Andy Ihnatko wonders if he needs a new Kindle

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Kindle Voyage

For a fleeting, foolish moment, at a gallery space in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, where Amazon was staging a press event, I gazed up into the clear, late-summer sky from the roof deck and thought: “Is this where they demonstrate a working delivery drone? Because the Amtrak fare from Boston will have been totally worth it if I get to see an Amazon delivery drone.”

Alas, no. Instead, Amazon released a broad series of updates to its Kindle Fire tablets and Kindle readers, and introduced a few new models.


It might seem strange for Amazon to introduce a true premium e-book reader. The new Kindle Voyage costs $199, and based on a cursory glance, it’s just another e-ink Kindle. Why does this need to exist, given that $200 buys a decent color multitouch tablet of the same size that can also play movies and run apps?

But that’s just what it looks like to someone sitting across an airplane aisle. Many people love their e-ink Kindle and they consider the reading experience it delivers to be far superior to anything that even an iPad can provide. The e-ink devices offer impeccable clarity even in bright sunlight, and they last weeks, not just hours, on a single charge.

The Kindle Voyage is designed to cater to the consumer who wants a premium reading experience. The design is complete movie-prop fakery: too thin and light to be anything but an inert sheet of plastic, and did they really expect us to be fooled by that sticker of a printed book page?

This is the first Kindle without an apparent front bezel. The display is flush with the rest of its magnesium frame, creating a pleasantly eerie effect of ghost writing on a sheet of off-white paper. It isn’t much heavier than paper, either: about 6.4 ounces and 7.6 mm thin.

The display itself is super-crisp at 300 ppi (a huge leap over that of the 212 ppi Paperwhite), enough shades of gray to make manga and color comics at least readable, and with a satin surface that resists glare. It’s compact and comfortable to hold, particularly for long reading sessions, and there’s a new page-turning mechanism.

Two thin lines are the only real decoration of the Voyage’s front bezel. These are pressure-sensitive pads for left-handed or right-handed page turning. A press is confirmed with a gentle, silent haptic buzz under your fingertips.

There was nothing wrong with the Kindle Paperwhite — which is only exceeded by the Voyage, not replaced by it in the Kindle lineup — but this new reader shows that there was still room for improvement. Handling it reminded me of a fresh, tight leather binding on a familiar old book.

The Kindle Reader lineup (left to right): Kindle, Kindle Paperwhite and Kindle Voyage.

The $79 entry-level Kindle will continue to be the $79 entry-level Kindle. But now it sports a touchscreen like the rest of the Kindle line. This is a great step. When I pick up the basic Kindle, I instinctively ignore the clickybuttons and expect the screen to respond to touch. Adding this input to the entry-level reader keeps the device relevant to kids, whose introduction to computers and gadgets is through multitouch. Amazon has increased the processing speed of the $79 Kindle and $119 Kindle Paperwhite and doubled each of their storage capacities.

New economy-class Kindle Fires

Kindle Fire HD 7-inch and 6-inch versions

I mentioned that the $199 Kindle Voyage is competing against color tablets that cost about that much, remember? Well, Amazon now makes two of those. Except they cost much, much less.

Amazon has taken the “Kindle Fire HD” nameplate and stuck it on two brand-new 6- and 7-inch color tablets that will sell for just $99 and $139, respectively. Like the other tablets that bear the Fire name, the Fire HD runs Fire OS, Amazon’s forked (and tuned-up) version of the Android 4.x operating system.

I’ve seen plenty of dirt-cheap Android and Windows tablets. To compare many of these to actual dirt would be an insult to dirt, as soil actually fosters and sustains life.

But the specs of these new Fire tablets are right what you’d expect to find in a competent tablet. Quad-core Snapdragon processor, eight-hour battery life, front and rear-facing cameras, video out, and high-density 1280×800 HD displays (252 ppi on the 6-inch, 216 on the 7-inch).

I had some time to play with Amazon’s samples. The only fault I could find in them is their chunkiness, but that’s a small price to pay given the small price they’re asking. HD movie playback was smooth and ripple-free, and the Fire’s multitouch UI was easily keeping up with my scrolling, scrubbing and navigation. An Unreal game benchmark played 3-D graphics smoothly and at consistently high frame rate.

To seal the message of the Fire HDs as “uncompromised” tablets, Amazon cited its own testing and claimed that the new Fires are “twice as durable as the iPad Mini.” I pressed for more details, and they cited 1-meter drop tests in which Fire tablets had a higher tendency to survive the ordeal in a usable condition.

This could have as much to do with the construction materials of the Fire as anything else. As you might guess, the Fire is thick and clad in plastic instead of being waif-thin and wrapped in metal. Still, the point they’re making (subject to my future test) is that this is a durable tablet built to last, not a toy that collapses into its component molecules if it’s subjected to anything more severe than just harsh language.

The ‘Kids Edition’

These two new Fire HD tablets will also be sold in a special “Kids Edition.” It’s the same hardware but it costs more: $149 and $189 for the 6-inch and 7-inch versions.

Kindle Fire HD Kids Edition — 6- and 7-inch versions

What do you get for the extra dough? You get a soft rubber bumper case that inspires live drop tests during the demo. More valuable is a two-year, no-questions-asked warranty. If you send back a half-melted Amazon Fire HD tablet coated in hardened roofing tar, Amazon will either repair it or send back a refurbished unit to replace it.

The price also includes a year’s subscription to Amazon’s FreeTime Unlimited content package, which includes 5,000 books, TV shows, movies and games, all approved for kid use. All of this works with the Fire’s FreeTime parental control system, which lets parents limit the amount of time kids spend with various kinds of content (more time allowed for educational books, less time for movies and TV, even) and blocks access to mischief-making parts of the tablet experience, such as the Internet and in-app purchases.

Which spawned a question. Does the FreeTime Unlimited package include games that suck when you try to play them without purchasing additional content and power-ups?

Amazon thought this through: They’ve worked with game developers and had them produce special FreeTime editions of those same games, where all necessary content is already available to the player. Neat.

The Fire HDX gets more growed up

I was quite impressed with the Kindle Fire HDX tablet. I think it’s every bit as good as the iPad, for a certain subset of iPad features (namely, content acquisition and enjoyment). In some ways, it’s even better than the tablet that costs $120 more. It’s also lots lighter.

Amazon has tweaked some of the 8.9-inch Fire HDX’s internals. It has the new, faster Snapdragon 805 CPU and 70 percent greater graphics performance over last year’s model.

A new “adaptive lighting” feature strongly prosecutes the Kindle brand as the premium product for book reading. Where the displays of other tablets (and other Kindle Fires) maintain a neutral white balance, the 2014 HDX samples the color of the room lighting and tries to create the same lighting effect on the screen as the reader would experience with a printed page. So if the lighting in the room is warm and incandescent, the screen of the Fire HDX will, quite subtly, shift into warmer tones to match the rest of your environment.

This only affects the Kindle app, of course. This would be a nightmare if it were applied to photos and video. And if you don’t like it, you can disable the feature entirely. I’ll need to spend a few nights in bed reading with the HDX to figure out how valuable this feature is … but it points to how carefully Amazon builds the reading experience.

I praise the Fire HDX while presenting it as “a great content-consumption tablet that can also, by the way, be used for productivity stuff.” Productivity isn’t its strongest suit. Amazon seems determined to address that with the addition of a new Fire keyboard.

The new $59 Kindle Fire keyboard

It’s a keyboard of large keyswitches set on a keybed about as thin as a bookmark. And that’s how you store it inside the Fire HDX’s origami case: Just slip it in there and magnets will keep it from sliding out.

I took it for a test-type and found it surprisingly workable. It even has a full-function trackpad for navigating through docs — an Office-compatible suite is included with the Fire HDX.

I wonder how something this thin will stand up to weeks of commutes and travel without warping. It’s certainly a valuable addition to the collection, given Amazon’s new Amazon Web Services-powered “workspaces” service. A company systems administrator can provision an employee with a remote installation of Windows and all of the Windows apps they need. Workspaces is compatible with iPads and Android tablets and this keyboard also makes the Fire HDX into a credible, and inexpensive, host for that service too.

Software updates

Amazon is also releasing Fire OS version 4, which includes a bunch of feature improvements. The highlight, for the ideal Fire tablet customer, is support for individual device profiles that allow multiple family members to share the same Fire tablet while creating and maintaining their own unique and private environments. Each user can maintain a unique collection of apps, preferences and content and the device appears different to each family member. Members can also share purchased content. Spouses can read the same copy of the same book, while the separate profiles maintain separate bookmarks and notes.

The Kindle readers are also receiving updates that integrate Goodreads social content at a more intimate level and interesting new features such as “WordWise.” When the feature is enabled, the Kindle text is annotated with plain-English word definitions. And the user can specify their reading level. So the Kindle won’t bother explaining what the word “truck” means but will still help you out with “antiestablishmentarianism.”

Power to the people

In the past two weeks, densely packed as they were with media events, I’ve seen a broad spectrum of great technology. I’ve also seen a wide variety of ways to define “great technology.” I love the Moto 360, I’m dazzled by the iPhone 6 Plus, and I’m puzzled by the Apple Watch in a way that gets my neurons buzzing in harmonious ways.

You know what’s also great? Making good-quality hardware and selling it at affordable prices. Technology is meant to make our lives better. It can’t do that if it’s priced so that a huge percentage of the population can only admire it academically.

Amazon, by its admission, sells much of it hardware at close to cost, with the intention that they’ll make their actual money on the sales of content and services that the devices will enable. We can argue about how valiant such a strategy is.

But it’s inarguable that a $99 color tablet and a $79 e-book reader is going to reach people that a $499 tablet won’t. And this is why I like and admire Amazon.

Pre-orders on the new and updated Amazon hardware begin tonight, with shipments expected to commence in late October.

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