The Kindle 2
Despite all the nifty new features, the original Kindle did a few things better than the Kindle 2. For one, no cover is included. Instead, you are forced to purchase one. I say forced, because with a device this expensive and fragile, going out without a cover is not a good idea. The original Kindle's cover was not anything to be proud of, but it was included with every Kindle, and it worked well enough, most of the time. I happily admit that the covers are much better this time around. They snap securely into the left side of the Kindle 2, and I'm not worried about the Kindle 2 falling out of the cover like I was with the original Kindle.
Another thing the original Kindle did better was contrast. The contrast between the gray-ish background and the text is just not as good as on the original Kindle. It's hard to notice unless you have them side by side, but if you do, it's instantly recognizable. The text on my original Kindle is sharper, darker and easier to read than the text on my Kindle 2. If there was one thing I wish they would have kept from the original, the screen is it. I would happily go back to four shades of gray if it means better contrast. I use the Kindle for reading, not looking at gray-scale pictures, and why Amazon thought that improving picture quality was more important than text legibility is a mystery to me.
There also are a few things the original Kindle had that the Kindle 2 does not. For one, the Kindle 2 does not have a removable battery. This seems to be a trend among consumer electronics manufacturers these days. It's a trend I do not like. Maybe it was necessary to get the desired thinness and battery life, but I still would prefer a removable battery. If the battery dies on my Kindle 2, I likely will have to send it in to Amazon to be fixed. On my original Kindle, I can replace the battery myself and even carry around spares.
Another thing that got axed this time around is the SD card slot. The internal memory of the Kindle has been beefed up to 2GB, but that's no excuse in my opinion. Using SD cards was one of the ways I used to organize my growing collection of ebooks. On the Kindle 2, I can carry them all with me, but I have to page through screen after screen to get to a particular book. Since they have removed removable storage, Amazon really needs to update the Kindle software to allow for some sort of organizational hierarchy, manual or otherwise—folders, tags, genres, whatever. Right now, things can be displayed alphabetically (by title or author), or by how new they are. That's a poor way to organize things if you have 100+ ebooks on your Kindle.
So, the question you probably are asking is “What's new?” The answer is, not a lot. There are a pair of major new features. The first of these is Text-To-Speech (TTS). Personal computers have had TTS of varying quality for decades. I remember toying around with a rather primitive TTS system for Apple IIe computers back in the early 1980s, and then there was the Macintosh that famously introduced itself using TTS, so it's not surprising that TTS has found its way to handheld devices like the Kindle. I have found it to be a useful feature.
The TTS system on the Kindle 2 is powered by RealSpeak Solo from Nuance Communications. The quality is good, and great strides have been made in the past few years with regard to making computer-generated male and female voices sound more natural. It is not a replacement for an audio book, but it does come in handy for times when I can't look at the Kindle but still want to continue reading. While driving is the obvious time when it would be bad to read the Kindle. I also have used the TTS when cooking and exercising.
The Kindle 2 can read text at three speeds. The middle setting works the best for me, but if I want to cruise through several newspaper articles quickly, the fast setting does a good job. As far as the voices go, I personally prefer the male voice. The female voice sounds more robotic to me, but I'm sure others will feel the same way about the male voice.
For all of its benefits, the TTS feature of the Kindle has not been without controversy. As soon as it was announced, the Author's Guild cried foul and claimed that TTS violated authors' copyrights on recorded performances of their work. The legal validity of this claim is debatable, but Amazon quickly moved to settle with the Guild by changing TTS through a firmware update so TTS could be turned off at the discretion of the rights holders.
In honor of the 15th anniversary of Linux Journal, I had the Kindle 2 “read” the Linus Torvalds interview from the very first issue. It's not perfect, and it's unintentionally funny in places, but it does a good job overall. The .ogg file I captured is available at www.linuxjournal.com/site_files/video/interview_with_linus.ogg if you want to listen to it.
The second major new feature is synchronization of your page position, bookmarks and notes between devices. Now that there are multiple versions of the Kindle out there, and a Kindle iPhone application, it's a safe bet that people will read their Amazon ebooks on two or more different devices. When I first turned on the Kindle 2, part of the getting started process had me go to the Archived Items section of the Kindle interface and download the books I had purchased previously for my original Kindle. A week before the Kindle 2 started shipping, Amazon made a firmware update available for the original Kindle that added the synchronization functionality, so when I opened the books on the Kindle 2, they opened to the page I was reading when I last had them open on my original Kindle. All of my notes and bookmarks were there too. This made switching to the new device painless.
The unfortunate thing about all this synchronization goodness is it works only with items purchased from Amazon. Books from other sources cannot be synchronized wirelessly. I wish it weren't this way, but I can see Amazon's reasoning. The cell network access the Kindle uses is not free, after all, but I still don't like the synchronization not working for non-Amazon items.