Ebook readers have never wallowed in the limpid pools of glamour. In the consumer tech pantheon, they're considerably less shiny than the latest smart phone, less powerful than even the lowliest laptop, and not as visually arresting as a beautiful new TV. Still, Amazon is trying to bring these literary beasts out of the shadows with the latest edition of its Kindle -- the Kindle 3G.
It brings some great new tech to the UK, and can be yours for the humble sum of £149. From Amazon, natch. There's also a Wi-Fi only model, for just £109. Amazon sells a matching leather case with a nifty light in it, but pushes its luck by charging £50 for it.
In pure design terms, this is a radical makeover for the Kindle, but we can assure you the news is all positive. The Kindle 3G is significantly slimmed-down, and measures in at 190 by 123 by 8.5mm. Holding it you can tell it's less than a centimetre thick, and weighing only 241g it's a thoroughly portable piece of tech.
We were worried this Kindle would feel cheap and plasticky, but happily that isn't the case. The dark graphite casing feels well stuck together, and we're generally satisfied with the build quality.
The only design aspect that irked us was the tiny keys. Amazon has stuck an entire Qwerty keyboard on this thing, which is necessary because unlike some other ebook readers (such as the Sony Reader Touch PRS-650) there's no touchscreen present here. Those buttons are a little on the small side, and felt quite stiff. It's far from a dealbreaker, but we've used more comfortable miniature keyboards.
Aside from those 26 letter keys, there's a five-way directional pad for navigating menus and confirming selections, Home, Back and Menu keys, and a dedicated font-size switching button. As with previous Kindles, there are two page forward and back buttons on each side of the display, so you can flick to the next page no matter how you're holding it. That's a useful feature, and brings the Kindle one step closer to that tactile 'read it any way you like' experience you'd get reclining with a well-loved paperback.
I could read you, but I'd have to charge
Right, let's talk about the display. This greyscale beaut measures 6 inches on the diagonal, and uses E Ink Pearl technology. E Ink essentially burns an image on to the screen, by applying a charge to negatively and positively charged black and white particles.
There are numerous advantages to the Kindle using E Ink. Firstly, it only draws on its rechargeable batteries when you turn a page, when it refreshes the display. This means battery life on E Ink devices is magnificent. Amazon reckons the Kindle 3G will last for a month off a single charge.
We can't testify to that, as we haven't had our review sample that long, but we've been using our Kindle 3G regularly for three days, and it's still displaying full battery. We imagine you'll whittle down the battery faster if you make frequent use of the 3G services on board, however.
The second advantage to E Ink is it's extremely easy on the eyes. Staring at a bright LCD screen -- such as the iPad's -- for extended periods can result in eyestrain, but the paper-like E-Ink display is considerably more comfortable to stare at for extended periods. You can also read it in direct sunlight -- something that's not possible on many displays.
To put it bluntly, the Kindle 3G's display looks fantastic. It uses E Ink Pearl, which offers a noticeably higher contrast between the whites and blacks on the page. Text is rendered with an impressive clarity, and perhaps the greatest accolade we can give this display is that after a short while we stopped thinking about it or noticing it, and just focused on the words themselves.
Flipping through pages is impressively fast, so if you're hooked on the story you won't find the brief flashing display too intrusive. A useful feature is that the Kindle 3G comes with a dictionary pre-loaded. If while you're reading you come across an unknown word, you can point your pointer at it using the five-way navigation key, and a dictionary definition will pop up.
The best thing about this Kindle is the 3G support. The Wi-Fi-only version is cheaper, but if you can stretch to it, we'd recommend this version. Using Amazon's Whispernet network, it's possible to purchase books online and have them downloaded to your device in moments, from just about anywhere.
It doesn't have any kind of monthly fee, and it extends to partner networks outside the UK, so you can potentially download new books on holiday. It's a brilliant service, and crucially makes downloading new books almost zero hassle. Perfect if you travel often, or hate faffing around with PC syncing and the like.
If you want a faster connection, Wi-Fi is also on board. We found connecting to Wi-Fi networks to be very simple.
With approximately 3GB of storage put aside for storing user content, there's plenty of space to fill too. Amazon reckons you'll squeeze about 3,500 books on to the Kindle 3G, and we're inclined to agree. If you want, you can also load it up with PDF or text files, and MP3s too. Playing MP3s is handled by pressing Alt + Spacebar, and Alt + F to skip track.
There's a crude Web browser on board, but we wouldn't recommend using it for any serious surfing, as the sluggish, monochrome display and plodding navigation will quickly deprive you of your higher mental faculties.
Cruising around the device itself can sometimes feel a little clunky, but we never struggled too much -- for the most part the menu layout is intuitive, and finding the item you want is never too mystifying.
Amazonian walled garden
We've been really positive so far, because there's a great deal to like about this device. But there is one significant downside to choosing the Kindle 3G over other ebook readers. In a word (or rather, an abbreviation): DRM. Most ebook readers support the popular, open EPUB file format, which uses the extension .epub and is offered by many online ebook stores. The Kindle doesn't support this format, preferring instead to use Amazon's proprietary .azw file.
The bottom line? Unless you want to do an awful lot of fiddling around with file conversion, you're more or less tied to Amazon's own bookstore when it comes to broadening your personal library. Now, as long as you can always find the book you want on Amazon, that could never be an issue. We found all the books we searched for on there, from mainstream fiction to more obscure sci-fi. Nevertheless, we're disappointed in Amazon for not offering support for the most popular open file format.
In our review of the last Kindle, we stated that we grudgingly had to recommend more flexible ebook readers. This time, thanks to the addition of 3G, a clearer display, a lower price and a winning redesign, we do recommend you go for the Kindle.
If those DRM restrictions sound like a pain to you though, check out the Sony Reader Touch Edition PRS-600, which offers memory-card slots and support for multiple file formats.
Edited by Nick Hide