Just weeks after lowering the price of the Kindle e-book reader from $259 to $189, Amazon Wednesday unveiled a fully revamped Kindle. It's sleeker, better looking, easier on the eyes — and starts at $139.
This new Kindle, Amazon's third generation, is smaller by 21 percent, and 15 percent lighter too. It has much improved contrast, 50 percent better than before, answering a significant complaint among dead-tree purists who compared the device's e-ink screen unfavorably to real paper. It's available in two colors: graphite and white.
To date, all Kindles have used a wireless connection to a 3G network to get books and manage subscriptions. The new ones have Wi-Fi inside, so that people at home or at a coffee shop could log on via that network instead. One Kindle still costs $189, and has both 3G wireless and Wi-Fi inside. The cheaper $139 model only connects through Wi-Fi — and only comes in graphite.
If sales were already way up thanks to the recent price cut, the $139 will very likely move Kindles at an even brisker clip. But it also helps curb comparisons with the iPad: The further apart the two are in price, the less likely there can be a credible comparison. I recently argued that e-book readers would be best served sticking to their core purpose — delivering the calm, distraction-free experience of reading books in digital form — keeping their prices low and steering clear of extraneous features. That's what Amazon has done here. At this price, it's not too crazy to think of iPad and Kindle as a pair, especially since any book you buy through Amazon is readable on either device (and a slew of others).
If the $139 price helps keep Kindle from being confused with an iPad, it also places it firmly in the ultra-competitive range with other e-book readers. The Wi-Fi-only version of the Barnes & Noble Nook and Sony's Pocket Edition Reader both sell for $149 at the moment, but will probably have to drop a tad. Or more than a tad.
One new feature has been eagerly anticipated by people who had previously been unable to use the Kindle: A new voice guide reads all menus aloud, so that sight-impaired readers can access content. This is Amazon's response to a 2009 lawsuit, where a blind student sued Arizona State University for using Kindles. The National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind joined in the lawsuit, which was settled when Amazon promised to release text-to-speech menus.
Perhaps the most eyebrow raising spec for the new Kindle is a one-month battery life. Yep. One month. I am impressed, but the truth is, the previous battery life of two weeks was plenty. In fact, in our recharge-it-or-die culture, anything over a few days is great.
The past two Kindles have been criticized for aesthetic missteps: The first one was called "the snowspeeder" because of its haunting similarity to fighters from the planet Hoth in "The Empire Strikes Back," while the second was mocked for a bezel that made the 6-inch screen look small. This time around, the rounded edges remain but the bezel, and most of the lower body, are shrunk down, so that the whole thing is more proportionately pleasing.
As anyone who follows e-book readers knows, e-ink doesn't have a backlight. This is a good thing, but it necessitates all of the assorted book-light contraptions and spousal bedtime arrangements as traditional books. Amazon decided to take matters into its own hands here, and built a leather cover with a slide-out light. I gave it a try. It's durable and bright, and it is powered directly through the Kindle's battery, through gold electrical contacts on the bottom of the device.
Alas, the case won't fit previous Kindles, and it's sold separately at a rather steep $59, but for some people, it will probably be well worth it.
Speaking of speaking of spousal comfort, there's one last innovation on the new Kindle: It has quieter page-turn buttons. Apparently, the click-click-click of previous models was known to cause occasional marital spats.
The Kindles are up for pre-order now at amazon.com/kindle, but won't ship until Aug. 27.