I bought a Kindle Touch, and it's pretty great

Almost a year ago today, I waved goodbye to the world of print books and got myself an Amazon Kindle 3. You might recall I blogged about the experience, pointing out some of the advantages of e-books in general and some of the disadvantages of the Kindle 3 in particular—namely on the ergonomics front.

I've spent many hours cradling the Kindle 3 since then, reading everything from Steinbeck to the Hunger Games trilogy to e-novels written by some of my favorite webcartoonists. I did my reading at my desk, in bed, at the beach, and after hours at the Consumer Electronics Show, when I needed to wind down after long days of meetings and writeups. It was great, and I never thought about returning to print media for a minute.

However, I never got over the Kindle 3's ergonomics problems. After a year of use, I still hadn't found a comfortable way to hold the device for extended periods of time. The closest I came was holding the Kindle in my left hand, propped up on an extended pinky finger, with my thumb resting next to the page turn buttons. That was okay, but not great. After reading for a couple of hours in that position the other day, I stood up and felt something like an electric shock propagate down my left arm. I guess I must have pinched a nerve somewhere. Not fun.

I always managed to hit the buttons by accident, too, whether on the keyboard or around it. The d-pad was especially vulnerable to accidental presses. Those would throw me forward or back entire chapters, and pressing "back" didn't always help me find my place again. Heck, I occasionally hit that button by accident. Call me a klutz, but I think the dearth of empty spots on the front bezel is a real problem. I tried one of those leather covers Amazon sells to see if it would alleviate the problem, but it seemed to weigh down the device without making it much more comfortable to hold. I also hated the velvety interior.

I was understandably tempted, then, when Jeff Bezos introduced the Kindle Touch last September—and not just because he put together a great pastiche of a Steve Jobs keynote. The device looked genuinely compelling. At the same time, I had mixed feelings about touch-enabled e-readers. I'd seen them in stores and libraries, and they were always covered in really gross smudges. Since e-ink displays aren't backlit, the smudges almost seemed to compete with the text for attention.

So, I waited. The Kindle Touch wasn't available in Canada right away, which gave me plenty of time to weigh the pros and cons. And weigh them I did.

Amazon cleared the Kindle Touch for international shipments in early February. I placed my order last Sunday. My reasoning went something like this: I'd been spending an increasing amount of time reading, and I was sick of the Kindle 3's poor ergonomics. I figured I'd try the Kindle Touch and return it if the device didn't live up to my expectations.

The Touch arrived alongside a matching zip sleeve (hey, gotta stay protected) at my door the following Tuesday. UPS works in mysterious ways—I had selected the slowest shipping option, and Amazon had told me to expect my shipment some time in late March or early April.

Anyway, I haven't returned it yet.

And I don't think I'm ever going to. This thing is great. It feels like an improvement over the Kindle 3 in just about every way imaginable: better ergonomics, better software, a better form factor, and less weight. Even the screensaver images are better. Where the Kindle 3 spat out creepy renderings of Virginia Woolf or Mark Twain when put to sleep, the Kindle Touch displays cool-looking stock photos of pencils and movable type and stuff.

For me, though, the main thing is that the Kindle Touch is infinitely more comfortable to hold than its predecessor:

Look at that! I can put my thumb anywhere I want on the bezel, and no bad things happen. Well, I do have to avoid the home button at the bottom, but that's no big deal—none of my fingers want to go there when I'm holding the Kindle Touch one-handed. Also, since the Touch is both lighter and thicker than the Kindle 3, I have a better grip on it, and my muscles don't get tired as quickly. It's like Amazon did usability testing on actual humans with hands instead of robot claws this time.

The touch screen works well, too. It's more responsive than I expected, and swiping to turn pages restores some of the tactile intimacy of printed books. If swiping ain't your thing, you can just tap to turn pages. Amazon made the "previous page" area a tiny strip on the left side of the screen, so you can go back and forth with just your left thumb.

Even the on-screen keyboard is solid. The keys are laid out properly, unlike on the Kindle 3's bizarro hardware keyboard, which positions keys on a grid instead of staggering them as it should. I've never had to do a lot of typing on either Kindle, but having a functional, usable keyboard is definitely a good thing.

And there are plenty of other improvements. There's Amazon's X-Ray feature, for the relationally challenged among us who forget which characters are whom, and the new-and-improved dictionary, which lets you look up words by just tapping them. Oh, joy! No more awkward d-pad navigation. The on-screen interface is cleaner and easier to navigate, as well.

Is the Kindle Touch entirely perfect? No. I do notice the smudges sometimes, which makes my pseudo-OCD kick in, and the display is more recessed, which means the bezel can cast a more noticeable shadow depending on the lighting. That second issue is actually due to the way the touch screen works: instead of having a capacitive overlay on top of the screen, the Kindle Touch uses infrared lasers along the edge of the panel to detect finger positions. (According to CNN, Jeff Bezos doesn't like capacitive touch on e-readers because he says it adds glare to the display.) Oh, and I kind of miss the progress bar at the bottom. The Touch has ditched it in favor of a simple location indicator and percentage, which doesn't tell me how close I am to the next chapter or how much I've read since my last session. I wish they'd bring that back.

Overall, though, I'm a happier Kindle user and a happier reader thanks to the Touch. The international, Wi-Fi only version set me back $139, but if you live in the States (as most TR gerbils do), you can get a version with ads for only $99. As I understand it, the ads only show up on the screensavers and on the home screen. The ad-supported model sounds like a no-brainer, and that's probably the one I would have bought if it were available up here. An ad-free Wi-Fi model is also available Stateside for $139.

The little sleeve Amazon sells isn't bad, either.

Tip: You can use the A/Z keys to walk threads.
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