As I un-boxed Amazon's Kindle Touch 3G – a top-of-the-line digital book reader that has finally arrived in Canada a half-year after its American launch – I issued it a challenge: "Let's see if you can make me understand why dedicated e-readers continue to thrive in a world of tablets and big-screened phones that can do pretty much everything you do."
It must have been listening, because it did its darnedest to provide an answer.
At 185 grams, it weighs about as much as a typical paperback and has a screen nearly equal in size to a paperback page. However, it's far slimmer than most books, measuring just 10-millimetres in depth. Add Amazon's lightweight and pleasant-feeling leather cover (sold separately, alas), and you have a refined, minimalist device that's a delight to touch and hold. It made me want to use it, and that's important.
Equally important is its simple and intuitive touch interface, a huge improvement over previous models' clunky physical keyboards.
The display is broken into three invisible frames. Tapping anywhere near the centre or right side of the screen will flip the page forward. Tap the left margin and you'll jump back a page. Touch the top couple of centimetres of the screen and you'll call up a toolbar and context-sensitive menu that provides options dependent on whether you're reading a book, sitting on the home page, or browsing Amazon's store for new content.
And with just two physical buttons – a home key below the screen and a power button on the bottom edge – it's pretty much impossible to lose your way. The learning curve for basic functionality is about 30 seconds.
It helps, too, that one need never connect the Kindle Touch to a computer. If you buy it online using your Amazon account it will arrive at your door already linked to your account and library. You'll even see a welcome message with your name on it the first time you switch it on. Pretty cool, that.
Plus, WiFi and optional 3G connectivity (Amazon covers all data charges – there are no extra fees) mean you do your book shopping directly from the device. The unit's 4-gigabyte flash drive can store thousands of books, so there'll never be a need to offload any in order to make space.
And while it's clearly a good fit for beginners and basic reading, it also empowers advanced users who may want to get more out of their books.
That slick touch screen means you need simply tap and hold words to call up New Oxford American Dictionary definitions. Alongside these definitions is a menu filled with options that will let you translate words and passages, add notes, highlight text, search Wikipedia for more information about relevant facts, and even share quotes on Facebook and Twitter.
The intuitive interface also makes the Kindle Touch a fine platform to exploit Amazon's nifty new X-ray feature, which lets one get at the "bones" of a book, searching for and learning more about specific terms and characters. I found myself using this function to refresh my memory while reading Stephen King's The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole, which references characters and events in the decades-old Dark Tower series that I hadn't thought about in years.
I mentioned earlier that WiFi and 3G mean you need never connect the Touch to your computer. The benefits of this trick would have been stymied if the shopping experience proved poor, but searching Amazon's store is brisk and satisfying. Results weren't returned instantaneously, but the experience could be fairly described as zippy. I certainly wasn't left with time to drum my fingers while waiting. (Just be sure to switch off wireless when you aren't shopping – leaving it on will knock weeks off the unit's battery life, which is rated for two months assuming 30 minutes of reading per day).
Of course, when it comes to finding content search speed is only part of the puzzle. The other is selection. Amazon provides Canadian consumers an impressive library of titles from which to choose. However, thanks in large part to the Byzantine world of book publishers, distributors, and copyright holders, I'm led to understand that it's not quite as comprehensive as the catalogue available American consumers. I found everything I looked for, but I feel compelled to admit that my tastes in literature skew towards the pedestrian.
Keep in mind, too, that Amazon is of a mind to chain users to its platform. Like its predecessors, the Kindle Touch doesn't read common EPUB files (though you can convert those without copy protection to Amazon's proprietary format via special software). What's more, other e-readers don't play well with Amazon book files. If you buy a book for your Kindle device, you must read it on your Kindle device.
Or using the Kindle app on your phone or tablet. I gave this option a go and it worked flawlessly. Plus, my reading progress was saved in the cloud, allowing me to jump to the page I'd been reading at the tap of a button upon switching devices.
I'll admit that the case set before me by my demo Kindle Touch 3G was persuasive. It is without doubt a fine platform for reading digital books.
Yet it still failed to convince me that I need purchase one.
I just don't see the point in spending money on and lugging around a device the functionality of which is almost wholly duplicated on the phone and tablet that I already carry with me.
I might be able to justify it if the cost was negligible, but the WiFi Kindle Touch sells in Canada for $139 while the 3G-enabled version is $189. (Amazon doesn't seem to be offering its ad-supported editions – which knock about $40 off the price – north of the border.) Add in some essential extras – like a case with a light and an AC charger (the Kindle Touch ships only with a USB charging cable) – and it quickly becomes a significant investment in hardware.
Perhaps it simply comes down to the fact that I really don't mind reading on traditional, backlit displays. The Kindle Touch's screen is the best E ink display I've seen, with good contrast, almost no ghosting, and a relatively speedy refresh rate (it takes around a second to flip a page). Yet I find it pales in comparison to the screens on my phone and tablet, which offer crisper text, refresh about a million times more quickly, and, importantly, are much more practical in a variety of reading situations. The thought of reading one of the visually rich magazines I consume daily on a monochromatic E ink screen is a non-starter, and I remain irritated that e-readers require an external light source in dark areas (in bed, late at night on the couch), which is where I do most of my book reading.
Admittedly, my rationale is grounded largely in my own personal preferences and requirements. If reading long-form stories on an LCD gives you a headache, or you tend to do all of your reading in bright areas, or you don't typically fill your bag or pockets with other devices capable of displaying digital books, then an e-reader may well be just what you need. And if that's the case, I've little hesitation recommending Amazon's Kindle Touch. It's a marriage of common sense design and refined usability that's a pleasure to hold and interact with, and very likely the best dedicated e-reader I've yet tinkered with.
It's just not for me.
Amazon's director of product management for Kindle, Jay Marine answered some of Chad's questions about Amazon's rock-star tablet, the Kindle Fire:
Q. Many Canadians want to know why the Kindle Fire is not in stores here. Is it simply that Amazon.ca doesn't serve up enough multimedia content north of the border to make such a launch feasible?
We're heads down focused on offering customers a great experience. I'll have to ask you to stay tuned.
Q. What's Kindle's biggest challenge in the Canadian market? Creating a catalogue of content equal to Kindle's American library? Going up against home-grown competition like Kobo?
We work hard every day to offer our Canadian customers not only the best purpose-built reading device, but also the largest selection of the most popular books they want to read. We offer over 1 million books in the Kindle Store for readers in Canada, plus there are millions of free, out of copyright books available to read on Kindle. We are also building a rich ecosystem of content with Kindle Singles, Kindle Direct Publishing – a self-service, easy-to-use platform for independent authors and publishers – and over 100,000 Kindle books that are exclusive to the Kindle Store.
Q. Lay out the future of e-ink devices. Will phones and multi-purpose tablets (like the Kindle Fire) eventually kill them off? Or will deep price cuts allow them to continue growing as a cheap alternative for avid readers?
We continue to see strong demand for our e-ink Kindles and believe there's still plenty of room for innovation. Our customers continue to tell us they prefer e-ink for long-form reading. In fact, we know many customers own a Kindle or Kindle Touch in addition to a tablet.