Hands-On with the Kindle Family

While most of the attention this week may be paid to the Kindle Fire, Amazon also did something for book lovers out there by rounding out its Kindle family with the release of the Kindle Touch. For those consumers who primarily use their digital device to read and find LCD displays hard on the eyes for extended periods of time, the E-Ink-based Kindles are the more exciting release this week. 

Amazon Kindle Lineup

From Amazon’s Kindle Page, the complete Kindle Line-Up

For the purposes of this review, I’ll use the same naming conventions as Amazon: the “old” Kindle, which Amazon still sells in limited quantities, is the “Kindle Keyboard,” the non-touch Kindle is simply “Kindle,” and the touch-based Kindle is “Kindle Touch.” Got it? Excellent.

As an avid reader and gadget lover, I’ve owned every Kindle since the first generation. I was excited to hear that Amazon wasn’t abandoning the e-ink technology when it introduced the tablet version of the product line, the Kindle Fire, and I pre-ordered both models of new Kindles right away. Unfortunately, after spending some time with the new Kindles, I’m going back to my Kindle Keyboard for day-to-day use.

I’ll break my disappointments down by device.

Amazon Kindle

First, the Kindle. It’s thin; it’s light; it’s beautiful. But it’s hard to hold. Amazon has made the Kindle so light and small that there’s barely enough room to place your thumb and fingers while holding the device. 

If held from below, in a situation in which you’re holding the Kindle down low and looking down upon it, it works pretty well because the device is supported by your fingers on the back. But hold it at 90 degrees or higher, resting in bed for example, and it’s difficult to hold the device without placing your thumb and fingers on the screen, which obscures the text or can inadvertently hit a page-turn button.

Compare this to the Kindle Keyboard, which has plenty of space for thumb and fingers and, due to the extended length caused by the physical keyboard, nestles nicely in the palm of your hand when held one-handed. I can read all day and from any angle on my Kindle Keyboard; I get frustrated within minutes while holding the Kindle.

[Remember: The “old” Kindle, which Amazon still sells in limited quantities, is the “Kindle Keyboard,” the non-touch Kindle is simply “Kindle,” and the touch-based Kindle is “Kindle Touch.”]

Aside from this factor, the device works great. I love the new refresh mode that doesn’t require the “flash” Kindle users have become accustomed to (although Amazon has just released an update, Kindle 4.0.1, that allows the user to turn the full refresh back on if they experience text ghosting). I also love the styling; the Kindle has come a long way from its thick and ugly first generation. 

Text entry using the directional pad is clunky but manageable considering the lack of a physical keyboard, and the page-turn and other interface buttons are responsive and feel solid when pressed. Overall, at least on paper, the pros of this new Kindle vastly outweigh the cons. But, at least for me, that one con is so overwhelming that it takes the whole device down with it. The Kindle is a device built for long periods of reading. If it’s not comfortable to hold, then all else is irrelevant.

Amazon Kindle Touch

On to the Kindle Touch. Ah, that’s more like it! Some space for my thumb and fingers! The Kindle Touch has a much wider area around the screen for holding the device and, due to the lack of page turn buttons, the space can be used without fear of triggering an inadvertent page turn.

The device is also slightly thicker and heftier, which helps it nest into your palm a bit better than the Kindle. The Kindle Touch shares the excellent styling and good looks of its non-touch sibling; they both look quite striking.

So where’s the problem? It’s the touchscreen. While great in theory, in practice a touchscreen based on e-ink technology is not a perfect marriage. Due to the limitations of e-ink, there is a noticeable lag between touches and response. As I mentioned above, the one area of the Kindle I loved was the fast page turns. On the Touch, the lag between touch and turn is long enough to remind me of the days of the first generation Kindle.

The actual touchscreen is also hyper-sensitive, even if the response from the device is slow. The slightest brush against the screen will trigger menu pop-ups and page turns, all inadvertent. For example, while reading in bed, I set the Touch down, face up, on my chest to ask my wife a question. When I looked back at the device, I was about 30 pages further into the book than I had been. A bed sheet had come to rest slightly on the bottom corner of the screen and had triggered those inadvertent page turns.

While Amazon has built in some neat features to take advantage of touch, such as pinch to change font size, the practical implementation of them is more annoying than helpful, and it all centers around lag. Perhaps we’ve grown spoiled by the instant-response touch screens we see on iPads and iPhones. Perhaps in another world absent those products the Kindle Touch would be a miraculous device. But in this world, it’s simply a game of “gesture, wait, wait, wait, gesture.” 

I would love for Amazon to take the Kindle and put it in the body of the Kindle Touch. A little more room to hold the device would go a long way. And as e-ink technology improves perhaps the Touch will get better and more responsive. But, as it stands, this marks the first year I’ve been disappointed by the new Kindles, and as I finish this review, I’ll grab my tea, lean back, and reach for my Kindle Keyboard. Amazon made a valiant effort, but, for me, it’s a tragedy.

Product: Kindle

Company: Amazon

List Price: $79-$99



Fast page turn refresh

Improved looks and appearance

Lowest-priced Kindles yet


Difficult to hold (Kindle)

Unresponsive touch screen (Kindle Touch)