Review: Amazon Kindle Paperwhite really shines

At a Glance
  • Amazon Kindle Paperwhite

Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite is a significant upgrade to Amazon’s flagship Kindle e-reader. By including a light, a high-resolution display, and dramatically updated software, the $119 Kindle Paperwhite catches up to the competition in some ways and exceeds it in others. It’s the first e-reader with both a relatively high-resolution display and a built-in light; and in the Paperwhite, those two features make a compelling combination.

Leave a light on

Amazon
With its light on, the Kindle Paperwhite’s display looks closer to paper.

The big news about the Kindle Paperwhite is suggested by its name: It has a built-in light that, when adjusted to maximum brightness, makes the Kindle’s display look closer to white than to the tinted, newspaper gray typical of E Ink’s electrophoretic ink screens (including this one, when the light is off). The Paperwhite is also the first “traditional” Kindle to come with its own light; on previous models, you had to clip on a separate reading light or use a case with a light built into it if you wanted to read in the dark.

The Paperwhite uses four embedded LEDs to light its surface. The LEDs channel their light into a clear sheet of material that acts as a light guide, diffusing the light across the entire display. The approach is similar to the one Barnes & Noble uses with its Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight, but Amazon’s software implementation adjusts the hue of the lighting so that the page appears whiter as you advance the light level toward the high end of its 24 levels of brightness.

The Paperwhite’s light is brighter and more evenly distributed than the one on the Nook with Glowlight, and the LEDs are not as obvious as those on the Nook. I did notice some shadowing along the bottom of the display, which Amazon said was “by design at the bottom of the screen in the margin of the page where text is not present.”

The Paperwhite offers 24 levels of brightness, but reading is generally satisfactory at nonmaximum brightness.

It didn’t take me long to discover that I preferred to read text on the Paperwhite with its light switched on. Even in daylight, the Paperwhite's light brightens the background, making text look bolder and improving contrast noticeably. On the other hand, even in a darkened room, I wasn't tempted to crank the brightness up all the way. Most of the time, I left it at roughly half brightness—a setting of 12 or 13 on the device’s 24-point scale. The only time when I didn’t feel the need to use the light at all was when I sat in a chair with a reading lamp shining directly onto the Paperwhite’s screen.

I haven’t been using the Paperwhite long enough to vet Amazon’s battery life claims. Amazon’s estimated battery life of 8 weeks of use (30 minutes per day) with the light on at all times is based on a brightness level of 10, slightly below the level I found most comfortable to use.

A high-resolution display

The Kindle Paperwhite’s E Ink display is a big upgrade from the one on past Kindles. It’s a 768-by-1024-pixel, 6-inch display with a resolution of 212 pixels per inch, meaning that this display has 62 percent more pixels than either last year’s Kindle or the current Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight. Amazon isn’t the first company to market with this high-resolution display; iRiver used it in its Story HD e-reader last year.

The higher-resolution display, coupled with the Paperwhite’s careful attention to font rendering, yields text that’s easy on the eyes. Fonts looked smoother than on last year’s Kindle Touch, and this Kindle offers seven of them—four more than were available on its predecessor. That helps make the Paperwhite much more competitive, since the Nook Simple Touch has six fonts, and both the Kobo Touch eReader and the Sony Reader have seven.

Like previous Kindles, the Kindle Paperwhite has eight font-size options, including one of the largest I’ve seen on any e-reader. You can adjust line spacing and margins, too, with three options apiece.

The Kindle Paperwhite substantially improves on the touchscreen technology that the Kindle Touch used. The Touch relied on infrared sensor technology, which required an annoyingly deep recess between its outer edges and its display. The Paperwhite dispenses with that arrangement, in favor of capacitive-touch technology (which has become commonplace on smartphones and tablets, but had not previously appeared on an e-reader).

I found the Paperwhite’s screen highly responsive to my touch, and I noticed that its new matte display surface made it feel more like paper than did the surfaces of other readers I’ve used.

In the end, though, it’s all about the light. When the Paperwhite’s light is turned off, the other improvements in the display are harder to notice. Amazon says that the Paperwhite has 25 percent better contrast, but the company doesn’t specify what it did to achieve that improvement. Text does look blacker, but some of the difference is probably due to the light and to contrast with the Paperwhite’s black bezel. (Unfortunately, the device’s bezel and soft-touch back are surprisingly prone to attracting fingerprints, too.)

So while the upgraded screen resolution, new fonts, and faster page turns undoubtedly contribute to this Kindle's superiority over its predecessors, the Paperwhite’s light makes the whole product shine.

Paperwhite’s design panache

Amazon

Physically, the new Kindle Paperwhite shares many similarities with the Kindle Touch: Both e-readers weigh 7.5 ounces (0.47 pound), and they have almost identical dimensions, differentiated by a mere tenth of an inch in height and width, and a rounding error in depth. The Nook with Glowlight is very close to the Kindles in weight, at 6.95 ounces (0.43 pound).

I found the Paperwhite pleasant to hold in one hand, and its rounded edges helped make it comfortable to grip.

As on the Kindle Touch, you get 2GB of storage aboard the Kindle Paperwhite. There’s no MicroSD card slot, however, unlike on some competing e-readers. And finally, the Kindle Paperwhite lacks the audio jack found on last year’s Kindle Touch, so you should look elsewhere if you want audiobook or text-to-speech support.

When you power on the Kindle Paperwhite, you’ll see Amazon’s dramatic (and overdue) overhaul of its Kindle e-reader home screen, the company's most significant redesign of this feature in years. As a result, the snappy home screen finally catches up to the more visual presentations that rival e-readers offer, though Amazon’s unwelcome penchant for sending you directly to its retail store comes through clearly in this redesign.

Along the top of the display sit a basic navigation bar (with buttons for home, back, light, and Kindle store access), a search bar, and a context-sensitive menu drop-down. Below that, the home screen displays three items (sorted by your choice of recent, title, author, or collections; and segmented by your choice of all items, books, periodicals, documents, or active content). By default, the display shows items' covers, rather than a simple text-based list. The bottom half of the home screen is devoted to a scrollable carousel of store content that leads lead you into the store with a single tap. At the bottom is the current “special offer” advertisement, unless you pay to turn it off.

The new Kindle Paperwhite's home screen.

The Paperwhite’s menu items shift contextually. While reading a book, you can jump directly to an author, shift to landscape mode, sync to the farthest page you've read elsewhere, add a bookmark, or view notes and markings.

For all the changes that Amazon made to Kindle’s software, however, I still don’t like the fact that most in-book navigation is handled at the top of the screen, instead of from the bottom, as on competing e-readers. But at least Amazon has moved a bunch of actions—such as changing fonts, going to a specific location, accessing the X-Ray feature for dissecting and parsing books, and sharing content via social media—from the bottom of the screen to the top; but you still have to move your hand to the top of the screen just to activate the on-screen menus.

Navigating the Kindle remains a bit unusual, too. As on the Kindle Touch, the top inch or so of the 6-inch display is reserved for accessing menus or the toolbar with a single tap. Below that, Amazon divides the screen into regions: A half-inch-wide strip running the length of the left-hand side is for tapping to return to the previous page, and a larger area to the right of that strip is for advancing to the next page. As a result, you can turn pages without having your finger precisely aligned on the right-hand edge of this screen. The arrangement works well and is amenable to taps from either hand.

Amazon’s new Time to Read feature, which gauges your reading speed and then estimates how long it will take you to read or complete a given chapter, appears as a pop-up along the bottom of a page. Though it’s a nifty idea, I found its initial estimates to be wildly inaccurate. Maybe it just needs time to get to know me better.

In-book navigation remains a sticking point, too. You first tap the main menu, then tap Go To, and then select from among cover, beginning, end, and page/location. Unlike some of its rivals, the Paperwhite lacks a slider to help you see where you are in a book at a glance.

Like its predecessors, the Kindle Paperwhite won’t display books in the ePub file format, but it handles Amazon’s format, as well as text, PDF, unprotected Mobi, and PRC. In addition, the device can convert files saved in other formats, such as HTML and DOCX, if you email the files to your Kindle. (If you have lots of ePub-formatted books, you can use a free tool such as Calibre to convert them to Mobi format.)

Finally, Amazon remains the only e-reader manufacturer that still offers a 3G version. You can use the 3G service globally at no additional charge for downloading books, which makes the $179 Kindle Paperwhite 3G a great choice for frequent travelers, or for anyone who values the connectivity convenience. For either the 3G model or the Wi-Fi model, you must pay $20 extra to ditch the ads.

Bottom line

With the Kindle Paperwhite’s integrated illumination and dramatic software redesign, Amazon has meaningfully improved the everyday experience of using its top-tier Kindle. Though the nontouch Kindle is now available at a bargain price at $69, the $119 Kindle Paperwhite offers greater flexibility and easier navigation—advantages that you’re likely to appreciate in day-to-day use. If you’re already committed to the Kindle ecosystem, this is a worthy upgrade. And if you’re new to e-readers, you'll find that the Paperwhite offers serious competition to Barnes & Noble’s $119 Simple Touch with Glowlight.

At a Glance
  • The new Kindle Paperwhite is a dramatic update inside and out, one with fully redesigned software and an appealing integrated light that makes the Kindle more usable in any environment.