Amazon's newest Kindle has shed buttons like an autumn tree losing its leaves. But is the first touch-sensitive Kindle the closest thing yet to a true digital book, or just a black and white iPad wannabe?
Ask anyone who shuns ebook readers why they dislike the digital devices and you'll hear a common theme: they miss the physicality of books. It's hard to let go of the cover art, the book jacket, the whisper of pages under the finger, the turning down of a corner to bookmark a spot...
The first touch-sensitive Kindle goes some way to addressing that. Instead of clicking plastic buttons, you simply tap the screen to turn a page -- or better still, swipe naturally from right to left to flick through pages. Swiping upwards shifts to the next chapter, or downwards heads back.
Amazon has clearly thought long and hard about the interface. Tap anywhere in the right or lower sides of the screen and you'll go forward a page, or tap a much smaller area to the left to go back. It's a solution that seems to work well for either right or left-handed readers. Tapping the top of the screen brings up the menu and toolbar.
Regular Kindle users will notice that the screen on the Touch has a deeper setback than previous models. This is to accommodate the infrared system that adds touch technology, without using any extra sensing layers on the screen itself.
Annoyingly, the touch system is not as responsive as it could be. While the virtual keyboard lets you tap away pretty quickly, menu buttons and options can be very sluggish, leaving you bashing away at the screen in frustration.
For all the perennial talk of a high-resolution, full-colour, full-motion video E-Ink technology 'coming soon', the Kindle Touch ships with the same monochrome 6-inch Pearl display found on all major ebook readers. Put side-by-side with the latest non-touch Kindle, the screen looks just as sharp and slightly more contrasty -- a bonus for low-light reading.
Books and reading
Those four tiny horizontal stripes below the screen aren't a speaker -- they're Amazon's homage to Apple's home button, taking you straight to the first page of the Kindle's home screen.
Amazon has made a few changes to the Kindle's dull text-only home screen layout. The menu bar has been redesigned to shrink the battery meter and add wireless and (strangely non-auto updating) clock icons.
There's also a back arrow, a cart icon to access the Amazon Kindle store, a search box and a menu button, all of which reduce the number of actual books and magazines on your home page from nine to seven.
You can flick through home screen pages with swipes only (no taps), or press and hold an item to call up a pop-up window holding search, notes and delete options. It's definitely simpler and more intuitive than previous Kindles although it does take a little getting used to.
Inside a book, just the top menu bar remains, with title, clock, Wi-Fi and power icons. The progress bar has been replaced by location numbers (or real page numbers on some titles), and a 'read' percentage.
One disappointment is that the Kindle Touch is slower to turn pages than its smaller brother; it lacks the smooth page transitions of the Kindle Fire's LCD screen.
With the Touch, you have the choice of the device refreshing the screen on each page turn, giving clearer text but a nasty black flash every time -- or only every sixth page, which offers better transitions at the cost of a little text degradation. The Touch is set to refresh every page by default; try both and see which you prefer.
Social sharing and X-Ray search
If you want to add a note or highlight to a book, or search for a definition, just press and hold a word and a menu (eventually) pops up. This is also how you share passages via Facebook and Twitter.
Tap the top of the screen to get the same shop, search and menu buttons as the home screen, plus three further options at the bottom. The first controls typeface and font size; the second lets you skip straight to the start of the book, the end or points in-between; in most books, the third button is a simple Sync option to refresh your cloud purchases and progress. But on some books, this will say X-Ray instead.
This new feature aims to centralise and supercharge the contextual search functions, bringing up a list of key terms in the book along with a barcode-style image of their distribution throughout the text.
X-Ray's choice of which terms to extract seems a little random, but it actually works quite well. Tap on a character or concept to get a brief Wikipedia introduction, quotes from the text and a link out to the full Wikipedia article.
You can filter results by page, chapter or book, and split them between people and the vaguely-worded 'Terms'.
X-Ray should prove particularly useful for students but, at the moment, there's no way to tell which books have the feature and which don't, even at the point of purchase.
Build and bulk
The Kindle Touch is a shade larger all round than the standard Kindle, adding 1.5mm to its waistline. It's heavier too, to the tune of just over 40g. Those differences may sound small but they add up to make the Touch just that little bit less attractive for extended reading.
Having said that, it's still lighter and smaller than the Kindle Keyboard 3G.
The biggest change in practicality comes with the touchscreen. If you're not actively reading, always hit the tiny power button at its base to put the Kindle to sleep.
In our tests, we forgot to do this several times and must have accidentally brushed against the screen. Coming back to find yourself halfway through a book or even in a completely different title is irritating.
The infrared touch system on the Touch is more prone to this than LCD multi-touch devices, which generally use capacitive technology requiring fingers or skin to activate. The flipside is that you can turn pages with the end of a pencil -- or gloved fingers -- if you want.
We did not test the battery fully, but you can expect the quoted 21-hour battery life with wireless on, or 30 hours with it off, to be about right. Like the new Kindle, the Touch ships with only a USB cable for charging; a UK wall adaptor costs around £13.
Unlike the newest standard Kindle, the Touch comes with speakers and a headphone jack. Text-to-Speech works well enough, if you like the idea of being read to by a stupid robot, and audiobooks sound fine. As you'd expect, they're much better through headphones (not supplied). Avoid the basic MP3 player.
The Touch has 3GB of user memory -- enough for around 3,000 books. Plus, of course, there's all the free cloud storage you could want for Amazon-purchased titles. For other formats, you can email yourself PDFs, MOBIs and text files. PDFs render well enough (although, again, slower than the cheaper Kindle).
Pinch-to-zoom is clumsy and imprecise but will get you there in the end. Unlike the standard Kindle, you can't adjust the screen rotation for PDFs on the Touch.
You might expect the touch interface to give a new lease of life to Active Content -- the mostly free, mostly gaming apps Amazon offers in the US only (although expect them to come to the UK soon). And the touchscreen is certainly easier than the standard Kindle's cheap four-way pad to enjoy the gentle word and number puzzles that make up most Active Content.
For anything timed or reaction-based though, the sheer sluggishness of the screen quickly becomes a pain.
The unobtrusive Special Offers, also currently US-only, are a worthwhile option. Not only do they shave $40 off the selling price of the Wi-Fi and 3G models, they also occasionally provide some genuinely attractive offers -- such as a selection of best-selling humour books for just $1 each. The redemption process is long-winded, however.
The web browser is still 'experimental', which means you can expect strange layouts and butchered content. Again, the pinch-to-zoom multi-touch works well. You might find it useful for viewing text-heavy sites on the 3G version as web access is free.
Amazon's great leap into the world of touch was inevitable. Swiping through ebooks, pinching to zoom and pressing to select feels so natural and intuitive that it's almost impossible to go back to a traditional Kindle.
On the downside, Amazon has skimped on the hardware, building the Kindle Touch for a low retail price, with processing power the main casualty -- it can't keep up with your fingers.
Even with the handy X-Ray feature and audio features back on board, it's difficult to recommend the Touch over its cheaper, lighter and faster little brother.