Amazon Launches Kindle 2

2/9/09Follow @wroush

At a press conference this morning in New York City, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos officially unveiled the Kindle 2, the second version of the Seattle-based e-retailer’s popular e-book reading device. Like its predecessor, the Kindle 2 features an electronic-paper screen devised by Cambridge, MA-based E Ink. But Bezos detailed a number of new features, including text-to-speech capability, potentially making every e-book into an audio book as well.

The new device has 2 gigabytes of internal memory, seven times more storage than the original Kindle, or enough for about 1,500 books, according to Bezos’s presentation. It is also thinner and lighter than the original. It weighs 10 ounces and, at 0.36 inches in thickness, is slimmer than the Apple iPhone (0.48 inches).

The Kindle 2 will have the same price as the original, $359. It’s available for pre-order now and will ship starting February 24, according to Amazon’s product page for the gadget.

Amazon Kindle 2Amazon says the Kindle 2′s 600 x 800-pixel e-paper display can show 16 shades of gray, compared to the previous screen’s four shades, and has been improved to re-draw the screen 20 percent faster. The need for E Ink’s displays to erase themselves before redrawing, resulting in a momentary blinking effect, had been one of the annoyances listed by early Kindle buyers.

The design for the new Kindle also appears to address another commonly voiced complaint, the placement of the next-page or previous-page buttons, which made it too easy to flip pages unintentionally. In the new version, those keys are smaller, and don’t occupy the entire left and right sides of the device, as before.

To help promote the new Kindle, Amazon persuaded celebrated horror novelist Stephen King to write a story involving the Kindle that will be available, for a time, exclusively on the Kindle platform. King was on hand for the New York press conference, and read part of the story on stage. This isn’t, however, the first time King has written a work exclusively for electronic platforms—his 2000 short story “Riding the Bullet” was also published as an e-book.

Amazon Kindle 2The Kindle 2′s text-to-speech capability—one of the features I urged Amazon to consider in an essay last fall—is still “experimental,” according to Amazon’s press release. The feature lets users listen to a synthesized male or female voice, and to switch between reading or listening modes. Pages turn automatically in sync with the synthesized voice. Anything that can be displayed on the Kindle, including newspapers and blogs, can be converted to speech, the company says.

For Kindle 2, Amazon has kept the feature that attracted some of the biggest raves for the first Kindle—its ability to quickly download books over a wireless network called “Whispernet.” But the company has added a new “Whispersync” feature that can sync content and bookmarks across multiple Kindles and “with a range of mobile devices in the future,” according to the press release. (Amazon said last week that it plans to make Kindle-formatted e-books available for reading on mobile phones.)

Bezos also said the new device’s battery lasts 25 percent longer than its predecessors, and lasts as long as two weeks between charges.

Both Engadget and CrunchGear offered informative live-blog renditions of this morning’s press conference.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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