First Look: Amazon Kindle Keyboard 3G review

The Kindle is the most popular ebook reader in the US, dominating the market and in the process selling not just thousands, but millions. So do we need another smaller, lighter, cheaper version or should you just stick with either what you've got or not bother at all? We managed to get a brief hands-on with the new ebook reader at a one-to-one briefing in London on the day of the new announcement.

Amazon has launched two devices with the new design: the Kindle Keyboard and the Kindle Keyboard 3G. The approach is identical to Apple's iPad offering from a connectivity standpoint, however that is where the similarity ends. The Kindle is a very different proposition. It is an ebook reader first and foremost and little else.

Sporting the same sized 6-inch E-Ink display as before, it's the chassis that has been on a diet. The Kindle is now 190 x 123 x 8.5mm in size and 241g in weight. That makes it very small and light. 

Now in a more desirable dark graphite colour rather than an off-white, the whole feel of the design is more mature, more grown up, and also less dirty. Bung it in the new leather case with built-in light, powered by the Kindle, so you can read in bed (£49.99) and at first glance people will think you're carrying a Moleskine rather than the latest gadget. This is an ebook that does not want to stand out in the crowd.

As with previous Kindle models, it is not touchscreen, but instead requires you to navigate through a series of buttons down the sides and a keyboard underneath.

For those of a geeky persuasion, that screen is a 6-inch diagonal electronic paper display, optimised with proprietary waveform and font technology and offering a 600 x 800 pixel resolution at 167ppi. You also get 16-level grey scale colouring.

To get into the new design (which Amazon tells us is 21 per cent smaller), the keyboard has been squished and rearranged from the previous model, however the keys don't seem to have been affected for the worse because of it.

The D-pad has moved from the edge to the main keyboard area and we found the buttons responsive. If you've already got a Kindle, or know someone who has, you'll know that you probably won't do that much typing on the keyboard anyway (unless you're a huge note taker). It's really just to make searching and menu selection easier.

Back to the screen and the contrast has been improved. Amazon claims the new screen is 50 per cent better in contrast than any other ebook reader. We didn't have any other readers with us at the time of our meeting to directly compare side-by-side, but we could see that the contrast was very good. That doesn't mean you are going to get a book feel with cream pages, just that it will be easier to read.

The contrast is helped further by Amazon doing everything it can to make the current technology work better for them. That means they've worked on improving the fonts used in the books on the reader, creating new hand-built, custom fonts and font-hinting to make words and letters more crisp, clear, and natural-looking.

"We've designed our proprietary font-hinting to optimise specifically for the special characteristics of electronic ink", the company says, and looking closely, more closely than you normally would, you can see Amazon has worked hard to make it look better.

Another thing that will make it easier to read is the refresh rate, i.e., the time it takes to turn the page, which has been sped up dramatically. Amazon says that page turning is 20 per cent faster this time and for us that translated into you only seeing a black screen for less than a second before the text is refreshed. It's still not instant, but it's better than it was before and certainly less noticeable.

When it comes to reading books or documents the Kindle is well fixed for that with the software being the same as before. That means you get all the bells and whistles you would expect, including bookmarking, social interaction options and the ability to access your centrally-stored books on other Amazon Kindle apps - currently the iPad, iPhone, Android, Mac and PC desktops. It's a strong package to go with some strong performing hardware.

Get inside and the model can now store 3500 books as the memory gets a bump from 2GB to 4GB. Whether you need the ability to store 3500 books on a single device that you carry around is still up for debate, but none the less you've got it here and it means you are pretty much future-proofed.

You could of course choose to fill that storage up with PDF files, music, podcasts, and any of the other file formats that the Kindle now supports (Kindle (AZW), TXT, PDF, Audible (Audible Enhanced (AA, AAX)), MP3, unprotected MOBI, PRC natively; HTML, DOC, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP through conversion.), but we will leave that up to you to decide. 

When it comes to connectivity there are two main options; either to go Wi-Fi only (£109) or to go 3G and Wi-Fi (£149). The 3G model is powered by Amazon's WhisperSync system which basically means you can download books on the go, with no additional data charges. Powered in the UK by Vodafone and AT&T in the US, it means you can download a book whether you are on the beach or at the airport. There is no contract, there is no monthly subscription bill. It's just there, ready to work for you when you want it to.

The Wi-Fi element is designed, at its cheaper price point, to entice those that don't think they'll be needing to make that book download on the beach.

Finally it's worth a note about battery. We weren't able to test it as we only had 20 minutes with the device, though Amazon claims 1-month (Wi-Fi off) on a single charge. Needless to say this isn't a device that will last you a couple of hours before you have to find a power socket like you do with your smartphone, but rather one that you only need to charge when it comes to renewing your monthly train pass.

Other tech to note is a USB 2.0 (micro-B connector) for connection to the Kindle UK power adapter, or optionally to connect to a PC or Macintosh computer, and a 3.5mm stereo audio jack and rear-mounted stereo speakers.

Verdict

While many believe that ebook readers are merely an interim technology until something better comes along, with a starting price of £109 for the Wi-Fi only model and £149 for the Kindle Keyboard 3G, it's easy to see that if you are tempted by the whole ereading experience, you'll be placing an order come 27 August when they go on sale.

In a double whammy of, "oh go on then" Amazon has promised that the books you buy from the Kindle bookstore will all be cheaper than their physical counterpart. Combine that, with a new UK focused, and priced, Kindle bookstore and you can see Amazon has finally gone mainstream with this unit outside of the US.

Currently (until August) the system from a UK perspective is complicated and confusing, after August it won't be.

So to the big question, should you buy one?

We want to stress that our time was brief. We were in a very bright (natural light) meeting room, but the screen was crisp and clean with virtually no reflection. We will hold out a full verdict until we've managed to play with it in the stark light of the London Underground.

But with a very appealing price point, a book buying system that doesn't require a PC, a light design and a compelling bookstore that will offer some 400,000 books in the UK alone, and we can see the trains packed with these come January. If you do a lot of reading, this is fast becoming a no-brainer, but you do have to consider whether you want to be limited to the Amazon offering, or whether you want access to the wide range of other ebookstores online, in which case, you'll want an open format device, happy to deal with DRMed EPUB files.

The Amazon Kindle Keyboard 3G, and Amazon Kindle Keyboard will be available from 27 August.

UPDATE: Check out our full Kindle review.