Editors' note (September 6, 2012): The product reviewed here has been discontinued and replaced with an updated model (Kindle Paperwhite) as of September 2012. Read Amazon's new Kindles: Everything you need to know for more information.
Here it is, folks, the Kindle we at CNET have been wanting for a while: a $99 e-ink e-reader with a touch-screen interface in a smaller, lighter body and that does away with the integrated keyboard of its predecessor while retaining extras like audio support and (on step-up versions) free 3G wireless for frequent travelers.
What's not to like? Well, not much, but in the ever-competitive world of e-readers, in which your nearest competitor (Barnes & Noble) drops the price of its Nook Simple Touch e-reader to $99 in advance of the Kindle Touch's arrival, the devil's in the details, so read on to find out why we think this is an excellent e-reader--but certainly not your only choice.
If you're shopping for an e-ink Kindle in 2011, you've got several options. Amazon.com is still selling last year's model, now dubbed the Kindle Keyboard, for $99 to $189. (Unless you have a particular affinity for hard keyboards, don't buy it.) Amazon also has the entry-level Kindle, a perfectly serviceable e-reader you can buy at the insanely low price of $79 ($30 more if you don't want "Special Offers" ads). The catch? There's no touch screen.
That's where the Kindle Touch comes in. Amazon was late to the touch-screen game, beaten to the market by Sony, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble. But it's made up for that with a market-leading $99 entry-level price (now matched by two of those three competitors). The Kindle Touch comes in four versions: two Wi-Fi models ($99 for the ad-supported Special Offers version, and $139 with no ads) and two 3G models ($149 with Special Offers, and $189 without).
All those versions are enough to make your head spin. So which one's best for you? Our advice is to opt for the 3G version only if you're a frequent traveler or don't have easy access to Wi-Fi; otherwise, skip it.
More importantly, you should only buy the Special Offers versions. Remember, the ads only appear on the screensavers and as a small banner on the index screen--never within your reading material. And, frankly, we've already used the Special Offers several times--mostly to buy discounted e-books. Besides, if you ultimately decide you don't like the ads, you always have the option to pay the extra dough to have Amazon turn them off forever. It's pretty much a no-lose scenario.
While the basic Kindle is the smallest and lightest of the three new Kindles, weighing 5.98 ounces, the Kindle Touch is still quite compact, measuring 6.5 inches long by 4.5 inches wide by 0.4 inch thick. It's slightly narrower than the Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch but weighs almost exactly same, at 7.5 ounces, or 7.8 ounces for the 3G version.
When we reviewed the basic $79 Kindle, we surprisingly thought that it almost felt too light in the hand. The light weight doesn't exactly make the device seem cheap (OK, maybe a little), but it does give you the sensation that it's fragile and shouldn't be dropped. The Kindle Touch, by comparison, feels a bit more substantive.
The Kindle Touch takes its name to heart: except for the home key (below the screen) and the power switch (bottom edge), this is a buttonless device. Next to the power switch, you'll find the headphone jack and Micro-USB charging port. Amazon includes a USB cable, but the actual charger will cost you $10 extra--it's annoying, but thankfully, any PC USB port or iPod/iPhone charger and most cell phone chargers will also do the trick.
Speaking of USB--you can connect the Kindle Touch to a computer to drag and drop MP3, audiobook, or text files (such as PDFs), but there's otherwise no need to "sync" with a computer. In fact, if you're just interested in reading, you'll never need to connect a Kindle to a computer at all, as books, periodicals, and even audiobooks can be purchased and downloaded straight over Wi-Fi (or 3G cellular), directly from the touch screen.
To further emphasize its audio chops, the Kindle Touch has external speakers. So even if you don't have headphones, you can listen to MP3s, audiobooks, or the Read-to-Me feature (more on those later).
Another nice touch worth mentioning: if you order the Touch (or any Kindle product) from Amazon's Web site, it ships prelinked to your Amazon account. There's an easy option to unlink and go through a quick setup wizard for a new account, but the fact that it comes ready to go straight out of the box is yet another great "Why didn't they think of that sooner?" usability feature--you can be reading a book within 2 minutes of opening the box.
As it has with other models, Amazon has released a special Kindle Lighted Leather cover for the Kindle Touch. The cover has an integrated LED light and while it's a bit overpriced at $59.99, it's really a killer add-on for those who like to read at night (e-ink screens are not backlit and require a light source for reading). Amazon has moved away from the somewhat troublesome hook system it used for powering the Lighted Case, and the Kindle Touch has a set of power contacts at the bottom of the device.
It's important to note that this is, literally, the same 6-inch E Ink Pearl screen you'll find on all of those competing readers we mentioned. And that's a good thing. As avid readers, we prefer the look and feel of an e-ink screen, which is the closest you can get to the look and feel of real paper. The other advantage of e-ink over LCD is the lack of glare, which means you can read the Kindle Touch (and its e-ink siblings) in direct sunlight and in other bright lighting conditions.
Of course, the big attraction here is the new touch-screen interface, a first for Kindle e-ink e-readers. Like the Nook Simple Touch, the Kobo eReader Touch Edition, and Sony's latest e-readers, this one uses special Neonode infrared technology to sense when you touch the screen--and it works very well, though don't expect iPad-like responsiveness because of e-ink's inherently laggy nature.
The basic idea behind it is that small infrared sensors are built into the inside of the border around the screen and can sense where your finger is touching on the screen. In fact, you don't really have to touch the screen and can let your finger hover just a hair over the screen to get a response.
From a user-interface standpoint, Amazon has tweaked the Kindle's screens to allow easier (albeit arguably less precise) finger navigation. Most folks will probably be able to jump right in, with a menu and back buttons leading a very intuitive navigation process. As we've said in the past, the touch-screen interface really lends itself to e-reading, and we're glad to see it come to the Kindle.
If you're the type who just opens and closes books from your library and does little else, the new interface probably won't seem like a huge advancement. (And if that's the case, you may well opt for the $79 nontouch Kindle.) However, where the new touch-screen interface really improves the user experience is when performing such tasks as looking up words in the dictionary or Wikipedia, using Amazon's new X-Ray feature (more on that below), changing font sizes, and highlighting text and adding notes via the virtual keyboard (you can also share highlighted passages on Facebook and Twitter right from the device). You simply tap and hold on a word to bring up the built-in dictionary and navigate through menus by touch--no need to scroll around with a little directional pad, as on the cheaper Kindle.
Amazon, like Barnes & Noble, is continually tweaking the performance of its e-readers to improve battery life, make accessing and downloading e-books easier and faster, and speed up page turns slightly with less flashing (e-ink readers used to have to refresh the screen with each page turn but now the screen flashes only every five to six pages with the Kindle and Nook Touch).
For standard book navigation--turning pages--you simply swipe the screen forward or back or touch the right side of the screen to go forward and the left side to go back. Tapping the top of a page brings up an options menu, as discussed above.