When Amazon announced the current range of Kindles, we were disappointed to find only one device – the bargain-basement Kindle Wi-Fi – would ship to Australia. Both the Fire and the touchscreen E Ink version were for US eyes only. Alas, there’s no sign of the former yet, but Amazon has belatedly brought the Kindle Touch to these shores, with a 3G and Wi-Fi version now available.
At first glance, there isn’t much different about this version. It’s dressed up in the same two-tone silvery-grey plastic on the front and a soft-touch rubbery finish on the rear, the ports and power switch are on the bottom edge, and it uses the same 6in, 600 x 800 resolution E Ink screen. Sit the two side by side, however, and the differences become obvious.
This being a touchscreen, the buttons on the edges have disappeared, and so has the D-pad – although there’s still a single-function home button in its place. A more significant difference, however, is the comparative size of the two devices. This Kindle is thicker, taller, broader and 32% heavier than its brother.
The extra size is due to the optical touchscreen. As with readers we’ve seen from Sony and Kobo, this Kindle has infrared sensors embedded in a 3mm-deep rim surrounding the screen, meaning you can even flip the pages while wearing gloves. It’s still a light, compact ebook reader, though, measuring 10.5mm from front to back and weighing 216g.
The bigger question is: how does the touchscreen affect the Kindle’s fabled usability? Well, it isn’t a complicated system. Tapping and swiping on buttons, links and menus brings the desired effect. Multitouch support allows pinch-to-zoom on a web page and in the main reading view. A new feature exclusive to the Touch is X-Ray, which gives an overview (complete with surrounding text extracts) of where in a book various terms, locations and characters are mentioned. This is a potentially useful study aid for students, but few books support the feature right now.
And since the touchscreen system interposes nothing between the screen and the reader’s eye, the display is every bit as good as the cheaper model. Text looks crisp and clear, no matter which of the eight font sizes it’s set to, and page refreshes take place quickly. With a standard text-only Kindle ebook loaded, we measured the page-to-page time at 0.7 seconds – the same as the non-touch model.
The onscreen keyboard is workable, too, and with practice it’s possible to get a fair lick of speed up. You won’t be writing a novel on it, but it’s certainly more effective than a D-pad, and makes highlighting a breeze.
The Kindle’s touchscreen system isn’t quite as intuitive as it might be, though. If you’ve used a Kindle app on a smartphone or tablet, you’ll be used to what’s become a standard control system across ebook reader apps: tap the left or right of the screen to page back and forth, and tap the centre to bring up options. The Kindle Touch’s controls frustratingly tear up the rule book, devoting most of the centre-right portion of the screen to the next-page control, with only a narrow area on the left for the previous page, and an area across the top for the options. Fortunately, swiping left and right to turn the pages works as you’d expect.
Amazon hasn’t made the most of the touch technology for manipulating PDF documents either. Panning and zooming is easier than before, but it still isn’t possible to dynamically reflow the text from PDFs as you zoom in.
Despite all this, there’s nothing fundamentally broken here. We suspect anyone buying a Kindle Touch will get along fine, and none of the issues are deal-breakers.
Moreover, the 3G Touch adds capabilities missing from the cheap Wi-Fi model – namely, subscription-free 3G that not only works locally, but also across most of Europe, the US and broad swathes of Canada, which is good for those who want to obtain new books while travelling. Then there’s the small matter of audio support: the Touch reintroduces the headphone socket and text-to-speech feature cut from the previous device.
At a stretch, then, we can see why someone might want the 3G Touch. It’s more expensive than the Kindle Keyboard 3G, but performance is slicker, with much faster response times and page turns. However, ask us to choose between the Wi-Fi Touch and the non-touch model, however, and we’d go for the $44-cheaper one every time.