The most striking difference you'll notice in the just leaked announced new Kindle Paperwhite isn't something on the device's screen -- it's on the backplate. AMAZON. That brand, once so subtly tied into the company's game-changing e-reader, is now big, bold and garishly displayed in gloss across the upper part of the Paperwhite's posterior. Why? Well, the answer is quite simple really: compared to the Kindle brand, Amazon's brand equity is much stronger in overseas markets. If you're a longtime Kindle user like me, you'll probably find this design tweak annoying, but that's about all it is. The rest of this new Paperwhite is a matter of finessing the tried-and-true Kindle experience, not disrupting it.
On paper, the refreshed Kindle Paperwhite arrives with a suite of improvements, none of which are revolutionary, but are designed to add value to the ecosystem. In person, the refreshed Kindle Paperwhite arrives nearly unchanged, and that's a very good thing. Apart from that bold-faced branding play, the overall hardware fit and finish has remained the same. Yes, the device is now incrementally lighter, but not enough so that Amazon felt it was worth touting in its official release. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the two apart in a side-by-side comparison. That is, until you bump up the brightness.
Amazon's worked to refine the new Paperwhite's frontlighting tech, as the O.G. model's was good, but somewhat uneven. To do this, Amazon reworked the entire lighting system, so much so that Peter Larsen, VP of Product Management, told us the company went through 20 different product iterations to get it just right. Everything from the light guide, to the lights used, the patterns, strengths and positioning have been overhauled, leading to a display that almost lives up to the company's marketing line of whiter whites and blacker blacks. In fairness, it's a significant improvement over the last-gen and, in comparison, the new Paperwhite's screen does look less grey/blue-ish. But it's not on par with the color you'd get on a proper tablet.
A 25-percent faster processor and more sensitive touch screen don't sound like much, do they? And judging by some of the comments circulating around this announcement, it appears consumers aren't all that impressed with these minor spec bumps either. Yet, the inclusion of a new Freescale chip clocked at 1GHz -- up from the last-gen's 800MHz -- does make navigation and page turns appear appreciably quicker, though not instantaneous. Kindles (of the non-Fire variety) have always demonstrated a slight lag between user input and onscreen action and, given Amazon's emphasis on maintaining long battery life, that trend will likely continue until power management can be brought in line. Battery life, by the way, is still rated for up to eight weeks, but we'll make a final call on that come review time.
The software side is really where the new Paperwhite shines. Amazon's made some smart decisions that collectively conspire to make the user experience friendlier, like support for in-line footnotes. Whereas, before, tapping on a footnote would pull a user out of the book and onto a separate page, now that information pops up in a dialog window on the same screen. It's an extremely convenient change for footnote-heavy books that weren't otherwise readable on the Kindle (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, anyone?).
Word search has also changed for the better and in two separate ways. Tapping on a selected word not only brings up a window with options for Dictionary, X-ray and Wikipedia, but that search will now be archived for Vocabulary Builder. It's a funny name for Amazon's new Kindle software feature, sure, but it could help to reinforce some more esoteric terms you'll search once and forget about afterwards. Vocabulary Builder functions much like it sounds: the device catalogs your word searches into two categories, Words and Books, and then lists each out in flashcard style with specific in-book usage and a full definition. It's all pinned to the homescreen, so you'll have easy quick look access should you need it. As for why Amazon decided to bake this learning tool into the Kindle OS, Larsen explained that, per day, the company logs over one million word searches in its dictionary and wanted to leverage that search data in a user-friendly way. Endearing, no? But also unsurprising, coming as it is, from a company hyper-focused on customer service.
Physical book lovers always have the same complaint when it comes to e-reading: you can't casually flip through an e-book. They're right, you can't. You can, however, get close to replicating that experience, but it's still a multi-stepped process. Amazon hasn't included any nuanced gesture input for this because it believes the average Kindle user would simply find it too complicated to implement. Instead, the solution provided requires bookmarking a page, bringing up the navigation bar overlay and then tapping on the location bar below to either browse by page or use the provided arrows to skip by chapter and view a pop-up preview. It's a welcome UX addition that should help e-reading holdouts convert to the Amazon side.
When the new Kindle Paperwhite (WiFi-only) ships on September 30th, it will be without Goodreads and Freetime integration -- both of which will arrive in an over-the-air update before the holidays. Amazon's still working on the final software, currently in a pre-beta, and didn't want to risk irritating users with a buggy feature load. Smart Lookup, Page Flip, Vocabulary Builder and Footnote support, however, will all be present on day one, so no need to despair.
Goodreads on the Paperwhite works much like it does on the web, only now users won't need to switch devices to access it. In the brief demo I witnessed, Larsen demonstrated how users will be able to browse by Updates (essentially a newsfeed), My Shelves and Friends. It's basically an inbuilt recommendation engine for voracious readers, what with readily available community reviews and the ability to seamlessly jump into a selected book. The service will also allow Kindle users to sort their libraries by what they Want to Read, what they're Currently Reading, and titles they want Shelved.
Freetime, on the other hand, is geared towards parents and is, at its core, a kid-friendly mode. The password protected app locks children into a safe Kindle environment that blocks access to the Kindle store and web, while also providing them with a whitelist of titles and achievements. That latter bit is designed to encourage children to read, as the software will analyze reading consumption and note it at the base of the screen (e.g., "You've read ten more minutes today..."). It's a good way for parents to kickstart a child's interest in reading and set specific literacy goals.
In all, the refreshed Paperwhite doesn't come off as a must-have product because it's really just a slight evolution. If you already own last year's model, there isn't much need to trade up, aside from an uncontrollable desire to own the latest and greatest in tech. Besides, most of the new Kindle OS functions should arrive in a software update at some point anyway -- just without the improved screen readability, updated back lighting and faster browsing. No, the new Kindle Paperwhite isn't an enviable gadget, but it is a wise hardware lure for the uninitiated.
(Editor's Note: Amazon didn't allow photos or video for this hands-on product demonstration.)