Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kindle Paperwhite

Yeah yeah I know, I've been bad. I haven't been writing here and you're all heartbroken. By now, I'm sure you've gotten over it with minimal tears. This blog pops up in my mind but has just fallen lower in my priority list. I'm writing this post in hopes that it will energize me into writing posts with some regularity again!

Kindle Paperwhite Review

(Disclaimer: I do work for Amazon but I do not work for the part of the company that produces hardware or software for the Kindle. I'm sure in some indirect way your purchase of a Kindle does benefit me, but I only buy into Amazon products that I like. I'm certainly not being paid to write this review - quite the contrary, I paid out of pocket for the full price of this device.)

I bought my first Kindle a couple of years ago now. It was the Kindle Keyboard (i.e. the third Kindle release) and I had gotten it because I felt like the Kindle folks had finally hit their stride (see that review). The color was immediately attractive to me, the form factor and weight overall was ideal for one handed reading, and the speed was reasonable enough to where the black flashes on the screen didn't bug me. That being said, I almost never used the keyboard, navigating the screen on the directional pad was a chore, and I needed a $60 case in order to read in dim lighting in an elegant way (the first party lighted leather case). Last winter I jumped on the Kindle Touch bandwagon (see that review) for one primary reason: the infared touch screen. The idea of not having to use that stupid d-pad was very enticing. Additionally, there was X-ray (which sideloads Wikipedia content for characters, places, and terms in books and tells you where in the book they're mentioned), a greatly improved case (the old case had a serious issue with the connection to the spine), and a page refresh that didn't require blacking out the screen each time. Of course, the case was still $60 in order to read in dim lighting and the smooth leather case attracted scratches like a magnet. All-in-all, this was an evolutionary step forward that I only took because of how much more I loved the Kindle than practically any other device I owned.

Flash forward to two and a half weeks ago when I got my Kindle Paperwhite: there's no doubt that this is superior in nearly every way to every single Kindle ever made and now is the time to jump on the e-Reader bandwagon if you've been holding out. I'm very confident that if you enjoy reading or if you're like me and enjoy reading except when it means squinting for tiny text or lugging around heavy books, you will not regret getting a Paperwhite. I'll start out talking about the new features and what I like about it before I get to some of the areas for improvement.

With each Kindle, the team has gotten better at making the onboarding experience as pain-free as possible. The Paperwhite was no exception. While I do slightly miss the fact that in the past my Kindle already had my account information on it (could be that for some unknown reason mine didn't while others did), the onscreen tutorial as soon as you switch it on is awesome. You're ready to start using it within a couple of minutes as long as you have connectivity (WiFi or 3G if you got the 3G model). One key difference on the onboarding experience this time is that they no longer make you suffer as an existing customer - getting your content on there is much easier. They've changed the UI to be more like the Amazon MP3 Player UI (and I think even the Kindle UI on non-Kindles) where you have "Cloud" section and  a "Device" section with the major improvement of a drop down for type of content (Periodical, Book, etc). So now, you just scroll through your cloud content and tap the stuff you want to transfer over to your device. Since the Kindle Touch, any personal documents you've transferred to your device through Amazon is backed up in the cloud up to a reasonably high limit (books you buy through Amazon are backed up without limit). So I had over 100 items to transfer over, but because the Paperwhite is a bit zippier than past Kindles I was able to tap all the items I cared about (probably 3/4 of my library) in under 5 minutes, and over WiFi it was short work to get them all on there (notes, bookmarks, and all). What's even better though is that you can now sync your collections, as well! Once you've downloaded the content, you can sync that metadata and it'll organize all your content within seconds into their old collections. Cool, huh?

New Way of Indexing Your Content
Enough gushing about onboarding, let's move on to the UI. I like it, I like it a lot. Instead of the boring lists of text approach of the Kindle Touch that carried over from the pedigree of Kindles lacking a touch interface, there's now more of a cover flow-like interface (see photo to left) that uses the covers of purchased books or the first page of personal documents sent via "Sent to Kindle" (otherwise just some text in a box). It fits 6 covers on a page and it totally looks more polished to have this. You still get X-ray as in Kindles past, so nothing surprising there, and you still tap 3/4 of the right side of the screen to go forward (or swipe right to left), 1/4 of left side of screen to go back (or swipe left to right), and top 1/5th of screen for menu (including the home icon). However, there are three new features that are wonderful. The first is the time left in your chapter or book. It's actually quite accurate. If you vary the pace you read at or linger too much on pages caught up in daydreams then maybe it's not so good for you, but it seems to be adaptive. So if you start reading something slowly and then speed up a bunch, it will adjust, I've noticed. I'm still not sure if it's per book or per device, but I do know that information isn't stored in the cloud or anything - that math is done on the device itself and if you were to wipe the device it'd go back to defaults. The sacrifice is that you have to hit the menu area at the top to get to the page number, but if you tap the lower left corner it cycles between time left in chapter, time left in book, and Kindle proprietary location. The second main change is the addition of more fonts - I was taken aback at how cool this is. For certain books certain fonts really pop - I'm reading The Princess Bride right now, primarily, and using Futura makes it feel so much more like a real book to me. As advertised, you can go one font size smaller than before, which I don't ever use but it's just as sharp as you'd expect even at that size. Oh, and of course the physical home button is gone. I thought I'd miss this but I surprisingly enough do not at all. The last major change is in the upper right corner of the navigation screens - you can not only change how you sort but how you filter (collections, novels, periodicals, etc), which is a small detail but very nice to have.

Getting down to the screen itself, there are some real revolutionary changes here. First of all, it's capacitive touch. I thought this would never be possible and I could be totally wrong but I haven't heard of another e-reader pulling this off. The Kindle Touch IR touch screen was fine but took some getting used to and meant that objects other than your hands like maybe a piece of cloth from your blanket falling on the screen would turn pages. Now, much like your smartphone it requires your finger specifically to turn pages (or a sausage, but if you're reading with raw meats in your hand then you're an odd duck). Secondly, the lighting technology is phenomenal. While it's true that you can't see the light coming out of one side of the device like you can on the latest generation Nook, you can see around all the edges the slightest hint of the layer of light under the screen if you turn it at the exact right angle. Plus, at the bottom you see the tiniest bit of fading under dark conditions. Other than that, it's stunning. Everyone that I've shown it to has been equally impressed. Even better: even at its lowest brightness (which you control very easily via the top menu from any context on the device you're in), it's a good bit whiter than the Kindle Touch was. You'll notice this in the below photos with my old case light on versus Paperwhite max lighting and no light on either. For the first time ever, I really at times felt like I was reading a paper back book in high definition. In the past the e-ink has always impressed and been super easy on my eyes, but the grayish brown background always made it feel like an e-reader, which wasn't a big deal to me. However, it's a very nice touch that you'll almost immediately appreciate. I like how under well-lit situations, keeping the light somewhere in the middle just improves the contrast and feels nice on my eyes, and turning it up to the max it doesn't even seem like it's backlit at all, just even prettier than before. In darker situations, I can turn it down to the lower half of the lighting spectrum and read without issue or eye irritation versus a bright white screen. I've only done this for 20 minute bouts because reading in the dark a ton isn't great for you, but if your lamp just isn't that bright, the Paperwhite has got your back. One other thing you may notice in my photos is the contrast improvement. It's subtle, but it's there. I couldn't really tell between the Kindle Keyboard and the Kindle Touch, but I totally can now. Don't get me wrong, it's not a life-changing improvement, but within an hour or so of reading on my Paperwhite I could feel in my eyes that something was just different other than the whiter background, and on super close inspection realized it was the addition of more pixels.

Paperwhite Max Brightness vs. Kindle Touch with Lighted Case

Up Close with Kindle Paperwhite and Kindle Touch (no light added)

A recurring issue for me in the past was the case - so how does this one stack up? This is the first Kindle case where I'd give a five star rating. It's outstanding and a great value at $40. I loved that they brought back the textured leather - it doesn't scratch up and it grips so much better in my hands. The magnetic clasp is an inspired touch. It may have been inspired by Apple, but I'll take it. It's the perfect balance between the Kindle Keyboard strap and the Kindle Touch free-balling look. When held in funky positions or dropped it doesn't fly open, but it takes very little exertion to get it open. The best part for dorks out there like me is the auto on/off thing. I thought it was just a gimmick when I heard about it, but having used it for a couple of weeks now I'm just blown away by how much it enhances my experience. I can literally read a little bit while waiting on an elevator for a second because it turns on so quickly and I love that I can shut it without being worried about hitting the physical home button the Kindle Touch had or even the IR screen itself because I know there is no physical button and that it'll turn off immediately. I like that the inside of the front cover has a nice texture to it that looks really polished and that the side, top, and bottom are a little rubbery to absorb shock better. Just as before, the Paperwhite fits so snug that you'll never have to worry about it falling out of the case or getting damaged because of how solid the shell is.

So as I alluded to earlier, I do have a couple of minor gripes. I'm bummed that they did away with the swipe up and swipe down gestures. Formerly, these gestures let you skip chapters and I loved it. I'm probably going to write in to the Kindle folks and beg them to bring back this feature. I don't know why it went away. Speaking of cut features,  why can't I toggle WiFi on/off from the top menu? I have to go to settings now to switch airplane mode on/off. That makes it harder to conserve battery life because of the added work so I'll probably sync less often. One other lost feature: text-to-speech. They cut the speakers and headphone jack out very quietly (coincidentally), so you'll have to opt for the cheap Kindle model if you're visually impaired, which probably makes more sense. I'm not a fan of the black color. My favorite Kindle color is still the graphite from the Kindle Keyboard. It's nice that the back is more rubbery than the smooth Kindle Touch back, but the bezel being black means that it retains your hand grease more easily (the screen itself doesn't seem to, mainly just the bezel). The fact that the home screen has a bottom row dedicated to recommendations and hot titles is kind of cool, but I wish it was opt-out. I'd prefer to use the screen real estate for more collections. Plus, it doesn’t even exclude books I've already bought, which is disappointing; hopefully that'll get fixed later. Speaking of ads, the ad-supported device only saves you $20 and requires a swipe-to-unlock (because of the new case, I'm guessing). I think going ad-supported is silly now because of this - it was a lot more sensible in past Kindles.  One last gripe: the Paperwhite still isn't lighter. I'm guessing they compromised here in favor of the battery life. With the case on, it actually does feel a little easier to hold in one hand than the Kindle Touch, but still not quite as nice as the Kindle Keyboard.

A couple of last notes: the jury is still out for me on battery life. It's doing pretty well overall, but after decent usage for a week and some change the battery is at maybe 70%. So I don't think it'll hold up to the two months I was promised (even with WiFi off), but I think it'll easily meet at least the month that my old Kindle had even with the lighted screen, and I'm perfectly satisfied with that. It's slightly zippier overall than the Kindle Touch. Page turns are a little faster and the black screen flashes are so quick that you really barely even notice them. Web browsing is a little better, too, but still nothing to write home about.

Ok, I think I've said enough here - as a whole, I hope I've given you a pretty good idea of what the Kindle Paperwhite is like. If you own a Kindle 1 or 2, you need to upgrade to this. Even if you have the Kindle Keyboard and Kindle Touch, I'd say this is a nice upgrade but probably more valuable for the Kindle Keyboard users. Personally, I don't at all regret my upgrade from the Kindle Touch. I really feel like it was much more sensible than my upgrade from the Kindle Keyboard. Book lovers unite - you finally have a device truly worthy of your affection.