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Kindle Touch: A closer look at new features

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Jeff Bezos Sales
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

At a press event this morning, in which Amazon announced its game-changing new products, there were a whole lot of tech writers and a handful of books people in attendance. You could tell who was who pretty easily: The techies’ fingers were atwitter, either Tweeting or frantically live-blogging Jeff Bezos’ every word, whereas a number of the books people carried pads (not of the “i” variety) and pens. To the techies, the most interesting person in the room was obviously Bezos; to a lot of the books people, the man of the hour was Larry Kirshbaum, the popular New York publishing veteran who’s now heading up the Amazon Publishing unit.

Kirshbaum probably personifies the meeting of traditional and digital publishing better than anyone else, having headed up Time Warner Books before wrangling authors to write Amazon originals. Before Bezos took the stage, Kirshbaum chatted up the print folks, including The New Yorker‘s Ken Auletta and a couple of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt editors who were visiting from Boston. Traditional publishers generally have mixed to negative opinions of Amazon — I’d imagine Kirshbaum has some complicated feelings himself — but Bezos started off the proceedings with a somewhat conciliatory message to put the old school publishers at ease: Amazon still sells plenty of physical books. In the slide above, you see that sales of physical books are increasing; Kindle book sales are increasing, too, just exponentially.

Bezos launched into a lengthy speech on the current Kindle’s incredible success before he made the first big announcement of the day: the Kindle Touch. “One of the great things about building a purpose-built device for reading is that we get to really obsess over the nuance and details that are important to readers,” said Bezos. Identifying that long-form readers love to switch hands and want the option to read with one hand, the Kindle Touch makes it easier to hold the device in one hand while turning pages with the same hand. A new feature, EasyReach, makes the tap-zone, well, easy to reach with either hand. The tap-zone will be narrow — the width of a person’s thumb — and situated on the left side of the screen.

Another big feature: X-Ray — and this one’s really cool. Using his favorite book Remains of the Day as an example, Bezos demonstrated the handy new reference tool. With just one tap, X-Ray lets you look at the “bones” of a book, so to speak. X-Ray scans pages of a book for fictional characters, historical figures, and notable places and facts and can pull up more information about each one on command from Shelfari, an Amazon database. (Bezos showed us a detailed character profile of Mrs. Kenton from Remains). The Shelfari information pops up quickly because it doesn’t have to come via Web — books come preloaded with the facts.

I tried the new Kindle Touch in a demo, and I can tell you, it really is easier than using the old model Kindles. It’s hard to go back to my regular Kindle 3G and its clunky page-turn buttons. Bezos wasn’t kidding when he said Amazon designed the device expressly for a reader. It felt instantly intuitive to use, and I’m not even someone who’s great with gadgets. I definitely think EasyReach will make it more comfortable to read in bed, which is important to me, but it’s not a huge departure from the first generation Kindle, as it still has e-ink and a non-glare screen. As you’d expect, the new tablet Kindle Fire also has reader capabilities, although it doesn’t have the e-Ink or anti-glare screen that makes the Kindle e-reader special. However, it does allow you to listen to music while you read.

Bezos made sure to mention that there’s a new, smaller Kindle ($79) that doesn’t have touch functions. Apparently, there are readers out there who don’t want touch capabilities for any number of reasons, including sunscreen-covered fingers at the beach or not wanting to smudge the screen.

Even though I want a Kindle Touch — and at $99, it’s super-affordable — I’m always going to want real books, too. There’s room in the world for both — I mean, look at Larry Kirshbaum!

Are you excited for the Kindle Touch?

Follow Stephan on Twitter.

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