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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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Amazon Acquires Ivona Software

Amazon announced today that they will acquire Ivona Software.  Ivona is the company that currently supplies the Kindle Fire line of tablets with its speech recognition capabilities.  Although there is little in the way of details regarding the terms of purchase, we can be certain that this signals an increased emphasis on audio input in the future for these products.

The immediate assumption that has to be made after this acquisition is that Amazon has its eye on a Siri imitation or something with similar capabilities.  Now naturally there has been some disappointment over how poorly Siri has lived up to the hype for iPhone users, but that doesn’t change anything about the appeal of the concept or the possibility that this could be a big thing for the future.

That’s especially true if Amazon ever comes through with their frequently-rumored Kindle Phone.  While we haven’t exactly seen any details emerging so far, indicating that this is a long way off yet even if it will probably be a future focus for the company, building this sort of capability to establish feature parity with Apple and Google products only makes sense.  There wouldn’t be much room to undercut prices the way the Kindle Fire made its big first impression on the tablet scene, so being able to line up with other popular smartphones feature for feature could be particularly important.

On the tablet side of things, there are other ways that Ivona could help things improve. Since the Kindle Fire HD is a consumption-based media tablet, it’s only natural to assume that something along the line of the Microsoft Kinect’s voice controls could be in the works as well.  Hooking up a tablet to stream Amazon Instant Video to your HDTV and being able to control it with a word from across the room would be quite nice if they can pull it off properly.

The potential for improving accessibility is also worth noting.  Ivona already works in various ways to improve support for the blind and visually impaired.  That would probably be more useful on the eReader side of things.  Amazon’s initial attempts to get their eReading line made into a standard educational tool were hindered by its inability to accommodate the visually impaired.  They have come a long way since then in various products, but this could offer new directions for them to approach the problem from.

Perhaps most important, though less impressive in terms of new feature selections, is the possibility that this will lead to more expansive localization options.  The press release makes a point of noting that Ivona offers voice and language products in 44 voices across 17 languages with a number more still in development.  Given the international growth of the Kindle line as a whole, that’s not a bad resource to be able to draw on.

Kindle Fire HD 8.9” First Impressions

Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD 8.9” tablet is now shipping out to many of those who got their preorders in early.  While new customers will have to wait until at least December 3rd for their new devices to be mailed, it’s a good time to take a look at what Amazon has done here and what the chances are that they will be able to mark a success in the large tablet section of the market.

Mostly I’m looking at the actual experience of using the new tablet.  Now that it’s possible to play with, we can get a good idea of how it’s going to go over with customers throughout the holiday season.

Display

The visuals are nice.  We’re working with a much higher resolution now and it shows.  The colors are basically the same as you find on the smaller model.  Not much more to say than that there is absolutely nothing to complain about here, even when it comes to watching HD video content.

Sound

Maybe it’s just because of how impressive the last Kindle Fire I had in hand turned out to sound, but I was looking forward to hearing what this one could do. The quality is almost exactly the same.  There might be some small improvement over the 7” model when it comes to the effectiveness of the stereo speakers but if so it’s minimal.  Still, both Kindle Fire HD models stand above every other tablet on the market today when it comes to sound quality.

General User Experience

The 8.9” model is a bit harder to use one-handed but it’s still not bad in that respect.  In every other way I find it superior to the 7”.  The weight is little enough that long use isn’t a problem.  The larger screen makes for better browsing and app usage.  The size is about as large as it can get without becoming as unwieldy as an iPad.  Not bashing the iPad, this is just going to see a lot more regular use than mine by comparison because of the slight decrease in size.

Overall

This would make a good selection for anybody wanting a slightly more powerful consumption tablet.  It’s smaller than either the Nexus 10 or the iPad, but larger than the less expensive budget tablets that Amazon is known for dominating.  The price is right at $299, though I would recommend springing for the extra storage available at $369 if the option is available.

If you want a portable device to watch video on, this is likely to be the best thing on the market for a while.  The Kindle Fire HD 8.9” combines sound, video, and streaming quality to make a truly excellent experience.

If you’re looking for a functional tablet for productivity, it’s still ok?  The iPad (and now Microsoft’s Surface) is the leader in terms of tablet productivity for a reason.  Make no mistake, Amazon isn’t intruding there yet.  This should be viewed purely as a means to tap into their ecosystem and the media sources it can link you to.  What it tries to do, however, the new Kindle Fire does very well indeed.

Kindle Fire HD 8.9” Takes on iPad But May Face Other, Unexpected Competition

We’ve recently talked about the release of the new Kindle Fire HD 8.9”.  It’s a solid device that gives every indication of being worth an investment.  While not quite as versatile as many Android tablets due to Amazon’s proprietary software configuration that prevents access to the Google Play service, there is little else to complain about and a lot to be excited for.  Some reports indicate that between this and the 7” model, Amazon’s tablets will outsell the iPad Mini 2 to 1 over the upcoming holiday season.

All that sounds great for Amazon and it’s definitely a sign that they will remain a major part of the Android tablet scene for some time to come.  They may be in trouble as time goes on, however.  The problem is not what many people have expected.  The iPad is hard to compete against, but the surge in video game consoles with touchscreen accessories may hit Amazon in a major way.

The Wii U just dropped, which is what brings this to mind.  Nintendo’s new console comes with a controller that doubles as a tablet.  It offers a supplementary second display that should come in handy in everything from game play to movie watching.  Sure, it requires a Wii U console to work, but that also allows the user to tap into a wide selection of content associated with that system.

Microsoft is also said to be working on a 7” tablet to supplement the Xbox 360 and the as-yet unannounced Xbox 720.  Their Smartglass software already allows anybody with a portable device (smartphone or tablet), or even a convenient PC, to tap into the console experience.  The Xbox Tablet, as it’s being called, will offer many of the same benefits that the Wii U controller boasts as well as serving the role of standalone portable.

Now, the main use of the Kindle Fire line is in consumption.  Amazon designed them for that purpose and there has been no real effort to make them into anything but a convenient gateway into Amazon’s digital content selection.  This means that in many ways the same customers they are looking at attracting are also likely to be interested in gaming and entertainment consoles, for obvious reasons.  If we’re looking at a class of devices that are exceedingly popular and tie into their own proprietary tablets, as in the case of these consoles, it may cut into Kindle Fire prospects.

While this is all speculation, I can’t help but feel that Amazon is going to have to come up with some special service that distinguishes their hardware offering in the next year or so.  The budget tablet market is still going strong, but there are a lot of big names that seem about as well equipped as Amazon who are set to enter the market.  Since all the digital content sold through the company is meant to be platform-agnostic, there’s going to need to be something special done.  Otherwise it’s only a matter of time before the iPad is just one of many strong competitors for the Kindle Fire HD.

Amazon Offers Unity Plugins to Kindle Fire Developers

Amazon has been making an effort to interest app developers, especially game developers, in their distribution platform lately.  As has been mentioned here in the past, their GameCircle will allow for all sorts of social features to be integrated into just about any game without much trouble.  Before this, many of the more popular Android games were unable to make use of their full feature set because of the Kindle Fire’s disconnection from Google services.

Moving forward along the same lines, Amazon has released plugins for the popular Unity game engine that should make it easier than ever for developers to add some in-app purchasing to their productions and build GameCircle into their games.

There are a number of reasons that this will be attractive.  According to the press release regarding these plugins, in-app purchasing averages more than twice the revenue generation of paid app sales per transaction.  Developers who can interest their users enough to encourage the occasional purchase will benefit from ongoing sales and therefore enjoy a fairly nice stream of income.

The GameCircle features help with this.  GameCircle’s main attractions are Leaderboards, Achievements, and Whispersync for Games.  The first two are easy ways to nudge players into spending more time immersed in the app.  More exposure and more personal time investment means more likelihood of making a casual purchase.  The latter feature, Whispersync for Games, encourages use of multiple devices and allows players to pick up where they left off even if they delete local data.  That means that there is a far lower bar to replay should somebody be interested in running through their favorites a second time.

This will be both good and bad for the players, but mostly good.

By bringing these features to the Kindle Fire, Amazon has finally provided all the tools that developers will need to properly prepare their apps for distribution via the Amazon Appstore for Android.  This will lead to more games, and apps in general, being made available for the Kindle Fire.

Whispersync for Games should go a long way to encourage quality game design as well.  Since there is reason to hope that users will keep coming back now that their progress and achievements can be saved even after deleting an app temporarily, there is more reason to provide ongoing support and updates.

Of course the ease with which in-app purchases can be offered also means a slew of new apps meant to do nothing more than milk microtransactions out of every user.  These types of lazy designs are a big presence on Google Play, but there’s been nothing keeping them away from Amazon aside from the extra effort it would take.  I’m not referring to the genuinely malicious software, of course, but even the merely bad can be obnoxious to watch out for.

Expect to see more games with more features springing up in the months to come thanks to these plugins.

Kindle Black Friday Specials for 2012

Every year Black Friday sales get more hyped and involve more ridiculous deals.  In some cases that’s a bad thing, especially when it involves camping outside stores for silly amounts of time to get a chance at one of the only two units available in a particular sale.  In many others it’s just a great time to save some money.

Since we know that a sale is on the way let’s take a look at what to expect as far as discounts this week.

According to Buyer’s Review, we can expect the following deals in brick & mortal stores this Friday:

  • Best Buy: Amazon Kindle Fire – $159.99 bundled with free $30 Best Buy Gift Card
  • Office Depot: Amazon Kindle Fire – $159.99 bundled with $25 Visa Card
  • Staples: Amazon Kindle Fire – $159, bundled with $20 Staples Gift Card
  • Office Max: Amazon Kindle Fire – $159
  • Best Buy: 16GB Amazon Kindle Fire HD – $199.99 free $30 Best Buy Gift Card included
  • Office Max: 16GB Amazon Kindle Fire HD – $199, bundled with $25 Office Max Gift Card
  • Staples: 16GB Amazon Kindle Fire HD – $199, bundled with $20 Staples Gift Card
  • Staples: 32GB Amazon Kindle Fire HD – $249, bundled with $20 Staples Gift Card

We do have every reason to believe that Amazon will use this opportunity to further promote the Kindle line directly through their own storefront as well, though.

Sadly, we’re not going to be seeing a sale on the Kindle Paperwhite.  The eReader side of things has proven so popular since the Paperwhite was released that an order today will take over a month to get to its destination, just barely making it in time for Christmas if you spring for 2-day shipping.  In a matter of days it will likely be impossible to order a Kindle Paperwhite and have it before 2013.

We will certainly be seeing this sale day used as an opportunity to promote the Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD, however.  An effort was clearly made to get the Kindle Fire HD 8.9” out before Black Friday, which indicates that the larger tablet will be a part of the promotion as well.

Looking at the store offers above, nobody is actually discounting the Kindle Fires themselves.  All that is being added is a promo gift card.  Given all the blowback Amazon has been getting from these same retailers about showrooming, I expect that the online deal will go a bit further.  How much further is difficult to predict, but 10-20% off the price would create a huge surge of interest.

Remember that Amazon is using the Kindle Fire as a cheap option for content sales.  They’re not making much on the devices themselves.  As such I don’t think we can expect to see a $99 Kindle Fire, even using refurbished 1st Gen models.  Since recent teardowns point to there being a bit more profit than the earlier generation allowed for in a single unit, however, they have some leeway.

I know that I’ll be watching for a $160 Kindle Fire HD and I would be surprised if I don’t see one by the end of the week.

Amazon Kindle Turns 5

As of November 19th, the Kindle is five years old.  Since its first incarnation we have watched it go from a fairly clunky attempt at introducing something new into the market to an elegant piece of technology that continues to deserve its position at the top of the same market it helped popularize.  We’ve been watching this progression since the beginning (our first post here was less than a month after launch on December 15th 2007) and it’s been a great time.

Looking back at the first generation Kindle is a great way to help understand why it hasn’t been just the hardware keeping the line going.  Amazon made a fairly good eReader, but even at the time there were superior options.  The first Sony Readers to be released in the US were lighter, faster, and generally more pleasant to use.  Still, Amazon pulled off a “good enough” device and supported it with the best digital reading content anywhere.

The Gen 1 Kindle had a resolution of 800 x 600, less than a quarter gigabyte of storage space, was uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time (compared to newer models, though it was great at the time), and would run you around $400 without a case or any books included.  About the only thing it had going for it compared to future products was the SD card slot, which was eliminated in the second generation.

That’s not to say it was a bad device so much as to illustrate how far things have come.  When new, the first Kindle captured the attention of huge numbers of people despite the price and was often held up as a valid alternative to the iPad.  That comparison is nonsense, but it illustrates how interesting people found the idea.

For comparison, you can now get the Kindle Paperwhite (assuming you can find one since they are in short supply at the moment) for $119.  It has a 6”, 212PPI display running with a 758 x 1024 resolution.  Battery life will last you over a month at a time in many cases.  The internal storage us up to two gigabytes and you can download your books on your home WiFi.  There is lighting for the screen without any of the problems that E Ink was solving compared to lighted screens in the first place.  Five years has meant a lot of progress.

Most importantly, the Kindle Store and Amazon’s support for its associated features have expanded even more.  The whole publishing industry has been forced to take digital distribution seriously and nobody does it better.  Kindles now enjoy a presence in millions of homes around the country and we expect to see even more of them in organizational settings like libraries now that central management tools have been released.

What is still to come for the Kindle is open to debate.  Some people expect a move away from eReaders to concentrate on the Kindle Fire tablet line.  Personally, I doubt it.  The Kindle eReader is what put Amazon on the map in terms of computing devices and it will continue to be a major point of interest in the future.  The only real question is how much further they can take it and in what direction.

Send to Kindle Becomes Browser Staple

For the most part Amazon’s “Send to Kindle” program has worked out extremely well for them.  It creates a convenient means to send just about any readable content you have on hand to your Kindle with no hassle.  Anybody with an internet connection can use it and there is absolutely no complexity to the interface.  You simply select your document and send it.

Apparently that wasn’t enough.  Now it is possible to pick up Send to Kindle for Firefox.  This takes a slightly different approach, though it delivers much the same functionality as the desktop integration we’ve had a chance to get used to.

Initial reviews have largely been positive.  There was some concern with compatibility as the browser plugin was not properly updated to account for one of Mozilla’s frequent software updates and that seems to have cost Amazon a large share of its overall rating in the Firefox Extensions rating system.  Since the last software update there have been few written complaints.

Rather than replicating the experience of the desktop app, Send to Kindle for Firefox takes on the likes of Instapaper.  It will allow the preservation of web pages for viewing at the reader’s convenience without the need for perpetually open tabs or being stuck in front of the computer at all.  Content can be read, preserved for reference, or even archived in the user’s Kindle documents.

The only real problem that seems to have come up so far, at least based on my own experience, is the inability of the new extension to push documents to the whole range of Kindle apps.  Kindle for Windows 8 is unable to retrieve these documents as is the Kindle Cloud Reader.  These are two of the most-used options available when a Kindle device is not on hand and neither will even acknowledge anything that isn’t purchased directly through the Kindle Store.

That’s a problem that has been needing attention for a number of reasons for quite some time now.  While it is a problem that these apps can’t access user content, it is hardly fair to let that color a review of an unrelated service beyond the obvious noting of such a problem.  If you need to have access to saved content in places beyond your mobile device or eReader, it might be best to avoid getting too excited about this one.

This will be of the most interest to people who truly despise ads in the web reading.  It allows you to conveniently read anything you want on your Kindle ad-free without recourse to tedious copy/paste options.  There are still some problems, especially in badly coded or complexly formatted sites, where you can end up with jumbles of code.  It isn’t a perfect application and you’re certainly not going to be able to consider it completely finished just yet.  As it stands, however, this is a valuable tool and adds a great new feature to the “Send to Kindle” application toolset.

Kindle Fire HD Teardown Shows Small Profits Compared to Competition

When the original Kindle Fire was introduced, it was a huge shock to see such a powerful device offered for so little money.  It was literally the device that changed the Android tablet market.  A year later it’s no shock to see brand new 7” devices going for around $199.  Are we still getting the same sort of value for that hardware price, though?  An IHS iSuppli teardown team has looked into the components in details to give us an idea about exactly that.

What they have managed to determine is that while Amazon may not be subsidizing the Kindle Fire HD as they are suspected to have done with the first run of the Kindle Fire, it is still not a big money maker at the time of initial sales.  This fits with a previous assertion by Jeff Bezos that the tablet is sold at cost.

Exploded Kindle Fire HD – Image Credit to AllThingsD

Because they were planning to make any real profits off of digital content sales down the line, the Kindle Fire didn’t need to make money right away.  The first teardowns estimated that it cost anywhere from $187-202 in materials alone per device.  Factoring in the development costs and other miscellaneous expenses means that there was little chance of breaking even on a $199 sale.

This newest teardown indicates that the Kindle Fire HD is composed of about $165 worth of material.  The major components come from LG Display, Texas Instruments, and Samsung.  Basically we’re looking at a more advanced device built by a more established name in tablets for less money.

That might explain why the ability to remove the Special Offers on these devices was added so quickly after protests and made so cheap.  If it’s not losing money then there is no good reason to force the ad subsidy.

While it does appear that Amazon might be making at least small profits on the Kindle Fire HD now, they’re not exactly trying to turn it into a major revenue stream.  Consider the competition.  Similar teardowns of the Google Nexus 7 and iPad Mini show material costs of $152 and $188 respectively.  If we’re ignoring after-purchase digital sales entirely, Amazon and Google are making less than $50 per tablet they sell compared to Apple’s $140 with Amazon bringing in the least of the three.

All told, it’s safe to claim that Amazon is still offering great value for the money on the Kindle Fire HD.  You can’t necessarily equate the cost of components to the quality of the hardware, but it’s not a completely worthless indication either.  Amazon’s ability to sell their hardware at cost will continue to make it more difficult for newcomers without their own ecosystems to break into the affordable tablet market, but for the moment it is good for the customer.  The industry is hardly likely to stagnate with Apple, Amazon, and Google all fighting to get the lion’s share of small tablet sales.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD Ad Highlights iPad Mini Deficiencies

Amazon recently chose to run an ad comparing the Kindle Fire HD to its iPad Mini competition.  Specifically, this ad called out the inferior display that Apple has decided to include in its new $329 tablet.  We can’t necessarily expect even-handedness in advertising comparisons, especially in situations like this where the new device is clearly meant to come across as a high-end alternative to an established product.  Even so, it’s startling that Amazon thought they could get away with telling blatant lies about the iPad Mini to improve their business!

The ad in question can be seen on the right.  It has since been pulled from Amazon.com in response to the outpouring of hate over internet injustice.  The points are fairly easy to follow.  The Kindle has a better display, better sound, and better wireless connectivity.  Problems have been found with all of these assertions.

First, there is the issue of the screen.  It’s true that the Kindle has more pixel density than the iPad Mini.  Nobody is disputing that.  It’s also true that it runs at a higher resolution.  Amazon’s claim that the iPad lacks HD movies and TV or that there solution is too low for HD are obviously half-truths, though!

Ok, that complaint is almost half-true at best.  It has been coming up a lot, though.  The iPad Mini will have access to HD content.  It will be able to play that content.  It will NOT be able to display that HD content in a way that properly highlights its quality.  The minimum accepted standard for something to be referred to as “HD” is 720p.  The Mini’s 1024 x 768 resolution meets the 720 vertical requirement, but the 16:9 aspect ratio for HD playback quality is impossible without at least a 1280 x 720 resolution.  In other words, there will be HD content but the only way to view it in HD will be to output to an external display using adapters and devices sold separately.

Lacking that support, many complaints fall back on the sound comparison.  This is troubling for Amazon since Apple has clarified recently that their new tablet has stereo sound.  Before this clarification, which came well after the ad we’re looking at was released, Apple was still listing the iPad Mini as having a “Built in Speaker”.  When that’s the description in the product specs, it’s hard to complain about people believing it.  It’s hardly something Amazon needs to be making things up to support, either.  The Kindle Fire HD has been reviewed across the board as having the best sound playback out of any tablet on the market today including the full size iPad.

All that leaves us with is the WiFi.  Is Amazon overstating the importance of MIMO?  For some customers whose use will regularly involve strong signals and fast transfer rates, maybe.  It’s hard to see that as being the major deciding factor for anybody, though, and it is still something that the Mini lacks.

Did Amazon choose their comparison points selectively to highlight the Kindle Fire HD?  Of course.  It isn’t particularly hard to find points of comparison that could pull that off, though.  The amount of response this ad has received is ridiculous.

First Japanese-Language Kindles Coming Next Month

The move away from physical keyboards gave Amazon an easy route into any number of non-Anglophone markets for the first time.  They’ve made good use of that since the Kindle Touch was first released.  In addition to being able to find a Kindle practically anywhere in the world, localized versions of the popular eReader can now be found for a number of language options.  Now, for the first time, Amazon is pushing their efforts into Asia with the first ever Japanese Kindle.

Amazon.co.jp will now have its own Kindle Store and will be offering the Kindle Paperwhite for sale.  Preordering is now open for both the WiFi and 3G versions of the device.  The prices are currently ¥8,480 and ¥12,980 respectively.  They will begin shipping on November 19th.

Japan has proven a hard market for Amazon to move the Kindle into so far.  Their site has been operating successfully there for twelve years now, but it has been reported that they had trouble getting Japanese publishers interested in doing business with them after all of the conflict between Amazon and the Big 6 publishing houses in US markets.  It seems that terms have now been reached that are considered satisfactory.  The press release for this announcement indicates that over 50,000 Japanese-language titles will be available at launch and that these will include the largest selection of Oricon best sellers anywhere.

Naturally all of these titles will be accessible through Amazon’s various distribution channels.  Kindle Paperwhite owners will be able to make use of the new store, but so will Kindle Fire owners, Kindle app users, and anybody with a web browser.

Introducing the Kindle line to Japan is a particularly important move for Amazon if they want to keep expanding the customer base.  While geographically small, Japan is home to one of the most literate cultures in the world.  It also enjoys the widest newspaper circulation anywhere and may prove a useful place to renew interest in digitally distributed newspapers and magazines.

There is also a large market for graphic literature to be exploited.  This launch will include over 15,000 manga selections.  Kindle Format 8’s Panel View will come in handy for this and the high contrast Kindle Paperwhite display could prove an ideal medium for these books.

The Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD are also now available in Japan and should be shipping on December 19th, one month after the Paperwhite goes out.  While this caters to a different market, having options is never a bad idea.  The Kindle Fire HD might not be quite as good for reading as its single-purpose eReader counterpart, but it does provide a greater versatility and convenience for the money.