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Amazon Kindle Touch

When it comes to the Kindle, my experience and affection is clear: I purchased the first Kindle the day it was announced, received it on the first day of availability, and have purchased and used, daily, each subsequent Kindle device. I read books, newspapers, blogs, and magazines on the Kindle, every single day. I travel with it, sometimes fall asleep with it, and have come to understand its various nuances. I recommend the Kindle to anyone who will ask, not just readers of this site, or listeners of my podcasts, but also friends and family alike. With the Kindle, it's always been very simple. This is the eBook reader you want, utilizing the eBook platform of choice.

But as I noted recently in Amazon Kindle: A Look At the Late 2011 Lineup, the online retailer's selection of Kindle devices has gotten curiously complicated this year. Too complicated to my mind, and the company now offers a staggering number of Kindles. And for the first time ever, not all of them are excellent.

This is a disturbing turn of events. Not since the first Kindle have I not been able to recommend a Kindle device without caveats. That device was excellent for its day, but far too expensive at $400. Who could afford such a thing, I wondered? Today, Kindles are inexpensive--no, not "inexpensive"; they're just plain cheap--and virtually anyone who loves to read should be able to buy a Kindle of some kind.

Just make sure that the Kindle Touch is not the one you buy.

This device is deeply, deeply flawed. And the more I use it, the more frustrated I get. It's so bad, in fact, that I'll be returning it as soon as I post this review. I never do that, almost ever, and certainly not with any Kindle. But this one is going back to Amazon. It just doesn't work.

First, the good news. It's a Kindle. It has an improved version of the excellent e-ink screen that has graced each Kindle device since the beginning. Text rendering is excellent, and far better than anything you'll see on an LCD screen, regardless of whatever advances whatever company has made in that technology. If you're reading text--a novel, book, newspaper article, or whatever--you just can't beat e-ink. It's easy on the eyes, looks crisp, and even resembles traditional paper-based books for you nostalgic types.

With the Touch, Amazon has made an interesting optional feature available (by default) that speeds up page transitions even more than the previous devices did. Basically, it doesn't completely redraw the entire screen. I don't see any particular difference between this and the old transition style, beyond some vague ghosting I had to specifically look for to really see, but if you don't like it, you can turn it off.

Also, the Touch is amazingly small and light. You can easily hold it in one hand and, thanks to its new multi-touch functionality, easily navigate from page-to-age with either hand. The battery life is of course astonishing, as it is for all Kindle devices--i.e. it's measured in months, not weeks, days, or hours--and it comes with a ton of storage.

And that's it for the positives. Everything else about this device is a disaster.

In fact, I will go so far as to say that this device appears to have been designed by someone who has not only never used a Kindle, but is actively working to usurp the platform from inside. Amazon, find this mole and remove them with maximum prejudice. They have ruined a device that should have been excellent.

It all starts with the power button, which is one of only two physical buttons on the entire device. Like previous Kindles, it can be found on the bottom of the device. Unlike with previous Kindles, this thing is in fact a button, and not a slider/switch that requires an explicit effort to engage. And that means it's very easy to trigger by mistake. The first time I read the newspaper with this device, I switched it off three times in the first few minutes, by mistake, because I was holding it normally and the overly-sensitive power button triggered against the base of my palm. So I figured I'd just rest the bottom of the device on the table while I read and balance the device in position with my hand. Nope: As soon as the device rested on the table, it switched off, because the power button is, again, on the bottom.

(And, no, you can't just turn it upside down. The Kindle Touch doesn't have an accelerometer.)


So maybe you're thinking this isn't a huge problem. You'll learn to hold it differently and it won't switch off all the time. And heck, maybe you will. But if you put this thing in a bag, it's going to switch on inadvertently there, too. And while battery life isn't a concern normally--the Kindle uses no battery at all regardless of what's displayed on the screen; remember, battery drain only occurs while changing the display--this raises another interesting problem: The Kindle Touch's multitouch screen is unsophisticated enough to be triggered by virtually any surface or object. So not only will it switch on and off in your bag, it will also change pages in whatever book or periodical you have loaded.


I tested this with a variety of objects. I was able to engage the Touch's multi-touch screen with a coffee cup, a pen, an iPod charging cable, and even through a blanket. Any object, basically, could trigger this effect. And if you commute or travel with the Touch, this is going to be a serious problem.

That alone should be enough for you to give up on this device.

But then it gets worse.

Yes, the Kindle Touch does have a multi-touch screen. Hence, the name. But the interface that Amazon uses is so utterly undiscoverable that it's almost insidious, especially when you consider that it comes with absolutely no printed documentation whatsoever. (You can discover how to use the device using a User's Guide document that comes preloaded.) The design decisions they made on this thing are bizarre. Worse yet, they're inconsistent with the navigational interfaces used on other Kindles, including Kindle apps on touch-based devices.

Some things do work as expected, of course.

On the home screen, you can tap on book and periodical names to load that publication. Bingo. But how do you navigate to other home screen pages? On the previous device, the Kindle 3, you would use dedicated hardware buttons for this. It turns out you swipe from right to left (or vice versa) to do this, and, OK, that makes sense.

Load a book and the UI goes away; you're just looking at text. On Kindle apps that work like this, tapping the center of the screen causes a menu and other UI to appear, and then you tap again to remove it. Not on the Touch. On the Touch, about 75 percent of the screen is dedicated to "next page." So if you tap in the center of the screen, you'll navigate to the next page. Tap the left side of the page (about the leftmost 15-20 percent) and you'll go back one page.

The UI-less reading view: Tap anywhere to see what happens. Then try again until you get it right.

(You can also swipe to make page transitions. So if you're holding the device in your left hand, as I often do, you can use a left to right swipe with your thumb to advance the page.)

This leads to yet another question. How exactly do you bring up the menu and other UI? It turns out you have to tap in the upper left screen corner. Not the upper right corner; that toggles a bookmark. Not the lower left or lower right corners; that will trigger a page turn in the respective direction. It has to be the upper left corner. Which of course was the last place I tried. Trial and error isn't good UI. I'm just saying.

Peek-a-boo! The UI appears if you know exactly what to do.

Ah geeze.

But wait, there's more. If you're a Kindle newspaper, magazine, or blog reader, as I am, it still gets worse from here. In fact, for me, this was the final straw.

You see, Amazon has changed periodical navigation yet again, and has created yet another way to read the same periodicals on different devices. So if you compare the periodical experience on the Kindle Touch, the Kindle Keyboard, and the Kindle Fire, as I have, you'll discover that they are all completely different. Each one has a different and unique way of presenting these publications.

And the version Amazon made for the Kindle Touch stinks. It's the worst of the lot by far.

I don't want to spend too much time on this topic, since it will be uninteresting to most people, but the short version goes like this. On the Touch, there are two ways to display the "top view" of a periodical. There's a new grid view that sort of emulates a newspaper-type layout within the tiny confines of this device's screen; it's the default and it's unusable. (And there is nothing like this on the previous Kindles, which instead featured a nicer list view that is sort of analogous to this.) 

Sort of OK-looking newspaper layout. Useless if you want to actually read the news.

And then there's a two column view which is a blockier and uglier version of the way I read newspapers on the previous device. Why it looks different--worse--is unclear. But since the Touch has a touch screen, Amazon has had to add navigational UI to this and other screens, cluttering things up. And unlike with books, those controls are there all the time during navigation. (They disappear in article view, as with books.)

It's like the Kindle Keyboard's periodical layout. But uglier.

The whole thing is a mess. I can't recommend this Kindle and I won't be keeping it for myself. My advice is to steer clear of the Kindle Touch and examine the other Kindle devices closely to determine which features are most important to you. Because this device has been such a disaster, I'll be returning it, as noted, and I've ordered a base, non-touch Kindle now to see whether that device can succeed where this one fails. But make no mistake, the Kindle Touch is a failure. Not recommended.

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