It was back in back in September that Amazon finally unveiled the Kindle Fire, its long awaited entry into the budget space. The full-color, multimedia slate hit the sweet spot, price-wise, sliding in at a hair under $200 and setting the tech world abuzz. The company made it clear, however, that it still had a horse in the standalone e-reader race -- three horses, in fact. That same event also saw the unveiling of the fourth-generation Kindle and the Kindle Touch, two new devices that take slightly different approaches to the post-keyboard world of e-readers. And, to play it safe, Amazon announced that it would be keeping the Kindle 3 around -- albeit, rebranded as the Kindle Keyboard.

At $79 for the ad-supported version, the Kindle 4 carved out a whole new price point for e-readers. The Kindle Touch meanwhile, marked a belated entrance into touchscreen e-ink devices -- a market that had already been populated by several high-profile competitors: Barnes & Noble's Nook, Kobo and Sony. Why did Amazon hold off so long? According to the company, it was "waiting to get touch right." Without spoiling this review too much, there are indeed some features of this new device that suggest the wait was worth it.

But are these elements enough to dethrone the Nook Simple Touch as the best devoted e-reader out there, especially given that the Nook, too, recently got a refresh of its own? Does Amazon still have what it takes to remain the clear market reader in e-books? And is the $20 premium worth the step up from the fantastically affordable fourth-gen Kindle? The answer to all of this and more can be found after the break.
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Amazon Kindle Touch unboxing

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Amazon Kindle Touch review

Amazon

Amazon Kindle Touch

Pros

  • Dual-touch touchscreen
  • Pocket-sized
  • X-ray search feature
  • Optional 3G

Cons

  • No expandable memory
  • Starting price includes ads
Summary

Amazon's first touchscreen reader isn't a revolution, but it's certainly enough to keep the company at the forefront of the e-reader market.

Hardware


Amazon didn't do a heck of a lot to distinguish the Touch from the fourth-gen Kindle. In fact, the only immediate difference between the two readers is the bezel below the screen. The toggle switch and row of buttons on the fourth gen has been traded in for a single home button, comprised of four small horizontal bars. It's not the greatest looking option out there, but it gets the job done.

The only other button is power, located on the bottom edge of the device, next to the micro-USB port and headphone jack, which had disappeared between the third and fourth generations. The return of the headphone jack marks the return of the device's MP3 player, text-to-speech functionality and the ability to play audio books from Audible. Sound is also handled by two small speaker grills located along the bottom of the device's rear. Between these are two small metal tabs, which are used to help power Amazon's excellent Kindle Lighted Leather Cover.

The Touch is also a bit larger than the fourth-generation model in just about every respect, save for the screen, which is the industry-standard six inches. The reader adds a fraction of an inch to every dimension, measuring 6.8 x 4.7 x 0.40 inches and about an ounce and a half, weighing in at 7.5 ounces (the 3G version weighs 7.8). Even the bezels are a bit larger, despite the fact that Amazon opted to drop the page turn buttons entirely, instead relying solely on the touchscreen for that kind of navigation. We can't say we're thrilled about the loss of those buttons -- the Nook Simple Touch, for one, kept them despite its new touch functionality. And while it's definitely possible to use the reader single-handed, physical buttons can be convenient, particularly in those instances when the touchscreen acts up a bit -- which, in our experience, happens to all of these devices from time to time.


The Touch also measures a bit taller than the latest Nook and Kobo e-readers. That said, Amazon's managed to shed a bit of height and width from the third-generation model, thanks to the loss of the keyboard. Like the fourth-gen version, the Touch should slip pretty easily into your pants pocket -- it's really an ideal size for one of these devices. The device fits nicely in the hand, never really feeling awkward when you're trying to read. The Nook Simple Touch is easier to grip thanks to its concave back, which conforms nicely to the hand. Otherwise, though, we can't offer up too many complaints in that department.

As per usual, Amazon's not revealing many specifics on the processor front. The company gave us the standard, "As a matter of company policy we don't disclose details of our vendors/parts" line. Speed-wise, however, the reader seems on-par with the competition. As for storage, we're looking at 4GB -- the same as the third-gen and twice that of the budget fourth-gen. As always, the reader is missing the microSD slot found in the Kobo and Nook. Amazon of course suggests that such additional storage isn't necessary, and the company has a point, given its estimated capacity of "up to" 3,000 books -- not to mention, the fact that you can store your content in the cloud. That said, expandable memory would have been a welcome feature, but it's hard to see Amazon ever really budging on that front, especially given the fact that it's not even an option with the higher-end, multimedia-ready Fire.


The Kindle remains one of the few readers around that serves up optional 3G -- a nice little feature for Platinum Status frequent fliers. WiFi isn't particularly easy to come by on the road -- though planning ahead with your downloads is an easy solution to that problem. The feature will run you an extra $50, though, as with past Kindles, that entails a one-time charge. The company actually foots the bill for data, a fact that no doubt has a fair amount to do with most users' modest download rates -- this isn't a multimedia device, after all. You're not going to use this thing to watch movies or stream music.

Display



Asked why it had taken so long to offer up a touchscreen reader, Amazon countered that it was waiting to "get the technology right."

The screen specs will look pretty familiar to anyone who's spent time with e-readers in the past year: 600 x 800 resolution, 16-level gray scale Pearl E Ink -- same as the Kindle 3 and 4. E Ink's Pearl screen has been adopted by all of the big names in the space: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Sony and Kobo. And it's pretty clear why: it's crisp and easy on the eyes (and, no doubt, relatively inexpensive to produce). If you're expecting to read a lot on a device, this is definitely the route you want to go. The page turn rate here is also on-par with the latest readers, with a flicking full-page refresh every six pages or so. The flip rate did suffer a bit going up against the Simple Touch's recent refresh, which managed to render every other page or so a bit faster, though the difference will likely prove fairly negligible for most users.

The most important distinction between the Touch and the new fourth-gen Kindle is -- you guessed it -- that touchscreen. It's a feature the Kindle 4 sacrificed for price, and it was one that was sorely missed -- a toggle wheel is just not an ideal way to interact with device like this. When asked why it had taken so long to offer up a touchscreen reader, Amazon countered that it was waiting to "get the technology right." Of course, a statement like that implies, among other things, that other companies (namely, Barnes & Noble and Kobo) failed to do so, though their devices admittedly made it to market months earlier.

So, were the Nook and Kobo readers released too early? Nope. Both displays were far from perfect -- but then, so is the Kindle Touch's. Touchscreen E Ink displays have a ways to go before they're nearly as usable as the sort of smooth multi-touch screens we've come to expect in our smartphones and tablets. That said, Amazon does offer some fairly notable improvements over those readers. For starters, there's the inclusion of dual-touch technology, a feature also seen on the recent Sony Reader WiFi. Amazon told us that while the technology in the Touch isn't quite identical, it's "similar." And it really is a nice feature, letting users pinch to zoom, which comes in handy when you're availing yourself of the built-in browser and PDF reader.

Typing on the virtual keyboard -- one of the the biggest shortcomings with past touchscreen e-ink devices -- has been improved. Again, it's still imperfect, but there's a bit less of that incredibly frustrating lag we've seen with other devices -- which Amazon chalks up to divvying the screen into touch panels. Interestingly, the company has also sectioned off the touch sectors differently while reading, devoting three quarters of the screen to paging forward with a tap and only the left margin to paging back. The reasoning here is that the vast majority of the time you're going to be flipping forward. Makes sense to us. It's a nice little change that other reader producers may end up borrowing from in future generations.

As with the Kindles 3 and 4, Amazon's offering up a pretty significant savings on the Touch, should you opt in to Special Offers, the company's friendly euphemism for "ad-supported." We've yet to see the company deliver on those "beautiful" ads that are virtually indistinguishable from screensavers, and it seems unlikely that too many users prefer the ad-supported versions for all of the sweet deals it offers up; people are opting into this version because it's cheaper. And $40 is a tangible difference that we're talking about here. The ads themselves aren't particularly intrusive -- they're limited to screensavers in sleep mode and a banner ad on the home screen -- but as Barnes & Noble rightly pointed out in its recent Nook event, giant ads may bring down the products' cache as a holiday gift.

Software


As with the hardware, there are a lot of surface UI similarities between the Kindles 4 and Touch. The home pages are nearly identical, with a listing of books (and other documents like PDFs) sorted by default according to what you read most recently (you can also sort by title, author or collections). Swiping up or to the left will advance the collection to the next page. Along the bottom of the ad-supported version is a small banner ad. Lining the top is a bar that includes your battery life, the time and your connectivity status (i.e., 3G or WiFi).

Just below that is a tool bar not found on the Kindle 4, which features buttons
for back, menu and launching the Kindle store. There's also a search field, which lets you search your reader using the Kindle Store, the built-in New Oxford American Dictionary and Wikipedia, which is by now a standard feature on WiFi-connected readers.

The basic reading experience also looks a good deal like what the fourth-generation Kindle has to offer, with the vast majority of the page monopolized by text, save for the black bar from the homepage up top and some small text at the bottom letting you know how far along you are in a given text. Here's where that dual-touch functionality starts to come in handy: you can pinch to zoom in and out. The text automatically adjusts and the reader offers up a window with the eight different possible font sizes, if you'd prefer to go that route.


Holding down on a word will cause a window with the New Oxford American Dictionary definition to open. From this screen you can also highlight text, add a note or share the selection through Facebook or Twitter. This is really the extent of the product's social networking functionality, unlike the Nook and Kobo devices, which are a bit more heavily invested in the concept of social reading. For the vast majority of readers, this will likely be enough -- actually, there seems to be a pretty good chance that once the novelty of the feature wears off, it will go largely unused. Tapping the top of the screen makes the reader's search functionality pop up, and choosing the book will offer up a list of all of the passages in which a given word appears.

The new X-ray feature takes things a step further. Clicking on it will bring up a list of proper names, including characters, historical figures and places. It brings up a timeline illustration letting you know how often the name appears in the book viewable by page, chapter and the full text. Clicking on a character name will offer up a biography. Clicking on, say, the name of a historical figure, however, will pull up its Wikipedia entry. The entries, interestingly, aren't accessible over wireless, but are instead located in a side file that's downloads when you buy the book. It's a pretty neat little feature and one that may convince a smattering of pirating users to get their books through more legitimate means (i.e. the Kindle Store).

You can add PDFs to the Touch by simply dragging and dropping them into the reader's Documents folder when it's plugged into the computer. Once again, like the Sony WiFi, the Kindle Touch has a distinct advantage over some other touchscreen readers when it comes to dual-touch. Here, users can pinch to zoom in documents. As with Sony's reader, the feature is a bit clunky in practice, with pages taking about a second to render, flashing several times before achieving the desired size. Once you've zoomed in, a swipe lets you pan across the image. Zoomed out, you swipe to advance to the next page. This isn't the perfect way to read PDFs, but if you're looking for a devoted e-reader with that functionality, this or the Sony WiFi are probably your best bets.



While these companies have paid some attention to web-browsing, they aren't exactly flaunting it with these readers.

The Kindle Store, meanwhile, looks a good deal like the one offered up on the Kindle 4, though certain features, such as the ability to enlarge thumbnails of recommended titles on the home screen, have been optimized for touch. Similar to most other readers, the Touch has a built-in web browser, though, as with the fourth-gen Kindle and Nook Simple Touch, it's hidden away. While these companies have paid some attention to web-browsing, they aren't exactly flaunting it with these readers. They know as well as anyone that this isn't the ideal way to surf the web. To access the browser, you have to click Experimental in the menu on the homepage (how a simple browser on an e-reader still qualifies as experimental is a bit beyond us). Amazon has refreshed the browser to accommodate its touch technology, but as with the PDF viewer, this is hardly the best device on which to accomplish that task.

A simple toolbar is located up top, along with a field for URLs and reload and menu buttons. You can navigate through the grayscale pages with the swipe of a finger and click on links by touching them. Pinch to zoom works here as well, but again, it's a bit choppy. It should be noted, too, that the web browser can only be accessed via WiFi -- to be reiterate, Amazon is only footing the 3G bill for your book downloads. It doesn't want to pay your web browsing fees, too.

The MP3 player can also be accessed through the Experimental section. It's an extremely basic player, offering up the name of the track being played, track forward and back arrows, a volume meter, play / pause and an off button. Once turned on, the music will continue to play as you utilize other features, a nice bonus for those who like to listen to some Chopin while reading the latest Twilight book. The speakers on the rear of the device get surprisingly loud, but the sound quality is, unsurprisingly, less than ideal. You'd best stick with headphones whenever possible.
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Amazon Kindle Touch comparison shots



If you like, you can enable text-to-speech via the menu in a given title. The feature only works on books where Amazon was able to negotiate the rights; long story short, some publishers remain a bit wary. The voice is, as you might expect, pretty robotic. This is hardly a replacement for audio books, but certain users, particularly those with vision problems, will no doubt get ample use out of this feature. A few alterations can also be made to the voice, including changing its gender or speeding up and slowing down the reading, but it never loses that mechanical voice.

Wrap-up


Despite apocalyptic conclusions predicting the death of dedicated e-readers in the face of competition from tablets, the battle is as heated as ever. Amazon alone is currently offering three such devices: the fourth-generation Kindle, Kindle Touch and Kindle Keyboard. So, does the Touch manage to stand head and shoulders above the rest? In a word, "naw." There's a lot to like here, including a dual-touch display, X-Ray search feature, audio functionality and a 3G option, but there's nothing here that would make us want to dump our Nook, Sony WiFi reader, Kobo or even Kindle Keyboard. The Kindle Touch is as good as any touch reader out there, but there's nothing particularly exceptional about it -- including pricing.

Those looking for a truly entry-level device should take a look at the fourth-generation Kindle, so long as you don't mind losing features like touch and audio playback. The Touch starts at $99 -- the same prices as the Nook Simple Touch. But keep in mind, that price is for the ad-supported, WiFi-only version. And with the Nook's recent software upgrade, the reader is still a heck of a competitor this holiday season. Prices go up from there, of course -- without Special Offers, you'll be paying $139. Add 3G and the reader runs you $149 with ads and $189 without. This is all still quite affordable, of course, thanks to all of the revenue the company is pulling in from content sales, but ultimately the Kindle Touch isn't the steal it appears to be on paper.

PSA: Kindle Touch shipping a week early