Now that we've seen Amazon's Kindle 2, unveiled by Jeff Bezos today in New York, I can't help but conclude that the more powerful machine provides only a slim additional reader benefit. Here's why:
There are improvements that make the Kindle 2 marginally better for readers, like faster page turning, smaller better page-turn buttons, longer battery life and the ability to charge via USB. None of the rest of the tweaks affect the actual business of reading directly or indirectly, and even these upgrades probably won't turn Kindle 1 owners an envious shade of green:
• 20% faster page turning: It's nice because flipping ahead several E-Ink pages can be annoying—but it's not what's needed to make a real difference. You still can't leaf through a Kindle book like a real book, and that won't happen until the page refresh is 100 times (maybe 1000 times) as fast.
• Smaller inward-press page-turn buttons: The original's big right-hand page-turn button was annoying, but you just learned quickly how to pick up the device without touching it. This is definitely an improvement—especially with its MacBook-like click tension—but not a forward leap.
• Longer battery life: It already ran for a week or more with 3G turned off, but now it can go two weeks—my guess is, there's a point in there where people simply find time to charge their Kindle.
• Charging via USB: The best Kindle 2 benefit has been largely overlooked. Now that you can charge while connected to your computer, or charge using any old mini-USB cable or charger, you aren't likely to run down the battery unwittingly, or live at the mercy of Amazon's proprietary power brick.
Let's look at the other improvements, and see why they don't matter at all for actual reading:
• Better screen detail: This might be nice for looking at pretty pictures, but words are perfectly readable on the first-gen Kindle. Update: Our buddy Josh Quittner at Time mentioned that the real travesty is that E-Ink hasn't gotten more white, for higher-contrast reading. And where's the font support, so that your favourite magazines and newspapers actually look like they're supposed to?
• Thinner body: The first Kindle was already thinner than any book I take to bed, even the original mass-media paperback of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. It was also very light, so not a problem.
• Seven times more memory: Even that kid in Magnolia could've packed all his books into the first Kindle's 256MB of storage. This memory upgrade—2GB, or 1,500 books—only helps people who are using Kindle for multimedia stuff, and who does that? The memory bump is probably based on market availability: The 2GB chip was probably cheapest one offered by the manufacturer. Update: Commenter Noobs-R-Us reminded me that the thing is also missing the freakin' SD reader, so the 2GB is all you get, take it or leave it.
• Text-to-speech reading: I admit that, if the interface navigation can also be read aloud, this will be a great boon for blind people, but until voice synthesisers start to sound like Peter O'Toole, consumers won't take this over Audible when they're heading out on a road trip.
Here's what either didn't get fixed, or in fact got worse:
• File conversion: There's still no native PDF support, in fact PDF, HTML, DOC, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP are all available only through a conversion process, one that costs money. Update: Commenter Gilbert points out there is a cumbersome but totally free way to send docs to Amazon and get them converted and emailed back—it seems the 10-cent charge is for transmitting to your Kindle directly.
• Screen size is the same: I'd rather have a bigger screen (like the insanely expensive iRex 1000S) than a "better" screen.
• Lack of rubber backing: Since the back is now slick aluminium and plastic, there's a greater chance of the thing slipping off the sink and into the toilet. What, you don't read in the bathroom?
• No more sparkle cursor: Instead of a weird but fast independent cursor to the right of the display, you now highlight stuff directly on the screen, which is slower.
The Beez says that the "Kindle vision" is "Every book ever printed in any language, available in under 60 seconds." That sounds fun but buying books will never be the plot of some Nicholas Cage movie. The selection was already good and getting better all the time, and the first Kindle had the same fast book delivery. This should not be the vision. The vision should be making Kindle even more book-like.
Before they address the needs of some hypothetical super weakling who has the aesthetic sense of Jon Ive, the cerebral voracity of Rain Man and the vision of Mr. Magoo, Amazon must address the needs of very real readers who read only a few books and magazines at a time, who like to download classic non-copyrighted lit and work-related documents for free, and who like to leaf through pages randomly. This last thing is important, though it may be insurmountable: Airport-friendly page turners don't really require non-linear random-access reading, but everything smart from Harry Potter to Infinite Jest does, and that's one concern that the Kindle, or any ebook reader, still does not address well. [Kindle 2 on Gizmodo]