Editors' note (October 3, 2011): With the announcement of new Kindle models for 2011, we have lowered the rating of this product from 8.3 to 7.3 and removed the Editors' Choice designation originally awarded in August 2010. Potential buyers of this product (now known as the Kindle Keyboard 3G) should instead strongly consider its 2011 replacement model, the Kindle Touch 3G, which offers a touch screen. See Kindle vs. Nook vs. iPad: Which e-book reader should you buy? for more information.
Editors' note: As of July 2011, the 3G Kindle reviewed here is available in two versions: the original $189 version and a $139 ad-supported version known as the Kindle with Special Offers. Because the ads are non-invasive--limited only to the screensaver and main menu screen--there is little disadvantage to buying that cheaper model. Also of note: as of September 21, 2011, Amazon has added the ability for the Kindle to download and read e-books through participating local libraries. Furthermore, as of December 30, 2010, Amazon has activated a lending feature similar to the one available on the Nook.
Just as Apple's iPod wasn't the first MP3 player, Amazon wasn't the first company on the block to release an e-book reader; NuvoMedia's RocketBook and the early Sony Readers both beat the Kindle to market. But it's hard to argue that the online retailer's Kindle isn't the iPod of the e-book reader market. The Kindle has helped usher the e-book reader from gadget curiosity to a burgeoning mass market device, all in less than three short years. And now, amid a much more competitive market, Amazon is debuting the third-generation Kindle.
The first thing you should know about the "Kindle 3" is that it's more evolutionary than revolutionary. Most importantly, Amazon has made its 6-inch e-reader smaller and lighter, and it has improved the screen. The Kindle has also adopted the key Wi-Fi feature from its rival, the Barnes & Noble Nook.
In fact, this Kindle comes in a couple of versions, one with both Wi-Fi and 3G wireless for $189, and a Wi-Fi-only version that costs $139--both $10 less than corresponding versions of the Nook. Each version is available in graphite or white and--on top of the more compact design--some other key additions include more memory (4GB instead of 2GB) and double the battery life (four weeks instead of two weeks with the wireless turned off).
Here's a rundown of the key specs:
- 6-inch e-ink display.
- 21 percent smaller than previous Kindle.
- 15 percent lighter (8.7 ounces).
- Like the new Kindle DX, screen offers better contrast.
- Faster page turns (we confirmed they are slightly faster; Amazon says 20 percent).
- 4GB built-in memory (stores around 3,500 e-books).
- Improved battery life (up to a month with the wireless turned off).
- Smaller page-turn buttons that are also quieter (clicking noise is nearly silent).
- Up to four weeks of battery life from sealed-in battery (wireless turned off).
- New "experimental" WebKit-based browser works better than previous browser, especially using Wi-Fi.
- Expanded text-speech options. New text-to-speech-enabled menus allow you to navigate the Kindle without having to read menu options. You can not only listen to books aloud (certain ones, anyway), but also content listings on the home screen, item descriptions, and all menu options.
- New built-in PDF reader, with new dictionary lookup, notes, and highlights, and support for password-protected PDFs.
- No cover is included but Amazon sells two covers, one of which has a built-in slide-out light for $59.99.
Clearly, one of Amazon's primary goals was to make the device smaller and more pocket- and purse-friendly so that users would be more apt to see the Kindle as an everyday gadget they can carry around with them at all times. We can say that Amazon has certainly achieved that, and the device, at least when held without a cover, feels lighter and more comfortable in your hand and easier to hold for longer periods.
Though the Kindle offers some additional functionality beyond reading, Amazon has been careful to market it as a "purpose-built reading device" in order to contrast it with the multifaceted Apple iPad, which features a backlit touch-screen LCD instead of an e-ink screen.
That e-ink screen is both the Kindle's strength and weakness. On the upside, the latest Kindle's display looks really good. When compared side by side with the older Kindle and Nook, the letters appear slightly darker and pop a little more (Amazon, like Barnes & Noble, has also optimized the fonts so letters appear sharper). It's not a huge difference, but it's noticeable. Turning "pages" is also considerably faster. Side by side with the Nook, the new Kindle appeared to turn pages in about half the time. (There's still that somewhat jarring photo negative look when doing so, however).
The other upside to e-ink displays is that they aren't backlit, which not only is supposed to reduce eye strain but it also allows you to see the screen--better, in fact--in brightly lit environments, including direct sunlight. By contrast, the iPad is hard to read outside because its LCD gets washed out in direct sunlight and the glass covering the screen is reflective and creates glare issues.
The Kindle's screen can toggled from portrait to landscape mode--particularly useful for certain PDFs and Web sites--but the process requires manually accessing the menu. By contrast, it's an automatic feature on the Kindle DX or iPad, thanks to their built-in accelerometers.
At night, however, you have to have a light source to use the Kindle, which is part of the reason why Amazon has designed an optional protective cover (none ships with the unit) that includes a retracting LED light that's brilliantly designed. The slim light draws power from the Kindle and tucks away into the case (at first glance, you don't even know it's there). The only downside is it's expensive at $59.99, but we have to say, we really liked it.
Amazon also sells a $34.95 protective case and plenty of third-party companies make nice covers and lights for the Kindle. But just factor the price of a cover into your purchase because it's not a great idea to carry your Kindle around naked. Like the iPhone, the Kindle is prone to serious injury when dropped from moderate heights to a hard surface (e.g., a concrete sidewalk).
In shrinking the Kindle, Amazon has made some noteworthy changes to the button design. Most are good; for instance, the new page-turn buttons on the each side of the device are smaller and make only a muffled clicking sound when you depress them (that's important if you're reading someone trying to sleep in bed next to you).
Amazon has also modified the joystick-like main navigation button and moved it lower and integrated it into the more tightly spaced keyboard where the Enter key on a computer keyboard would typically be. This makes a lot of the sense, and the new four-way navigation button is fine, but we did find that the back button and menu buttons are a little too close to the up/down portions of navigation button. As a result, we sometimes ended up accidentally hitting the back or menu button, and we expect that users with larger fingers will have to take extra care when using the navigation button. We also have a feeling some folks will miss the older nub-style button.