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Kindle 2: $359 and out this month

Category : Journalism, Technology ยท by Feb 9th, 2009

As predicted yesterday, Amazon has just announced the second version of its Kindle e-book in New York this morning. You can read the official announcement here.

It will cost $359 – still very expensive – and will be available from 24 February. If you are based in the United States, you can pre-order one now. I just have.

This is the catchline being pushed by Amazon: “Thinner, faster, crisper, with longer battery life”. Here’s the corporate launch video. More actual details below.

So, picking up from my post yesterday.

Memory
I thought they’d go for between 1GB and 4GB and kill the external SD card slots. Yep. The Kindle now has 2 GB internal memory – which it points out will holds over 1,500 books. This still leaves the issue of running out of space for big Kindle users who download large numbers of books as well as newspapers.

To deal with this issue, Amazon is currently pointing at its online interface saying that “because Amazon automatically backs up a copy of every Kindle book purchased, customers can wirelessly re-download titles in their library at any time”. It’s a bit of a cop-out but it will hold up until Kindle version 3.

Buttons/Scroller

It’s thinner and slightly lighter than the original, plus “new buttons make it easy to turn the page from any holding position” – a positive way of saying that the company has fixed the problem of accidentally hitting buttons when handling it and having to stretch over the device to do things. So, an incremental step forward.

The one big advance is a move from the clickable scroll well to a “new 5-way controller”. This does precisely what I thought it would – allow you to move across the screen, rather than have to pick entire lines of text.

This controller will also make it easy to jump between articles and sections of newspapers – which is another sign that Amazon has been listening to customer feedback, because navigating a newspaper on the Kindle requires alot of back and forth and currently just doesn’t feel quite right. They’ve also come up with a better charger – the last one is oddly shaped and can be a pain to push into a power socket.

Battery

Lasts 25 percent longer, according to Amazon. Which it says equates to four to five days on one charge with the wireless on and for over two weeks with the wireless turned off. We shall see if it has fixed the problem with multiple subscriptions causing an incremental use of battery power i.e. the more things you are subscribed to, the faster the battery is drained due to the constant checking for new material.

Speakers

CEO Jeff Bezos appear to believe that the new audio speakers are a big differentiator. It’s even got a branded name, the “Read-To-Me Feature”. This is “experimental” the company says – which means they’re not sure it’s worth it but if it causes sales they’ll stick with it and improve it in the next version. I can only assume that Amazon has found there is a small but important market in partially-sighted book readers. Very possibly the senior citizen market.

So the feature speaks the words on the page and pages turn automatically while a book is being read so you can listen hands-free. There are male or female voices and you can set the speed it is read at. According to one journalist at the press conference though, the sound is a little robotic. Which is precisely what I was concerned about when reviewing this yesterday – if the sound isn’t warm and doesn’t have human-voice resonances, it will quickly irritate listener-readers. We’ll see if this feature survives the next Kindle iteration.

Screen

As predicted, there is a better screen. Same size but with 16 shades of grey, rather than the four previously. This means “crisp text, and sharper images and photos”. So that’s good. The pages will also turn faster with the Kindle 2 – also a nice incremental change.

No mention of the colour screen yet. It will take more battery power and another two Kindles to get there is my prediction.

Other bits and bobs

The company is sticking with its cell-phone network approach for downloads – a wise choice. The new Kindle also “comes with the New Oxford American Dictionary and its 250,000 word definitions built-in” (I’m pretty sure it was on my current Kindle when I received it), and definitions will appear instantly at the bottom of the page – which is good because currently the definition takes over the screen and that’s just so slightly annoying.

You can view all of Amazon’s launch material – videos, spec-list, news about Stephen King’s new novel and so on – on its Kindle webpage here.

Conclusion

All in all, an intelligent and useful update and redesign to the Kindle. There is nothing revolutionary about it – but then the Kindle itself remains a revolutionary force. It has completely changed my book habits and it has made the e-book a practical possibility. This is a good, smart move by Amazon.

The difficulty for the company will come in 12 months’ time when it will need to make sure it has something more than an incremental update in the Kindle 3. This is ideally what that version will have:

  • A lower price. It needs to hit $200 or less as soon as possible.
  • Either open-source software/hardware or a simple API – so people can start building useful applications for it. Amazon will think it won’t need to do this while it is the only decent product in the market. But all the time it doesn’t do this, it leaves the door open to a competitor (Sony? Apple? Barnes and Noble?)
  • More memory.
  • More processing power. The Kindle deals with just text and so has a tiny processor and that works fine. But it is inevitable that it will need more processing power soon if the Kindle is to stay ahead of the game.
  • A colour screen. This will be the mainstream breakthrough for the Kindle. But it has all sorts of engineering challenges associated with it.
  • Persuade the newspaper companies to charge less for their papers. At the moment, newspaper publishers are wary of the Kindle and charge the same as for a full printed version. Amazon needs to do what Apple did with the music companies and pressure the companies into cutting the price of their product.

    To do this, Amazon needs the numbers – and it is rapidly getting there. Newspaper publishers have to feel that they’ve got more to gain from shifting to e-publications and from getting into bed with Amazon. This shouldn’t be too hard for Amazon – pushing its purchasing power is exactly what got the company to the position it is in now – but it does need to work on this fast and have big deals ready for this time next year.

Anyway, bravo Amazon. I look forward to receiving and enjoying my new Kindle. As a Kindle 1 user apparently I get pushed to the front of the queue if I pre-order in the next 24 hours. Why is that? Because Amazon has some manufacturing issues at the moment and it needs its early adopters and loyal customers. Manfacturing is always the number one nightmare with innovative products so it is encouraging to see that Amazon at least recognises the value of keeping its existing customers sweet.

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