Amazon Kindle Keyboard £149
4th Jul 2011 | 01:30
Could this be the first eBook reader to truly appeal to the mass market?
The Amazon Kindle Keyboard has been the most hyped eBook reader of the year.
With a hugely competitive £109 price-tag, decent specs and the backing of the UK's biggest book etailer, even before launch it's made many of the other eBook readers out there look outclassed and hugely overpriced.
But does it live up to expectations?
The Amazon Kindle looked for a while as though it was going to be lost in the tablet hype-fest as a hopelessly under-specced footnote on the path to iPad supremacy.
But with the new Kindle Keyboard, Amazon has absolutely shown there's plenty of life in the dedicated eBook reader yet.
It's the first Kindle to be properly supported in the UK from its release date, including having a dedicated UK store (the Kindle 2 was eventually available here using the US store to make purchases).
This Kindle Keyboard has a bigger battery with 14 per cent more capacity (enough to last a month with W-Fi turned off), an extra 1GB of memory (4GB in total) and is noticeably smaller and lighter than its predecessors.
It's available is a Wi-Fi only edition, or one with added 3G support. The latter version comes in a choice of colours – white or dark grey – with the wi-fi version it's grey only.
In practice, the improvements in the Kindle specifications don't make a lot of odds.
The battery life, already long, is now a claimed one month (sorry, deadlines meant we couldn't put that to the test!).
Storage capacity was already thousands of books, and is now a claimed 3,500 - and with the 3G and Wi-Fi network connectivity enabling you to download from the web at will, capacity is effectively infinite.
But there is one change which does make a big difference – the new display.
Amazon claims a 50 per cent increase in contrast ratio, and it's certainly a big improvement - certainly one of the best eReader screens we've seen.
More than one of the people we showed it to assumed that it still had a fake display sticker on it, like the ones mobile phones have in shops, and were amazed that it was actually on and that this was the real display.
The display is sharp and the text is a deep black, making it very easy to read. Far easier, in fact, than on touchscreen tablets like the iPad.
The background is not pure white, more of an Etch-A-Sketch grey, and if you look carefully you can see ghost text from the previous screen. This is a side effect of the ultra-low-power E Ink Pearl electronic paper display which wipes and redisplays once, rather than continuously refreshing like a conventional LCD panel.
In practice the effect is no more noticeable than the show-through you get form a real book. The 800x600 display might be expected to exhibit jaggies, especially as there is no anti-aliasing, but the chosen fonts work well.
There is a definite pause when you transition pages, and the screen flicks black – no wow-factor animated page turns here - with a screen refresh time of around a quarter second per frame. It jars a bit at first but you rapidly don't notice it.
Reading with the new Kindle
Unlike the iPad and the plethora of Android based tablets, the Kindle Keyboard is designed to do one thing, and to do it well – display books. It has some other bolted-on functions, but they are very much secondary, and we'll come to them later.
It's as a book reader that the Kindle Keyboard excels. It's form factor is perfect – about the height and width size a small paperback, but much thinner (unless you read a lot of poetry). It's weight, at 240g, is low enough to hold comfortably in one hand for as long as you like.
New Amazon Kindle 3 next to a regular paperback
It weighs roughly two thirds less than an iPad, and 140g less than a Samsung Galaxy Tab.
Page forward and back controls, duplicated on either side for lefties, are ergonomically perfect once you've got used to the bottom-top buttons rather than right-left for forward and back.
Compared to using the Kindle app on the iPad, it's much easier to turn pages and of course you don't get accidental page turns from touching the screen by mistake.
There are a number of ways to get books onto the new Kindle 3. The most obvious is to buy them from the Kindle store, which is now a dedicated UK operation.
Kindle definitely has the edge over Apple's rival iBook Store in both pricing and range, but both still have some way to go.
If you're expecting eBooks to offer major savings over paper, you may be disappointed. Typical savings on paperbacks are a few pence, although new release hardbacks are better – the new Terry Pratchett for example is £3.64 cheaper on Kindle than Amazon proper, but his most recent paperback release is only a 20p saving.
The case is an option extra
Apple's store doesn't have any Pratchett books at all.
Downloading a book takes a few seconds over 3G or wi-fi, not much longer with GPRS, and you can read your Kindle-bought books on your PC or Mac, on an iPhone, iPad or an Android device as well as the Kindle itself.
It even syncs up your latest reading position so if you don't have your Kindle on you, you can read a few pages on your HTC Desire and on getting home your Kindle will have moved on to the right place.
Alternatively, if you have documents in one of the eBook formats, you can either load them directly via the Kindle's USB connection (it appears on your PC or Mac like a memory card) or if required convert them to a supported format using 3rd party software like Calibre.
You can load PDF documents into the Kindle too. There's also a system for converting Word documents – you e-mail the documents to a special address and the docs are converted and uploaded to your Kindle automatically; there is a small fee for that.
Wi-Fi or 3G version?
We've reviewed the 3G version here, but unless your planning is so poor, or your reading so fast, that you find yourself caught short of a book to read between leaving the house and arriving at work, we'd question whether it was worth the £40 extra over the Wi-Fi only edition.
Naturally you can change the font and text size (if the book lets you; some have their own embedded fonts), and you can switch to a sideways orientation if you like.
The optional case has a light for reading in the dark
The Kindle has a text-to-speech function, but we wouldn't recommend it as it trips up over sentence endings. Margin scribblers will be happy with the ability to add highlights and notes – and even share them over the usual social networks.
You can view the most highlighted parts of the book you are reading, should the fancy take you - the 21st Century version of looking for the most thumbed sections of a James Herbert novel.
In use, the reading experience is flawless. The display is of course a passive one, so no reading in the dark (unless you buy the £50 case with a built in reading light), but it's much easier on the eyes so you won't get an "iPad migraine".
It should be great in direct sunshine too, although the British weather prevented a scientific test of that. It's matt screen certainly prevents annoying reflections. Long term reading on the Kindle is a joy.
Away from reading, the device's monomania does have a knock on effect on its usability.
Selecting a book and navigating the device's menus is done with a square four-way selector with a central OK button, along with dedicated Home, Menu and Back buttons.
It works, but it feels very old fashioned and clunky. That's not helped by the monochrome display's inability to highlight options – you have to look for the underline.
There is a QWERTY keyboard with tiny buttons and an awkward Shift key. It will get very little use for most people, and we wonder if the area at the bottom could have been better used for a more sophisticated menu control system.
The little extras
Probably stung by the multi-function loveliness of the iPad, Amazon has added some extra features to the Kindle 3, labelling them "Experimental" in the hope we won't be too harsh about them.
There is a web browser; it's based on WebKit so is compatible with most sites but as you can imagine browsing on a 16-greyscale 800 x 600 display which can't cope with animation and no touchpad is not anyone's idea of a nice experience.
You could use it in emergencies. It does have a nice Article View, which strips out all but the body text of a page and presents as straight text, making the most of the Kindle's advantages, but unfortunately you still have to use the normal view to navigate to the page you want to read.
The new Kindle also allows playback of MP3s while you read. That could be a very nice feature, but as the only controls are pause and skip forward, there's no track selector or even an indicator of what's playing, you'd have to say it's not really usable.
Remarkably the thing they could so easily have added to a device with a network connection, a great screen for text and a QWERTY keyboard – e-mail – isn't there even as an experimental feature.
The Amazon Kindle Keyboard is optimised for reading books above any other function, as a result it does a superb job. The E Ink display is gorgeous and incredibly easy to read. It's size and weight make it perfect as a portable eReader. And it's finally out at a breakthrough price £109 for Wi-Fi only and £149 for 3G.
There's a lot of attention being given to eBooks thanks to the explosion in multi-function tablets, but it's still the case that jack of all trades is master of none, and for reading, the Amazon Kindle is by far the best experience.
Given its price and the range of books now available, the time of the eReader is finally here, and the Kindle 3 is showing Apple the way.
The screen is excellent, the size of the device is ideal and the range of books available is fantastic. The price is excellent compared with rival products.
Books could be cheaper, anything which needs colour doesn't work well, and the keyboard and menu systems are a bit clunky.
Amazon shows that specialising can pay as it beats the tablets at their own game.