E-readers are getting better and better, and for commuters and frequent travellers there's a genuine reason to choose one over a bookshelf of dead trees. Amazon's new, mid-range Kindle Paperwhite has a bright and crisp e-paper screen every bit as beautiful as the top of the line Kindle Voyage, and only makes a few small concessions in other less important areas — and it's $100 cheaper. At any price, it would a very good e-reader, but when you add that extra value it might just be the best there is.
What Is It?
- Screen Size: 6-inch
- Screen Type: Paperwhite E-Ink HD e-paper (touchscreen)
- Resolution: N/A, 300dpi
- Battery: Up to six weeks
- Storage: 4GB
- Charging: yes (microUSB 2.0)
The $179-plus Amazon Kindle Paperwhite is the equal newest e-reader from the US books-and-everything-else store giant, alongside the higher-end $299 Kindle Voyage. The Paperwhite is slightly more basic — it lacks the Voyage's adaptive front-lighting system and has slightly lower contrast — but has 95 per cent of the e-reading prowess of the Voyage for a full $100 less, or even more if you opt for the non-3G Paperwhite.
The first thing that you'll notice about the Paperwhite is that it has no buttons. None. Well, technically it has a power button, but that serves the sole purpose of raising the Kindle from and sending it back to sleep when appropriate. Everything else is controlled through the Paperwhite's touch-sensitive display. Apart from a microUSB 2.0 port for charging the device, there's no other physical input or output; every piece of data is transferred to the Kindle Paperwhite through Wi-Fi (or 3G on the step-up, $20 more expensive mobile-network-connected model).
At 169x117x9.1mm, the Paperwhite is nice and compact for a Kindle, but doesn't make any sacrifices to usability — there's an appropriately wide bezel to rest a thumb on, for example, and the sides and back of the device are slightly rubberised and easy to hold with one hand. The 205g Paperwhite has 4GB of integrated memory; that might not seem like much but that's enough for thousands of books from the Kindle library-slash-store. As well as Amazon's book formats, you can also read PDF, MOBI, HTML and common e-book formats, but no EPUB.
It's worth mentioning that the Paperwhite is just a regular ol' e-reading device; it lacks the waterproofing of the equally expensive Kobo Aura H2O, for example, and isn't especially ruggedised. That's not to say it's not well built, though — in the last couple of weeks I've dropped it more than a couple of times and it once accidentally slipped from shoulder height onto a concrete floor with no obvious ill effects. You can also buy a couple of Amazon-built Kindle Paperwhite cases — there's one with a magnetic closure, fabric interior and a leather cover that looks great in black.
What's It Good At?
The Kindle Paperwhite is all about the display. It's all there is to the e-reader, basically — it's a screen with a black plastic surround, a microUSB port, a status light, and a power button — and therefore it's the one thing that could make or break the Paperwhite as a reading device. It's great, then, that the Paperwhite's 300dpi display is the best e-reader screen that I've seen yet; it is just about as smooth and crisp as you would need e-ink to be. The 24-point adjustable front-light changes from very dim to really quite bright at its maximum luminance, more than enough for anything but the absolute brightest sun-lit rooms.
Amazon's software for the Kindle has been further and further refined in each iteration of the device, and it has been a full seven years in the making. On the Kindle Paperwhite it is by far its best yet; it's almost entirely focused on the actual process of reading and of ensconcing yourself in the world of a good book, but it makes it easy enough to go and buy another book or to look through the Amazon-owned Goodreads service to discuss or get a recommendation on what to read. Goodreads is a distinctly different site to Amazon's own review system, too, and has a different community of probably more discerning readers.
While it might look a little complicated from screenshots or photos, the Amazon Kindle interface really is quite simple. Once you're in a book, there are zero distractions unless you want there to be, but you can very simply change front-light settings or head back to the menu by tapping at the top of the touch-sensitive e-paper display. Tap to the right to flip the page forward, to the left to go backward, and that's about it. Simple. It's really easy to change the light, too, because the responsiveness of the hardware is quick enough that you're able to just swipe your finger up and down to adjust it.
Especially when you showcase it against the at least $100 more expensive Amazon Kindle Voyage, the Paperwhite really starts to look like exceptionally good value. There's no doubting that it's still relatively expensive for an e-reader — every Kindle is like that — but if you opt for the worldwide 3G option (which is absolutely a bargain at a $20 premium over the Wi-Fi-only version) then you get yourself the e-reader to beat at a price tag that is actually pretty reasonable. It's not cheap, but considering the quality of what you're actually getting and the subtle extra features that enhance not the reading experience but the e-book experience, the Kindle Paperwhite 3G's $199 price tag starts to look very enticing indeed.
What's It Not Good At?
I had a little trouble getting the Kindle Paperwhite to charge off one of Samsung's variable-voltage USB fast chargers — it just wouldn't begin the charging process at all. I've had occasional problems with other, equally (relatively) low-tech devices in the past, so this shouldn't be a huge surprise. Switching back to a regular 1- or 1.5-amp 5-volt USB charger, or plugging the Paperwhite directly into my desktop PC's front USB ports, charged the e-reader quickly enough and with no fuss. Since a wall wart isn't included in the retail packaging, and you only have a fancy new charger for your high-end smartphone, you might need to find an alternative for the Paperwhite.
I had a few minor software niggles, too, including one where the Paperwhite stayed stuck on its "low battery" screen even after a solid four hours of charging — the period Amazon recommends to completely replenish the Kindle's capacious battery. During reading, too, there was a single instance where I couldn't turn the Paperwhite's variable-brightness front-light off, no matter how many times I tapped the little icon up the top of the screen, despite every other touch command working. These are small annoyances, to be sure, and they're ones that will almost certainly disappear in the months to come as Amazon tweaks the new Paperwhite's operating system slightly, but it's not yet perfect.
While the new Amazon Kindle Paperwhite's beautiful backlighting system is variable over a massive range of brightness — it extends extremely low, which should aid dark-room and bed-bound readers who don't want to annoy their slumbering partners, as well as being bright enough to enhance screen contrast in difficult lighting conditions — it isn't adaptive. If you change environments, you'll have to change the screen's brightness yourself — not exactly a chore, but something you'll have to remember to conserve battery wherever possible. You only get adaptive brightness on the Kindle Voyage, which is a full $100 more expensive.
With something as single-focused as the Kindle Paperwhite, it's really hard to make legitimate criticisms because there just aren't enough of them that exist. This is a great thing — it means that Amazon hasn't tried to give the Paperwhite a Web browser and a Facebook client and a word processor and a picture editor and fifty other ancillary uses. It's an e-reader, don't try and use it for other things, because that's not what it's for. Kudos to Amazon for sticking to the basic principles of the Paperwhite and the Kindle family and not letting scope creep ruin an excellent piece of hardware with excessively bloated or complicated software.
Should You Buy It?
When it comes to actually sitting down and reading, I'm one of the fast-dwindling tribe of people that think a good ol'-fashioned hardback book is still the best experience possible. But the $179-plus Kindle Paperwhite comes just about as close as possible to the textural textual quality of actual paper and actual ink — its screen is just lovely. You can still sit in bed with your bedside lamp lighting the screen from the front, but the front-light really does an even better job for the vast majority of situations in which you're going to be reading.
The Paperwhite doesn't exactly impress when it comes to its design — let's be honest, as attractive as it is, it's still a flat black rubberised plastic e-reader with a single button to press for everything — but it certainly gets the job done. It's sturdy, and the same simplicity that is sometimes annoying can also be a boon for when it comes to actually just getting through a good book without distractions; but at the end of the day it's all about that beatufiul high-resolution e-paper screen.
Having the option for a $20-extra worldwide 3G connection means you're never not hooked up to the 'net — unless you're in the air on a transatlantic flight, I guess — and that means you're always able to find a good book to read. In a way, that's the raison d'etre of e-books and e-readers in general, and it's only Amazon that's able to offer that kind of always-on service throughout the Kindle family. It's a minor extra, but there are times — sitting in airports, sitting at bus stops — that it comes in handy.
But it's the battery life of the Kindle Paperwhite that impresses most in real-world use. E-readers, including the Kindle, are famous for inflating their battery claims by downplaying the amount of text that you'll actually read and extrapolating that wildly to get to the somewhat murky "up to two months!" and "up to three months!" figures we've seen before. The Paperwhite, though, actually does stand up to those claims, even when you're pushing it twice as hard as Amazon suggests you might. It's an e-reader that will last a couple of good books between charge, and that is what you want one to do.