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Switch on for a good read

March 07, 2009 18:14 IST

Since its launch, Amazon's Kindle has lived up to its name, igniting interest in electronic reading devices where others, including Sony, had failed. Now comes the second generation - the Kindle 2 - with improvements on the original.

How does the Kindle 2 compare with its predecessor and the competition? Rather well, in my view, even though it lacks the touch screen of the Sony PRS-700B, the flash memory card expandability of the iLiad e-reader from iRex Technologies and the Hanlin e-reader V3 manufactured by China's Tianjin Jinke Electronics, or the superb screen resolution of the iLiad.

Two things make the Kindle 2 stand out: one, Amazon's enormous range of books (more than 230,000 titles including 7,000-plus free public domain classics); and second, its built-in WhisperNet cellular wireless connectivity.

Unlike other e-book readers, which generally have to be hooked up to a personal computer to download content, Kindle users can wake up and find that books, the latest edition of magazines and newspapers, including the Financial Times, and other digital content have been added effortlessly.

Amazon uses Sprint Nextel's 3G network and, in good cellular coverage areas such as New York City, I found wireless download times were very fast. Typically, a new book appeared within seconds of an order being placed.

While it is possible to "sideload" new content including audio files, Microsoft Word documents and PDFs on to the Kindle 2 by plugging the Kindle into a PC using the supplied USB cable (or by e-mailing it via Amazon to your personal Kindle e-mail address), it is difficult to overstate the convenience of this integrated wireless connectivity.

Physically, the redesigned Kindle 2 is faster, slimmer and easier to use than its predecessor. It measures just 0.36in at its thickest and weighs 10.2oz, about the same as a paperback. (The Sony PRS-505 is slightly thinner, at 0.3in.) It also has a markedly more curved and elegant profile and a new five-way navigation stick that is more comfortable to use.

Like the original (and unlike most rivals), the Kindle 2 comes with a miniature qwerty keyboard used mostly for accessing the extensive search capabilities, for entering web addresses in the Kindle browser or for annotating reading material. I found the slightly larger keyboard an improvement, but still not as good as the smaller BlackBerry keyboard.

The layout of the Kindle's various navigation buttons has been improved following user feedback. That said, navigating within content - especially newspapers and magazines - is still somewhat confusing, especially for new users.

I would have liked to be able to view PDF-style representations of the original newspaper, magazine or book pages along with the ability to zoom in and select an individual article for reading.

Similarly, I am not convinced that the "location" numbering system and percentage figures, which replace standard page numbers and are displayed at the bottom of each Kindle screen "page", convey much useful information. (If you want to return to a particular section of a book it is much easier to use the bookmark feature.)

The 6in screen uses the latest "e-ink" technology and can produce 16 shades of grey, much enhancing the sharpness of graphics. Users can adjust text font sizes - handy for those like me who find their eyes need slightly larger text.

Other improvements include increased internal memory - two gigabytes, enough for about 1,500 books, although this is offset by the lack of an SD (secure digital) memory expansion slot - built-in speakers in addition to a headphone socket, and Text-to-Speech audio reading.

While the Text-to-Speech feature has drawn much comment, I found the robotic voice rather annoying and doubt whether it will be used much, except perhaps by the visually impaired or in environments (such as a car) where ­reading is either impossible or ­dangerous.

In spite of my initial reservations about e-readers generally, I find reading on the Kindle 2 is a pleasure. The machine is snappy, the typeface is clear and the format is convenient, especially on a crowded commuter train or while waiting in a queue.

But it still has some shortcomings, including an iPhone-style non-removable battery pack, the lack of a flash memory card expansion slot and a limited native file compatibility. Then there is the rather hefty $399 price tag.

That said, I think the Kindle 2 will appeal to business travellers and professional users and may find a place in other markets such as education.

Amazon has not indicated whether or when it will launch European or Asian versions. For US buyers, the Kindle 2's wireless capabilities make it a winner, but outside North America the choice is much less clear-cut. Both Sony models are beautifully designed and simple to operate, and I particularly like the Sony PRS-700B's touch screen. Watch out too for new arrivals such as UK-based Plastic Logic, which is expected to launch an ultra-thin and lightweight e-reader this year.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

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