I used to read a lot, but as I aged and gained responsibilities, books became less central to my life. When I moved to a new city with a poor local library that was just a little too far out of the way my habit of reading died a silent death – and it took more than a year before I even realized.
Then, one day, it hit me: ‘I’ve forgotten about reading. I need to fix this’. My local library wasn’t going to move any closer to my apartment, so I looked into getting a Kindle and settled on the non-touch, D-pad version. Access to books was no longer a problem, and my reading went up.
But not by a lot.
Why? I loved my new Kindle and, reading my first book on it, The Diamond Age was a joy. But my optimal reading time is just before bed and, though the D-pad Kindle’s screen was great, its low contrast made night-time reading, even with an Anglerfish-style book light, difficult.
So when Amazon announced the Kindle Paperwhite, I ordered one immediately with the hope that it might replace my current Kindle and the improved, glowing screen would increase the amount I read.
First Impressions: Fatter, Brighter, Better
My first thought on lifting the Paperwhite was: ‘This feels like a brick’. Of course, it’s nowhere near that heavy, but I was accustomed to the weightless feeling D-pad Kindle.
The D-pad Kindle weighs 5.98 ounces (170g) while the Paperwhite is 7.5 ounces (213g). It’s only 25% heavier but that’s enough to make the Paperwhite just a bit too heavy to comfortably use one-handed.
The back of the Paperwhite feels like it’s covered with hard rubber. This might make the Paperwhite more resistant to drops, but it feels cheap – as though it has been engineered with careless children in mind.
But, the initial tactile impression aside, turning on the Paperwhite revealed why I bought it in the first place: the screen.
E-ink screens are nothing like computer screens. My D-pad Kindle has been the most enjoyable reading experience since my trusty old Palm III. But, the reason these screens are so great is because they’re not backlit.
Reading on a computer or iPad is like looking into a flashlight upon which paper cutout words have been placed. Sort of like the bat signal: it’s readable, but not ideal.
The absence of light was the key selling feature on the previous Kindles, so I was dubious about adding a light, in spite of Jeff Bezos’s nanoimprinted promises.
But, I was wrong to doubt. The paperwhite has achieved what I thought impossible: an illuminated screen that doesn’t blast light in your eyes. The effect is as though there’s a magic lamp in the room that only shines evenly across the Paperwhite’s screen.
In comparison the D-pad Kindle’s screen looks hopelessly low contrast with its dark gray text on light green-gray background.
The Paperwhite’s screen with its illumination is much higher contrast. Though I never thought I would, I leave the light on all the time. I didn’t realize how constrained by room lighting I was before when I wanted to read – always needing to align myself with a source of lighting before getting started. Now, there is no awkward couch position or room illumination that isn’t perfect for reading.
Unfortunately, the screen has a darker area near the top-center that is a little irritating. I’ve exchanged my Paperwhite not once, not twice but thrice (Amazon’s customer service is great) trying to get a perfect screen but they all have some slight amount of blueish, brownish distortion.
The only reason this bothers me is because the rest of the screen looks so good. Even with the slightly dark patch, I’ve never read a page of text this well illuminated. It’s just beautiful – now if only Amazon can just get the lighting even across the whole screen, it will be perfect.
There is also some irregular light at the bottom of the screen, where the LEDs are, that I’ve heard people complain about but, it doesn’t bother me as the shadows (mostly) don’t reach the text.
The Kindle Paperwhite comes with six typeface choices: Baskerville, Caecilia, Caceilia Condensed, Futura, Helvetica and Palatino. There was a big fuss at the product announcement over how the typefaces were lovingly handcrafted to be pixel perfect on the new screen – and perhaps they were – but Amazon should have picked better typefaces to pamper.
Helvetica is the IBM of typefaces: boring, but no one ever got fired for using it. Futura, the other sans-serif, is great for the Internet but hideous for reading long-form text.
Baskerville is a fine, honest typeface but not the best choice for the Paperwhite. While the increased resolution of the Paperwhite is an improvement over the previous generations, it’s still not quite good enough to render a thin typeface like Baskerville at a small size. A full page of Baskerville looks a bit uneven with some of the letter forms lighter than others – almost like a photocopy.
This leaves just two typefaces: Palatino, a thin serif which suffers from the same problems as Baskerville, and Caecilia which, by means of attrition, is the only reasonable choice.
The sizes, margin and line spacing options are fine, though could perhaps do with a bit more granularity – I’m never quite settled between text size four (a bit too small) and size five (a bit too large).
There is one further mistake that is completely unforgivable: Kindle’s full justified text is an abomination in the eyes of the typographic gods.
Seriously, full justified text is only used by students trying to puff up the look of their papers and by those who don’t know any better.
It’s terrible is because full justified text makes the spaces between words uneven which is a more uncomfortable reading experience. I understand that doing proper text hyphenation, giving you both a straight right side to paragraphs and even spacing between the letters is difficult, but is it too much to ask for from the largest ebook retailer in the world? I think not.
Barring text hyphenation, I beg of thee, Jeff Bezos please give Kindles the option to left-justify text. All I want is even spacing between my words.
Better than a Book or an iPad
This review may thus-far seem like mostly complaints, but don’t get me wrong: my Kindle Paperwhite is better than a book or an iPad.
The worst thing about reading on my iPad is that I’m reading on my iPad. Email and Twitter are just a double-home-button press away. As the Internet has become more the center of my life it’s increasingly difficult not to check in on it. One of the Kindle’s biggest advantages is its inability to get on the Internet in a remotely usable way.
“So what,” you say. “Books haven’t been able to get on the Internet since 1440”. True, but books from the library are disgusting objects filled with germs and stains of uncontemplatable origins. Newly bought store books are better (minus the expense) but still heavy, awkward to hold at the beginning and the end, and are completely unsearchable. Which brings us to the next section:
Touchscreen: The Highlight of a Workflow
The vast majority of books I read are non-fiction and many of these are read not for pleasure but as research for my videos. As such, being able to highlight books and reference those highlights later is a must.
Though I’m heavily invested in Apple’s ecosystem, I don’t use iBooks because of their limited highlights. While iBooks does allow you to highlight text it’s nearly impossible to get those highlights out in a useful way, to say nothing of simply trying to look at them on a laptop.
Amazon, however, is nothing if not omnipresent and has Kindle readers for the iPhone, iPad and most importantly, desktop computers. When I’m working on a video I can easily pull up a related book on my Laptop and see the highlights I’ve made.
I can even go to the Kindle website and copy the highlights into Evernote. Awesome.
The Paperwhite’s touch screen is good enough that it makes typing out notes attached to highlights a possibility – something I wouldn’t ever consider doing with the D-pad Kindle, even though it was theoretically possible.
But the touch screen does come with a big cost over the D-pad…
Lets imagine you’re reading a book. What’s the thing you’re going to do the most? That’s right: turn the page.
Now imagine that you’re in charge of making the world’s best ebook reader. What experience should you make the most pleasant? That’s right: page turning.
One of the best features of the D-pad Kindle was the dedicated page-turn buttons on the side of the device. They weren’t great buttons, but an adequate physical button for a frequently used task is 1,000 times better than the best touch-screen function could ever be.
Removing the buttons from the Kindle Paperwhite is a baffling decision. Page-turn buttons never made accidental pages and resting a thumb on the button, waiting to turn the page was simple and mindless.
As lazy as this sounds, a swipe or tap is a tiny distraction for every page turn. Gestures also make using the device one-handed just a bit more difficult.
The Kindle Paperwhite has three basic touch zones: most of the screen turns the page, while about an inch along the top brings up the menu and a bar along the left side goes back a page.
As I usually hold my Kindle in my left hand I looked for the setting to flip the tap zones to a left-handed mode. But, sadly, there is none. While it’s not too uncomfortable to do a swipe with my left thumb to turn the page, it’s another little dagger in my side that makes me miss the physical buttons of the D-pad Kindle.
The advantage of a dedicated ebook reader is that it’s a dedicated ebook reader. Unlike the iPad which has to be flexible, the Amazon engineers know exactly what people will use a Kindle to do: read. Taking away a button for the most-used task is a poor decision. If put in charge of the Kindle hardware team my number one priority would be to find the most satisfying button to click.
In the end, the Kindle Paperwhite reminds me a lot of my 3rd generation Retina iPad: a device with a great screen, that comes with some compromises.
But I bought the Kindle Paperwhite, to increase the amount I read, particularly when in bed, and to that end it is an unqualified success.
There is a little detail in the Paperwhite that I didn’t think much of at first but now can’t imagine reading without: on the bottom of the page it displays the approximate reading time left in the chapter – and this is no guess, but based on your actual reading speed. This seemingly minor addition allows me to make intelligent how-sleepy-am-I vs how-much-do-I-want-to-read-the-next chapter decisions that makes the whole process of reading at night frictionless.
If you’re thinking about getting an ebook reader, the Kindle Paperwhite, despite some of its irritations, is the one I highly recommend.