Today at an event in New York City, Amazon announced its new family of Kindles, and it's probably the biggest, or at least most visible, update in the line's history. The three new "traditional" Kindles continue Amazon's trend of "cheaper and smaller," including two touch-based Kindles (one Wi-Fi-only and one 3G-enabled) and one ridiculously cheap non-touch version. But the big news: Amazon's first tablet, a 7-inch model called the Kindle Fire that's priced low enough in the tablet marketplace to ride alongside the iTunes cards and chewy in the impulse buys section.
First, the three Kindles: The Kindle Touch and Touch 3G all maintain the Kindle's 6-inch E-Ink Pearl screen. The touch system is set up in a slightly different way than other touch-based ebook readers like those from Sony; it's divided up so that most of the screen is dedicated to the "next page" function. You tap a narrow section of the left-hand side of the screen to go to the previous page, and a narrow section along the top of the screen for the menu. Amazon promises that the method they've used to enable touch, using infrared sensors, won't give the screen an uncomfortable reflectivity like some other touch-based readers.
There will also be a crazy-cheap non-touch Kindle, equipped instead with a five-way directional pad and the usual forward/backward buttons. This is actually not a bad idea for those who don't want to muck up a screen with fingerprints, or who don't feel the need for every gadget ever to be touchscreened.
The interface of the new Kindles is different than the older models; they rely more on book cover images than text lists, for touchability's sake. In our time with them, they seemed just as easy to use as the older Kindles.
But the big news is the Kindle Fire, a 7-inch tablet similar to Barnes & Noble's very successful Nook Color. It runs Android 2.3 (not 2.1, as suggested by earlier rumours), though you don't really get a sense of Android anywhere on the device. To say the interface has been "overhauled" isn't quite right; it's been replaced wholesale with something that caters to Amazon's various services, like the MP3 Store, Instant Video, and, of course, Kindle Store. It looks like it'll run Android apps from Amazon's Android Store, but the web browser is actually one of the more interesting parts of the whole device.
The browser is brand-new, made by Amazon from the ground up, and will be called Amazon Silk. It works sort of like Opera Mobile, in that it does a lot of the heavy lifting in Amazon's own massive servers rather than on the device itself. For example: It'll sense your reading habits, and predict which web page you're likely to click next, and load that page before you even try to click it. So page two of that great PopSci piece you're reading? Already loaded. That's awesome. Desktop browsers like Chrome already utilise this feature for faster performance, but on a mobile tablet, it's critical.
The rest of the OS looks sort of like a bookshelf, with your recently-clicked apps, magazines, books, videos, or whatever else in a sleek carousel that you swipe through. Above that are the basic categories: Newsstand (for magazines), Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, and Web (the aforementioned Amazon Silk browser). It is lightning fast to use, and the browser is definitely quick, though we'll have to do more testing with a slower connection to really see how well Amazon's offloading works. But it's important to remember that this is not regular Android: there's no drop-down notifications shade, no home/menu/search/back buttons, and no home screens.
The Fire itself has a 7-inch IPS display, like the iPad, but really more like the BlackBerry PlayBook, which shares an original manufacturer and looks very much the same. It's not showy; matte black border, matte grey back, no visible buttons. It's got 512MB of memory and a dual-core processor (which makes it very snappy to use), but it's also got some limitations. No cameras, no 3G, no microphones.