Hands On: Amazon’s New Kindle Paperwhite Is a Really, Really Refined E-Reader

A great e-reader for serious readers is getting just a little bit better still.

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Amazon's new-and-improved Kindle Paperwhite e-reader, showing the upcoming GoodReads feature

Last  September 30, I reviewed Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite e-reader, the latest in a long line of Kindles with monochrome E Ink displays, focused on book reading rather than video, music, apps, games and other fancy stuff. I thought it was the best Kindle yet — including the Kindle Fire models, which do let you do the fancy stuff — and one of the year’s best products, period.

This year, the Kindle Paperwhite becomes obsolete on September 30. Or, more precisely, that’s the day that the Paperwhite I liked so much gets replaced by a new one with the same snappy name. Amazon briefed me on the upcoming model today, and I got a bit of time to try it out.

The original Paperwhite is far better than the Kindle Touch it replaced, mostly because of its display. And the best thing about that 6″ screen is that it sported battery-sipping LED illumination that you can leave on all the time, and still get weeks of life between charges. It makes the screen attractive and legible and generally paper-like in any lighting environment, from a darkened bedroom to the beach.

The new Paperwhite, however, isn’t a similar radical improvement over its predecessor. Instead, it’s still the Paperwhite — in virtually the same case — only with lots of little improvement. It’s an ultra-refined version of what was already the most refined product in its category.

I just said that the earlier Paperwhite’s screen is “attractive and legible,” but that statement needs to be asterisked. In some environments, the illumination is a tad uneven along the bottom edge of the screen where the LEDs beam light onto the page. It doesn’t interfere with the words on the page, but does remind you that you were holding an electronic device rather than a magical dead-tree book.

Amazon says that it’s pretty much eliminated that visual faux pas in the new Paperwhite, and indeed, I couldn’t detect any unevenness when I checked the e-reader out. The Paperwhite uses a new version of the E Ink technology, exclusive to Amazon, with 25 percent better contrast. The unsightly flashing effect when you flip the page happens only rarely, as long as it’s a text-only book — maybe as rarely as once per chapter, according to Amazon.

The new model uses an improved, more responsive touch screen, and a zippier processor that lets you open books, turn pages and perform other tasks with less delay. In the time I had with the e-reader, it got closer than any previous Kindle to accomplishing what Jeff Bezos has always said is the overarching goal: disappearing in your hands. And Amazon says that it’ll still run for eight weeks on a charge if you read for half an hour a day.

From a software standpoint, the new Paperwhite is also more polished than the original model. The X-Ray feature — which lets you pull up information on the book as you read — sports some improvements: If you ask for a definition of a word with more than one meaning, it’s more likely to provide information on the most appropriate meaning given the context of the book. Another feature called Vocabulary Builder lets you review words you’ve looked up as you’ve read Kindle books.

A neat new navigational option lets you scrub backwards and forwards in a book to see other pages without leaving the one you’re on. That’s the closest thing I’ve seen yet to a digital equivalent of one of the most pleasing things about paper publications: how easily they let you flip back and forth between two places. Footnotes also pop up in place now on the page they reference rather than forcing you to bop around.

Two other software features won’t be available when the new Paperwhite ships at the end of this month, but Amazon plans to release them as a software update by Thanksgiving time. One is a version of FreeTime, the Kindle feature already on Kindle Fire models that lets parents turn a Kindle over to a kid with certain restrictions and incentives. (You can block which books they can read, lock out the Kindle Store and set allotted reading times; kids can also receive badges for achievements such as reading for a given amount of time or completing a book.)

The other still-to-come feature is a built-in version of GoodReads, the social network for book lovers Amazon acquired in May. Once it’s in there, GoodReads members will be able to show their pals what they’re reading from within the Kindle interface.

Like the model it’s replacing, the new Paperwhite is $119 for a Wi-Fi version or $189 with built-in 3G for downloading books. A more bare-bones Kindle, without the illuminated touch screen and latest version of E Ink, remains in the lineup at $69.

As nice as this e-reader looks, I don’t think owners of the current-generation model will be crushed to learn they’re about to become owners of previous-generation Paperwhites. The new features aren’t that enticing. Mostly, I’m happy that the e-reader category remains popular enough that Amazon is still updating the Kindle as briskly as it ever did. (It isn’t alone, either: Kobo, one of its underdog rivals, also just announced a fancy new e-reader.)

And current Paperwhite owners who do covet the new model’s goodies may eventually get some of them: Amazon says that it hopes to release a software update for the original model, giving it new features that aren’t contingent on the latest model’s upgraded hardware and faster processor. Sounds good to me — I own the current model and keep it on my nightstand, even though I do most of my e-reading on my phone and iPad.