Kindle Touch review: A dramatic improvement over the Kindle 3

This article was updated to include initial impressions of Amazon's "lighted" case for the Kindle Touch, which arrived November 23.

Kindle Touch lighted case

The Kindle Touch was all I had eyes for. When Amazon announced a whole new line of Kindles, it seemed that everyone was jazzed about the new Kindle Fire. Not me. As an iPad 2 and Xoom owner, Fire would be a downgrade for me. But I've been a confirmed e-reader user since the release of Kindle 2. The first touch screen Kindle, smaller and lighter because it lacks a physical keyboard, was irresistible to me.

With the Kindle 3, now known as "Kindle Keyboard," Amazon perfected the e-reader so far as I'm concerned. While others fuss about color, my focus has always been size, weight, contrast and legibility. I've been reading books for a few decades now, and very few of them have been in color. For magazine reading, I definitely opt for the iPad (or paper).

Because I'm very happy with the Kindle 3, I didn't need the Kindle Touch. But several things intrigued me. For one thing, being able to advance pages with a quick tap almost anywhere on the screen had a strong appeal. No longer would my fingers cramp up while poised over the narrow Kindle 3 page-advance button. I've also often wished there were no physical keyboard on the Kindle. I just don't use it often enough to tote around the dedicated hardware. Amazon's marketing materials also called the new touch screen the best E-Ink screen ever. Finally, the anchoring hardware for Amazon's Kindle 3 lighted case was plagued by design issues and the new design is supposed to be better. According to the specs, the Kindle Touch and its new lighted case are lighter than their third-generation counterparts.

Opening the box

I ordered the new $139 Kindle Touch "without special offers" as soon as it was offered and received it on November 16. After opening the box, my first impressions were positive. The Kindle Touch is noticeably smaller. Holding it in your hand, it feels solid, adding to an overall perception of quality. At a glance, the back looks like brushed aluminum but it has a warm, hard rubber-like feel that offers better grip than metal. The new Kindle is also noticeably thicker. The bezel sticks up, away from the screen like a picture frame. That added thickness of the reveal presumably helps prevent accidental screen touches. In the product photos, what looks like a small series of horizontal speaker vents just under the screen is actually the Home button. According to its specs, the Kindle Touch weighs an ounce less than the Kindle Keyboard (Kindle 3 Wi-Fi). I couldn't discern a weight difference by weighing them in my hands at the same time.

The next thing I noticed was that Amazon no longer includes a power adapter in the box. Purchasing one separately will set you back $10 plus a delivery charge. The Touch comes with a USB cable so you can charge it by plugging it into your computer, but Amazon cheaped out without giving much notice to its customers. If you have a previous generation Kindle, the power adapters are the same. My wife and I have four other Kindles in the house, so this wasn't a problem for me.The Kindle Touch also doesn't come with a printed getting-started manual.

The design of the Kindle Touch hardware might be described as minimalist compared to previous generations. There are just two buttons on the Touch (on/off and Home) and two ports (power and headphones). The blizzard of tiny keyboard keys, which I never liked, are gone -- replaced by a virtual keyboard. Although I haven't had trouble with it, the power button is no longer a slide switch; you depress it. Located as it is on the bottom of the Kindle, it might be possible to turn it on and off by accident if you were to prop it up on a hard surface, but that's unlikely to be an issue for most people.

The first time I compared the Touch's display quality with that of the Kindle 3, I was taken aback by the impression that the Touch was slightly lacking in that all-important department. But after making adjustments to the font style and spacing to match the settings on the Kindle 3, it became clear that the two screens are comparable. In subsequent comparisons under several different lighting conditions that perception has remained constant.

Getting in touch

The new Kindle's touch screen performs very well for reading. It's far more convenient to simply tap the screen to turn the page than to locate and press any of the various button designs of previous Kindle models. To get a word's dictionary definition, just long press it.

The touch screen is divided into three invisible touch zones. Press anywhere in a band running across the top edge of the screen to reveal the menu bar, which offers a back button, a shopping button, the search field and a menu button for accessing the settings. At the same time, a bar appears along the bottom of the screen offering buttons for font settings, go to and the new X-Ray feature.

Almost all the space on the screen below the menu band is devoted to the page-advance touch zone. The only exception to that is a roughly a one-inch column hugging the left edge of the screen that serves as the page-back touch zone. My initial concern was that, when using my left hand, I might accidentally page back when attempting to page forward. But that didn't prove to be a problem at all. In fact, the only trouble I have with the touch screen concerns the buttons on dialogs and the virtual keyboard. The activation area feels too small to me. Once in a while I find myself having to press buttons two or three times before they work. But in the most important ways, Amazon got its first touch screen right.

Amazon's new cover with reading lamp

After what seemed like a long wait, I can now read with my Kindle Touch in bed at night because its Amazon lighted case finally arrived. The cover is fairly light. It uses a pop-in plastic backing that holds the e-reader snugly in place. Hefting the K3 with cover and the Touch with cover side by side, the Touch felt slightly but noticeably lighter. The electrical connection between the new cover's lamp and the Kindle Touch is a much better design than that of the previous generation. Probably the best improvement is that, because the lamp is closer to the screen and centered above it, the light is both a tad brighter and far more uniform. Although I was not put off by the somewhat uneven lighting off the earlier lighted case, I know some people were.

Despite the improvements, I was disappointed in the Touch lighted case, preferring the design of the Kindle 3's lighted case for three reasons: 1.) There is no closing mechanism at all on the new cover, such as the strap on the previous generation Amazon cover. 2.) With the lamp on, if you hold the Kindle even slightly above eye level, the LED bulb shines straight into your eyes -- which is both distracting and hard on the eyes. 3.) The back of the cover has deeply curved edges (mirroring the design of the K Touch itself) and the outside material on the front and back of the cover are flat and smooth. As a result, the new lighted cover isn't as easy to grip as the old one. One additional negative: I settled for tan but I didn't like any of the colors the new cover comes in.

Those caveats aside, I'm having no significant trouble using the new case. Perhaps the eventual next-gen lighted case will strike a better balance of features and functionality.

It's the software

Amazon was forced to heavily modify its operating system software for the touch interface. But it didn't just remake the existing OS to work with touch. Some screens and dialogs are organized very differently. Some things are even missing. The voice guide feature on the Kindle Keyboard and other non-touch Kindles isn't available on the Kindle Touch. When you think about it that makes sense. Voice navigation was primarily designed as an aid to the visually impaired, who can feel their way around physical buttons but not so much a touch screen.

Another missing feature is the page-rotation functionality, which allowed you to view the page in the landscape orientation. It was great for images, maps, documents and PDFs. It's not clear why Amazon decided to eliminate this feature.

Amazon also decided to limit web browsing to its own site for Touch owners using 3G to connect to the Internet, but the browser works anywhere with Wi-Fi. One of the advantages of the Kindle Touch web browser is that it supports in and out zooms using finger expand and contract gestures.

When you're reading a book, Touch shows Amazon's Location number in the lower left corner and the percentage-read number on the lower right. For books that support page numbers, you can see the page number by pressing the menu bar. Why can't Amazon display the page number, when supported, without having to press the menu bar?

The last word

Despite a couple of minor peccadilloes, such as the lack of power adapter, I'm very impressed by the Kindle Touch. I wasn't sure they could make a great thing even better, but they did. The Touch's killer feature is tap-screen page turns. Once you try it, you're going to have a hard time settling for less. What's more, the reduction in size of the Touch is a significant improvement. Because Kindle screens all have a matte finish to cut down on reflections, the Kindle Touch doesn't even show fingerprints.

The Kindle Touch is the best reading device I've ever used. The touch interface is the perfect tool for this job. I have loved the Kindle 3, but with the arrival of the Touch, it is firmly relegated to backup status.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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