Hardware Review: Amazon Kindle Paperwhite.

Hardware Review: Amazon Kindle Paperwhite.

[This post doesn’t address the eBooks / Digital books vs Real Books / Printed Books argument. Mostly because it’s a silly one that doesn’t warrant much discussion – the tl;dr? Let people read however they want, even if you consider it distasteful.]

At the end of November 2010 I treated myself to the then current iteration of Amazons Kindle eReader – the Kindle Keyboard. I’d initially been dismissive of eReaders, at least when it came to how useful I’d personally find one, but having had the opportunity to borrow and use one over the course of a week or so, I decided it would be a worthwhile investment, so I decided to buy one.

At a cost of £109 the device did represent a bit of a gamble, in terms of if I’d find it useful in my day to day life – I justified the purchase by noting that the money I would save reading public domain content from Project Gutenberg would save me more money than the device itself. So the Kindle was ordered – it arrived on November 26th.

It would immediately become one of the best purchases I’d made from both a technological perspective, and in terms of just plain being useful. My initial concern – that I might only use the device to read out of copyright classics, was, I’m happy to report, unfounded and the device became a device I used on an almost daily basis.

Flashforward to now, and I still use my eReader regularly. Indeed, as of the writing of this I’ve read seven books in 2013 – five of them were eBooks, two physical books. Whilst I don’t have a detailed breakdown of the formats I read in 2012, that seems about right – for every two physical books I read, I’ll read five eBooks.

Which brings me to December 31st 2012, and my decision to treat myself, and upgrade to a Kindle Paperwhite. The Kindle Paperwhite was first announced and shown to journalists on September 6th¹, before being released to consumers on October 1st. The device was released in the UK a few months later. And so began the endless “Do I or Don’t I?” upgrade question.

In the end, despite some of the negative reviews the device had received from users, I decided to go ahead and buy one. Ideally I’d have bought it from Waterstone’s, but I’m not paying to buy a device crippled with firmware updates that put advertising on the device, so James Daunt lost a potential sale [plus commission on eBook sales in the future] and Mr. Tesco gained one.

That was December 31st. It’s taken until now for me to review the device for a few reasons.

Firstly I wanted to experience using the device for at least a month. I also wanted to use the device to read a few books, both during the day and during the evening / into the night, so as to experience using the device in different lighting conditions.

And secondly, because I had two technical glitches that contributed to what was initially a very, very negative reaction to the device. But before that, time for a little background on the device itself.

The Paperwhite is Amazons’ fifth generation eReader, and the first from the company to have a built in lighting solution. Whilst still using the “traditional” eInk displays found in most dedicated eReaders, the Paperwhite has a front lighting solution, that allows users to read in a variety of lighting conditions. Whilst not the first eReader on the market to have a front-light, Amazon claims the lighting solution used in the Paperwhite is the most advanced currently on the market.

Unfortunately, said lighting has been at the centre of most of the negative reviews of the device, with users complaining that the lighting along the bottom of the screen is uneven, and can make it look like someone with ink on their fingers has been touching the device. This problem was one of my main concerns before buying the device, and was one of the two problems mentioned earlier, that delayed my writing of this review.

First impressions.

IMG00711

Kindle Paperwhite, with the new image based user interface.

For me, the first thing I noticed was just how much smaller, and lighter the Paperwhite is, when compared to the Kindle Keyboard [Amazons’ third generation model.]. The lack of a physical keyboard, coupled with the removal of the physical previous / next page buttons, means the Paperwhite is noticeably smaller than the Kindle Keyboard. The images below show how small the device is, relative to a paperback novel, and the Kindle Keyboard:

One of the reasons why I’d resisted upgrading in previous years – other than the fact my Kindle Keyboard still worked perfectly fine [and continues to do so] is that I wasn’t very comfortable with the idea of a touchscreen interface on an eReader. I like the physical page turn buttons – I felt they suited the way I hold the device, both whilst sitting up, and when using the device in bed, and so was initially hesitant to switch to a model that uses a touchscreen interface.

Those concerns were allayed within the first ten minutes. Amazon have designed the touchscreen interface in such a way that turning a page becomes an automatic reflex… to an extent. Navigating back to a previous page is now more of a hassle, as you have to move your hand over to the left side of the screen, where as with the Kindle Keyboard, you just press the button below the next page one. It’s also worth pointing out that I’m right handed – southpaws will probably find this change to be a bit of an inconvenience.

So that was one concern I’d had pre-purchase dealt with – now onto the second concern – the display.

The Screen.

Amazon recommend users have the light almost on the maximum setting during the day / in sunny conditions, so as to make the display more resemble paper than the traditional grey of eInk. I personally don’t have any problems with the way eInk looks, so during the day I tend to have the front light on the lowest possible setting. Doing this also helps improve the battery performances – Amazons “One month / 28 hours” numbers are predicated on the user having the lighting set to a reasonably high level – by having it as low as possible during the day, this should – should, increase the battery performance.

So during the day, the screen is every bit as sharp as that of the Kindle Keyboard. The DPI is actually higher – at 212 DPI the Kindle Paperwhite has one of the best eInk screens currently available [the “best” screen on the market can currently be found on the otherwise pretty crap iriver Story HD which has a DPI of 213].

The problems, occur, during low lighting, when you ramp up the front-light.

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Kindle Paperwhite, with the light set to Level 8, in dark reading conditions [9:30PM in the evening, no external lighting sources.]

The above picture isn’t the best – Regular readers will know that I’m nothing if not a terrible picture taker, but it’s indicative of the “smudges” that people have reported. I’m not going to lie – at first it is distracting, at least on my unit. Prior to purchasing the device this was my one big concern, so to “light up” my Kindle and see it represented in front of me, was a significant disappointment  However – at least for me – after about an hour, I stopped noticing it.

In the same way that it becomes “automatic” to turn the page / click the button / tap the screen whilst reading, so to I stopped noticing the “smudges”. The only similarity I can draw on is what happens when you get new glasses – if you change frame style, you can sometimes notice the frames within your vision for a few days – then your brain adjusts and you stop seeing them.

For me the same was – and still is – true of the uneven lighting / smudges. It’s undoubtedly true that the lighting technology isn’t perfect, and one hopes Amazon improve on it with future iterations of the device, but it was far from the deal breaker that some have described.

What very nearly was, was the terrible battery performance I initially encountered.

The battery performance.

Allow me to quote from Amazons promotional blurb for the Paperwhite – specifically the battery performance:

A single charge lasts up to eight weeks, based on half an hour of reading per day with wireless off and the light setting at 10. Our breakthrough power management technology allows you to leave the light on at all times for the best possible contrast without sacrificing battery life.

Or to put it another way – with the light kept on level 10, the battery should allow you to read for twenty eight hours, before needing to be recharged. And such is the nature of eInk eReaders that when placed into stand-by mode, they draw almost no power.

Which is why I was shocked to discover, after reading for about ten hours my first weekend [with the light on level 1 for about half that time, and on level six for the remaining fifty percent], and returning to the device after it had sat on the side for three days, that the battery was almost flat. Ten hours reading, plus three days in “Screensaver mode”, with the wi-fi switched off, is not an indicator of the “Uncompromised battery life” that Amazon touts.

So I recharged the device and left it on my desk for almost a week. Same problem.

I can put up with the smudges on the screen, but poor battery performance is a no-go. A Kindle Paperwhite should not have a comparable “stand by” life as a Nexus 7 [which I’ll be reviewing soon, incidentally.]. Clearly, something was very wrong with my device.

A few hours on the internet, and it seemed I’d found my culprit. A combination of two not that well known bugs / software problems, combining together to impact the device. Two firmware updates, three full restarts, and a complete battery discharge and full recharge later and…

I can happily report the problems are fixed! The device is now performing well within the estimates Amazon provides. But the issues have certainly taken a bit of a shine off the device. But once that was fixed, I could finally turn my attention to the new software features on the Paperwhite.

New features.

There are a few features either exclusive to the Paperwhite, or added to devices after the Keyboard, that I wanted to explore. First X-Ray Mode.

X-Ray is basically like having a Wikipedia article added into the book. In the same way you tap to highlight a word and display the onscreen dictionary, similarly you can tap a character / location and not only see a wiki-like character description, but also see how often that character appears through the book. I’ve only dabbled a little with the X-Ray feature, but I can see it being useful in longer books.

“Time remaining”.

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Kindle Paperwhite displaying the time remaining both in the chapter, and the book.

The “Time Remaining” feature is one I’ve found myself using quite a bit since getting my device [or more to the point, getting it to work properly!]. Tapping on the bottom of the screen allows you to toggle not only the percentage / number of pages you’ve read, but also lets you see an approximation of both how long it’ll take you to finish the chapter you’re currently on, as well as the amount of time it’ll take to finish the whole book. The timing isn’t quite perfect – if you leave the device for ten minutes then it’ll skew the projections, but it’s a useful visual aide – I’ve found myself thinking “Ooh I’ll just finish this chapter, it’ll only take a few minutes” more than once :)

The other new feature is the user interface – rather than a list of books that are on the device, you can now browse the books by covers. I’ve noticed sideloaded books don’t always have the correct Metadata, and so will either display a generic book cover, will be tagged as “Personal Document” or will have covers that are slightly smaller than other books. All of that can be fixed using software such as Calibre [Link].

Conclusion.

After a pretty shaky start, I’m happy enough with my Kindle Paperwhite. I do still use my Kindle Keyboard [mostly when commuting.] but for home use when I’m not reading a physical book, the Paperwhite is my “Go to” device. It’s far from perfect – battery and indexing issues not withstanding, the “smudges “on the screen is an issue that Amazon need to address going forward. But on the whole I’m happy with it. The new interface, features, and the ability to read more comfortably in low lighting are factors enough for me to be happy with the upgrade. I think, however, if I were recommending an eReader to a more casual reader I’d be inclined to point them in the direction of Amazons £69 basic model.

As for me – I don’t see myself upgrading again any time soon. I had my Kindle Keyboard for just over two years – I can very much see that being the case with the Kindle Paperwhite.

Unless Amazon bring out an colour eInk / similar tech eReader. Then I might have to consider upgrading ;)

¹: Ordinarily I’d have watched the announcement, however that particular evening I was at a meet and greet / book signing event with Lee Child, so I had to catch up on the news once I was back home.

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