a minute, and resume books where you left off on other Kindle-compatible devices. Thanks to Amazon's nearly universal app support, Kindle books can be accessed on iPads, iPhones, iPod Touch handhelds, Android phones running version 2.1 and later, Android tablets, many BlackBerry phones, Windows PCs, Macs, Windows Phone 7 phones, and via HTML 5-compatible browsers for people using the Kindle Cloud Reader. And, of course, you can access the e-books on other hardware Kindles, including the Kindle Fire.