Day One Review: Amazon Kindle 2's text-to-speech is standout feature in a so-so upgrade

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't seen The Reader with Kate Winslet, and do intend to someday, skip the first paragraph. Seriously, stop reading now!

If she hadn't hung herself, Hanna Schmitz, Kate Winslet's illiterate character in The Reader would have loved the Amazon's second-generation Kindle 2. It's an e-book reader you don't even have to read — it reads to you.

Text-to-speech is the biggest step forward for the Kindle 2, which we got a limited chance to play with at the announcement event. Amazon supplied exactly three samples that hundreds of media types were jostling to get a look at and their hands on. But after waiting for the crowd to thin out, I managed to spend some semi-quality time with it.

To familiarize yourself with the Kindle 2 basics, check out Peter's report here. Then come back and hit Continue for the true hands-on experience.

Look & Feel

Aside from its read-to-me capabilities (which we'll get to in a moment), Kindle 2 offers single steps forward and single steps back. It's 0.1 ounce lighter, about a half-inch taller and half as thin as the original. The screen is the same size. The big change is its shape: instead of the original's doorstop wedge you get a sleek rounded slate. Think more Star Trek: TNG than Star Trek: TOS.

Unfortunately, Amazon replaced the easy-to-grip rubberized back on the original with slippery brushed aluminum. A leatherette cover came with the original, negating the need for this rubberized grip. But the cover for Kindle 2 is a $30 option (with third-party covers going up to $120), increasing the importance of naked grippability.

The weird-looking split QWERTY keyboard of the original has been replaced by a more pedantic version, with smaller, rounder keys. While it looks more modern, they smaller keys lack the original's tactile response and have fainter, hard-to-read alphanumeric icons. And keys in the middle were harder to reach with my thumbs.

For reading, the original's screen-long "Next Page" flippers have been replaced by smaller bars that click in toward the screen to help avoid accidental page turns. This solution is worse than the problem. A "Next page" bar that clicks inward is just plain counter-intuitive.

Navigation

Amazon has replaced the odd ribbon-strip navigation control with a more traditional cellphone-like five-way toggle (up/down/left/right/press in). While this nav arrangement looks more contemporary, I found it less effective. While trying to move the small square, nubby "joystick" directionally, I often accidentally pressed down on it.

Actionable onscreen items are underlined on the Kindle 2, but the cursor-like underlining didn't seem to go where I expected it. Perhaps the software is still being worked on or it's simply a matter of getting used to Kindle 2's navigation.

Menu and Back keys bracket the toggle, a huge improvement over the nonexistent Menu key and the easy-to-accidentally-click Back bar on the original. The original's tiny and hard-to-find keyboard-based Home key is now more easily found above the right "Next Bar" click bar.

Talking Book

I may make fun of it, but Kindle 2's voice capabilities are a revelation. After listening to both the TV anchor-like male and the soothing all-knowing museum female's dulcet tones for a while, you are only periodically reminded that you're hearing an algorithm not an actual human. Cadence for both voices is surprisingly natural, with normal pauses around "ands" and punctuation.

The default read speed seemed a bit rushed to me; the slow setting was the most pleasing. I can't fathom why the speed-talking fast speed is even included. I'm a fast-talking New Yorker and I had trouble keeping up.

Bizarrely (or lazily), Amazon really screwed up the text-to-speech menu. To activate the pop-up speech menu, you hit the change-font button. Sure, that's just where you'd put it, right? Amazon could have at least put a speaker icon under the font key to indicate its dual purpose. To pause the read back, you hit the space bar, which at least makes some sense, but a "pause" icon on the bar would have helped.

Thankfully, Amazon moved the volume control from the bottom of the device to the upper right perimeter.

There are twin speakers mounted on Kindle's rear, which means you'll have to keep its behind elevated to clearly hear what's being read. Placing the speakers on the front or on the perimeter spine would have made a lot more sense, even if it resulted in a chubbier Kindle. Like the original, Kindle 2 has a 3.5mm headphone/speaker jack, intelligently relocated from the bottom to the top.

The Reader

While Amazon claimed the new Kindle 2 screen works faster with higher-resolution pages, the only evidence of this is with pictures. By increasing screen resolution from four to 16 shades of gray, photos look far sharper (even though they're still in black and white) and can be zoomed full-frame.

But text looks no sharper on Kindle 2, at least to my eyes. Amazon claims page turns are 20% faster on Kindle 2, but in my brief side-by-side test with the original, not only couldn't I detect a speedier transition, I actually though the original was faster.

All-in-all, the biggest reason for original Kindle owners to upgrade to Kindle 2 is the text-to-speech capabilities, which is almost worth the price of admission. Having Kindle read to you while you're eating or driving or engaging in any other activity that requires both hands is alluring.

But if the speech capability doesn't speak to you, there isn't enough improvement in Kindle 2 for original Kindle owners to re-ante another $360. For first-time e-book purchasers, though, Kindle is still cookin'.