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On e-Reader Tech News we track down the latest e-Reader news. We will keep you up to date with whats hot in the bestsellers section, including books, ebooks and blogs... and we will also bring you great e-reader tips and tricks along with reviews for the latest devices and accessories.

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November 2011
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Kindle Touch’s X-Ray Feature Combats Piracy The Smart Way

While the news of the week is certainly focused on the Kindle Fire media tablet and all of the wider implications for tablet computing that go along with it, this week also brings us the release of the new Amazon Kindle Touch eReader.  It does a few things right that other companies haven’t quite caught on to yet, but overall it’s just another iteration of the line.  Once you reach a certain point, there is a limit to how much excitement can be mustered over fractions of an inch in dimension reduction, fractions of an ounce in weight reduction, or fractions of a second in page refresh rate.  It was all pretty much great in the Kindle 3 (Kindle Keyboard) and the trend continues in the fourth generation here.

What is really important here aside from the touchscreen implementation, which I’ll talk about another time, is the way Amazon has managed to add extra value for users beyond the simple reading experience.  That’s not easy when you’re talking about something as basic as a book, and most attempts to do so up until now (i.e. video embedding, hyperlinks, etc.) have been at least somewhat obtrusive during the act of reading.

The new X-Ray feature is, at first glance, an extension of the search function.  It will find what you need in an intelligent fashion using Amazon’s own predictive algorithms to determine what the most important parts of a book are.  The name is meant to imply that by using the Kindle Touch you can see through to the “bones” of a given book.  This information is stored on your eReader, having been downloaded alongside each eBook you picked up, so it remains accessible even if you keep the WiFi turned off consistently. Accessing X-Ray will get you things like a list of proper names in the book, how often those names appear and where, as well as other extrapolated information about the form of the book’s content.

While this isn’t generally going to be a feature of major importance, it will come in handy to many.  For students and reading groups the applications are obvious.  It serves as a reference point.  Even during a casual reading, however, it will come in handy to be able to pull this up on the fly.  Forgot where you last saw a character earlier in the book?  X-Ray.  Not sure if it’s worth looking up a historical figure to understand a reference?  Check X-Ray to see if they keep coming up during important passages.  That sort of thing might not be a day to day need, but it’s nice to have handy.

In handling things the way they are, Amazon is effectively providing paying customers something that pirates don’t have access to.  Even if people figure out a good way to side-load this content, Amazon is presumably improving how the X-Ray feature determines what is important.  This means that each time you sign online with your Kindle Touch, the information potentially evolves and improves.  It’s a neat system and manages to avoid restrictive content control while giving users an incentive to stay honest.

Kindle Fire Popularity Seems To Spur Interest In Kindle Phone

It’s safe to say that the Kindle Fire has made an impression.  Tablet prices are dropping across the board, some major hardware developers seem to be reconsidering their desire to enter the fray, and Amazon has increased their expected sales numbers on the order of millions of units beyond what was originally planned for the 2011 holiday season.  Not only does this spell good news for Amazon’s first non-eReader (or maybe post-eReader?  Hard to say precisely where to draw the line since it technically can show you books), it means that the hardware line is sure to continue and expand as time goes on.

There is some contention at the moment about exactly which Kindle Fire followup we can expect to see next.  Some are certain that it will end up being a 10.1″ direct competitor for the iPad while a newer contingent citing supposedly inside information from the production chain has started indicating somewhere around 9″ as the next step.  Regardless of where you would place your bet, one frequent point of speculation is the potential for a Kindle Phone.

There has been speculation before that Amazon was interested in entering into cellular devices, but until recently that seemed doomed to be nothing but a rumor.  This past week, though, Citigroup analyst Mark Mahoney noted that certain checks they have done indicate that development for an Amazon Phone is already underway with delivery expected in 4th quarter 2012.

To be honest, it is hard to know what to expect moving forward.  While this seems to be fairly detailed information, it feels like there is little in it for Amazon in the end.  The tablet makes sense since Amazon is able to completely control the data end of things and sell at near cost, undercutting the competition.  In a cellular market closely controlled by carriers, there might well be less room for such tactics.  When consumers are already used to getting hardware for less than half of its suggested retail cost, budget options aren’t as shocking.

What I could definitely envision, however, is a Kindle Fire-like device with a smaller screen and optional 3G coverage along the lines of what is available for the iPad.  It would work marketed as an iPod Touch competitor but still have the hardware necessary to function as a communication device should the desire arise.  Even without the 3G, relying on WiFi availability, such a thing would make a big splash at the right price.

As much as it might be a difficult thing to enter into the smartphone marketplace at this time, would Amazon be willing to pass up a chance to grab hold of what is only going to continue to be an expanding market?  The Kindle Fire has demonstrated for them the potential of Android devices and the fact that they already have an Android fork fully developed and customized to fully integrate into their sales systems means that much of the work is already done.  Maybe it’s just optimism, but I think the Kindle Phone is definitely on its way.

Kindle Fire Review

I’ve had my hands on a Kindle Fire for a bit now and I figured that it was time to share impressions.  Overall, definitely a nice device for the price.  That’s worth saying up front.  It does everything that I expected it to be able to pull off and a fair amount that never even occurred to me.  Probably best to break it down a little more specifically, though.

Video

The Kindle Fire was always expected to be a video viewing device and it pulls that off quite well.  Integration with the Amazon Instant Video library is seamless and you can browse through the Prime membership freebies without any trouble or intrusive sales pitches.  Playback is perfect and I haven’t had so much as a stutter or buffering delay in the time I’ve been using the service.  Downloading rental movies goes quickly and it’s obvious how to choose between streaming video and what you have on your device locally.

The inclusion of Netflix and Hulu Plus at launch was a nice addition that effectively shut down the Nook Tablet’s main point of potential superiority.  While I don’t maintain a Hulu Plus account, Netflix runs almost as well as Amazon’s Instant Video.  Jumping into the middle of a half-watched movie resulted in about 2 seconds of stuttering followed by normal playback.  Basically the same experience I have come to expect from the box hooked up to my television.

I would love to be able to side-load more content that I already own onto the device.  At present the supported formats are rather limited.  The majority of my library is incompatible.  Probably, as with the fight over EPUBs with the Kindle eReader line, a way for Amazon to “subtly” encourage adoption of their house preference.  Conversion is much more of a pain for video than it is for eBooks, though, which might make this a major inconvenience for people looking to play things they already have around.

Audio

Possibly the biggest drawback to using the Kindle Fire to watch movies is the limited audio capability.  While yes, it is indeed perfectly possible to listen to music or movies through the built in speakers, the quality is quite lacking.  With a decent pair of headphones, however, it works as well as any audio device I’ve ever owned.  There isn’t much more to say other than that the streaming here seems to work perfectly well for me, even when reading or using other apps.  So long as there isn’t a conflict over who gets control of the speakers, you’re good.

Web

One of the biggest perks of the Kindle Fire was meant to be the new Amazon Silk web browser.  Since most of the work is done off of the device by outsourcing to Amazon’s cloud servers, there’s a lot of potential.  Unfortunately there are some problems.  Most noticeably, there seems to be a slight jump in input lag while using the browser.

I’m told this has something to do with a known problem that Android 2.3 has in trying to decide whether the OS or the browser gets to handle input, but I’m not intimately aware of the particularities of Android so this may be inaccurate.  If it is true, however, then to some degree it is likely a problem that won’t be going away in the near future.

Other than that, things work great.  You do get some small speed increase over normal browsing, which if I properly understand how Silk is supposed to work will only get better in time.  It scores pretty well on HTML5 tests, though not perfectly, and should run most HTML5 apps.  Not much more you can ask for in a browser besides being able to open pages quickly, I suppose?

Apps

This is undoubtedly the most important aspect of the tablet experience for many people, but it is also somehow the one that Amazon has decided to put the least emphasis on.  Yes there are loads of apps to choose from, but not all of the ones in Amazon’s Android Appstore will work on the Kindle Fire.  That makes sense, given the wide variety of Android devices out there, but Amazon is able to put a little check mark for device compatibility next to the purchasing button on their site so I would love it if I could just get a “Kindle Fire compatible only” button.  I’m sure it will happen in time, though.

As for functionality, I haven’t noticed any problems with the apps.  Their icons look a little out of place on the carousel next to the eBooks you’ve been reading recently, but no more so than many movie or TV show icons do. I’ve also had no issues so far with performance.  The apps specifically for the Kindle Fire work slightly better than their more general counterparts, but even those have little trouble and the screen isn’t huge enough to cause much distortion when interfaces get stretched more than developers intended.

There doesn’t even seem to be any major area overlooked by those developers so far, either.  Everything I’ve wanted out of it has been available for a dollar or two. The fact that Amazon has a daily free Android App is also a nice plus.  This isn’t necessarily Kindle Fire specific, but I’ve seen everything from games to office suites up there.  It opened up some options that might have otherwise been overlooked as too expensive to be worth a potentially wasted purchase.

Summary

Overall this is a great device.  It is not a PC replacement, or even a netbook replacement, but for what it was meant to do it works well.  You can purchase and use any content you want from Amazon and it seems to run smoothly.  Picking up media in unfamiliar formats might cause some complications, but even then there are usually conversion programs available should it be particularly important.  While I do see clearly how Amazon is trying to push people into using their services by offering minimal support for anything else, it isn’t nearly as heavy-handed as many claimed it would be.  I feel like they are genuinely trying to convince their customers that Amazon services are superior rather than just saying that you shouldn’t have other options.

At $199, the Kindle Fire is more than worth the investment.