Editor's note, August 2010: Also read our review of the Kindle 3 6" ebook reader that uses Pearl E-Ink like the DX Graphite.
Reviewed July 9, 2010 by Lisa Gade, Editor
This year, the E Ink market has focused on price reductions rather than improving technologies and features. Given the current economy, that's not a bad tactic: a decently featured ebook reader that sells for $149 to $189 competes well on price with the $500 to $829 iPad. The Kindle DX, previously priced at $489 and sporting a casing about the size of the iPad took the biggest hit. Yes, there are those who appreciate E Ink's superior features for long form reading, but the casual reading market and (in the future) text book market find much appeal in Apple's latest product. Amazon is an aggressive company, and in a few short months since the iPad's release, they've managed to breathe new life into the 9.7" DX, now reborn as the Kindle DX Graphite.
First off? Lop off nearly 25% of the price and sell it for $379. Second? Incorporate the new E Ink Pearl display that boosts contrast by 50%. The new display is noticeably more contrasty and this gives text a sense of increased crispness. Books are certainly more readable, especially in low light settings where I had to increase font size or work harder to read (yes, I'm too lazy to break out the book light). It's a solid and very welcome evolution of the Vizplex E Ink display; the first we've seen in several years. Sure, manufacturers have added touch layers or active (pen-based) digitizers on top of the E Ink display, but E Ink itself hasn't changed much since the second US mainstream ereader, the Sony Reader PRS-505, hit the market back in 2007. In fact, it's sad that the PRS-505 is still used today as the gold standard among E Ink displays. Generally the world of tech progresses at an absurd pace, and 3 years is a long time to wait for an improvement. What's next? Probably color E Ink, though those may not surface until late 2011 or 2012.
For those of you who are new to E Ink readers like the Kindle 2, Barnes & Noble nook and Alex readers, they were the hot product of 2009 and continue to sell well in 2010. These readers have reflective displays that use microscopic ink capsules to display text and images. Most E Ink displays are made by Vizplex, and no E Ink reader has backlighting (Sony experimented with sidelights in the PRS-700). This means you must read in adequate lighting or use an LED book light, just as you would with a printed book. Why not just use an LCD? LCD displays use much more power and their backlighting and refresh are tiring on the eyes. If you stare at a computer screen all day, you know what I'm talking about. While readers like the Kindle can last 10 days to 2 weeks on a charge (if you turn wireless off when not needed), your notebook computer and iPad last anywhere from 2 to 10 hours.
Stereo speakers and a micro USB port on the bottom edge.
The Kindle DX Graphite is Amazon's second generation super-sized 9.7" ereader. The "standard" size Kindle 2 has a 6" display, as do most popular readers currently on the market (these 6" readers don't have the new Pearl enhanced contrast display). That much larger screen allows for way fewer page turns and PDFs that are readable without zoom. The drawback? The DX certainly won't fit in the average purse nor any pocket known to man, and it's heavier. At 18.9 ounces, you'll want to prop it on your leg or against a table for hours of reading. Though it's only 5 ounces lighter than the iPad, it feels significantly lighter, and the Kindle is thinner at 0.38". The two devices' height and width are similar, with the Kindle being a bit taller but narrower.
Deeper blacks: notice how black the "Slide to unlock..." strip is at the bottom of the display and how inky Woolf's hair looks.
All Kindles have free 3G wireless (but not WiFi) that you can use to shop for and download books and periodicals from Amazon's very large (620,000 books and periodicals) ebook store. Here in the US, service is provided by AT&T and you can use wireless when traveling abroad to buy and download books at no additional charge. When roaming, you will have to pay $4.99/week to receive autodelivery of periodicals and we assume the web browser is off limits. You can also use the USB cable and your computer to transfer books, PDFs and digital periodicals to the Kindle. As with other Kindle models, the DXG supports Amazon's own AWZ format, MOBI files without DRM, text and PRC files without DRM. Amazon's conversion service handles formats like HTML and DOC, but we suggest you download Calibre to do it yourself. Calibre is a wonderful application that can convert between many formats (as long as they're not protected with DRM) and it can download periodicals and transfer them to the Kindle.
A New York Times article with illustration on the Kindle DX Graphite.
Sadly, Amazon still doesn't support the Adobe ePub format used by public libraries and many other sites that sell ebooks. If you want to download library books, the Kindle line isn't for you (unless you're practiced at and willing to strip DRM and convert the files to a Kindle compatible format). And your book shopping will focus on Amazon's own offerings; though as a consolation their selection and prices are the best. Amazon's refusal to support the ePub standard really reduces my desire to own a Kindle since I like to check out library ebooks and I don't want to rely on a single bookstore.
The Graphite's physical design and features are unchanged from the DX white other than the casing color change and the new Pearl display. The KDXG is faster than our old DX and we suspect there's a faster CPU inside. Ours shipped with firmware 2.5.5, which looks identical to the 2.5.4 firmware available for old DX. For a complete description of all Kindle DX features, please read our review of the original Kindle DX. We'll give you the short version here:
- the reader has page turn buttons on the right side
- it has 8 font sizes (but a single font) for books but not PDFs
- you can adjust margin size for books but not PDFs (3 sizes, listed as words per line feature)
- you can't change the line height
- automatically turns off after 20 minutes of inactivity and shows a rotating set of screeensavers (the wireless radio will still be on so the Kindle will continue to receive auto-deliveries)
has an accelerometer so you can use it in any of 4 orientations (you can turn off this feature if it bugs you)
has text-to-speech so Kindle can read a book to you unless the book's publisher has forbade it (your choice of a robotic male or female voice)
- can play Audible books and MP3s through the built-in stereo speakers or through headphones with a standard 3.5mm stereo jack
- has PDF zooming but there's no way to change just the font size
- battery life is up to 2 weeks with wireless off, and up to 1 week with wireless on
- has a thumb-typeable QWERTY keyboard that you can use to enter URLs and make annotations in books
- the Kindle family of readers DO NOT have touch screens
- comes with a web browser that loads pages at a decent speed in basic (WAP style) mode and slowly in desktop mode
- has a dictionary, and you can also search Google and the Wikipedia from within a book
Here's our 11 minute video review where we cover device speed, page turn speed in Amazon books and PDFs, PDF zooming, the web browser and show how photos look on the new display.
A Closer Look at the Pearl E Ink Display
The Graphite's display has significantly deeper blacks with a slightly whiter background. It runs at the same 150 ppi, 1200 x 824 resolution with 16 shades of gray as the last generation DX, so it's not sharper (nor does Amazon claim it is). E Ink displays are already quite sharp and run at twice the ppi (or dpi) as a standard computer monitor or notebook LCDs. There are a few higher ppi displays out there, and these in include the iPhone 4 with its Retina Display and tiny notebooks like the Sony Vaio P that run at extremely high resolutions on a small display. While those 16 shades of gray seemed indistinct on non-Pearl displays, they are more apparent on the Graphite and result in photographic images that seem more natural and clear.
Each brand of ereader uses its own font(s), and subjective clarity and readability are influenced by the font, margins and line height. Keep that in mind when looking at our comparison photos below. It's also hard to capture the look of an E Ink display in photos, and all the readers look better in person than they do in photos.
Here we compare the Barnes & Noble nook with the Amazon Kindle DX Graphite. The nook is using its boldest font, the semi-slab Amasis font. Despite that, the KDXG's text is darker and seems almost more bolded though the font weight isn't that heavy.
On our 100% crop below, we had both readers under the same lighting side-by-side and cropped out the middle sections to remove the influence of the different bezel colors. The noise that you see is an artifact of JPEG compression. The nook is on the left.
Below we have a 100% crop of the IREX DR800SG reader that has an 8" display and a Wacom digitizer (that works only with a pen). The DR800SG was a competitor to the DX for those who wanted a larger display but didn't want a device as large as the DX. The IREX is on the left in both images. The DR800SG does show more noise around the characters when viewed with a macro lens but you can't see it easily with the naked eye.
Below we have the iPad the the Kindle DX Graphite in a sunny room and the iPad is set to auto-brightness. The iPad is running the Kindle application, and it's surprising that the page background doesn't look whiter than the Graphite.
Above: the iPad and Kindle, showing the difference in thickness.
Speed and PDF Support
The Graphite is a speedy page turner by E Ink standards. That quick flash to black during page turns is inherent to the technology, but it's quick enough that the eye becomes accustomed to it (though the video camera really captures it, as you'll note in our video review). The Kindle handles partial refreshes very well, in fact it's the best we've seen: it's very fast and leaves no artifacts (pixels that haven't been re-drawn, to use an LCD term). Even PDF page turns are fast, and the experience is much improved from the original DX with early firmware versions.
Though Amazon envisioned that the DX would flourish in academic and professional settings given the large display and readable PDFs, their software seriously lags behind IREX and Sony. You can zoom (the same zoom used in graphics apps) in PDFs but you can't change the font size so there's no PDF re-flow. Sony and IREX allow you to change the font, though this will mess up the layout (particularly graphics). There is still no TOC (table of contents) support, and that's maddening for text books and technical manuals (no easy way to jump to chapter 12). Amazon does provide a go to page feature and you can jump to the first page of a PDF. Since the display is so large and fonts are thus readable, we can do without the font size changing feature, but the lack of TOC really hurts. To see PDFs in action, complete with zooming and rotation, watch our video review.
If you're looking for a larger screen E Ink Reader, the Kindle DX Graphite is the only affordable choice in the US (IREX has declared bankruptcy and we don't yet know their fate). Thankfully, the Graphite is an excellent ebook reader not just thanks to the increased contrast but because it's fast, has a large enough display to do justice to PDFs, has Amazon's mammoth ebookstore behind it and has the goodness of 3G for book and periodical delivery and basic web browsing. Kindle ebook readers are perfect for technophobes since they're so easy to use. The Kindle arrives already linked to your Amazon account, and a child could easily use the Kindle itself to buy books and periodicals (hint, keep an eye on your children). It's also extremely easy to use a computer and Amazon's website to buy ebooks since Amazon automatically delivers them to your Kindle. We all know that Amazon is brilliant when it comes to making shopping easy and fun. In addition, their prices are often the best and they have more current commercial titles (non-public domain) than any other ebook seller. Amazon's customer service for the Kindle is tops too.
If you already own a Kindle DX, the improved contrast is indeed tempting, but we recommend the upgrade only if you can afford it and find the DX lacking in terms of readability. Reading is certainly easier, especially when lighting is less than ideal, but the Pearl display isn't an earth shattering leap in technology.
We're torn on PDFs: you can't beat that 9.7" screen for reading them, but the lack of TOC support is just absurd. And how about using the dictionary inside PDFs? Nope. Still, we find it easier to read PDFs on the Kindle DX Graphite compared to the Sony Reader Daily Edition, since the Sony's 7" display is still a bit too small to easily read PDFs without resorting to font size changes or zoom (and zoom makes reading tedious). Our strongest complaint with the Graphite isn't specific to this model, but rather all Kindles: there's no ePub support. For you honest or not technically inclined Joes and Janes who don't strip copy protection, this limits you to Amazon's bookstore and sites that offer free public domain books in Kindle-friendly format. No Google books for you. Amazon clearly doesn't want you hitting the library or shopping at competitors' ebookstores. That means you're locked into the Amazon ecosystem and won't be able to switch to a Sony, Borders, B&N or any other brand reader unless you want to leave your Amazon library behind. You can continue to read your Amazon books on an iPhone, iPad or computer as a consolation, and if you're adept at breaking DRM, you won't care at all about the Graphite's format and DRM restrictions.
Display: 9.7" diagonal E Ink electronic paper display, 1200 x 824 pixel resolution at 150 ppi, 16-level gray scale. 10:1 contrast ratio. Has accelerometer for automatic screen rotation (also supports manual rotation).
Size (in inches): 10.4" x 7.2" x 0.38".
Weight: 18.9 ounces.
System requirements: An Amazon.com account and a computer to transfer content (only if you wish to transfer your own personal documents, audio files or Audible books).
Storage: 4GB internal (approximately 3.3GB available for user content, enough space for 3,500 books).
Battery Life: Read on a single charge for up to 1 week with wireless on. Turn wireless off and read for up to two weeks. Battery life will vary based on wireless usage, such as shopping the Kindle Store and downloading content. In poor coverage areas, wireless usage will consume battery power more quickly. Battery is not user replaceable. Charge time from empty: approximately 4.5 hours. You can read while it's charging. Supports USB charging.
Connectivity: GSM quad band EDGE and 3G (service provided by AT&T in the US, but there's no charge to download books and periodicals from Amazon's store and there's no charge for using the web browser). You can use the data service when abroad and download books for free from Amazon's store, but you'll have to pay $4.99/week to receive periodicals when roaming abroad).
USB Port: USB 2.0 (micro-B connector) for connection to the Kindle power adapter or optionally to connect to a PC or Macintosh computer.
Audio: 3.5mm stereo audio jack and stereo speakers.