The Amazon Kindle Touch is quite a remarkable little machine. In many ways, it can be seen as a halfway point between the Fourth Generation Kindle e-Reader and the Kindle Fire Tablet. However, it's not simply a glorified reader, nor is it a stripped down tablet. Rather, it is another way in which Amazon is building on its lead in the e-Reader market by optimizing the reader interface and user controls. With the Kindle Touch sure to find its way under many a tree this holiday season we put the device through its paces with a hands-on review.

Taking the Amazon Kindle Touch out the box is an eyebrow-raising experience. Opening the mailer from Amazon, one expects the usual avalanche of adapters, wires, plastic bags, manuals warranty cards and other assorted rubbish destined for the bin or the back of some drawer. Instead, nestled in a form-fitting plastic liner is the Kindle, a USB cable and a little card saying to use the USB cable to plug the Kindle Touch into a computer for charging. If you want to know more, says the card, the user manual can be viewed on the Kindle Touch.

At 6.8 by 4.7 by 0.40 inches (172 x 120 x 10.1 mm) and weighing 7.5 ounces (213 g), the Touch is slightly larger than the Fourth Generation unit, but still quite compact when compared to a tablet or trade paperback. It also has a surprisingly robust feel to it and is built strong enough to withstand daily use and the odd short drop from side table on the carpet. But the screen begs to scratched, scuffed or spilled on, so a cover or case is the buy-first-day accessory, as is a cleaning cloth to deal with the curse of the touchscreen - frequent screen smudging from oily fingers.

In all, it's light and comfortable enough to hold easily in either hand and reading while lying down is actually better than with a conventional book of the same size. The 600 x 800 resolution E Ink display is crisp and nearly without glare and the flash-and-ghost effect of the screen refreshing is rarely distracting, though it is slightly slower than the Fourth Generation Kindle.

The Touchscreen

As "Kindle Touch" implies, the touchscreen is the centerpiece of the device. It's an improvement over the Fourth Generation's flappy paddles when it comes to turning pages. The paddles do a very good job, but they're counter-intuitive and even finding them the first time is a puzzle. on the other hand, thanks to tablets and smart phones, the touchscreen is ubiquitous and even small children have no trouble sorting out how to use them.

The layout of the Kindle Touch screen while reading an eBook consists of a wide area on the right-hand side covering most of the screen. Touching or swiping this area turns the page. On the left-hand side is a small margin that turns the page back and on the top there is a margin that when touched brings up the menu toolbar with a back button, a button that takes you to the Amazon Kindle shop, a search box and a menu button.

The touchscreen is easy to use, but with the entire screen acting as a control surface, you have to be careful to avoid accidentally touching it if you want to keep your place. Nodding off while reading is especially perilous. Let the Kindle Touch fall face down on your chest while napping and you'll wake up a dozen chapters from where you were. This is due to the infrared technology used to provide the touch capablities. While this allows the Kindle Touch to have a touchscreen without the highly reflective display found on capacitive touchscreen devices, it also means that anything that enters the field of view of the infrared sensors will register.

The only other physical features on the Kindle Touch are the on/off button located on the bottom edge of the device, the USB port and a jack for plugging in earphones or a speaker for listening to MP3 or audio books. Just below the screen is the Home button that when pressed, as the name suggests, brings up the Home screen, which is a list of books installed on the device. Tapping a title opens the book, tapping and holding opens up a list of options, such as viewing book marks or notes made in the book, adding it to a collection, deleting it from the device and so on. Its a simple system, though if you're a voracious reader who puts hundreds of books on your Kindle Touch, the list can be a bit of a bother to page through looking for a title.

Virtual Keyboard

One great improvement over the Fourth Generation and earlier Kindles is the virtual keyboard. The loss of a physical keyboard in favor of a virtual one allows the Kindle Touch to be smaller without losing functionality. It is certainly an improvement on the five-way controller of the Fourth Generation, which reduced note taking to a wearisome chore.

The Kindle Touch comes with two connectivity options. The US$149 model has 3G connectivity, while both it and the standard $US99 model has Wi-Fi connectivity. This allows users to shop from Amazon's Kindle site directly from their Kindle Touch, but it also allows them to share comments with other users on books purchased from Amazon, loan those books to other Kindle user, synch books between the user's other devices and borrow books from participating public libraries. There's even an "experimental" web browser, though it is so slow and basic that it's useful only for checking email and scanning the odd headline.

Another experimental feature is the Kindle Touch's MP3 player. Users can download Audible audiobooks from Amazon or drag and drop audio files from their computer to the Touch and play them either through headphones or the device's rather tinny speaker as what Amazon calls "background music." There is also a text-to-speech function on the device that allows it to read books to you, but the flat, droning robotic voice is neither engaging nor entertaining.

The built-in lithium battery is advertised as holding a charge for up to two months under normal use with the Wi-Fi turned off and for up to six weeks when left on. However, this is based on a very modest use of reading for only thirty minutes a day. Power readers will find that the battery needs topping up once a week, but that's still impressive and means that the Kindle Touch is likely to go the distance on a vacation trip if you forget to bring the USB cable along.

The Kindle Touch has double the memory of the Fourth Generation with 4 GB capacity that will hold up to 3,000 books. All books purchased from Amazon are stored in the Cloud and can be synched to the user's computer, so the potential number of books available on rotation is practically limitless.

As to pricing, this varies depending on features. The base price is US$99 without 3G capabilities and has the device displaying "special offer" advertisements on the Home page and as a screensaver when the Touch is turned off. These adverts can be kept off by paying a $40 premium, bringing the price up to $139. A 3G Kindle Touch with special offers will set you back $149, while one without adverts costs $189, is only $11 cheaper than the $199 Kindle Fire.

Some people may look upon the Kindle Touch as a sort of tablet with training wheels, but there is something to be said for a device that does one thing very well. It's a bit like having a calculator function on your smart phone, but pulling a proper calculator out of the drawer to do some serious number crunching. The Kindle Touch is easier to read than a tablet's lit screen and is readable in bright sunlight. It's lighter, which makes things like reading in bed much easier, and the Touch Screen has the easy, intuitive feel of a tablet.

Aside from providing the ability to quickly check the definition of words and being able to carry a virtual library's worth of books in your pocket, the Kindle Touch also has another advantage over traditional books. You can read trashy romance novels all day and convince people you're really reading Proust (Author's note: My wife made this point. I read trashy science fiction).

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