Hands on: The new Kindle DX is bigger, but is it better?

The Amazon e-reader's $489 price could make it a tough sale

If the excitement leading up to today's introduction of the Kindle DX is any indication, you'd think Amazon would have the e-book market wrapped up and ready to deliver with a tidy pink bow. Internet pundits have been buzzing about a bigger Kindle for a week now, passing around tidbits about a larger format, newspaper-friendly device.

For the most part, they were right.

The latest in the Kindle line of e-book readers -- the new model sells for $489 -- was unveiled at a news conference today at Pace University by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. The emphasis was on how this new e-reader would allow college students to easily carry and access textbooks, and how ideal it is for larger-format periodicals such as newspapers and magazines.

I was able to briefly try out a Kindle DX, and while there are some interesting new features, it isn't as revolutionary as its promoters might like us to think.

The Kindle DX is indeed larger than the Kindle 2: The new model measures 10.4 inches by 7.2 inches by .38 inches thick. (The Kindle 2 checks in at the same thickness, but is 2.4 inches shorter and 1.9 inches narrower.) The DX has a 9.7-in. diagonal screen; the Kindle 2 has a 6-in. display. And at 18.9 ounces, it weighs nearly twice as much as the smaller version.

Not only does the DX have a larger screen, it also has a slightly better one. The new 824-by-1200 pixel display shows text at 150 dpi; the Kindle 2 displays up to 600 pixels by 800 pixels at 167 dpi. But without being able to compare the two models side by side, the difference in quality wasn't immediately evident.

The large display makes browsing a bit easier, but otherwise, the Kindle browser has not changed -- it is still somewhat awkward to use. (Maybe this explains why you still access the browser by clicking on the category labeled "Experimental.")

Despite the added weight, the Kindle DX is as comfortable to handle as its smaller predecessor. In fact, I found the keyboard, which is now somewhat larger and allows for more space between the keys, easier to work with; when I used it for a couple of searches, I didn't get nearly the number of typos I did with the Kindle.

There are a few other physical differences. The device's control buttons are all on the right-hand side of the screen. (In the smaller Kindle, the "Prev Page" and a second "Next Page" button are on the left side.) However, lefties need not despair; the Kindle DX features a nifty auto-rotate feature, so that by flipping the device upside down, all your buttons are on the left-hand side. But you'll have to cope, of course, with upside down button labels.

The auto-rotate was actually one of the cooler new features of the DX, which also enables you to view a document in landscape mode by flipping the device on its side. It works quite nicely, switching modes only a little slower than it takes to move from one page to the next.

Another useful new feature is the ability to read PDF files natively after they're imported via e-mail. The DX also offers twice as much storage as the smaller Kindle -- 4 GB total, of which 3.3 GB is available for content. And it now allows you to format documents for wider margins.

There are some things that the new Kindle DX still does not include. According to an Amazon representative, there are no color versions on the horizon. And it still doesn't have backlighting, which Bezos presented not as a bug but as a feature. The Kindle, he said, helps people avoid eye strain by not having to deal with the glare of a backlight.

Those of us who read in bed, or students who need to make notes in a darkened lecture hall, may beg to differ.

And since students are a primary market for this product, that could be important. Six universities -- Arizona State University, Pace University, Case Western Reserve University, Princeton University, Reed College and the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia -- will be participating in trials this fall in which they will distribute the Kindle DX to their students. Details about that program were not immediately available.

Considering the number and cost of textbooks, this seems like a useful development for colleges. If Amazon can make those pricey textbooks available to students at a discount, it could make the $489 device worth its price. A Kindle DX in one's backpack would be a lot lighter and more convenient than several pounds worth of print.

But the idea of purchasing a dedicated reading device -- a rather large one at that -- for reading the daily newspaper is another thing altogether. Bezos touted a pilot program under which three newspapers -- the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post -- will offer Kindle DX devices at a reduced rate to people outside their usual delivery districts who agree to subscribe for a certain length of time. Again, details about that program were not immediately available.

It's nice to receive your daily newspaper automatically on a handy wireless device -- I know at least a couple of people who enjoy reading their daily papers on the smaller Kindle. But the DX would have to come at a considerable discount to motivate the public at large to invest in one. And its additional weight and size make it a lot less practical to carry on your daily commute.

In other words, the Kindle DX is not so much a revolutionary new addition to Amazon's product line as it is a perhaps useful niche product for academia. And it's too early to tell whether Amazon will be able to penetrate the market enough with its dedicated e-book reader to make it an everyday item for most people -- or whether less specialized products such as the iPhone will predominate.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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