The newest of the new Kindle devices have begun to show up on doorsteps all over the US this week.  As a result, we can finally get some direct information about the improvements made by the new hardware.  Today we can take a look at a hands-on review of the new Kindle Touch eReader, the latest in Amazon’s popular line.

Overall, aside from being somewhat smaller, this is the same sort of Kindle that users will be used to.  The display is exactly the same as both the Kindle 3 (Kindle Keyboard) and the Kindle 4 non-touch model.  As a whole it measures only slightly larger than the cheaper Kindle 4 and users will note little difference in perceptible weight between any of these devices.  The battery life remains impressive at approximately 2 months between charges, assuming 30 minutes per day of reading on average.  This is twice the battery life of the other Kindle 4 model.  Also distinguishing it from the earlier releases, the Kindle Touch completely lacks physical buttons aside from ‘Power’ and ‘Home’.

These more superficial differences have been known for some time now, however.  The interesting details come from the actual use.  The biggest change in how you use your Kindle Touch will obviously be the interface.  Moving to the touchscreen has produced a slightly different experience.  A tap on either side of the display will turn a page in the associated direction, as will a swipe either left or right.  A swipe toward either the top or bottom of the screen will result in moving to the next or previous chapters respectively.  While some users will find this occasionally difficult to use, particularly in the case of the left-handed who will be forced to swipe for page turns when reading one-handed, for the most part it comes naturally after a few moments of use.  Speed of navigation has been increased at least in part by only doing a full screen refresh every 6 page turns.  If the ghosting becomes a problem, and from time to time it might, this can be turned off.

Interacting with the text is much easier now, as a result of the touchscreen.  To look up a word in the dictionary, just touch and hold it.  To highlight, all you need to do is tap, drag, and tap again to confirm the selection.  Searching and annotating have changed little besides the change to a virtual keyboard.  Since there is a very slight delay in on-screen response to input (barely longer than the similar delay when using the physical keyboard on older Kindles) it can be slightly strange at first, but that fades quickly with continued use.

The localization features that seemed likely given Amazon’s recent push into international markets are indeed present.  Non-latin languages such as Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and more are all to be found on the device.  There will no longer be any need to hack in additional fonts.  Even if your language of preference is not present in the default setup, the new Kindle Format 8 eBook format should allow for the inclusion of fonts with books.  I would expect this to be widely implemented in the near future.  Included with the device are 3 typefaces (regular, condensed, sans-serif), 8 sizes configurable by two-fingered zooming, 3 spacing options, and 3 options for “words per line”.  That last seems unnecessary, but I’m sure it comes in handy for somebody?

The Kindle Touch features Amazon’s most recent Kindle software, unsurprisingly.  Kindle 5.0.0 compared to the non-touch version’s 4.0.1.  Obviously this newer software exists in part to accommodate the completely altered physical interface, but a few new features are present as well.

PDF functionality is greatly improved.  The new software allows for both better navigation through the inclusion of working Table of Contents options as well as Text-to-Speech.  This latter is at best situationaly useful given the peculiarities of the format and how it handles text, but it is a step in the right direction and works more often than not.  Oddly enough the ability to switch over to landscape mode while reading a PDF has been eliminated, though.  This is at best strange and will, we have to hope, be fixed in a future update as it makes browsing many documents quite difficult without extensive zooming and scrolling.  While these are easier with the touchscreen, it gets tedious.

The biggest advertised feature, Kindle Touch X-Ray, does not disappoint.  While it is only working on a limited selection of books at the moment, Amazon has indicated that the numbers will improve in the near future.  It seems to draw on Amazon’s Shelfari site for book data, providing character lists based on proper noun occurrences, character bios that include detailed plot information (with spoilers hidden by default), and a fairly good plot summary.  It isn’t perfect, sometimes picking up on pieces of introductions or afterwords, but people who were worried that it was going to be nothing but a glorified search function will be pleasantly surprised.

In summary, anybody who is interested in a Kindle Touch will find it to be basically a slightly polished new Kindle with a better interface method.  It is far more easy to use than the non-touch Kindle 4, even in terms of basic things like chapter navigation thanks to the placement of the less expensive device’s directional control.  The 3G model will be worth it for some, if travel purchasing or lack of local WiFi signal is a concern, but unlike the previous Kindles this will not allow users to browse anything besides the Kindle Store and Wikipedia so some of the value is removed. The improved PDF support is nice, as is the X-Ray functionality, but in general the big draw is the touchscreen.  Being able to select, highlight, look up, zoom, etc. without menu navigation or the use of a 5-way controller is very nice.  Losing the keyboard to make the new Kindle even lighter and easier to hold is even nicer.

Let’s face it, there was nothing wrong with any of the other Kindle products when it came to the reading experience.  That said, the Kindle Touch stepped things up and made a good thing even better.

For a more extensive and detailed review, check out Andrei’s over at BlogKindle