Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kindle Touch

Standard disclosure: I work for Amazon but I do not have any non-public, relevant information about the Kindle in any capacity. In fact, I purposely try to avoid learning any such information. I don't have any special insights into product directions, decisions made regarding Kindle devices, etc. This is merely a collection of my thoughts as a technology enthusiast/consumer.

Sorry it's been so quiet here. I think about this blog regularly, but whenever I come up with a good topic I realize that I have to recuse myself because I don't know if my thoughts on certain subjects would accidentally count as yielding secrets. I've also been a little behind on news so I figure that very untimely commentary wouldn't be valuable. I'm hoping to have more time in the next couple of months though to come up with fresh topics for blog posts on a somewhat regular basis. Anyway, on to the topic at hand...

Kindle Touch Review

I'd ideally start off with my backstory about the Kindle and how I thought it was initially a silly idea and all that jazz, but I've already spoken about all that in my review of the Kindle 3. My opinions on the Kindle and e-Ink in general remain the same. I probably read 2, maybe 3 books in all of last year (I'm not counting reference material I flipped through at work). In the past 11 months (since I got my Kindle 3) I've read six novels, half of another novel, four travel books for a vacation, a short book that's really a collection of essays, more than a fourth of the Bible, and a few white papers (not to mention several samples of books I intend to read). It's definitely made a big difference. What I'd like to talk about in this review is my experience with the Kindle Touch compared to the Kindle 3 (I'll refer to it as the Kindle Keyboard to be more consistent with the slightly confusing re-branding).

I got a Touch because as much as I loved my Kindle Keyboard, I also had a few nagging frustrations with it. Namely, I didn't like using the d-pad. I called this out in my initial review and I stand by it - it's too easy to hit other buttons and takes a while when you use it to navigate around a page for things like looking up words, highlighting, or referencing footnotes, all of which I did regularly. Even navigating a large collection of documents was a bit of a chore. Additionally, it was a bit sluggish when reading some PDFs and could even be unstable if I flipped around too much. Plus, the keyboard wasn't all that easy to use - it just felt awkward. Anyone I know can vouch for my love of physical keyboards - I've been hanging on to my Palm Pre for dear life and may soon have to part with it because I'm getting sick of HP's abandonment of it (but that's a story for another post). Reading on the Kindle Keyboard was still great overall, but I moved to the Kindle Touch in the hopes that it would polish some pieces that I felt needed polish. Did it? Let's explore.

We'll start with the hardware: it's a very attractive device. I thought the Kindle Keyboard looked nice, but the Kindle Touch makes it look like yesterday's news. I was initially concerned that the silver color would be unattractive because I really liked the graphite of the Kindle Keyboard as it just looked nice and made it harder to retain natural wear and tear, but I actually like the body of the Kindle Touch even better. Not to be vain, but it looks like a more expensive device than it is - it's not gaudy, just polished. The bezel is smooth, slightly metallic (not enough so to weigh it down), and mildly reflective but not shiny enough to produce excessive glare. The back matches the color on the front except for being more rubbery for an easier grip and having a darker silver border. At the bottom of the front you've probably seen what looks like a speaker grill in pictures, which seems silly in a device primarily targeted at reading. Well, it's actually a home button. I actually think it's a neat home button - it's different from most devices in this form factor and it's at the perfect stiffness to press. I know that sounds weird, but I mean that you can rest your thumb on it for while you're reading without accidentally pressing it, but it's not necessarily hard to press when you need to press it - it's just right. At the bottom side there's the standard micro USB port, headphone jack, a very tiny light, and the power button. I don't actually like the new power button. They designed it small to save space, but it's easier to press as opposed to the Kindle Keyboard where you had to slide it and it hid a cleverly placed light. I don't find myself accidentally hitting it much, but it seems quite easy to do so. At the bottom of the back are the speakers - not all cases have holes cut out for these, but I rarely use them myself. There's also two connectors for the leather lighted cases (which are still on backorder *grumble*). Overall, I love the way it feels in my hands - the weight and size are just perfect. It's slightly lighter than the Kindle Keyboard (trivially so) and not really thinner, but I do appreciate that it's shorter since it's no longer supporting a physical keyboard.

The big question when you start talking about the software is the touch sensitivity. This was my biggest reservation as this is not your standard touchscreen technology. Back in the old days, we started with inductive, or resistive, touchscreens (think back in the days of using a stylus). Pressing down on a screen wasn't elegant, but it worked. The iPhone popularized capacitive touch in consumer electronics and it's become an industry standard ever since. The problem with capacitive touch, as I understand it, is that it requires glass, which sucks if you want to eliminate glare (as any of you with a modern smartphone is well aware). Hence, the Kindle Touch uses infared technology, much like its Barnes and Noble competitor. The screen is sunk in just a tad more than the Kindle Keyboard, and on closer inspection one may notice a really thin line cut into the edges of this framing where the IR field is created. The good news is that this means you don't need human hands or sausages to interact with the screen - you can have gloves on and it'll still work (great news for those of us in colder climates). The bad news is that it's not as reliable as most modern smartphones. It can be a bit temperamental. It's actually much more accurate than I had predicted it'd be, but you do have to be fairly deliberate in what you do. You can't be as liberal as with capacitive touch - even though you don't have to press down on the screen like inductive touch, you do have to make sure you get enough surface area contact to register touches. Also frustrating: there's no feedback that a touch was registered. At times, there's enough lag in specific operations that you may accidentally do something twice and cause yourself frustration. It's not a common issue, but it can happen. I don't know why they couldn't have button presses black out the button to show that it was touched - maybe that'll be in a future update.

That all being said, I still prefer the touch interface to using the buttons on the Kindle Keyboard, overall. While I never minded previous page and next page much, it's so much more intuitive to tap things than to use the d-pad. And small touches were added to the UI to account for this, which I love. The keyboard is way better than the physical keyboard - while there's a bit of a delay in showing what you typed if you're a touch typist like me who's used to cranking out 80-100 WPM (or 40 WPM on my Pre's physical keyboard), the accuracy is impressive. Nothing fancy like swype on Android or anything, but you really shouldn't need that stuff anyway when you're taking notes or searching. Gestures are really intuitive - page forward and page back are swiping left and right, respectively, and next/previous chapter are swipe up/down, respectively. Looking up words, checking footnotes, and highlighting text is faster and easier before (there was actually random delays sometimes in highlighting with the Kindle Keyboard that I no longer experience on the Touch). Tapping for previous page and next page work great, too, and one handed reading is overall just as easy or perhaps easier than before. Getting to the context menu is easy, too, just tap at the top of the screen. That will also show you what page number you're on in the book, which reminds me of another note: the screen real estate is used a lot smarter. Aside from just where you tap, I feel like the top and bottom of the screen are used more efficiently to maximize space for reading - reminiscent of the experience of using an iPad and having Apple maximize the available screen space. Very smart.

There are a few other bonuses, too. Pinch to zoom works - it will increase or reduce text size by 1 in normal books and will actually perform zooming in PDFs. This makes reading PDFs much easier. Given the restrictions of e-Ink technology, there's still a delay as before, but I feel like it's still a slight bit faster. Plus, PDFs fit on the screen better now, aside from the improvements with zooming. Unfortunately, you can't change screen orientation, but I'm hoping that enough people are providing feedback on this that they'll fix this oversight (the Kindle org has been good about this in the past with customer feedback). The screen savers are significantly better than the Kindle Keyboard. Not only are they not ugly renderings of famous writers, but they're, dare I say, cool. They actually kind of make you excited to turn on your Kindle because they represent the Kindle brand well in clever ways (like pencils up close or wooden blocks with Kindle letters prominent or ink) and they're super sharp. Unlike with the Kindle Keyboard, I don't see myself getting sick of them. As far as device performance compared to the Kindle Keyboard, it's slightly faster. It's not enough of a difference for them to have marketed it on the product page, but it's noticeable to me. It's not just the fact that you can choose to have it only black out the screen for page loads once every four screens (which, amazingly, doesn't leave artifacts of the previous page like the Kindle Keyboard would), but I feel like boot up/shut down is slightly faster, opening books are faster, definitions lookups are way faster, etc. It's little things that I notice that I'm pleased with with performance, but it's nothing dramatic. The Kindle Store works a lot better on this device - it's just a better interface overall. It makes more sense and it's prettier. I'm really happy with it.

The biggest bonus, aside from touch, is X-ray. I love this feature. I can't believe how awesome it is. I have it on a few of my books (including The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, if you want to try it on a free one), and it's coming in quite handy with The Girl Who Played with Fire, which I'm reading right now. I find myself turning to it quite a bit to recall characters that haven't come up in several chapters or Swedish places/terms I'm not familiar with. It loads excerpts from Wikipedia for terms and short bits from Shelfari for some characters. It also shows you a blueprint of where mentions of the character or term occur in the book and you can easily browse these selections. It's quite fast and quite accurate as far as figuring out what people and terms are relevant. You can show these lists for the current page, chapter, or whole book so it's easy to find what you're looking for. It's not available for all books, but all my purchased novels seem to have it so it's not that uncommon on popular novels.

I have a couple of quick negatives that haven't fit in any of the categories above. Not all games ("active content") work on the Touch that worked on the Keyboard. If this is a dealbreaker for you, check your games' detail pages to see the "Available on these devices" text that has an arrow you can hover over to list the supported Kindles. I'm hoping that publishers can modify their games to work on the Touch, but I haven't seen official word on this. If someone has an answer on this, please leave a comment because I'm curious. Additionally, when upgrading to a new Kindle you have to download all your items one-by-one and re-create your collections. That's super annoying. Hopefully, the Kindle folks will fix this in the future since they already made a change to back up your personal documents to the cloud just before the announcement of the new Kindles, which makes downloading those to new devices easier, at least. (By the way, there's a sale until Jan 2 where top selling games are $1, several of which are Touch compatible - I'm not big on the Kindle games, but some of them are rather entertaining)

Alright, I've said enough - time for a verdict. Should you get a Kindle Touch? If you don't have a Kindle Keyboard, it's a no-brainer, in my opinion, that you should. If you have an older Kindle, you're due for an upgrade anyhow. If you don't have one, then you should embrace e-Ink. If you're really scared, pick up the cheapest Kindle and try it out - I really don't think you'll be disappointed. I've played with that one and while I prefer Touch, it's still an improvement over the Kindle Keyboard (though it doesn't have X-ray or speech-to-text). The ads aren't very intrusive and you can easily pay later to turn them off if you hate them so that it'd end up being the price of the ad-free version. If you have a Kindle Keyboard, it's really a judgement call. Are you sick of the d-pad? Do you want one of the new leather cases where the Kindle fits nicely rather than having to fit it into two hooks? Do you want a smaller device? Do you wish reading PDFs was easier? If these things really bother you, like they did for me, go for it. I think for many people, the answer will be no. In fact, I'd recommend for gadgets with annual releases to buy every other iteration. It's the holiday season though so you may consider gifting your Kindle Keyboard (de-registering and wiping is easy) and upgrading to the Touch. I don't at all regret my decision - the more I use it the more I love it. Opinions out there are somewhat mixed, but seem to be leaning positive. Feel free to go to a Staples, Best Buy, etc. and try it out for yourself. I really feel like they kept all the stuff about the Kindle Keyboard that was great (like the ease of use, display, form factor, battery life, etc) and evolved in fixing some of the key misses with the user experience. While I still think there's some touch ups that can be left for future iterations, I'm really happy with the direction that it has moved in.

Addendum: I spoke to a Kindle rep about my frustrations with regard to active content and I was told that Amazon is actually working with publishers to make their games Touch compatible. You won't need to re-buy your games for the Touch (unless you're using the games on 6 Kindles already), they'll just get fixed to work and you'll be able to download them from your archived items.

Addendum #2 (5/10/2012): The latest over-the-air software update adds support for text-to-speech, landscape mode, and some other nifty additions like a modal dialog for the table of contents of a book and translation of words to a few different languages.