03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

GeekGirl Reviews: E-Book Readers - Amazon Kindle 2

Back in February, Amazon introduced an updated version of their flagship Kindle e-book reader. The Kindle 2 was officially released on February 24th and I was fortunate to receive a review unit from Amazon.

When Amazon announced the updated reader, I blogged about my initial impressions. Keep in mind that I had not, up to that point, had any hands-on experience with any portable e-book readers, and my first impressions were based completely on the press release. In summary, I was impressed, but had a few reservations: The price, lack of memory expansion, and lack of a backlight were all issues for me.

First Impressions

I received the box from Amazon on the exact day the Kindle 2 was released, February 24th. The first thing I noticed as I took the package out of the shipping carton was the quality of the packaging itself. This impression held true as I proceeded to unpack the unit and accessories. You get the feeling from the packaging and all the parts that this is a high quality product.

Included with the reader were the USB cable, wall charger, reader and documentation. The cable is a standard A-to-Micro-B format, and is used to connect the reader either to a computer or the wall charger. A leather cover/case was included with my review unit, however, it does not come with the reader when purchased -- it is a $29.95 option and highly recommended.

The Details

The Kindle 2 itself is lightweight (10.2 oz.), but feels very solid. The unit measures 8" x 5.3" x 0.36", and has a keyboard and various buttons located on the front.

The battery is internal, and not user replaceable. Expected battery life on a full charge is up to 4 days with the wireless feature turned on, or up to 2 weeks with no wireless. Total charge time is approximately 4 hours. The reader can be charged via the wall charger or your computer.

Memory is also internal, not user expandable, and amounts to approximately 1.4Gb of user-accessible storage space. Amazon estimates the reader to hold up to 1,500 books.

The screen is a 6" diagonal E Ink® electronic paper display, offering 600 x 800 pixel resolution at 167 pixels per inch and with 16-level gray scale. There is no screen lighting nor color support.

The reader also has two small speakers, located on the bottom rear of the unit, and a headphone jack. The reader can play audio books, MP3 files, and has the ability to read to you.

A computer is not necessary to use the Kindle 2, and no software is included.

Connectivity for purchasing books, subscribing to magazines or newspapers, limited internet browsing and other services is provided via a 3G cellular modem built-in to the reader. The Amazon Whispernet service is included in the purchase price -- no additional subscription fees are required. (Note: a version of the Kindle 2, with international wireless access was released for $279 in October)

The Kindle 2 has a one-year warranty, with an additional year available for $65 extra at time of purchase.

The Good

The E Ink screen is extremely easy to read. It offers a high contrast, black on white image to read from. It is very much like reading from an actual book. You can adjust the text size and contrast to suit your needs, and is easily viewable in both bright and dim lighting conditions.

The unit is similar in weight to a small hardbound book, and is easy to hold and use, regardless of the size of your hands. It is about the size of a half-sheet of paper, making it extremely portable.

I found the interface to be simple and intuitive. Turning pages is easy, via buttons on either side of the screen, making it convenient for both right and left-handed people. A single button controls access to the directory and main menu, and navigation is handled via a joystick-like controller along the bottom right edge of the reader.

The Kindle supports a number of popular e-book and document formats, including: Kindle (AZW), TXT, Audible (Audible Enhanced (AA, AAX)), MP3, unprotected MOBI, PRC natively; PDF, HTML, DOC, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP through conversion. A lot of unwarranted criticism is leveled at the Kindle, as many think that you can only purchase content from Amazon. Although there are some limitations, the wide variety of supported formats ensures that you can obtain and load content from many places. Several online e-book sellers have an option to purchase directly in Kindle format, and all that I encountered have at least one Kindle-compatible format available. In addition, Amazon offers document conversion services -- some are free and some require payment. There are also several e-book conversion programs available on the internet so that you can convert your own content.

A wonderful feature for students is the note-taking feature. Using the built-in keyboard, you can add contextual notes as you are reading. The notes themselves are indexed behind the scenes to the exact point in the book where you entered them.

The Kindle 2 also has limited support for playing non-DRM MP3 files, as well as audio books in the proprietary Audible (an Amazon company) audiobook format. The audio quality from the internal speakers is not very good, but the Kindle allows the reader to be attached to headphones or any other audio input using a standard mini headphone jack.

One weird feature is the "Read-To-Me" capability. The reader, if allowed by the copyright holder of the specific content, can read to you in several different voices. A cursor follows the reader, highlighting the current word, as it is spoken. Perhaps this would be helpful for someone learning to read, or for a sight-impaired person with a helper that can set the reader up for them. Personally, I find it kind of spooky.

The process of purchasing books is simple, whether from your computer, directly on the Amazon website, or via the Kindle itself, using the built-in Whispernet wireless service. The service is included in the price of the reader, and connects via the AT&T wireless network (earlier models utilized the Sprint network), or in several other countries via other GSM-capable carriers (an extra charge may apply for international access). You can download sample chapters of books before you purchase, and complete books are downloaded in a matter of seconds.

As mentioned previously, there are many sources for content besides the official Kindle Store. When purchasing from other vendors, you will need to do so via a computer and download the content via USB. There are also online sources for free materials, like public domain books from Project Gutenberg. Amazon offers New York Times bestsellers and new releases from $9.99 each, and has some content as low as $1.99. They also have a system in place that allows independent publishers to offer content via the Kindle Store. At the time of this writing (November 2009), Amazon reports over 360,000 titles are available directly from the Kindle Store.

Besides being backed by the leading online bookseller, the Kindle has another HUGE advantage. Since the release of the Kindle 2, Amazon has released a large-format version of the reader, called the Kindle DX, as well as software applications for reading Kindle content from your Apple iPhone or your Windows PC. Future versions are planned for the Apple Mac and the RIM Blackberry. Here is the kicker -- when you purchase content for one reader on your account, you can access that same content on all the devices/applications on that same account. This is a significant advantage over the other current e-book readers on the market. The reader applications can be downloaded for free from the Amazon website.

The Bad

Despite the myriad of formats that the Kindle 2 supports, there is one glaring omission -- the ePub open e-book standard. This is the current "standard" for e-book publishing and is supported by most of the e-book readers on the market. I am hoping that Amazon has plans to support this important standard in a future software update.

A personal pet-peeve of mine, with the Kindle 2, is that the multi-direction controller (joystick) on the unit seems too slick and small for my fingers. It was difficult at first, to move the controller with any dexterity. After a couple days, I found that I could control it better, but I wonder if Amazon could either put a texture or some kind of rubber tip on the controller to make it easier to use.

I read in bed a lot. That is why the lack of any kind of lighting for the screen is an issue for me. From other Kindle users, I understand that the E Ink® display is not technically capable of being backlit. I also understand that adding any kind of lighting to the reader itself would negatively affect battery life. I noticed that Amazon is selling a couple of accessory book lights for the Kindle 2 now. One looks to complement the reader quite well.

In discussing my initial impressions with other Kindle owners, I expressed my concerns about the lack of memory expansion capabilities on the Kindle 2. However, with the help of the Kindle owners that replied to my first blog about the reader, I discovered that this is not as much a concern as I thought. Not only are all of your Kindle store purchases easily available via the wireless connection, but when connected to a computer, the Kindle 2 acts like a flash drive. You can easily transfer files between the computer and reader at any time. I continue to feel that a flash memory card slot is an important part of ANY portable device, and as such, the Kindle 2 should have one.

For the value that one can derive from the reader, the current price is definitely worth it. However, in order to achieve the kind of ubiquity necessary to bring the publishing world into the 21st century, the reader still needs to come down in price. For many people, especially in the current economic climate, an e-book reader is simply a luxury.

The Ugly

While I support the rights of authors and publishers to protect their work, I have a philosophical issue with the inclusion of Digital Rights Management (DRM) in any media device (music player, e-book reader, etc.). I do not deny the existence of piracy and illegal sharing of intellectual property, however, I question whether the extent of the problem justifies the denial of owner's rights. For example, if I go out and buy a traditional book, I can loan that book to a friend, or I can sell the book at a garage sale. I cannot do either of those things with DRM. All books purchased in the Kindle store are protected by DRM.

An extreme case against DRM, specifically as it pertains to the Kindle 2, happened in July 2009. Amazon customers, who, in good faith, purchased the George Orwell books 1984 and Animal Farm, had their purchases reversed, and the books removed remotely from their readers. In one case, a student who was using the notes feature of his Kindle for a class, lost all his work when the books disappeared from his reader.

The Verdict

I will admit to being very impressed once I had a Kindle 2 in my hands, despite my reservations. I was hard-pressed to send it back, I was that impressed. I love gadgets, and I love to read. It is inevitable that I will purchase e-book readers for both my spouse and I, and likely in the near future. However, this in an evolving market, and there are a lot of very good options either newly available, or coming soon. This is not an insignificant purchase, so I need to weigh my options carefully.

If I had no concern of the cost, I would have purchased the Kindle 2 at the time, no questions asked. At this point, I am likely to wait and evaluate my options with the newer readers. This is not a black mark on Amazon at all, as the Kindle 2 is still in contention. I just want to wait and see what other new features and applications the other manufacturers come up with.

If you are looking for a solid e-book reader, with the backing of the leading online bookseller, and are not willing to wait, go for it. I definitely think you will be impressed. I know I was.

If you can wait, you may want to see what options you have in the next six months to a year. Such is the nature of new technology.

Kindle Timeline

I've listed the important dates for the Kindle ecosystem below:
November 2007 - Amazon releases the Kindle e-book reader ($359)
February 2009 - Amazon releases the Kindle 2 e-book reader, replacing the Kindle ($359)
March 2009 - Amazon releases FREE Kindle iPhone app
May 2009 - Amazon releases the Kindle DX e-book reader, offering a larger screen ($489)
July 2009 - Amazon reduces price of Kindle 2 from $359 to $299
October 2009 - Amazon reduces price of Kindle 2 from $299 to $259
October 2009 - Amazon introduces Kindle 2 with International Wireless Access ($279)
October 2009 - Amazon introduces FREE Kindle for PC app
Coming Soon - Kindle for Max app & Kindle for Blackberry

What's Next?

This is my first e-book reader review for the Huffington Post, and I have plans in the works to also review the Kindle for PC e-book reader, the Sony Reader - Pocket Edition, Sony Reader - Touch Edition, the Nook e-book reader from Barnes & Noble, and several upcoming readers not yet available. Check back for these reviews over the next few months.

I also plan a comparative review of all these readers sometime early next year.

Disclosure: I received a Kindle 2 from Amazon as a result of my request. I had 10 days to review the unit and have returned it to Amazon. I was given a $30 account credit to purchase review materials from the Kindle Store. I purchased one book with the credit, which I no longer have access to.