Amazon Kindle Paperwhite Review: The Screen Makes It the Best E-Reader Yet

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We live in the era of gadgets that want to do it all. The typical smartphone of 2012, for instance, isn’t content to just be a phone. It also wishes to be a PC, a still camera, a camcorder, a music player, a gaming console, a navigational aid, a portable TV and a videoconferencing system.   Third-party apps give it thousands of additional capabilities.

Everyone, it seems, is  trying to be a King of All Trades. With one fascinating exception: e-readers.

Back in 2007, Amazon defined the category with the original Kindle. It had a monochrome E Ink display that wasn’t of much use for anything except displaying text-centric books. But its long battery life, seamless on-device bookstore and relentless simplicity made it the first compelling digital alternative to Mr. Gutenberg’s venerable invention. More recent E Ink Kindles, as well as e-readers from Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and others, are all twists on the same basic idea.

Amazon, of course, isn’t ignoring the siren song of device convergence. Its new Kindle Fire HD tablet attempts to do most of the things which Apple’s iPad does, at 40 percent of the price. But the Kindle Paperwhite shows Amazon still understands that single-purpose e-readers aren’t headed for the dustbin of gizmo history anytime soon. The company is beginning to ship this new e-reader on Monday, and loaned a unit to me for review.

(MORE: My First 21 Questions About Amazon’s New Kindle Devices)

The Paperwhite, which starts at $119, is no half-hearted sop for tablet-phobic Luddites: It’s an all-new model that’s a vast improvement on last year’s Kindle Touch. It’s also better at accomplishing its particular goals than the buggy Kindle Fire HD is at realizing its aims. For consuming text-centric books and other reading materials, it’s a joy.

Ensconced in a minimalist black case, the Paperwhite is a tad thinner, narrower and shorter than its predecessor. (I was able to stow it in my pants pocket.) It uses smartphone-style capacitive touch technology instead of the earlier model’s infrared touch; that allows Amazon to make the screen nearly flush with the bezel.

The new Kindle also eliminates some capabilities of the Kindle Touch: It’s ditched its speakers and headphone jack, which means that it can’t play digital music and Audible  audiobooks or use text-to-speech technology to narrate books in a voice that sounds like a Scandinavian cyborg. Amazon apparently concluded that people buy e-readers to, well, read.

But every change in the Kindle Paperwhite is minor compared to the  one which inspired its name: the new screen. Still based on E Ink, and still measuring 6″ diagonally, it improves the resolution and contrast and adds illumination, aiming for the most paper-like reading experience of any e-reader yet.

Now, e-readers with light-up E Ink screens are nothing new. Five months ago, Barnes & Noble, Amazon’s e-reading archrival, released the first truly pleasing one, the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight. That model takes the already-solid Nook Simple Touch and adds LED lights along the top edge of the screen. Holding a button for two seconds switches on the lighting — making the screen perfectly readable in murky environments or a pitch-black bedroom with a snoozing significant other at your side.

The Nook with GlowLight’s light-up screen is good. But the one on the Kindle Paperwhite? It’s spectacular — the best thing to happen to e-readers since the original 2007 Kindle came along.

For one thing, it’s the first e-reader with illumination that’s designed to stay on all the time, not just when it’s absolutely necessary. It turns on every time you press the Paperwhite’s power button. In dark rooms, it makes the display readable when the previous Kindle would have suffered a blackout. But it also helps in brighter environs and even outside in direct sunlight, largely eliminating the unappetizing greyish look of E Ink.

The Nook with GlowLight’s illumination is inconsistent: You can see the LEDs shooting light down onto the display. On the Paperwhite, the LEDs sit along the bottom edge of the screen rather than the top, and do a much better job of flooding it with plentiful light. A bit of unevenness is detectable along the very bottom, but it’s usually subtle.

It’s not just the continuous, vibrant illumination which makes the Paperwhite’s screen more paperlike. The resolution is 768-by-1028, compared to 600-by-800 for previous Kindles and the Nook Simple Touch models. Amazon says it’s upped the contrast by 25%, and it’s also added hand-tweaked fonts for greater typographical sophistication and variety. Text is blacker and crisper; photos are noticeably less washed-out looking.

With so much about the Paperwhite screen representing such an advance on previous models and the competition, E Ink’s remaining downsides — it’s monochromatic and sluggish compared to an LCD, with an occasional flashing effect as you flip pages — are less bothersome than ever. It’s the first E Ink display that doesn’t feel like a mixed blessing.

If the Paperwhite’s screen were a battery hog, it might not be worth the tradeoff. But Amazon says that the Paperwhite will go for up to eight weeks if you read for a half-hour a day with the light set at 10. That’s less than half its maximum, most paper-white brightness setting, but still enough to make it legible in all sorts of lighting.

I haven’t attempted to verify that claim myself: If I did, I might not be able to complete this review until Thanksgiving. But it seems to be a significant advance on the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, which advertises up to a month of reading time with the light turned on, also based on a half-hour-a-day assumption. (Why both Amazon and Barnes & Noble don’t state their claimed life more directly — up to 28 hours and about 15 hours, respectively — I do not know.)

$119 gets you a Kindle Paperwhite with 2GB of storage and infinite cloud storage for e-books you buy from Amazon — enough to build a bigger library than you ever owned in dead-tree form. A $179 model includes free built-in 3G service, so you can download e-books without relying on wi-fi. But hotspots are so plentiful these days that I suspect most people will be happier purchasing the $119 version and spending the $60 they save on reading material.

Amazon is keeping a stripped-down Kindle without the lit touchscreen in the lineup at a rock-bottom $69, as well as a model with the the old screen and a physical keyboard and 3G for $139. But if your budget permits you to buy the Kindle Paperwhite, you should choose it over Amazon’s other E Ink devices.

As for Barnes & Noble, it made an utterly unshocking move today by knocking $20 off the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, matching the Paperwhite’s $119 price. (There is no 3G version.)

Even with Paperwhite/GlowLight price parity, expect B&N to helpfully remind you of a couple of points in the Nook with GlowLight’s favor: It doesn’t include any advertising — unless you count the “What to Read Next” suggestions on the home screen — and includes an AC adapter. The Kindle Paperwhite puts what Amazon calls Special Offers (also known as ads) on its screen saver and at the bottom of the home screen, and comes with a USB cable but no wall charger.

You can turn off the Paperwhite’s Special Offers for $20 — although Amazon says that few buyers of existing Kindles go to the trouble — and add a wall charger for $10, bringing the price to $149, or $209 for the 3G model.

The Nook with GlowLight isn’t without other virtues. It’s slightly over half an ounce lighter than the 7.5-oz. Paperwhite, and some readers might find its wider, more sculpted case easier to grip. (Using the flat, thin-framed Kindle feels a bit like reading off a handheld blackboard.) The Nook has a physical button for accessing features and returning to the home screen, while the Kindle makes you jab at the top of the screen to get to its various options. B&N’s reader also  lets you turn pages by pressing the edges of the case as well as by moving your thumb to tap the display, although it requires a rather firm squeeze to register.

Even the GlowLight’s great big power button on the back is more thoughtfully designed than its Paperwhite counterpart. Judging from both the Kindle Paperwhite and the Kindle Fire HD, Amazon has a deeply-held belief that power buttons should be dinky, oddly-placed things that are tough to find and press.

When it comes to content, Amazon seems to have the edge overall. It says it has 180,000 exclusive titles, and it lets members of its $79-a-year Amazon Prime service check out one book a month from a library of 180,000 tomes at no additional charge. Still, with massive quantities of books available on both platforms, including many free or nearly-free public-domain items, plus hundreds of magazines and dozens of newspapers, no buyer of either a Kindle or a Nook will ever run short on stuff to read.

Unlike the Nook with GlowLight, the Kindle Paperwhite still has a very basic web browser built in. Amazon has been describing it as “experimental” for half a decade now, which seems to be a code word for “Don’t expect too much.” Its store also includes 74 downloadable apps — mainly traditional games such as chess, checkers and sudoku, none of which are major arguments in favor of buying a Kindle.

The bottom line is that the Kindle Paperwhite and the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight are both well-done gadgets. Each one has some advantages over the other; neither has any crippling flaws.

But that doesn’t mean that these two e-readers are evenly matched. Amazon decisively wins this round, thanks to its remarkable new screen. Unless you’ve already invested copious amounts of money in e-books from Barnes & Noble or another company — most of them aren’t easy to move onto Amazon’s hardware — the Kindle Paperwhite is the e-reader to buy. It’s the best one that Amazon, or anyone, has built to date. It’s also the best product that Amazon has sold under the Kindle moniker — a refreshing reminder that there’s always room for a device that does one thing really, really well.

MORE: Why PC Companies Fear Amazon

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