Amazon Kindle Keyboard 3G

The new Amazon Kindle Keyboard 3G has landed, following up where the Kindle Keyboard left off. We criticised the Kindle Keyboard on various fronts: the fact that it was restricted to Amazon’s material when it came to purchasing ebooks was the biggest bugbear. Things have changed slightly, with the UK Kindle Store now offering what looks like a better experience for UK users, so you don’t feel like you are simply grasping at a US service. With a high-profile advertising campaign in the UK, the Kindle is going all out to be the must-have Christmas gift of 2010.

The new Kindle makes the move to a graphite colour, but from a design point of view is similar to the previous device. It features a 6-inch E Ink display and offers a QWERTY keyboard across the bottom with some minor tweaking to button layout and the side page turning buttons. It has slimmed down slightly too, now measuring 190 x 213 x 8.5mm. It weighs 247g, light enough to hold, but overall it is heavier and slightly larger than the Sony Reader Touch edition (PRS-650) a rival device that will also be gunning for your Christmas cash.

The Kindle is finished in plastic and it feels good in the hand with a lightly rubberised back. It might not have the premium feel that some of the aluminium ebook readers have, but it’s difficult to question the build quality. The chances are, too, that you’ll buy a cover for your Kindle and never remove it. The covers have an innovative attachment into the side of the device and we’re impressed that the Kindle Lighted Leather Cover draws power from the Kindle itself. A convenient arrangement and a practical cover it is, but it does add bulk and weight and costs £49.99.

Controls and connections lie across the bottom of the Kindle, offering a volume controller for audible and music content along with a 3.5mm headphone jack. There is a Micro-USB connector and a sliding power switch. A mic opening is also present here, but at present lacks any supporting features - we suspect it would be for a simple voice notes function.

The keys have a slightly abrasive feel to them, but the action is clean enough. In terms of response, this is governed by the screen, which is quick to react and a real improvement over E Ink screens of the past which were a little slow to register and change. With a typical 800 x 600 pixel resolution display, Amazon boasts that the screen has 50 per cent improved contrast and with 16 shades of grey, it is amongst the best ebook reader screens currently available.

For those not in the know, E Ink is a passive display technology that doesn’t have a backlight like LCD. As a result it is very low in power consumption, basically setting the image on the screen and then not drawing any power until it changes again. This means that you are looking at a battery life measured in weeks rather than hours. Amazon says it will last for a month with the wireless connectivity turned off, but 10 days turned on, which we’ve found to be about the right sort of measure.

The refresh rate is excellent and this makes the Kindle a better experience when it comes to entering text and navigating menus than it was previously. There is a degree of lag inherent in the screen technology, but with every passing iteration it seems to be getting better. The screen response is fast enough to be able to bash out text on the keyboard without too much difficulty: it still takes a second to appear, but the Kindle does at least keep up with what you are doing. The contrast too is better, with the background whiter and the text blacker.

Choosing a button-only navigation, the Kindle doesn’t offer touch control that is starting to appear in ebook readers. A noticeable side effect of this is that the menu structures and home screen are all rather conservative. Being list-based they are easy enough to use for the most part, but there is little to get excited about when navigating around the device.

Power on and the list will present your books or periodicals available to read. Being a connected device, and supported by Amazon, the Kindle will let you subscribe to various newspapers and magazines, all for a fee. We elected for a trial of the Financial Times; presented as it is it is perfectly readable, and using the 3G connection in the device, it will automatically be loaded with the latest content when you rush out of the door in the morning to catch the train. You can also subscribe to a number of blogs, but it goes without saying that much of what you pay for here can be had for free on the Internet.

Besides the 3G connection the Kindle also features Wi-Fi, which promises a faster experience, although with files of the size that it uses we can’t really see speed being much of a driver. It will lessen the financial burden on Amazon for maintaining all these connected devices (presumably) but more importantly, if you don’t have great mobile phone reception in your house, you’ll still get to use your home broadband connection. For those not interested in reading newspapers and the like, you could well be happy to leave the wireless connection turned off: just read the content you have, and when you need more, turn it on to connect to your Amazon account.

One of the biggest draws of the Amazon Kindle is that wireless connection to the Kindle Store means you can very easily get access to loads of content without the need for a computer. As your Kindle is linked to your account, your payment details will all be taken care of, you simply (and dangerously) just have to select what you want to read and it will be delivered to your Kindle wirelessly. It is a GSM connection so will work globally in GSM territories with no cost to the user.

This is a double-edged sword. For many, the sheer simplicity of the system makes it really appealing. No computers, no wires, no need to authenticate anything with Adobe Digital Editions to deal with the DRM. It also isn’t restricted to your Kindle only: Amazon also offers Kindle access through your PC or Mac, iPad, iPhone/iPod touch and Android handsets, and we’ve also seen Kindle on the BlackBerry. So you don’t need to fear that your content is “locked in” to your Kindle. Cleverly, it also auto-syncs the position you have read up to, meaning you’ll be able to read a few chapters on your phone whilst sitting on the bus, and pickup on your Kindle when you go to bed. 

The downside of the Kindle approach using the Kindle Store is that you only have that source to buy your content from. Yes, the Kindle supports PDF too, but most ebook stores sell their content in EPUB format, something that the Kindle doesn’t support. This means that it is incompatible with any existing content you might have, and you could be held to ransom by Amazon over pricing. 

It is fortunate then that Kindle Store is one of the better value ebook sources online. Of course you’ll have to look at the store and see if it has the content you want to read from your favourite authors. If it doesn’t, be sure to look elsewhere too, because it may be the case that the publisher hasn’t released an ebook version of that title, rather than because of a lack of depth to Amazon’s listings. To see what Amazon’s pricing looks like alongside EPUB-selling rivals WHSmith and Waterstones, we compared the top 5 titles from the New York Times best selling hardcover fiction list (prices as at the date of this review publication). Whilst this isn’t entirely conclusive, it’s an indicator or where the Kindle Store lies.

There is free content too, as Amazon have Kindle editions of many out-of-copyright classics. This is one area where other readers have worked hard, offering EPUB versions of these texts which can be sourced online, but Amazon has dealt with this too.

The reading experience on the Kindle is excellent. The screen looks great and doesn’t suffer from reflections or glare, fulfilling the aim of being as close to reading on paper as possible. We’re not entirely sold on Amazon’s page location arrangement, preferring a simple numbering system, although diving into a particular page number is rare on an ebook. As it is, you can resume reading where you left off, and bookmarks are available through the menu as well - all syncing to your Kindle apps on other platforms too. As a complete cross-platform ebook solution, it is the most cohesive around, but remember that if you opt for a non-Amazon device in the future (Sony or BeBook for example) you won’t be able to move over your Kindle content. 

You can highlight text and make notes, which are all stored together and accessed through the menus for easy access. You also get access to popular highlights, where other users have marked passages of the text. To access the on-board Oxford Dictionary of English you simply move the cursor to a word and the definition appears at the top of the screen.

Other features reside in the Experimental section of the Kindle’s menu. It’s here that you’ll find the MP3 player. Functions are extremely basic: you click on the “play music” option and it starts playing - no menu, no options and controls are limited to keyboard shortcuts. Text to speech will also read text to you, although some of the parsing is a little odd so it can be difficult to follow the narrative. It might be a feature that appeals to those who are visually impaired, but we suspect that those just too lazy to read will probably not stick with it for long. The on-board speakers are passable quality, but we guess you’ll use headphones most of the time.

Also residing in the experimental section of the menu is the browser, but the greyscale display does make websites appear rather basic. It is a Webkit browser so pages render okay, but navigation is an obvious flaw. Moving around a page using the cursor and selecting links is slow and the need to constantly zoom in and out with page refreshing means it will never offer the user experience that you’ll get from a decent mobile phone browser.

In terms of storage you can fit 3500 books on your Kindle, but you’ll eat this space up rapidly if you choose to load it with MP3 files as well.

Verdict

Much of what the Kindle Keyboard 3G offers isn’t that far removed from the last iteration of the Kindle that we saw. There have been improvements: it is smaller and lighter, the response from the screen is faster and the contrast is better. None of these are really deal breakers in our mind and none are unique to the Amazon Kindle. However there is one significant factor that we can’t ignore: the price.

For full time connectivity with the Kindle Keyboard 3G you are asked only £149. If you opt for Wi-Fi only with the Kindle Keyboard, you only have to pay £109. Either way, the Amazon Kindle offers exceptional value for money, considering that some rivals are asking for twice as much and offer no content solution. You lose on some of the format freedoms, but you gain on simplicity. The Kindle Store prices are good too and this is an important consideration. 

When we reviewed the Kindle previously it was an expensive device locked to one source of books. Coming in as cheap as it does, we can’t help feeling that the Kindle is going to be unstoppable. It isn’t perfect: the menus are boring, it doesn’t have the premium feel you’ll find elsewhere, and the additional features are rather limited, but it offers an excellent experience if the Kindle Store has the content you want to read.



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