Hands on with Amazon's zippy, alluring Kindle

The latest Kindle is sleeker, lighter, and better designed. In other words, a winner.

It didn't take long to realize that this Kindle was unlike any other I'd handled before -- including the new Kindle DX (Graphite). Maybe 20 seconds, tops. Never mind the obvious giveaways -- smaller size, less wasted real estate around the edges, new button design, new color. As soon as I took the Kindle in hand, I knew that this Kindle marked new territory.

The third-generation Kindle comes in two versions: The Kindle Wi-Fi costs $139, while the Kindle, which has both Wi-Fi and 3G, costs $189, the same as the 3G-only Kindle 2 cost previously.

The next-generation Amazon Kindle.

For the first time, I could comfortably hold a Kindle e-reader in one hand. At 8.7 ounces, the Kindle is not the lightest such device on the market -- the Kobo eReader is nearly one ounce lighter, also with a 6-inch display, and the Bookeen Cybook Opus is even lighter still, at 5.3 ounces. But it is lighter than Barnes & Noble's Nook (11.6 ounces for Nook Wi-Fi, 12.1 ounces for Nook Wi-Fi + 3G). And the new Kindle is 15 percent lighter than its predecessor (which weighed in at 10.2 ounces); between its lighter weight and its more compact design, I could immediately tell that using the third-generation Kindle would be a more pleasing experience than with earlier models. The unit felt very balanced in-hand, and the buttons felt like they were in convenient, ergonomic places (more on that in a moment).

What's notable is that Amazon achieves its design improvements even while adding features (notably, Wi-Fi) and boosting the screen technology.

Clearly, the new Kindle looks vastly different. For starters, it now comes in graphite, like its big brother, as well as in white; in my experience, the darker border enhances readability, as would be expected given the visual perception a dark border provides. But the display is dramatically better in its own regard: Like the Kindle DX (Graphite), the Kindle now has a 6-inch E-Ink Pearl display, which boasts faster refresh rates and 50 percent better contrast. As on the Kindle DX (Graphite), blacks look more solid, and text is smoother.

The physical design is smaller, too -- by 21%, according to Amazon. If you look at the numbers alone, it doesn't feel as if that much has been shaved off: The new model measures a stout 7.5 x 4.8 x .34 in., as compared to the 8 x 5.3 x .36 in. of the Kindle 2. But the difference felt more dramatic when holding the device (an act also made easier by the rubberized backing).

To achieve this smaller design, Amazon has essentially trimmed the white space around the bezels to give the device a tighter and more efficient presentation. The effect is that the device is now dominated by its 6-in. screen, although there's still enough room around the edges for your fingers to comfortably rest.

The keyboard has been tightened, with the keys slightly closer, the row of numbers removed (to get to numbers, you now have to press the symbol button, much like on a touchscreen cell phone's keyboard). The navigation buttons have been clustered together and rearranged; and more notably, the page forward and back buttons have shrunk dramatically, to just .25 in. wide.

Indeed, all of the buttons have been redesigned on the new Kindle, to great effect. The screen is now flanked by simple forward and back buttons, mirrored in size and shape and connoted by arrows (as opposed to words, as on Kindle 2). By having these buttons on both sides, the Kindle is especially handy for both left- and right-handed users.

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