If you had told us at roughly this time last year that the e-reader race would be heating up going into the 2012 holiday season, we would have disagreed. If anything, 2011 seemed like the beginning of the end. Spurred on by the tablet explosion, companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and even Kobo were looking toward that space for inspiration, introducing flagship devices on which reading was just one of many features. Heck, even the readers themselves started to look more tablet-like, with many abandoning of physical keyboards in favor of infrared touchscreens.
But here we are at the end of September, and this product category has never been more exciting. Back in May, Barnes & Noble captured our hearts and midnight reading marathons with the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, a wordy name for a great little device that made reading in bed at night a little easier. (A problem, according to Barnes & Noble, that was tearing the country's families apart.) But don't let it be said that Amazon doesn't believe in the American family. Earlier this month, the company launched the Kindle Paperwhite, the latest addition to a product lineup that has more or less become synonymous with the term "e-reader."
At that launch event, CEO Jeff Bezos described the four years of R&D that went into the front light technology powering that bright screen. It was clear from our hands-on time with the device that, although Amazon is placing extra emphasis on the Fire line these days, it still has a lot invested in the e-reader fight. The sharpened, illuminated text is impressive, and Amazon has gone so far as to describe this as the Kindle it's always wanted to build. That's all well and good, but how does it compare to similar offerings on the market? Is this worth the $119 asking price (with ads)? Let's find out.
Amazon Kindle Paperwhite reviewSee all photos
Even when it was first released in 2007, the first-generation Kindle was a bit dated -- a big, bulky thing cluttered with keys and buttons. By the time the sleek third-gen model came out, it was clear that industrial design had moved up on Amazon's list of priorities. With last year's Kindle Touch, Amazon ditched the QWERTY keyboard, and now it's taking things a step further with the Paperwhite. There's a stark minimalism on display here: two buttons were clearly one too many, and as such, the company lopped off the menu button on the lower bezel, and replaced it with a lowercase Kindle logo. Only a single button remains: a small, lonely power button nestled on the bottom of the device.
We've bemoaned Amazon's aversion to physical buttons in the past, particularly in the case of the physical page turn buttons that used to sit on either side of Kindle e-readers. After all, touch is fine for most things, but an E Ink reader can freeze up, leaving the screen unresponsive to touch input. And then there's the fact that single-handed reading is a risky proposition, as anyone who gets to work on the subway will happily tell you.
You'll also notice that Amazon ditched the last-gen model's silver coloring in favor of an all-black design (much like the rest of the industry, we might add). The bezels on the front are made of the same hard plastic as the previous model, with a soft-touch material wrapping around the back. The material's becoming a bit of an industry standard on these devices, and we can see why: it feels nice beneath the fingers and offers some friction to help ensure you won't accidentally lose your grip during a particularly saucy "Fifty Shades of Grey" passage (not that we'd know). About a third of the way down the rear side you'll find another, larger Kindle logo. At the bottom are all the requisite FCC stats. For obvious reasons, Amazon has ditched the metal tabs used for connecting those optional reading light cases.
There are also no speaker grilles here, and the headphone jack has disappeared altogether, taking the dream of multimedia playback with it. On that bottom lip, you're only going to find the micro-USB slot (for charging and syncing with your computer) and the power button, which you'll primarily be using for waking the reader up from sleep (the battery life is just that good). Of course, it will also come in handy on those occasions when a screen freeze necessitates a full reboot.
Paperwhite. It's a goofy name, to be sure, but it does get to the heart of why Amazon thinks this is the Kindle it's been striving to make since gen one: this device holds the promise of a crisper, easier-to-read display. The addition of front lighting is obviously a big piece of that, but there's more to it. There are also more pixels for Amazon to work with here -- 62 percent more, according to the company's numbers, and the contrast, too, has been bumped up 25 percent. Even with the built-in light turned off, it's immediately apparent with the reader and its predecessor placed side by side on similar settings. It's a key difference between this reader and Barnes & Noble's offering. The Nook Simple Touch, on the other hand, loses contrast when bumped up to the GlowLight version, offering fairly uneven text throughout.
Top to bottom: Kindle Touch, Kindle Paperwhite (light off), Kindle Paperwhite (light at top setting)
The thing is, you won't really have to worry about how the text appears with the light off. If Amazon's numbers are to be believed, you'll be spending all of your time reading with the light on, nighttime or no. The company says it paid special attention to selecting LEDs that didn't wear down the device's battery. By Amazon's own estimate, it's done a pretty solid job on that account: it rates the battery for eight weeks of reading time with the light on (at a little less than halfway, with the WiFi off, by Amazon's own caveats).
And if you had any doubts about how much confidence the company has in its estimates, note that the device's light turns on the minute you pull it out of the box and fire it up. That bodes well, we'd say. Of course, results will vary depending on what settings you've chosen. We were rocking it at full blast for a while (save for when it automatically shuts off to go to sleep, of course) with 3G turned on, and we did experience some perceptible battery drain.
What's also remarkable about the display is how evenly the light is distributed. Given the attempts we've seen at front-lit e-readers in the past, we were fairly impressed even with what Barnes & Noble was able to do with its patent pending GlowLight technology. But, place it next to the Paperwhite and the difference is night and day. A quick look at the Nook shows a much brighter top, making it immediately apparent where inside the device the light is coming from.
Just in case you're still unsure, give the Nook a tilt and you'll see it clearly coming from beneath the bezel. Amazon, on the other hand, has managed to significantly reduce the gap between the bezel and the display. If you look for it, you can see the light source, but unless you peer closely, the light appears to be coming from all sides. Look carefully and you'll also see spots at the bottom of the display -- when on a white page, with the light turned up to full blast. Under those conditions, you might notice some unevenness toward to bottom. On the whole, however, the light distribution is far, far more even than on the GlowLight.
Left to right: The Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight and the Kindle Paperwhite (each set to maximum brightness).
Also immediately apparent is the "White" part of the this whole Paperwhite proposition. While the GlowLight's display has a bluish tint, the Kindle Paperwhite deserves more of a Timex comparison. Okay, maybe that's a bit dramatic, but you get our point: the new Kindle's lighting allows for significantly whiter pages than what you'll find on the Nook and most E Ink displays, frankly.
Above, an explanation of Amazon's front light technology.
How did Amazon achieve such a feat? According to the company, the lighting technology was the result of nearly four years R&D (i.e., this isn't something the company just cooked up when it heard about Barnes & Noble's GlowLight). In explaining how the technology works, Amazon has described the setup as an optical fiber laid flat across the display, above the screen, accompanied by a nano-imprinted light guide that allows for even light distribution.
Of course, even with that hurdle overcome, the Paperwhite does still retain some of the issues we're used to encountering with E Ink displays. For one thing, we did encounter a bit of ghosting -- more so than we've experienced on the Nook, even, but not quite as much as on the most recent Sony Reader. You still get a full page refresh every six pages or so, which has been the industry standard for about a year now. Still, as you'll notice in the above video, full refreshes can be a lot more frequent in some cases.
Improving the reading experience wasn't simply a matter of tricking out the screen. The company's got plenty of new tricks on the software side, too. You're still greeted by a
advertisement "Special Offer" (that is, unless you're willing to pay $20 to make them go away). In the case of the Kindle Touch, starting things up was just a matter of hitting the Power button. With the Paperwhite, you'll have to also swipe the screen before you can gain entry. Simply clicking the button will only serve to turn the light on.
For the default home screen, Amazon's relying a lot more heavily on images, taking advantage of that increased pixel count with a row of three book covers, each of which represent your recent picks. Fresh downloads bear a "New" sash and take up a bit more screen real estate. You'll also notice a small dotted progress bar for a quick measure of how far you've read. You can access the rest of your download library by clicking just below these, and you can also mix things up and view by title, author or collections. Below this, you get a selection of "Singles," short stories that Amazon thinks you ought to buy for $2 a pop. These sit just above a small Special Offers banner ad -- always be selling, Amazon, coffee is for closers.
At the top of the home screen, you'll see a black toolbar featuring your Kindle's name ("Brian's 3rd Kindle" for me -- I'd have preferred something with more zest like BattleBook), your wireless connection (3G, suckers), battery life and the time. Below that is a row of browser-like buttons, including icons for Home, Back, Store, Search with various settings (like View Special Offers!) and adjusting the Light settings. Amazon has done a really nice job with that last one, offering up a sensitive dimmer switch with 24 notches, and a reminder to use a high setting for brightly lit rooms and a low setting for dark rooms, as unintuitive as that might sound.
Farther down are two links that let you toggle between books you've downloaded and titles stored in the cloud, a pretty great addition that makes it much easier to access anything you've purchased but haven't yet downloaded to your new reader. Here, you get a library of big book covers. Clicking on one will start the download to the device, which has 2GB of non-expandable storage.
As for the store itself, the experience hasn't changed very much. Amazon's borrowed the browser-like toolbar from the home screen, whose large icons push things down the page a bit. The store looks a bit cleaner, too, as the company removed the gray borders between sections. What really counts, however, is selection, and Amazon's certainly got one of the best libraries. Amazon has always been cagey about giving hard numbers, though. Take a look at the company's press materials and you'll find fairly meaningless stats like, "over a million titles less than $9.99."
And what of this reading experience we've heard so much about? We're glad you asked. As ever, it's all about the words: the text monopolizes a good chunk of the page. In the bottom-right corner, you'll still find the percentage of the book you've read thus far (we still prefer actual page numbers -- though you can access those in the menu). On the lower left, however, the obscure location number has been swapped out for the new "Time to Read" feature, which is exactly what it sounds like: an estimate of how many minutes it will take you to finish the book. The feature starts with an average number and then adjusts as it learns your reading habits. All told, a terrific new addition.
As mentioned above, the increase in resolution and pixels means that the company can offer up even more font sizes and styles, making the text readable even at the smallest setting. This latest Kindle features eight text sizes, seven font sizes (hellooooo, Helvetica) and three settings for both line spacings and margins. Text size can also be adjusted with a pinch gesture, though the motion is hardly fluid. Plenty of features have been carried over from the last-gen model as well, including X-Ray, which lets you find characters, places, topics, etc. spaced throughout the book by searching on a given term. Setting a bookmark is as simple as tapping the upper-right corner of the screen. To highlight, hold down and drag. From there, you can add a note, look up words in The New Oxford American Dictionary, translate through Bing translation or share passages on Facebook or Twitter.
Amazon's still referring to its built-in browser as "experimental," and it's easy to see why. Surfing the web on an e-reader is still kind of a last-ditch solution, something you might do should your computer, tablet and phone all explode simultaneously. To use the browser, you'll have to turn on the WiFi, even on 3G devices -- Amazon will pay for you to download all the books you want, but it ain't shelling out for you to surf the web. Between the display limitations and the stuttering required to scroll up and down a page, there aren't a lot of nice things to be said here -- and in that case, it's not all that different from browsers on competing devices. We will say this: the addition of the large toolbar from the home screen is a nice touch.
As per usual, the device can display PDFs and docs. Here, it takes advantage of Amazon's handy Send to Kindle feature. Just install the application on your device and you can drag and drop files, which get sent to whichever Kindle tied to your account you specify. Amazon's estimate of "a few seconds" is a bit optimistic, but it did take less than a minute before a PDF we sent ourselves popped up on our homepage. Once it arrived, we used the touchscreen to zoom in and scroll across the document -- handy features for those who need to read word documents on the go, but don't want to rely on their tiny phone screen.
Amazon's also built in some parental controls here, accessible in the Settings menu. From there, you can restrict access to the browser, Kindle Store and the Cloud, requiring all users to enter a password to utilize that functionality -- simple, but no doubt effective for parents looking to keep their kids out of monochromatic trouble.
Left to right: the Kindle Paperwhite and the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight.
So, do all of these features add up to the best e-reader out there? In a syllable: yep. Amazon was clearly focused on creating the best possible reading experience with the Paperwhite, and it's delivered. The screen adjustments are great -- everything from the evenly distributed front light to the improved contrast. Meanwhile, the new Time to Read feature, coupled with X-Ray, Whispersync and Send to Kindle, further round out the experience. And, of course, there are perennial favorites like optional 3G and Amazon's vast catalog of content.
The Kindle's still far from perfect, though. For starters, it's simply not as pleasant to hold as the Nook Simple Touches -- it ultimately sacrifices comfort for some aesthetic niceties. There's also the Kindle lineup's continued lack of expandable storage, though the on-board 2GB might well be enough for you, especially with unlimited cloud storage at the ready. And then there's the whole special offers thing. Amazon, can we stop pretending that ads are a bonus feature? It's great that you're able to shave the price down to $119 for the WiFi version and $179 for 3G, and these ads certainly aren't as intrusive as some might suggest. Still, with the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight now priced at $119 without ads, it's hard to get behind paying $20 for an ad-free experience. Those caveats aside, though, the Kindle Paperwhite has once again made Amazon's e-reader the one to beat.