Review: The 2011 $79 Kindle

Note: This is my first product review. Please pardon the shoddy photography.

About a week ago, I was in need of a distraction, so I bought one of the new $79 Kindles. I’d been thinking about making this purchase for quite a while and finally decided to pull the trigger.

It’s delightful.


The Kindle arrived two days after I ordered it, thanks to Amazon Prime’s free shipping. The packaging was neat, tidy, and product-specific. When you open the box’s lid, you find the Kindle cheerfully nestled there, accompanied only by a USB cord and a “Getting to Know Your Kindle” index card, which labels the device’s buttons and ports.

My first reaction was surprise at how small the Kindle was, probably because I’m so used to the iPad 2. The Kindle is 6.5” x 4.5” and only 0.34” thick, according to Amazon, and it only weighs 5.98 ounces compared to the iPad 2’s 1.33 pounds. It’s very light. More on iPad vs. Kindle in a little while.

After plugging it into my computer, the Kindle powered up quickly. Although it didn’t ship with a full charge, the battery reached capacity in less than an hour. Amazon says it only takes three hours for a full charge. I haven’t owned the Kindle long enough to be able to speak to its battery life, but I have no trouble believing Amazon’s claims. I don’t think I’ll need to charge it for at least a couple of weeks.

“Andrew’s Kindle” automatically appeared in the menu bar, as the device is pre-registered to whomever’s Amazon account made the purchase. (You can change the registration information in the settings if need be.) After selecting my home wi-fi network, all of my Kindle books appeared in a few seconds with virtually no action on my part. It’s great that you don’t have to log yourself into your Amazon account on the device, which would be a pain using the onscreen keyboard and 5-way controller. It feels like Amazon said, “This is Andrew Marvin’s Kindle” when they put it in the box.

I assume Amazon has gotten really good at shipping people Kindles, and it shows. The unboxing and setup process was painless, and I was ready to read within minutes.


The $79 Kindle has a six-inch e-ink display. It has “Next Page” and “Previous Page” buttons on both sides, the former being about twice as big as the latter. Below the screen are, from left to right, a Back button, a Keyboard button, the 5-way directional controller with a Select button in the center, a Menu button, and a Home button. A USB port and Power button can be found on the bottom edge.

The Kindle’s case is a pleasant silver color, and it’s made of plastic. The back has a slightly grippy feel to it, and I wouldn’t describe the Kindle as a “slippery” device. The combination of plastic and the device’s minimal weight do make it feel somewhat fragile, and I found myself cradling it as I would any new electronic device. Marco Arment, in his review, said, “Nearly everything about the $79 Kindle is cheap.”, and while I tend to agree, I don’t consider it a negative sentiment. That is, I didn’t regret my purchase upon taking the Kindle out of the box, nor did I think, “What a piece of junk…” The Kindle doesn’t need to do much except feel good in your hand and provide an enjoyable reading experience, which it does.

This is my first Kindle, so I can’t compare it to previous models, but I found the tactile response of the Next and Previous Page buttons to be perfectly adequate. You press the buttons down — as in away from you — rather than in toward the screen, which took a few pages to get used to. The buttons on the bottom aren’t amazing, but they don’t really need to be. They click when you press them, so I have no difficulty determining whether or not I successfully hit one. Because they’re centered below the screen, it does take some finesse to use them with one hand; my right thumb has to reach pretty far to hit the Back button. My thumb also cramped up slightly the first time I used the 5-way controller to add my name, phone number, and email to my device’s Personal Info. The Kindle is about twice as wide as the iPhone 4, so it’s not as easy to operate the buttons one-handed. Justin Blanton noted in his review that the Kindle 3’s controller was in the bottom right corner, which would have been nice, but oh well. Fortunately, the Page buttons are a piece of cake to use, which is what really matters since they receive the most presses. When you’re reading, which comprises 95% of your Kindle time, using it one handed is no problem. I also like that the Next Page button is larger than the Previous Page button, which obviously gets used less. I usually switch to two hands when not reading, i.e. navigating menus and the like.

The top of the device just says “kindle”, and it’s nice that the Amazon logo isn’t in your face. (It’s on the back, centered at the bottom where the word “iPhone” would go.) The frame/bezel is maybe half as thin as the iPad’s. I don’t know if I have small thumbs, but there’s just enough room for my thumb to rest and have easy access to the Next Page button without obstructing the screen.

Notably, the Kindle doesn’t ship with a power adapter. It charges via the USB cord that connects to your computer. I thought about buying the sold-separately power adapter, but I felt that, given the Kindle’s charge cycle and battery life, so little time would be spent charging that it wasn’t even worth the $10 on sale.

Similarly, I didn’t feel the need to buy a case either. I don’t want to add weight or bulk to the Kindle, and I consider the zone between my bed and nightstand to be pretty safe. Cases on Amazon range from $30 to $50, and the Kindle itself was only $79. No thanks.

The Kindle is light; my hand doesn’t get tired after holding it for a while, unlike the iPad. I wish the Power button was in the top right corner, since I’m used to putting my iDevices to sleep that way, but it’s no matter. I don’t have much else to say about the hardware. I like it, and I haven’t found any glaring annoyances. Screen/display discussion can be found below.


The $79 Kindle is ad-supported. (Amazon calls them “Special Offers”.) It’s available without ads for $109. The ads show up when the Kindle is asleep and at the bottom of the Home screen. No ads are displayed while reading, and you can remove them by paying $30 after the fact on your Kindle Management page at You can also supposedly change the types of ads you see, but I haven’t noticed any difference so far. At some point, I’ll probably pay to remove the ads, but their unobtrusiveness is sufficient enough for me to put off doing so.

The Kindle’s Menu button reveals options to turn off wireless connectivity, shop in the Kindle store, view archived items, search, create a new collection (folder), sync, access settings, view special offers, and configure the screen orientation. There’s also an option labeled “Experimental”, which — obviously — launches the Kindle’s makeshift web browser. Doing so brings up a list of generic bookmarks to, Wikipedia, Google, Gmail, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, etc., but that’s about as far as I bothered to go with it. Because typing is so slow, I can’t imagine ever using the browser. It’s there in a pinch, I guess.

Speaking of typing: using the onscreen keyboard is painful. The non-touch Kindles still require the 5-way controller to select each letter, and the keyboard has an alphabetical layout, not QWERTY. Again, since the controller is centered below the screen, I had to hold the device in my left hand and operate it with my right. But, since the most you’ll probably do is type out the title of a book in the Kindle store, it’s not that big of a deal.

Shopping in the Kindle store is a pretty decent experience. You can browse books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and Kindle Singles, which are essays and other short-form writing. I bought Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson simply by going to the Top Sellers page. Selecting a title brings up detailed information about the book, similar to what you’d see on Amazon’s website. Clicking the Buy button sends the book to your device immediately and charges your on-file billing information at Amazon. It’s very simple and should facilitate quite a few impulse buys.

Amazon says turning off wireless increases the battery life from weeks to months. I would turn it off since I only use it for a minute or two when buying a book, but I’m going to leave it on for a while because I want my Kindle to sync with the Kindle apps on my iPhone and iPad. Perhaps I’ll turn it off in the future.

Amazon recently released version 4.0.1 of the Kindle software, which adds the option of configuring the device’s Page Refresh setting. This Kindle model refreshes (blinks) on every sixth page, but as Marco pointed out, it causes the text to degrade slightly after several pages. I turned Page Refresh on so that it blinks with every page and keeps the text looking sharp. The blink itself only takes a second, and you get used to it very quickly.

Oddly, my Kindle shipped with version 4.0, and I could not get it to prompt me for an over-the-air software update, at least not in the first hour of playing with it. You can manually download software updates on Amazon’s website, click-and-drag them onto your Kindle, and then install them in the device’s settings. It was easy, but I expect to be automatically prompted in the future.

The Kindle’s menus are contextual, meaning that, depending on what screen you’re on, a different menu will pop up when you press the Menu button. The variations are mostly minor. For example, the “Change Font Size” menu item is present on both the Home screen and reading menus, but you can only select it while reading, which is dumb. Also, you can’t actually change fonts, only size, typeface (regular, condensed, or sans serif), line spacing, and words per line.

Nothing is present onscreen while reading except the text, any black-and-white pictures, and a progress bar at the bottom, which shows how much you’ve read as a percentage. The progress bar is also filled with dots, spaced seemingly randomly, which actually indicate the length of chapters. I find the progress bar a little distracting, but it’s nice to see how much further the next chapter is.

One thing I had to learn was that the 5-way controller doesn’t bring you to the next page. For some reason, I had to break the habit of pressing “right” on the controller instead of the Next Page button. Pressing right or left actually brings you to the next or previous chapter, which confused me until I realized I was an idiot.

Reading Experience

Never mind those two thousand words, let’s move on to more important matters. What’s it like to read on this thing?

Simply put, it’s wonderful.

You hear all about how great e-ink displays are, but they’re definitely one of those things you don’t understand until you’ve tried it. They’re really great. The Kindle’s 6” display is easy on the eyes, clear, and soothing. It displays pictures nicely. The font, which a very quick Google search says is called Caecilia, is pleasant enough, although some choices would be nice. It’s easy to read in low light, and the text only looks better in well-lit conditions.

The Kindle is about the size of a mass market paperback. (See a comparison shot here.) I would guess it’d be easier for the visually impaired to read on the Kindle’s screen than on a standard mass market paperback’s page.

I absolutely love how there are Next and Previous Page buttons on both sides of the device, so it doesn’t matter which hand you use to hold it. Sometimes I accidentally think the left buttons are for Previous Page and the right buttons are for Next Page, but that’s only if I’m holding it with both hands, and I suspect it won’t last.

Something about the Kindle’s display encourages me to slow down and enjoy what I’m reading. It’s a wonderful break from the frantic skimming of reading on the web or any backlit screen. You can stare at the Kindle’s display for hours with minimal fatigue or strain, unlike a backlit display. I know many people are afraid to leave tangible paper-and-ink books behind, and as an English major, I completely understand. But the Kindle has many advantages, and I maintain that it’s the (for lack of a better word) content that matters. The medium in which it is presented is of far less consequence. A book’s spirit is contained in its words, and whether those words appear in ink or e-ink shouldn’t really matter. Still, I do know how good books feel, smell, taste, and all that. Just don’t fear the Kindle, especially if you haven’t given it a try.

On Owning a Kindle and an iPad

Now, I know those closest to me can’t wait to lovingly mock my Kindle purchase because I’m such an iPad evangelist. After all, one of my biggest reasons for buying an iPad was for reading. I’d like to discuss this here because I think it’s a valid debate, and I want to explain why I think owning both devices is nothing to scoff at.

First, let me clarify that a Kindle is not an iPad, and an iPad is not a Kindle. Yes, an iPad is capable of doing everything a Kindle can do; there is, after all, a Kindle app for the iPad.

Conversely, the Kindle obviously can’t do everything the iPad can do. The iPad is a mobile computer, just like the iPhone. It’s capable of just about every casual task a laptop can do: email, web browsing, reading, writing, music, games, etc. Whether or not a particular device is better for certain tasks is a different issue all together, and we won’t get into that here. (You’re welcome.)

Despite the iPad’s ability to read eBooks, reading on a Kindle is an entirely different experience. Let’s do this in bulleted form.

  • It’s healthier. Everyone knows that staring into a backlit screen for hours isn’t good for your eyes. The Kindle’s display doesn’t sear your retinas, even after many chapters. It also helps you sleep better. Blue light, such as the kind emitted by most electronic screens, keeps us awake by affecting melatonin (sleepy hormone) production. That’s why it’s recommended that we cease using backlit screens in the couple hours before bedtime. Reading on the Kindle before bed is about as harmful as reading a real book, i.e. not at all. It may not seem like a big deal, but when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, every bit helps.
  • You can read outside. The iPhone and iPad have great displays, but they aren’t very useable with the sun glaring overhead, like, say, at the beach. I wouldn’t want to bring my iPad to the beach anyway, but a $79 Kindle? Absolutely. Not to mention I’ll be able to bring one Kindle with a ton of books on it, which is easier to carry than even a single paperback.
  • It’s for a different type of reading. I bought my iPad so I could read on it, that’s true. But most of my iPad reading comes in the form of blog posts, RSS feeds, Twitter, Instapaper, and other websites. It’s great for long-form articles, especially with Instapaper, but when it comes to really long-form reading, like books, it can grow tiresome. I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done on the iPad, and it took me forever. Twitter, Facebook, RSS, and the entire Internet are only a tap away, so it’s easy to get distracted. The Kindle is built for a single task: reading eBooks. I can get lost in a book on the Kindle, whereas I was prone to skimming on the iPad. Skimming is fine for the web, but when it comes to a novel, I want to be totally present.

I’m sure the majority of people with tablet computers still buy hardcopies of books. It would be illogical to assume otherwise. I see the Kindle as a replacement for stockpiles of books that go untouched after one reading, if any. Could you use the iPad for the same purpose? Sure, but I argue that the Kindle is better suited for book-length reading. Just because someone owns an iPad doesn’t mean they shun books, and I don’t think it means they should necessarily shun the Kindle either.

I plan on bringing the Kindle anywhere I’d normally bring a good book, whereas I bring the iPad anywhere I need to be able to do mobile computing over wi-fi.

The bottom line is that the iPad and the Kindle are not competing products. Buying a Motorola Xoom or an HP TouchPad when you already have an iPad doesn’t make sense because they’re the same type of product: tablet computers. Buying an e-reader to supplement your tablet is much more logical. I’m not saying that everyone who has an iPad should buy a Kindle, but I do think it’s easy to understand why someone would prefer to own both, whether you’re a gadget nerd or not.

So, anyway.

I’m very happy with my purchase. For a long time now, I’ve been unable to read books as much as I’d like to, and even then, I rarely finish them. I foresee the Kindle being a great asset in helping me get back to enjoying books. It’s a device designed for one thing, which it does very well and for an inexpensive price. Richard J. Anderson sums it up nicely:

For all intents and purposes, the Kindle comes off as a unitasking device. When I pick it up, I am picking it up to read something—and I love to pick it up.

I agree with every word of Richard’s article. The Kindle has already changed my reading habits by eliminating excuses to read.

As much as I love the iPad, I’m now an avid supporter of Amazon’s Kindle as well. I think any book lover would do well to consider one.