Posted by: Ken Brown | December 31, 2011

Kindle Touch Review plus Basic Gestures

[UPDATE 6/2012: I am very pleased to report that the recent software update has resolved virtually all of the complaints noted below, making this an even better device than it already was.]

Having received a Kindle Touch for Christmas, I thought I’d offer a quick review and comparison with the Kindle 3 (now known as the Kindle Keyboard). I’ve also included a list of gestures near the end, since I’ve not been able to find one elsewhere.

My wife got a Kindle 3 over the summer and we both fell in love with it immediately. It is an extremely well-designed device that can make reading digital text virtually as easy and natural as reading on paper. I’m not one to spend a lot of money on ebooks–though Amazon does have an impressive library of them–so mostly we’ve used it for reading classics, which are generally free since they are out of copyright. Amazon has a number of them itself, and many more are available through Project Gutenberg. I’ve also used it here and there for academic reading, either of classic texts like Wellhausen’s Prolegomena, contemporary articles that are available as PDFs through the university library, or personal notes and documents.

Sometimes this works great, other times less so. For documents that are not already formatted for the Kindle (.mobi), you either have to load them unconverted, which limits their functionality, or use Amazon’s conversion service, which is great but not without problems. One need only email the document to them with “convert” in the subject line and it will be sent directly to your Kindle within a few minutes, but unfortunately it only really works effectively with Word documents and searchable PDFs that are exclusively in English, and it can’t handle Hebrew or other right to left scripts at all. Even German comes out a bit garbled when converted, and transliterated semitic languages are unreadable. In all cases, original formatting will tend to be lost or cause display issues. Unconverted PDFs can be loaded instead, which will preserve the original scripts, formatting and images, but such cannot then be searched or highlighted, and unless they are saved to a smaller page-size to begin with (as with many journal articles), they tend to be too small to view comfortably without scrolling.

The Kindle Touch shares most of these advantages and disadvantages with the Kindle 3, but it does have a couple of additional limitations. In particular, there is no landscape mode, and you cannot highlight across a page break. The first is the more irritating, as unconverted PDFs, as I said, often cannot be viewed comfortably as whole pages, and work better in landscape mode (half a page viewed at a time). It is unclear why they deleted this feature–perhaps it would have made the page-turn gesture recognition software more complicated?–but hopefully they will bring it back for future models, or preferably through a software update (unlikely?). As for highlighting across the page, there is a workaround: simply decrease the font side using the pinch gesture until the full quote is on one page, make your highlight, then restore the text to its usual size. [UPDATE: Both landscape mode and the ability to highlight across pages have now been added.]

Apart from those limitations, the Touch is in almost all other ways an improvement over the Keyboard version. Besides being smaller and lighter (it easily fits in my jeans pocket), while still keeping the same 6” screen size, the new burnished aluminum look is much more attractive, yet is still rubberized so as not to slip in the hands or feel cold. I can comfortably use it with one hand, including page-turning and for longer periods of time, though I find that I most often tend to use my other hand to turn the page.

In general, I find the touch interface much quicker and more natural for navigation and highlighting than the Kindle 3′s directional pad, not to mention saving a great deal of clicking. Simply being able to press and drag from the first word to the last is much easier, and adding a note is no more difficult with the on-screen keyboard than with the tiny little hardware keyboard on the Kindle 3, which I always found rather ugly. Granted those with big fingers will find either one difficult, but personally, I find I can type a bit faster with the on-screen keyboard. Neither model is conducive to extended note-taking, however.  The only real downside of the Touch on this score, and it is not a small one, is that there does not appear to be any way to make corrections within a note except to delete everything that follows and retype it. Tapping at a point earlier in the note does not move the cursor, which seems a rather glaring omission from the software. At least with the Kindle 3 you could move the cursor with the directional pad. [UPDATE: This feature has now also been added. Three cheers for listening to customer feedback!]

The E-Ink display is noticeably clearer and brighter over against the Kindle 3, since the touch capability is provided by inferred scanners built into the bezel, rather than built into the screen itself. This also means that unlike an iPhone or iPad,  it works without direct skin contact, so you can read with gloves on or even use the back of a pen or other pointer. The latter can be helpful if you have thick fingers, though the touch sensitivity does not appear to be quite as good with a pen as with my finger. The downside is that bumping the screen (e.g. with your sleeve) will be treated the same as your fingers would be.

In general, the touch capability is reasonably accurate, but not quite as good as I would have hoped. You really have to hit the on-screen buttons directly in the middle to activate them, and it does not always recognize my taps to turn the page, while other times I apparently have not held long enough to begin highlighting and instead accidentally turn the page. Presumably that will improve simply by getting more used to the device. There are also a small number of gestures built in, though for some reason Amazon does not (yet) appear to have any documentation for these. Trial and error and some help from Google has turned up the following (note that not all of these work with all kinds of documents, but with standard ebooks they normally do; if you know of any further gestures I’ve missed, please let me know!):

  • Tap the Page moves forward one page
  • Tap the Right Edge moves back one page
  • Tap the Top Edge accesses Back, Search, Menu and Formatting Options
  • Tap the Top Right Corner adds or removes a bookmark.
  • Swipe Left moves forward one page
  • Swipe Right moves back one page
  • Swipe Up jumps to the next chapter (or section break)
  • Swipe Down jumps to the previous chapter (or section break)
  • Pinch Inwards reduces the font size one level
  • Pinch Outwards increases the font size one level
  • Press-and-Hold (2 seconds) accesses a pop-up dictionary definition with additional options
  • Press (2 seconds) then Drag adds a highlight, then opens a pop-up dialogue with additional options. Close with a Tap.

The Swipe page turns are not really necessary when reading a book, since a simple tap accomplishes the same goal. I tend to do it anyway, though, as it feels more like turning a real page, and makes the refresh delay seem less unnatural to me. The Kindle also seems slightly more accurate at recognizing swipes than taps. On the Home Screen, where tapping a book title opens it (and press-and-hold accesses additional options), swiping appears to be the only means of turning the page. One issue I have had, and at first irritated me a great deal, is that occasionally a stray bump is interpreted as a Swipe Up, which jumps you to the next chapter. If this happens though, you can simply tap the top of the screen to access the menu, then click the Back button (looks like an arrow) to return to your previous position–much easier than trying to find your place by paging back repeatedly!

Accessing the menu does take an extra step compared to the Kindle 3, and also adds a bit of extra time for the additional page refresh. Indeed, the page refresh speed in general appears to be slightly slower with the Kindle Touch compared to the Kindle 3, and the Kindle 4 is quicker still, but most of the time I don’t even notice. Even the Home page takes a bit longer to load, despite there being a hardware button to access it (the four little lines on the front that look like a speaker), so as others have also noted, this is likely a software issue rather than a hardware problem, and might hopefully be improved by software updates. [UPDATE: This also seems to have been resolved, as I no longer detect any noticeable difference in load speed. If anything the Touch may be a bit quicker than our Kindle 3.]

I should also note that both our Kindle 3 and Kindle Touch were purchased with Wi-Fi and “Special Offers.” I have no need for the 3G and in any case prefer the convenience of emailing documents to my Kindle, which is free with the Wi-Fi version, but costs a nominal fee with the 3G version. As for the ads, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how unobtrusive they are: They do not show up in reading mode at all; you only see them in sleep mode and as a small banner on the bottom of the Home page. Moreover, they sometimes even offer legitimately good deals, such as free ebooks and audiobooks, half-off coupons for Amazon itself, and similar things. That said, I have noticed that the number of these seems to have decreased lately, with more standard ads taking their place (e.g. currently they are cycling through a $15 off ad for jeans on Amazon, a $50 discount for Travelocity, and standard ads for T-Mobile and a Katherine Heigl movie). If the latter two type of ads come to replace more and more of the former two, I may become rather less happy with the Sponsored Offers version than I currently am, but if it really gets bad, I can always pay the difference for the non-ad version later.

All around, I’m very pleased with the Kindle Touch, and definitely prefer it to the Kindle 3, even if it still leaves room for improvement in future models. In particular, I would like to see a model that had a touch screen with a small number of hardware buttons for Home, Menu, Back, and Search (useful for dictionaries especially), as the latter three currently require an extra tap each. The one button design seems an unnecessary concession to the iPhone/iPad, and I see no reason to stick with it. On the other hand, though at first I thought I would miss the hardware Forward/Backward buttons, in practice they are unnecessary and would probably just get in the way.

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Responses

  1. Thank you! I’ve suffered a lot from the accidental “swipe up” problem and then spent an inordinate time going back through pages trying to work out where I was. Back arrow: obvious when you know! My one remaining gripe with an otherwise great product is the ridiculously difficult way of getting to a bookmark. Why isn’t it on the ‘goto’ dialog?


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