A Guided Tour: Hands On With the Kindle DX

Amazon's e-reader gets bigger and better with the debut of the Kindle DX. We like its lean and elegant style, but we still found plenty of DX features to criticize.

Visual Walkthrough of the Kindle DX

The Amazon Kindle DX comes off as surprisingly lean and elegant. Dominating the front is its 9.7-inch-diagonal E-Ink display, which can show 16 shades of gray (the same as the Kindle 2). The device measures 10.4 by 7.2 by 0.38 inches and weighs just 18.9 ounces. Like the Kindle 2, the Kindle DX has a keyboard, but it's awkward to type on. In my hands-on with the device, I came to appreciate much about its design. Even so, I still see some roadblocks ahead that could impede its wide adoption. The Kindle DX's cost is high ($489, more than some full-featured laptops cost), and newspapers on the device (at least, as presented at today's unveiling) lack the visual design and appeal of physical newspapers.

For more on the Kindle DX, see: "Video of the Kindle DX in Action," "Kindle DX: First Impressions of the Large Doc Reader," "Why Kindle DX Won't Save Newspapers," and ""Amazon Launches Larger-Screen Kindle DX E-Reader."

Big Brother to Kindle 2

The Kindle DX, due out this summer at a cost of $489, is the Kindle 2 on steroids. The unit's design is clearly informed by that of the Kindle 2, sporting a white finish, a keyboard at the bottom, and navigation keys and a five-way joystick at the right. Gone are the left-hand navigation keys -- a conscious design choice, according to Amazon. When you flip the unit upside-down, the screen automatically inverts itself and the navigation buttons respond appropriately, reflecting the new orientation. (Of course, the printed wording on the buttons remains inverted. Perhaps a future Kindle will solve that issue with invisible capacitive touch buttons that appear as needed, depending on the orientation.)

Travel Companion

The size and shape of the Kindle DX matches well with the other devices you may already carry. If you tote an ultraportable or all-purpose laptop, the Kindle DX will fit easily in the same bag. The Kindle DX slid in nicely right next to my ultrasleek MSI Wind U100 netbook (pictured here beneath the Kindle DX). The Kindle DX is indeed slim, yet it felt sturdy to hold--something that surprised me, given its broader size. I thought it might feel fragile, or as if it were about to snap, an oft-cited concern as devices in general become smaller and thinner.

Minimalist Design

Like the Kindle 2, the Kindle DX has a minimalist design. On the bottom, the only port is the unit's Micro-USB 2.0 connection. The device charges via Micro-USB, but the charging cable detaches from the outlet plug so that you can plug it into your PC's USB port for data transfers as well. Direct-to-Kindle data transfers are more important with the Kindle DX, due to the PDF reader in the new device: PDFs can eat up 10MB, 20MB, or more if they're large documents packed with images. Given that Amazon now charges 15 cents per megabyte for data you e-mail to yourself over the Kindle's Whispernet service, that could add up quickly if you're an avid viewer of PDFs.

Minimal Buttons on Top, Too

At the top of the Kindle DX, you'll see a power slider switch and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Like the Kindle 2, the Kindle DX has text-to-speech reading capabilities, available for content whose producers permit the feature. Unlike the Kindle 2, which has a monaural speaker, the Kindle DX has built-in stereo speakers.

Five-Way Navigation Joystick

Amazon told me that nothing had changed about the five-way navigational joystick's design, but I could feel a distinct difference between the one on the Kindle 2 I tested and the one on the DX I handled. The Kindle DX's joystick was distinctly easier to move compared with the stiff joystick on the Kindle 2. At first I wondered whether that might be because the DX I tried was a preproduction device, but the Amazon rep I spoke with said the test unit reflected what we'd see on production units. Unlike the other navigation buttons on the Kindle DX, the five-way joystick and its associated Menu and Back buttons are similar in size to those on the Kindle 2.

Integrated PDF Reader

In the previous-generation Kindles, one glaring omission was the lack of an integrated PDF reader. Kindle DX fixes that, and does so with elegance: The roomy 9.7-inch screen means you won't have to pan and scan around a document to read it. Pictured here is an example of a research-study PDF, displayed on the Kindle DX.

Pick Your Orientation

As mentioned earlier, one of the Kindle DX's big enhancements is its ability to reorient content. The accelerometer inside can adjust to display all content horizontally or vertically, or even at a full 180-degree rotation. This ability conveniently obviates left-side navigation buttons, and is great if you're left-handed, or even if you're a righty who simply wants to shake things up and vary how you're holding the e-reader, just as when you shift a physical book from one hand to the other. You can turn the auto-rotation off--a boon that's conspicuously and annoyingly absent on the iPhone (and anyone who has tried to read their iPhone at an angle while in bed knows precisely what I'm talking about). In this example of a New York Yankees schedule, you can see the image caught in mid-redraw, from vertical to horizontal.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Here we have the final presentation of the same PDF of the Yankees game schedule. Note that the landscape image was automatically enlarged to maximize its use of the available display space.

Customize Your Line: Default

Beyond the PDF reader and auto-orientation, the ability to adjust the number of lines displayed at once is one of the few software tweaks you'll find in the Kindle DX. This capability is a pleasing addition, as it means you can adjust how the text shows on screen, independent of adjusting the text size. This image shows how the default line display appears…

Customize Your Line: Fewer

...this image shows the middle option of fewer words per line…

Customize Your Line: Fewest

...and this image shows the third option of fewest words per line.

PDF View Inverted

Here is another example of a graphics-intensive PDF, rotated 180 degrees.

PDF View, on Its Side

The same document as in the previous slide, rotated for horizontal display.

Complex Layouts Preserved

The point of Adobe's PDF is to preserve the original visual layout of a document. This PDF view shows how a document can retain its readability, even with a complex layout, on the Kindle DX.

Newspaper Presentation

Much has been made about the Kindle DX as a newspaper reader. Unfortunately, the DX screen presents content as it is on the Web, not how it is in physical newspapers. You will be able to access sections and then choose articles from a running list that displays headlines and the first few sentences of each article, as seen here in this example.

Textbooks: More Than Just Saving Trees

One of the big Kindle DX angles presented today was its viability for digital textbooks. Amazon announced a partnership with three of the top five textbook publishers (Cengage Learning, Pearson, and Wiley) for digital textbooks to be sold in the Kindle Store this summer. Buying a Kindle textbook will certainly give some relief to students' backs, and such texts may cost less, too (pricing was not announced today). But Kindle textbooks will also have other advantages, such as the ability to highlight a passage and save it or to make notations you can consult separately. The image here shows a biology textbook with a passage highlighted.

Clippings File

You can view your clippings and highlights on a page like the one above. Clippings are stored with a book title in your Amazon locker; unfortunately, you can't yet share your clippings with a study group, or create your own continuous mashup cheat-sheet of text you find valuable.

For more on the Kindle DX, see: "Video of the Kindle DX in Action," "Kindle DX: First Impressions of the Large Doc Reader," "Why Kindle DX Won't Save Newspapers, and "Amazon Launches Larger-Screen Kindle DX E-Reader."