It's hard to say if this is just one of those in-between years, or if Amazon has just throttled down e-reader development. Maybe the company has taken a less-than-bullish view of the space, or perhaps it's convinced the original Paperwhite didn't need much work. Either way, for the first time in a while, there aren't major hardware changes here -- nothing the company can hang its latest ad campaign on. Indeed, even the product's name plays down the upgrade; it's referred to the device as the "All-New Kindle Paperwhite" in Amazon's press materials, though from an aesthetic standpoint, the "all-new" seems a tad generous.
Placed next to each other, 2012's and 2013's Paperwhites are pretty difficult to distinguish. Slip a $100 bill underneath one, and you can play a round of two-Kindle Monte. The reader's retained the same dimensions as its predecessor at 6.7 x 4.6 x 0.36 inches -- so, if you do ultimately decide to upgrade, you can at least keep your old case. Amazon managed to shed a few fractions of an ounce off the previous generation, bringing the new model down to 7.3 (which even those who've handled last year's model are unlikely to notice). The newest Kindle is also a touch heavier than Kobo's offering. (As ever, adding in 3G connectivity will add even more heft, bringing the total weight to 7.6 ounces.) The Paperwhite's noticeably taller than the Kobo Aura too, and hence not quite as pocketable.
In the wake of the Aura, the Paperwhite's design feels pretty utilitarian: it's a black rectangle designed to do a specific job, without much concern for style. In the center is a 6-inch display, a size the entire industry seemingly settled on during some secret, underground Masonic e-reader meeting. It's a tough point to argue, though. Kobo's recent size experiments didn't go too far in convincing us that six inches isn't indeed the sweet spot for e-readers, and Amazon didn't seem to get much traction with its newspaper-oriented DX.
As ever, a black plastic bezel juts out a bit around the display -- something Kobo managed to avoid with the Aura's contiguous design. Indeed, the Paperwhite's plastic bezel seemingly doesn't need to exist either, as the company moved from IR to capacitive touch a while back, which should have eliminated the need for the display gap. There's a prominent white Kindle logo along the bottom bezel, though the company's made it a little bolder this time out and tightened up the kerning a bit, so no one sitting next to you on the train will mistake the thing for a Nook. Once again, you'll find a micro-USB port and power button on the bottom -- and that's about it. Amazon's long made it clear that it has no time for page-turn buttons or expandable memory.
On the rear, Amazon's preserved that nice soft-touch feel, which adds a bit of traction. And while we'd definitely welcome a move toward the Nook's more hand-friendly concave back, after so many iterations, Amazon's still pretty set in its ways here. There's one interesting change back there, however: the company's swapped out the subtler indented Kindle in favor of a glossy black version of Amazon's familiar "A to Z" branding. Clearly, the smaller Amazon type on the last version just wasn't getting the point across. It's a bit louder, but when it's not set down on a table, your hand or a case will be obstructing the logo most of the time -- and heck, we're just glad that Amazon hasn't figured out that it could make a little extra money by selling that real estate to a third party. But we've already said too much...
Last time, the company was all about reading in the dark, enough so that its new front-lit technology gave the reader its name. Sure enough, we were impressed, particularly coming on the heels of Barnes & Noble's Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, though the Kindle would soon be eclipsed by Kobo's Glo. Amazon took great pains to improve illumination this year, and while the difference isn't exactly night-and-day, the company's done a fine job nonetheless. At full blast, the Paperwhite lives up to its name, with an impressive white balance and more even coverage toward the bottom of the screen.
The processor's also been bumped up this time, from 800MHz clock speed to a full 1GHz. In real-world use, that translates to a slight improvement in page-turn speed, sometimes more noticeable than others. The difference is decidedly clearer when loading books or waking up the device, with the new version outperforming its predecessor each and every time. Granted, these readers don't have to do a ton of heavy lifting, so you're not going to see a massive improvement in speeds with an upgrade like this. Still, the less time you spend loading, the more time you can spend actually reading.
Unlike Kobo, which has a strong anti-refresh stance, Amazon still gives you one every so often, with a quick black flicker as the system gets everything in place. Though the industry standard for a while was every six pages, the refreshes do appear to come about half as frequently here. The screen still has a pixel density of 212 ppi -- that's less than the Aura's impressive 265, though honestly, if you're spending most of your time reading text, the Kindle's screen should be plenty crisp. Also, the improved white balance in the front lighting helps create the appearance of improved sharpness / contrast.
Onboard storage is still limited to 2GB -- when all's said and done, that works out to around 1.2GB of actual space, or, by Amazon's count, 1,100 books. Again, that's probably more than most of us need to carry around at any one time, and with the benefit of Amazon's free cloud storage, you'll never want for re-reads again. Battery life is estimated at up to eight weeks, though keeping track with these e-ink devices is getting a bit silly. Even if you're a particularly voracious reader, you won't find yourself charging up too often, though keeping the light on will certainly have an impact on runtime. As will WiFi and, should you opt for it, 3G. That particular upgrade will cost you an additional $70. It's not a necessity by any means, but as frequent travelers ourselves, we can attest to the fact that being able to download books anywhere is really, really nice.
Notice anything different? Us neither. Not at first, at least. As with the hardware, Amazon's largely stuck to its guns on the software side, and it's not hard to see why. Over the years, the Kindle OS has evolved into something quite user-friendly. As with the Fire, content is king. When you pop into the home screen, you'll see your three most recently read books (though you can also refine things by author, dates or title) with a small, dot-based progress bar showing you how far you've read. On the left side, you can click into the cloud, to see what you've got stored with Amazon. The prominence of that feature makes upgrading simple -- just turn on your device, tap on Cloud and you can repopulate your new Kindle with the books you've already purchase.
Below all of this are four suggested titles -- Amazon does want you to keep buying, after all. Personally, we prefer to just see the books we've bought up there and save the recommendations for the store -- or Goodreads, which offers a much better system for customizing suggestions. If you decided to save a couple of bucks (20, actually), by picking up the Special Offers version, the bottom sixth of the screen will feature an ad banner. If not, you'll simply have more real estate for book covers.
The book carousel is also home to two new features: Dictionary and Vocabulary Builder. The Dictionary (Oxford English, to be precise) is really just an outgrowth of the offerings on past devices. This time, however, you can also consume the dictionary as a standard book, flipping through or doing a quick search. Fair warning, though: it makes for some pretty dry reading. Vocabulary Builder, meanwhile, aggregates all of the words you've looked up while reading into flashcards. You can flip through them and mark each as mastered once you're clear on the definition. Not exactly a killer app there, but it could certainly come in handy for students -- or, as one German Amazon employee pointed out when we saw the reader at IFA, those trying to master a new language.
The reading experience, too, is largely unchanged. Again, there's not much to do when you've got a page mostly full of text. In the bottom-left corner, you'll see your location in the book. You can tap through that to find out how much time you've got left in the text or in a specific chapter -- a feature that's actually helped improve our speed reading, as we often end up competing with ourselves. It's a sickness, really. We do wish Amazon would cave and display good, old-fashioned page numbers for all titles, but the "time left" feature is pretty handy nonetheless, as is the percentage of progress you've made, which is displayed in the bottom right.
Tap in the upper-right corner, and you'll add a quick bookmark, by way of a little dog-eared animation. Tap up top, and a whole bunch of options will pop up, for searching within the book, advancing to a different section, sharing passages and adjusting the font, among others. You can also change the font with a simple pinch-to-zoom maneuver, which will pop up a box featuring eight different sizes. There are also seven styles and three options for both line spacing and margins. Once again, Kobo wins on that point, with far more potential font variations. Still, we suspect that the Paperwhite's font options will prove more than sufficient for most readers. Finally, flipping between pages can done with a swipe or a tap.
Hold down on a word to highlight it and the dictionary definition will pop-up. There's also a handy tab in there for looking things up on Wikipedia -- particularly useful if you're a non-fiction buff like yours truly, though as you'd expect, that functionality only works where you've got an active connection. Oh, and if Amazon's got an X-Ray listing for that particular book, that will pop up there, too. Click on a proper name, for example, and you'll see that person's bio. You can also click through to find every time someone on that particular page is mentioned throughout the book. It's a particularly handy feature if you're attempting to slog your way through an avalanche of names in a Game of Thrones-type title.
From that window, you can also add notes, share and translate. Those options pop to the front if you highlight more than one word. Amazon's also improved the dragging functionality in highlight, making it easier to pick the correct words. Clicking on a footnote symbol, meanwhile, pops up a window with the note, rather than jumping you directly to the end of the chapter -- a handy feature for quick references. And as before, when you're all finished reading, Amazon will quickly offer you some related books before you go, which is a pretty easy way to get caught in a World War II reading loop. Believe us.
Nice updates, all, but Amazon's still got an ace or two up its sleeve. Thing is, some of the biggest software updates aren't even here at launch. It's a bummer, for sure, but how often do you get an e-reader software update that legitimately brings new functionality? For parents, there's FreeTime, which lets you create profiles and generally encourage more reading through achievement badges and so on. The update we're really waiting for, though, is Goodreads -- functionality we've been anticipating since Amazon bought the startup earlier this year. Kobo made a smart move in bringing Pocket integration to its line of new devices; likewise, Goodreads may well prove to be the killer app for the new Paperwhite.
Once enabled through an over-the-air update set to arrive before the holidays, Goodreads will bring a far more social reading experience. Baked directly into the Kindle's software, it will allow you to track your friends' reading, rate books and discover new titles in a more organic way. We saw a quick demo of the functionality in beta a while back, but we're going to reserve final judgment until we get the update ourselves.
Over the past couple of weeks, we've been bombarded with ads for the All-New Paperwhite -- and on the Special Offers screen of our All-Old Paperwhite, no less. It's a tempting upgrade; we have to admit. At the end of the day, though, is it worth the $119 starting price (or for that matter, $189 for the 3G version)? Not really. For all intents and purposes, the 2013 edition is a lot like what we saw in 2012, though improved processing speeds, better front lighting, software tweaks and forthcoming Goodreads integration are all welcome updates. Ultimately, they all help solidify the Paperwhite's status as a truly terrific e-reader.
This time next year, we'd love to see a fundamental upgrade to the hardware, similar to what Kobo did with the Aura, but between the Kindle's great UI, Amazon's impossible-to-beat content selection and the price difference (the Paperwhite is $30 cheaper), the new Paperwhite is already an extremely well-rounded choice.
Edgar Alvarez and Daniel Orren contributed to this review.