It may not have been the first e-Reader on the market sporting E ink's electronic paper display - Sony's LIBRIé claimed those bragging rights when it debuted in Japan in April 2004 - but since its launch in November 2007, Amazon's Kindle has risen to dominate the e-Reader market. In that time, it has also gone through a number of updates, including the Kindle 2, the Kindle DX, Kindle 3 and most recently, the Kindle Touch and the first Kindle without an E Ink display, the Kindle Fire. The latest updates to the line-up also saw the Kindle enter its fourth generation, and with the Touch and Fire having the lion's share of attention, we decided to turn the spotlight on the 4th-gen Kindle with a review.
Goodbye physical keyboardAs is usually the case with a hardware update, the latest Kindle is smaller, lighter and faster than its predecessor. However, the reductions in size and weight do come at the cost of the physical keyboard found on previous models. In place of the full QWERTY keyboard, the Kindle now sports just five buttons below the screen - Back, Keyboard, 5-way controller, Menu and Home - with the Previous and Next page buttons on either side of the device and a power button on the bottom edge rounding out the buttons on offer. Whether the loss of the physical keyboard will bother you or not will really depend on what you intend to use the device for.
If all you're after is a device for reading the latest bestseller while curled up in front of the fire or kicking back on the beach this holiday season, then you won't really find yourself missing the keyboard - with a few minor exceptions, such as inputting your details at set up, searching for a book in the store or (for the masochists out there) using the included Web browser. On these occasions you'll be forced to rely on navigating around an onscreen keyboard using the 5-way controller. Thankfully the device's response time is fast enough to make this is tolerable as is possible, but for inputting anything longer than a few words you'll soon be wishing you had shelled out a little extra - if not for the Kindle 3 (or Kindle Keyboard), which is still on sale through Amazon, then at least for the Kindle Touch, which offers an onscreen touch keyboard in a similar form factor to the 2011 Kindle. So note takers take note - this Kindle is not for you.
Lighter and smallerWhile the weight and size reductions - the device weighs 5.98 oz (170 g) and measures 6.5 x 4.5 x 0.34 in (166 x 114 x 8.7 mm) - will be welcomed by most, they do have a downside. With the 2011 Kindle featuring the same 6-inch E ink Pearl display found on all current Kindle models (save for the LCD-sporting Fire) and most competitor offerings, its overall small size can make it hard to find a comfortable one-handed grip that allows the user to keep a finger on a Next page button. Still, the lightness of the device means something can generally be worked out.
DisplayAs for the display itself, there's a reason the 6-inch E Ink Pearl display has become the industry standard. With its 600 x 800 resolution and 16-level grayscale, the text is sharp and clear and easy on the eye. Although I had played around with a number of E Ink devices, I have to admit relying on an iPad (running the Kindle app) for most of my recreational reading before trialing the 4th-gen Kindle. This basically meant no reading outdoors in sunlight and before going to sleep I would also read with the lights off with white text on a black background. After switching to the E Ink Kindle and going back to reading with a light on, my eyes definitely thanked me - particularly after a day already spent in front of an LCD display.
It is worth mentioning, however, that although Amazon claims the Kindle's display doesn't produce glare, even in bright sunlight, this isn't entirely true. If you're positioned with the Sun, or even a lamp, directly over your shoulder, then there's a chance you'l get some glare. Sure, it's nothing like the almost mirror-like reflection you'll get from an LCD display on something like the iPad or the Kindle Fire and it can be negated with a slight angling of the display, but it is there.
FasterWith a new 800 MHz processor replacing the previous 532 MHz processor, Amazon claims the page turns on the new device are 10 percent faster. Display refresh speed is one of the big advantages of an LCD display and the flash of the E Ink screen as it refreshes can be distracting at first. But the speed of the page turns on the 2011 Kindle, while not as fast as a page turn on an LCD display, are comparable or faster than the a page turn on an actual paperback. As a result, page turn speed is not really an issue on the latest Kindle.
HardwareDespite the minimal weight of the 2011 Kindle, the unit somehow seems solid and substantial in one's hand. The two-tone gray housing complements the grayscale display and the rear has a rubberized coating that, while not exactly boasting adhesive properties, will help prevent the device sliding off a trouser leg on a train trip.
Amazon claims the Kindle's battery is good for around one month with Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n) turned off and assuming around half an hour of reading a day, although my experience would suggest this a conservative estimate if anything. The device doesn't come with an AC adapter so needs to be charged via USB using the included cable - although power adapters are available separately through Amazon for US$10.
Amazon has also seen fit to halve the on board memory of the Kindle, down from 4 GB on previous and other current models to just 2 GB for the 4th-gen Kindle. With no SD or microSD card slot there's also no way to expand the on board storage either, although Amazon also offers free cloud backup of purchased books if you find yourself trying to cram the device with more than the roughly 1,400 books Amazon says the 2 GB of on board memory will accommodate.
InterfaceThe home page displays a bar along the top with the amount of storage capacity remaining, current time, strength of the Wi-Fi signal, and battery life. Below this is a list of available content, including purchased items, user guide and a link to Archived Items stored on other Whisper Synched devices. Hitting the Menu button will let you turn the wireless on/off, head to the Kindle Store, do a search, sync content, access the device settings, open the "Experimental" Web browser and change the screen rotation.
While reading, the display will be limited to the text and a progress bar along the bottom of the page telling you how far into a book you are. Hitting the Menu button from within a book allows you to change the font size, search the book, add a bookmark and view existing notes and bookmarks.
Navigating the menu and making selections is quick and easy using the direction button and the back button but, as mentioned previously, entering a search term or using the browser can be an exercise in frustration without a physical or touch keyboard. That said, if you bought this device to surf the Web then you haven't done your research and only have yourself to blame. However, looking up words in the included dictionary, on Google or on Wikipedia can be done easily enough by steering the cursor to the word using the 5-way controller.
An e-Reader for readingWith no physical keyboard or touch capabilities and only half the storage capacity of its other E ink Amazon stablemates, the 2011 Kindle is definitely the e-Reader for the budget conscious. But with no device more expensive than one that doesn't get used or needs to be replaced shortly after purchase, you need to ask yourself whether the 2011 Kindle is right for you - or the loved ones you intend to give it to.
If you often need to take notes while reading or are looking for a device on which to surf the Web more than very occasionally then you'll be better off investing more in a Kindle Keyboard or Kindle Touch - or a Kindle Fire, iPad or Android tablet if an E Ink display isn't important to you.
If, however, you just want an e-Reader for reading then it's hard not to recommend the 2011 Kindle. Despite its budget price point, the device itself feels sturdy and well made - although you'll probably want to invest in a cover or sleeve to protect the display from in-bag bumps and scrapes. It offers the same impressive E ink Pearl display as its brethren, its faster processor provides sporty page turning performance, and it is light and small enough to throw in a bag - if not a pocket.
For US$109 or $79 for the ad supported version, the 2011 Kindle is sure to be a popular addition under the tree for many people this year, and it's hard to see too many of them being overly disappointed.