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Amazon Kindle Paperwhite

Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite is the second-generation version of the Kindle Touch, which I blasted last year for a series of user experience issues. But I’m not surprised Amazon changed the name this time around: While the Paperwhite doesn’t solve all of the problems of its predecessor, it’s a much better eBook reader and arguably the nicest of the traditional Kindles.

For more photos of this device, please refer to Amazon Kindle Paperwhite: First Impressions + Photos.

Before proceeding, it may be instructive to go back and read my review of last year’s Kindle Touch. This remains the first and only Kindle I’ve ever purchased and then returned because it was so lousy. And while several readers told me over the past year that Amazon addressed some of these issues, here’s what I pinpointed as problematic in that device:

Power button. Located on the bottom of the device, the Kindle Touch’s power button was too easy to trigger inadvertently when holding it normally while the device button rested on the table. The Paperwhite features exactly the same design, but I had to really push down on the device to trigger the power switch, so it appears Amazon has solved this problem. (That said, a power slide would still be preferable.)

Multi-touch interface. The Kindle Touch provided an undiscoverable touch-based user interface that I found unintuitive and inconsistent with the design of other Kindles. The Paperwhite features an evolved version of the same UI, though Amazon goes to great lengths to educate you about its usage in a nice out-of-box experience. 

Paperwhite teaches you how to use it

But I’m still concerned that interacting with the device and navigating through content is so inconsistent---needlessly so, I think—with other Kindles. Everywhere else, in other Kindles, in the Fire/Fire HD tablets, and in the Kindle mobile apps, Amazon is fairly consistent. But not with the Paperwhite. It doesn’t make sense to me.

Paperwhite's unique in-book navigation requires you to know certain "hot spots"

Obviously, this issue is surmountable. But by this point, I have to think that a big percentage of Kindle buyers are repeat customers. The inconsistencies are going haunt these users until they adapt. This was avoidable.

Periodical presentation. Speaking of inconsistent, the Kindle Touch changed periodical navigation yet again, and created yet another way to read the same periodicals on different devices. The Paperwhite continues this trend, and again, I just don’t understand why. The default periodical layout, a crazy grid of article sections, is not borderline useless, it is literally useless. (And it in no way resembles the newspaper grid layout you know they were shooting for.) So every time I read the newspaper, I have to manually switch to the preferred list layout which is, go figure, consistent with the presentation on other Kindle devices. Why isn’t this just the default?

Terrible periodical navigation

Looking back over this list, it’s fair to say that the Kindle Paperwhite hasn’t significantly addressed any of the issues I raised about its predecessor, aside from the power button perhaps. But a few things have changed for the better, too, and I think these changes put this device over the top.

First and most obviously is the new screen, the Paperwhite Display, which uses a unique (and patented) in-screen lighting system that spreads light across the screen nearly evenly. It’s hard to explain the effect, but compared to a traditional backlit tablet like the iPad or Kindle Fire HD, the Paperwhite Display projects light across the screen rather than out at your eyes.

The best way to see the difference is to put one in a dark room with a tablet: Where the tablet display is like a spotlight up and outward from the device—and right into your face—the Paperwhite Display is dimmer and more evenly spread. I tested the Paperwhite against a Nexus 7 tablet running the Amazon Kindle app; with the latter device set to 50 percent brightness and the Kindle app brightness set to its lowest possible setting, it threw off far more glare and light than did the Paperwhite. But the Paperwhite display was just as readable, arguably better really.

Kindle Paperwhite in a darkened room...

...compared to Nexus 7 in the same room

This display is interesting for a number of reasons. The light is always on, apparently, though on the lowest brightness setting it seems to be off. And contrary to what you’d assume, it works better when turned up in daylight and turned down in the dark. Compared to previous e-ink screens, the Paperwhite display offers better resolution and contrast, and while the performance is better, it actually suffers a bit because of the touch-only interface.

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (left) vs. Google Nexus 7 (right)

(I really wish Amazon would make a Paperwhite version of the basic, non-touch Kindle device. That would solve many of the issues I have with this version.)

The integrated light also means you don’t need a lighted case or clip-on light, and since it doesn’t really add any bulk, the resulting device is much more compact than a base Kindle with lighted case. In fact, the Paperwhite with a case—which I recommend, thanks to the integrated, magnetized on/off functionality it has—is about the same exact size and weight as a base Kindle with lighted case. Interesting.

Put simply, you can read with Paperwhite anywhere, in almost any condition: Outside in bright sunlight, inside, at night, or in total darkness. And while the display does emit light, it’s not as glaring as a traditional LCD. Still, you’ll want to turn it down in the dark.

From what I can tell, the Paperwhite’s built-in lighting system hasn’t affected battery life. Amazon claims 8 weeks of battery life, which is ludicrous—that assumes no Wi-Fi connectivity at all and just small daily usage—but it does in fact achieve many, many days of heavy usage.

On the downside, the Paperwhite’s lighting is not as even as Amazon claims. At the bottom of the screen are some subtle but noticeable brownish blotches, which appear to occur in areas near where the light emits. (At least that’s how I perceive it.) You get used to the effect, but it’s there.

Beyond the screen, which is the obvious highlight (ahem) of this device, the Kindle Paperwhite does include a few other interesting features. A reading progress toggle in books switches between the standard location notation (like “Loc 3535 of 18506”), time left in chapter, and time left in book; curiously, those latter figures are calculated in minutes. And as with other new Kindles, an X-Ray feature lets you learn more about characters, historical figures, places, and more: Just tap if you’re not sure about someone or something.

The Paperwhite also dispenses with the normal Kindle home page, which features a list view, and instead uses a Kindle Fire HD-like Cover view. This is less successful on the smaller display of the Paperwhite, since you can only see your three most recently read titles at once; the bottom half of the screen, annoyingly, is “editor’s picks,” an Amazon code term meaning “other stuff you might want to buy.” Fortunately, you can switch this to the preferable list view.

The new home screen limits how much of your own content you can see

Being an Amazon device, the Kindle Paperwhite is relatively cheap: $119 for the Wi-Fi version with Special Offers, or $139 without the ads. (A 3G version is $179, or $199 without Special Offers.) I’ve been using non-3G Kindles for the past year and don’t miss it, given the ubiquity of Wi-Fi.

Should you get one?

If you’re already using a 2011-era Kindle or newer, no. The Paperwhite screen is mostly great, but it’s not hugely different from a performance, contrast, or clarity perspective when compared to newer Kindles. If your Kindle has a hardware keyboard, or you’ve never owned a Kindle, however, this isn’t a bad little device, and I do think the screen is enough of a differentiator—and the touch stuff, while inconsistent, not enough of a detriment—to put it over the top. Save some money and go for the low-end one. (The Special Offers ads are not annoying at all.) Recommended, with caveats.

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