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Saturday, October 6, 2012

The New Kindle Paperwhite: Gift from the Tech Gods, or Paperweight for the Desk?

This past week saw Amazon’s new E Ink Kindle devices finally unleashed into the hands of eager consumers. As someone that loves to read novels, I was one of those eager buyers. I've loved Kindles since they were first released, and as ridiculous as it may sound, I can’t imagine going back to reading paper books. I also can’t imagine reading for any length of time on popular LCD-based devices like the iPad, that just plain make my eyes hurt after a while. Many might disagree with me, but the E Ink technology used by  Kindles is the way to go for a comfortable reading experience.

The new Kindle Paperwhite has done nothing to diminish the allure of tossing my bulky paper books aside, but it isn't perfect and there are some things you should know before buying. Read on to find out why I think the Kindle Paperwhite is a great e-reader, but isn't all sunshine and rainbows like some would have you believe.

What’s With the Name?

First of all, let me get this off my chest, and this has nothing to do with the quality of the device. Amazon Marketing department, what in the name of Bezos were you thinking when you gave one of your flagship products a name that closely resembles a heavy useless object? Am I the only one that reads the name as Paperweight each and every time I look at it? Clearly I can’t be as you can see by some clips below from the day of the Paperwhite’s announcement:

Note the original URL

The Device

Okay, so odd name choices aside, the Kindle Paperwei……..Paperwhite is an excellent update to Amazon’s Kindle line. The Paperwhite has fantastic build quality, nice light weight, perfect proportions, a nicely responsive touchscreen, fast page turns, and most importantly, a crisp easily readable screen. Everything I could want in an e-reader is represented here (with the exception of a color display, but that's still a ways off at economical prices). Check out this review for even more detail on the overall device.

The Light

Notice I left out the Kindle Paperwhite’s signature feature; the much vaunted built-in LED light. To compete with Barnes and Noble’s Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, Amazon has finally added front-lit LED illumination to their Kindle. Now, don’t get me wrong, I've always appreciated that E Ink screens are easier on the eyes largely due to their lack of backlit screens blasting light into my eyes. However, there are many times when available room lighting isn't quite bright enough to light up the screen and the addition of a soft, front-lit screen to the Paperwhite is something I was very excited about.

I was excited that is, until I discovered that the lighting isn't as evenly distributed as many review sites, as well as Amazon themselves, would have you believe. I will say that it does a MUCH better job of evenly illuminating the screen than the Nook does, but there are still odd little blotches of uneven light towards the bottom of the screen. I wasn't expecting this and thus was left a little disappointed. Take a look at what I mean in the image below. Notice how the blotches are less evident the brighter the room is:

Brightness level 10, completely dark room

Brightness level 10, brightly lit room

Max brightness (level 24), completely dark room

This light was the result of four long years of development, but I think it could have used one more year (Update 11-21-13, I was right. Check out the 2013 version of the Paperwhite). Call me a perfectionist if you want, but looking at the screen, it seems like Amazon did an amazing job with the top 95% of the screen and then forgot about the bottom edge. I initially found this very distracting, but I've acclimated to it just as I did when I first experienced  flashing E Ink screen refreshes. Once I’m into the story, I hardly notice it at all. What bothers me though, is how amazing of a feature this was supposed to be. Amazon even describes it as a light that “evenly illuminates the screen to provide the perfect reading experience in all lighting conditions.” Sorry Amazon, this isn't even. It’s good, but it's most definitely not perfect.

The issue has generated a somewhat heated discussion on Amazon’s forums. There are clearly a lot of people on that forum bothered by the issue, and an equally large number of people bothered by the fact that people are bothered about it. Why people? Why is there so much hate just because people want to discuss the issue? Some are getting free replacements from Amazon, but I’m not convinced this is a defect. I honestly think it is the limitation of the technology at this point in time. I also feel like Amazon rushed it out so there wouldn't be an entire generation of Kindle e-readers that can’t compete with the Nook's GlowLight. 

It’s not all bad though. As I mentioned, the light is 95% good and far better than no light at all. The battery life is so good with the light on, that I can set the light to low levels in well-lit rooms to add some extra “pop” to the words on the page. I think it is for this very reason that you can never actually turn the light off. Sure, you can turn it down to a level that seems off, but the light will still be shining just a teeny tiny little bit. That minuscule level of light leads to a whiter page and I’m sure it’s no accident on Amazon’s part. I noticed this last point when I held the Paperwhite side by side with my 3rd generation Kindle Keyboard

The screen on the older Kindle actually did seem more yellow when compared to the Paperwhite. I am sure this is partly why Amazon put the "white" in the Paperwhite's name. As soon as I hit the power button on the Paperwhite, the LED light finally did turn off and the screen looked just as yellow tinted as the Kindle Keyboard.  Note, the “yellow” tint is very likely coming from the CFL bulbs in my house, but my point is that the LEDs can make a positive difference even when they aren't strictly needed. See what I mean below with the Paperwhite set to light level 10 in a brightly lit room:

Kindle Keyboard on the left, Paperwhite on the right

The Touchscreen

Despite the release of the Kindle Touch last year, this is my first touchscreen Kindle. I thought I would miss the page turn buttons, but so far I haven’t missed them. The lack of physical buttons does make the device a little less user friendly though and it took me longer to learn how to use it. Keep that in mind if you’re considering buying the grandparents a Kindle for Christmas.

I’m not 100% sold on touchscreen e-readers yet, and I’m a little worried that I’ll have to be wiping the screen down often, but so far so good. The screen is even multi-touch which makes the “experimental” web browser a little less horrible if you actually have to use it.

Page Turns

If you've used any E Ink device, you know exactly what I mean when I say that the screen flashes black to refresh the screen. If you are worried about this, I assure you that you won’t notice it once you get 15 minutes into your first book, and then you’ll never notice it again. What I did notice is that the Paperwhite does this full screen refresh far less often than my Kindle Keyboard did. The purpose of this is to enable faster page turns, but the downside is that faint ghosts of text are sometime left behind from previous pages until the next full refresh. Some may not be bothered by this ghosting, but I was, so I went into the settings and enabled a full refresh with every page.

Time to Read

Amazon has introduced a new time to read feature in the Paperwhite that I just love. As you read, it gauges how fast you are reading and estimates how much time is left in the chapter. So many times I've been into a story and wondered how much longer it would take to close out the chapter. The feature isn't perfect but it gives me a good sense of whether or not I should attempt to plow through a chapter before setting it down and going to sleep.

One consequence of this feature is that they've gotten rid of the progress bar that used to sit at the bottom of the screen with little dots to mark chapters. I really do miss that, but I understand that screen space is at a premium.


Here are some weird little oddities I've noticed. None are deal breakers for me though:

No speakers or headphone jack-A few steps forward and one step back. Amazon added speakers and audio playback to the Kindle Keyboard two years ago, and now they've taken them away. I didn't buy a Kindle for audio books and never used this feature so I won’t miss it, but you might.

Getting started guide- Normally I would applaud a getting started guide. Here I find it maddening only because you are forced to go through it when you first turn on the device. Many finger mashings later, you are finally allowed to use the Kindle. Of course, I was the kid at Christmas that would rip open a present, toss the instructions aside, and begin playing with something as quickly as I possibly could, so take my annoyance with a grain of salt.  

Nonsense noisy screensavers- Go figure, I choose the ad-free version and instead of annoying ads on the screensaver, I get annoying, noisy, and closely cropped images of pens and typewriters. Is this a big deal? Not at all. Just weird. Amazon, why can’t I choose my screensaver?

No Charger!- This just reminds me of buying an inkjet printer only to find that they haven’t included the USB cable to attach it to my PC. In this case, Amazon does supply the USB cable for charging off a PC, but no wall charger. I am seeing this trend more and more with other devices, and I really don’t like it. Amazon, please just include the charger and price the unit at $5 more. Now if I want flexibility, I have to buy a separate charger for $10. The good news is that the battery life is so long that I really won’t need to charge it much (eight weeks, based on a half hour of reading per day with wireless off and the light setting at 10).

The Bottom Line

This is a fantastic device and I think anyone looking to enter the e-reader market will be pleased with it. I list a number of deficiencies only because I think the press reviews I have read are far too sunny. You may want to consider looking at this in person if possible before buying (though that’s not always possible with Amazon products). The LED light issue was and is a major annoyance for me, but I’ll live with it. Maybe you’ll be fine with it, but maybe now that I've brought it to your attention, it will drive you insane (sorry). Overall though, the device has an excellent crisp screen and is very light. Once you get into a good book, all the little niggles I've mentioned will melt away, and so will the device. After all, reading should be about the story, not the device. If you pick it up, let me know what you think!

Oh and if you do buy it, please support a fledgling blogger and purchase it from this link (as I get a small commission).

Update 10-7-12

I just thought I would update this post with a few features that I didn't know about when I originally wrote this article:

Touch to define- I actually did know about this first one, but I hadn't realized how handy the touchscreen is when you need to look up a word. It makes it as simple as tap and hold on a word. With my old Kindle Keyboard there was a whole lot of clicking with the four way controller to select the word I wanted. The touchscreen vastly accelerates the process and limits the disruption to my reading.

Built in dictionary. Note the "More" option.

Wikipedia- This is a really cool feature. Along with being able to tap and hold on a word to define it, I noticed that I can click the "More" button to access a Wikipedia lookup option. This can be extremely handy if you run across a word or phrase that isn't a formally recognized word in the dictionary. When a Wikipedia reference is on the screen, you'll also find a "Launch Wikipedia" option that actually makes good use of an otherwise useless experimental web browser. See the example below:

Finally! Wikipedia clips at the tap of a button!

Translate- Wow, now here is a feature I wasn't expecting! In addition to Wikipedia, a translate feature can be found from the "More" menu once a word or phrase has been highlighted. I found uses for this right away, as even though I only read books in English, authors have a habit of interspersing non-English words within their text. Now instead of wondering what they meant, all it takes is a few taps and I've got a translation. The Kindle even attempts to auto detect the language being used. See the example below:

Awesome built in translator!

Well, that's it for now, but I'll update the post again if I find any more cool features!

Update 11-21-13

If the light on the original Paperwhite bothered you as much as it did for me, check out the 2013 version of the Paperwhite. It is largely the same as the original but has most definitely fixed the blotchy light bleeding issue.