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On February 24, Amazon will begin shipping its new second-generation wireless reader, a device that the Internet retail giant calls simply Kindle 2. In this installment of the blog, we’ll examine the device, with a focus on what the K2 means for college students considering it as a means for reading textbooks digitally.

Physically and Aesthetically: The Kindle 2 is slimmer, trimmer, rounder, and generally sexier and less clunky than the original, but it’s still no drool-worthy knockout in the looks department. In addition to being more attractive and ergonomic than its predecessor, K2 has abandoned the old-school up-down scroll-wheel in favor of a 5-way controller (basically a tiny joystick) for improved navigation. Using the controller and the QWERTY keyboard, users can make annotations to text and highlight and clip key passages, which is excellent for those of us who like to make notes in the margins. Unfortunately, there is a caveat and it’s a big one: Amazon says, “Due to PDF’s fixed-layout format, some complex PDF files may not format correctly on your Kindle.” Wait, my formatting might take a hit and the PDF issues that have been a constant complaint about the original Kindle still plague Kindle 2?

Display: Size (6″ diagonal) and resolution (600×800) remain the same as the original but K2 is now up to 16-level grayscale from the original device’s four. Text-size is now adjustable and page turning is supposedly 20% faster than on the original Kindle. Okay, clearly the emphasis is on sharpness of text and paper-and-ink look rather than graphics. While this is assuredly an improvement and a cool thing for readers of literature and periodicals trying to replicate the page-turning experience, it doesn’t satisfy users who need color representations of images and graphs and illustrations. Bottom line, grayscale, no matter how many shades or layers, isn’t going to cut it with textbooks and it seems pretty passé in 2009.

Storage: Big change here, one that will please some users while annoying others. The original Kindle had a small memory (256MB) and an SD card slot that allowed users to expand (and to some extent, file and organize) via removable cards. The Kindle 2 has much more internal memory (2GB, approximately 1.4 available for user content), but it does not have an SD slot, which means that when capacity is reached, it’s time to delete (or buy the new Kindle 3, which will undoubtedly be available at that time). Amazon says that the K2′s internal capacity holds “more than 1,500 books,” and I don't doubt that, but I would venture to guess that those books are most likely not 450-page textbooks heavy on diagrams and illustrations.

Battery Life and Wireless: Amazon says that “with Kindle’s 25% longer battery life, you can read on a single charge for up to 4 days with wireless on, up to 2 weeks with wireless off. Connectivity relies upon Amazon Whispernet to provide wireless coverage via Sprint’s 3G high-speed data network.” All good there, and book downloads from Amazon’s Kindle Store look speedy (under a minute), but outside of that, Kindle’s Basic Web browser looks rather rudimentary and fit only for simple text-based websites such as Google and Wikipedia. Definitely not going to replace any iPhones or laptops.

New Goodies: A feature that bodes well for textbook reading is the inclusion of The New Oxford American Dictionary (250,000+ entries and definitions). Amazon describes the look-up process as non-interruptive, “simply move the cursor to it and the definition will automatically display at the bottom of the screen.” Another new feature I think worth mentioning is the addition of text-to-speech, a voice that Stephen King described as “a little bit like a GPS voice.” I view this enhancement much like I view the jump from 4 to 16-layer grayscale; that is to say that it’s good and necessary, but it’s not really enough. I mean, if you think your profs are boring during lectures and that reading a textbook is senses-numbing, imagine it all being spoken in GPS robot voice. Just saying…

Which brings me to my final assessment of the new Kindle 2: I think that the improvements and additions are excellent and much needed, but I still think that the device leaves a lot to be desired. In the K2, Amazon’s has done many things right and better, but not for an academic audience. For me, the lack of a color screen (and hey, what about a touchscreen?) is a major disappointment as is the limited internal capacity with no expansion slot.

If Amazon really wants to pave the way in digital reading, they’re going to have to satisfy the student demographic and develop a Kindle that seriously addresses what being a student means as well as the textbook-reading experience. Right now, what’s stopping the Kindle 2 from being that device is the vexing too-much-and-not-enough problem. The price is too much ($359 for the new K2 is not a price drop from the original and it’s simply prohibitively expensive for students), and the memory, graphics, and PDF capabilities are too little. When Amazon (or another company) delivers a digital reader that really caters to student needs, publishers will pay attention and be compelled to increase their digital offerings. What we have here is a case where technology could lead and set the precedent in terms of textbook delivery, interaction, and price. Unfortunately, the Kindle 2 is not the piece of technology that's going to do that.


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