The Kindle Paperwhite’s have finally shipped, and those who are early adopters have them in their hands. If you are wondering if you should be an adopter at all, or how the PaperWhite fits into the Kindle family of products, or the wider world of eReaders a tablets, this review is for you.
The Kindle taxonomy has changed significantly. There are three main branches of the family: the Kindle e-Ink display devices, the Android tablet devices (the Kindle Fire with its variations), and the various Kindle software implementations (Kindle for the iPad, for the Android phone, for OS X, Windows 8, the Cloud Reader, and so on). The Paperwhite belongs to the e-Ink display group, and is the direct descendant of the Kindle Touch. In fact the taxon0my/evolution metaphor is apt, because the Paperwhite is the Touch adapted for a specific niche in the e-Reader/tablet market ecology by the selective forces of consumer demand, competitive feature-sets, and Amazon’s marketing needs.
The Paperwhite comes in four sub-species, if you will: 1) the WiFi only Paperwhite with ad support (Amazon calls them “special offers”) at $119; 2) the WiFi only Paperwhite without ads at $139; 3) the WiFi + 3G Paperwhite with ads at $179; 4) the WiFi + 3G Paperwhite without ads at $199. If you are a constant traveler, often out of reach of WiFi spots, then the 3G model might make sense. For the rest of us who are almost never out of reach of a WiFi hotspot the lower cost models make the most sense. When I encounter people who I know are not great travelers, yet they have purchased a 3G model, I ask them why and they say something like “I just don’t want to be out of touch.” I don’t know what to make of this. You aren’t going to be browsing the web much on this device, you already have a cell phone, so what out of touch are you talking about? Nevertheless, I know rather a lot of people who have paid the extra to get the 3G on previous Kindles. Mileages vary.
First, the feature that sets the device off from all other e-Readers is its lighted screen. The lighted screen is a response to the Barnes & Noble Simple Touch with GlowLight, only done better. It is not a backlit, like a true tablet (iPad, Nexus 7 or Fire), and does not tax the eyes in a dark room like those devices, but is a guided layer of light that illuminates the screen for reading without being harsh, and whose level is controlled by the reader. Except for some noticeable, ghostly dark interference patterns at the bottom of the screen at full illumination, it works perfectly. At levels below max lighting the grey patterns at the bottom of the screen are not noticeable, and even at full power they are not distracting—but of course distraction levels will vary by individual.
The Nook GlowLight does not light its screen as completely, leaving a muffled, shaded area in the large, central reading area with bright highlights at the top of the screen and two bottom corners. I find this more distracting—and annoying—than the Kindle technology, but more on that when I review the Simple Touch.
The Form Factor
The form factor is nearly the same as the late Touch, at 6.7″ x 4.6″ x 0.36″, weighing 7.5 oz., but it feels even more natural in the hand because of the rubberized plastic back. It achieves a substantiality in spite of being light. The black matte front also gives it a monolithic look that speaks solidity. It fits comfortably in the hand, and can easily be held one-handed while reading without being taxing on the wrist.
Three sides of the case are smooth, with the bottom edge containing the micro-USB port, a tiny inset LED, and the small, inset power button. Gone is the stupidly designed protruding power button and slide-to-activate functionality of previous Kindle models. Gone also is the audio jack. Amazon realized that when people are reading they don’t want to be playing mp3 files from their Kindle and wearing earbuds or headsets. If they listen to music at all while reading, and many people do, they do not want to be isolated and burdened by those appurtenances. Consequently, gone also is the Text-to-Speech feature that the old Touch (and previous Kindles) had. This was a feature I liked very much, but realized from the feedback I received whenever I spoke of this, that almost no one else cared about. Chalk this up as a withered appendage in the ongoing evolution of the eReader.
The Touch’s menu-driven interface has been replaced with a simpler one, still in part menu driven, but with fewer choices and more intuitive and useful categories. The Home screen is made up of four panes: 1) an icon bar at the top; 2) a My Items area front and center; 3) an Editor’s Picks area aimed at the impulse buyer where items you do not own, but might want to, are features; and 4) a special offers panel at the bottom.
As you can see, the Home button is now on the icon bar, and there is no longer a physical Home button on the device’s front as there was with the Touch. The left pointing arrow is a Back button, not page back for reading purposes, but more like Back View History, like Adobe Acrobat used to have (and is now lamentably gone). It shows the previous view and is very useful in navigating around menu choices. The Light Bulb controls the light brightness and works like a charm. The shopping cart should be all-to-familiar and can be perilous to the weak willed. The Search is now easier to get to and improved in the various contexts in which it appears. The three parallel lines indicate a linear menu, but it too is simplified over the old Kindle menu system, and is also context senstive.
The Cloud | Device alternative is obvious in the My Items area. From Cloud View, which like the Device view can be arranged by Recent, Author, or Title, tap-hold a book and a pop-up appears with “Add to Home” and “Book Description” choices. “Add to Home” downloads the book to the Device and places it in position one on the My Items carousel. “Book Description” takes you to the Amazon Kindle Books store to that works sales page, with customer reviews and the inevitable “Customers who bought this book also bought…” ads. Popups come equipped with an X in the upper right corner to close them. Touching elsewhere does not.
The Editor’s Picks, or New & Noteworthy, or whatever they are calling that line of impulse buy items below the My Items area is Amazon’s reminder that you are always, as long as you own a Kindle, part of their all-embracing infrastructure. Most people who love books like finding out about books, and actually order book catalogs or visit books stores just to browse, so I don’t want to give the impression that this is unwelcome. It is also tempting, and at the price of Kindle Singles ($1.99) can be irrepressible (and can also add up quickly).
The little panel at the bottom, the Special Offers, are the real ads. You have to tap the bar to get the full-screen ad, and can email it to yourself if you wish. The folks at Amazon are marketing geniuses. Period.
The Menu choices from the Home screen are:
I think the reader can detect a pattern in the first two items. This Kindle is much more in-your-face commercial than previous versions, though the effects can be mitigated, but not completely dismissed, by using list view. Amazon has admitted that they make no money on the hardware, so it is content sales that they want and need to make. This new iteration of the device makes that obvious.
Navigating the Kindle Paperwhite is easier than ever, and it can even serve as an in-a-pinch web browser. The proof of the pudding, however, is in the reading experience.
The Reading Experience
The reading experience on the Kindle Paperwhite is outstanding. You can control, as always, font, line spacing and margin sizes, with more fonts available than previously.
The appearance of the text is true black on white, and thanks to the guided layer of light, without the annoying shadows that can show up in a real book in a less than optimally lighted room at night. Turning pages, navigating the book, and searching are all done with ease. The Paperwhite inherited the X-Ray technology of its Touch forebear, which means that you can get a sort of scaffolding graphical look at the book with important characters and ideas mapped out for you—provided the book’s publisher provides the X-Ray files along with the download. Some books have it, many do not, at least among the books I read. It also inherited the Translate feature, which is a marvel and it seems to me ideal for ESL and other language students.
Book annotation is also easier than ever. Simply drag your finger over the text to highlight it. Whether you are highlighting or simply holding on a word, a popup will appear to allow for More annotation/research options.
The Dictionary and Wikipedia are both extremely useful, especially the new implementation of Wikipedia, that gives a thumbnail explanation with a “Launch Wikipedia” choice. The Back View arrow will bring you back to your book.
The Go To menu bar option is also much better than it used to be, showing an outline of the book’s chapters and allowing for page or location choices also. A percentage location would be welcome, because it is sometimes easier to remember what percentage of a book you have finished, rather than a specific location or page number.
My only real criticism of the interface (assuming the ubiquity of the ads is not a criticism) is that the onscreen keyboard is just not as responsive as a tablet keyboard, no surprise there, and that maker’s of these devices have still not standardized on special key placement with their keyboards. Why should I have to wonder where the apostrophe or colon key is. Why can’t placement be the same on every eReader or tablet? The lack or response is a more serious matter. It’s not terrible, mind you, but for someone used to using an iPad all the time it is noticeably slower.
My only criticism of the device itself is that it does not come with a power adapter, just a USB cable with micro connector on the Kindle end and standard USB connector on the other. Amazon probably feels that the battery life of the Paperwhite is so good that it does not need the adapter (as in 8 weeks of battery life, but I am assuming that means with WiFi turned off and the light level down). I’m not always around computers, especially when travelling with only my iPad, so a separate adapter is important to me. You can get one for $9.99 from Amazon and I think it is worth it.
For the price, the Paperwhite is an outstanding value. It is a better product than its predecessor the Kindle Touch, both in terms of well-integrated features and the great new lighting system that let’s it be used under any lighting conditions without the need for any other light source. It is the best compromise between a backlit tablet and the eInk display still sold on the basic Kindle and the Kindle keyboard. If you don’t like the light, turn the level down to zero. If you like it, turn it up, but be prepared for less battery life. The ads are not off-putting to me, but you may feel differently. If so, spend the extra $20 and get the non-ad version. You cannot use this device as you would a tablet, and if it is apps you want and the other more computer-like functionality of a tablet, spend the extra to get the Kindle Fire (the basic Fire is only $159), or one of its competitors. If it is book reading you want to do, however, and lots of it, you cannot do better than the Kindle Paperwhite.