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The Kindle Paperwhite Reviewed: Device and Ecosystem

A few weeks ago I did something which surprised my wife, and which surprised me: I bought a Kindle Paperwhite. Even more surprising, I like the Kindle a lot, and I find myself doing most of a certain kind of reading on the Kindle.

Here is a not-so-brief review of the device itself, followed by a few thoughts on the Kindle as an e-book ecosystem.

The Device

Size. First, the Paperwhite is light and small — less than half a pound, about the height and width of a small trade paperback, but a lot thinner. At that size, I never think about whether to bring the Kindle with me or not: the benefits of having it with me for the odd moment during the day outweighs the space and weight it takes up.

Screen. The Paperwhite’s screen is an e-ink display, like all of the Kindles except the Fire, and like e-readers such as the Barnes & Noble Nook. The advantage of the e-ink display over an LCD display on a tablet is that it’s easier on the eyes because it’s more like paper and ink. I’ve certainly found that to be true. I can’t read comfortably for any length of time on my phone or my wife’s Kindle Fire (reviewed by Anastasia), but I don’t feel any discomfort reading on the Paperwhite.

The screen on all the other Kindles I’ve ever looked at seemed dingy to me: gray text on a gray background. But the Paperwhite’s screen has two improvements. The light, which is on even in daytime, makes the screen white and so improves the contrast. More important, the Paperwhite’s screen has a 212 PPI resolution, whereas the earlier Kindles have resolutions of 167 PPI. The bump in resolution means that text on the Paperwhite is appreciably sharper — not as crisp as text in a printed book, which I think is usually around 300 DPI, but crisp enough.

I bought the Paperwhite fully resigned to not being able to read PDFs on it, which was previously an essential qualification for any e-reader I considered. But I was surprised to find that the Paperwhite does an adequate work of reading most PDFs, as long as the type isn’t too small and as long as you put the Kindle in landscape mode. I’ve read a number of journal articles, white papers, and a few 19th-century books from Google Books on the Paperwhite.

The Light. The light is one of the main features of the Paperwhite. The light is designed to illuminate the text through reflection, rather than by shining a light in your face. I find it perfectly good for reading in complete darkness, though I do prefer a lamp when I read. I rode an airport shuttle through sunlight and tunnels, and didn’t have to adjust anything about the device to keep reading through the changes in light. The light does illuminate the page unevenly at the bottom, as a number of reviews have pointed out. It doesn’t bother me, but the severity of the problem might vary from device to device.

Battery. The Paperwhite’s battery life makes it unlike any other device I’ve used: I never think about whether it’s going to need a charge or not. Amazon’s specs claim a battery life of eight weeks, based on half an hour of reading with the light at full power. My own experience confirms that claim. I waited two weeks to recharge the Kindle for the first time, using it during several flights and lots of time waiting around an airport or hotel, plus time reading each evening. Even after the two weeks, there was still charge left for several days. Since then I’ve gone several weeks at a time before charging the device.

Storage. The Paperwhite has 2GB of storage, the equivalent of 1,100 books, according to Amazon. It can certainly hold a lot of books and periodicals in Kindle format — more than you’re ever likely to read between chances to connect to the internet. But PDFs or Word documents will fill up the Paperwhite much faster than Kindle e-books. The limited storage space is something to keep in mind.

User interface / operating system. The user interface is straightforward. It’s easy enough to highlight sections in the text. You can type notes and get them off through a USB connection or online; it works adequately if not very well. You can search through books. As you’d expect from Amazon, buying new books is very, very easy. There are no physical buttons to turn the pages, but most of the touch screen serves to advance the pages. If you’re used to the instant responsiveness of a phone or tablet, the e-ink screen’s refresh will seem sluggish at first. But after the first hour of using the device, the page refreshes don’t seem like a distraction any more.

One downside to using an e-reader is that you can’t tell where you are in the book. Amazon has solved this disorientation by putting small indicators at the bottom of the screen. The lower right corner always tells you what percentage of the book you have read. The lower left hand corner can alternate between telling you how many minutes it will take to read the current chapter or the rest of the book. The Paperwhite learns to calculate these times as you read; I’ve found them to be reasonably accurate.

Network connection. I have the WiFi version of the Paperwhite, and it connects to the internet to download books and documents just fine. I can’t see paying extra for the 3G option unless you really travel a lot and are away from WiFi frequently.

Other features. The Kindle Paperwhite has no other features. It won’t play music. It won’t read books out loud to you. It does have an “experimental” web browser, but browsing is so painful that I can only assume it was intentionally designed that way: the pain makes you feel glad that you’re not on the internet. The lack of features is the point: this is a device for reading books, not for storing books while you check Twitter and e-mail.

Price. The base price for the Paperwhite is at the edge of reasonable. (Do remember that a graduate student is writing this review. Also keep in mind that the first Kindle sold for $399 in 2007.) The regular Paperwhite costs $119. You can shell out an extra $60 to get the 3G model, but the extra price doesn’t seem worth the advantage to me. The Paperwhite is nearly twice as expensive as the older generation of Kindle ($69), but it’s easily twice as good a device. Yet there are two caveats to the base price. First, the entry price gets you a Kindle and a USB charging cable, but not an adapter that lets you plug the cable into an outlet. The adapter will cost you another $10. This is not such a big deal: you might have an adapter around already (any USB adapter will do), and you can also plug the Paperwhite into a USB port on your computer, since you’ll be charging it so infrequently. But still. The maddening part about the base price is that the Kindle comes with “special offers.” That means ads will appear on the screen when the device is powered down (bad enough) and on the home screen (really bad). You can turn off the ads for $20, and despite your best intentions, someday in a fit of rage $20 will seem less valuable to you than freedom from the “special offers.” And if you don’t pony up to turn off the ads, you’ll probably spend even more than $20 at Amazon because of them. Amazon isn’t making any money off the Paperwhite’s hardware — their low-margin profit comes from the e-books — but this “special offers” model is bad customer relations. I’d rather add the $20 to the base price than feel like I was being taxed to free my device.

You can see the Amazon specs for more details. If you want a more thorough review, you can read the reviews at Engadget, The Verge, or CNET.

The Ecosystem

E-books have problems . . . Look, buying e-books is terrible. I’m no expert, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have opinions. Publishers are basically incompetent, and they’re at the mercy of a very small number of content distributors. Amazon and Apple are the biggest players, and they’re not playing the market to the benefit of consumers. (To wit, the antitrust lawsuit against Apple, Macmillan, and Penguin Group, which Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster have all settled with the government.) The amazing promise of digital technology is the possibility of virtually limitless, priceless copying of information; indeed, copying data is how computers do everything they do. But e-book sellers have books locked down with DRM and, in the case of Amazon, constrained to their own proprietary formats. When you buy a print book, you can do almost anything that you want with it, thanks to the doctrine of first sale. When you buy hand over money for an e-book, all you get is a license to use the book in very constrained ways. The e-book market doesn’t have to work this way, but it’s the mess we’ve got.

It’s for these reasons that I’ve stayed out of the e-book market for so long. If you want to read e-books as a consumer, I think you’ll have to console yourself with two ideas.

First, practical openness matters more than theoretical openness. By that I mean that it would be amazing if e-books could be open access in open formats: but for the kinds of e-books that I buy, it matters more that I can read a Kindle book on my Paperwhite, on any kind of smart phone or tablet, on a Mac or a PC, and in a browser. Compare that to an e-book that you buy from Apple, which is in an open format, but which you are welcome to read on your iPad or iPhone only.

Second, you have to think of e-books as a format with particular affordances that fits into a range of options that includes paper books. While the strength of e-books should be their ability to be copied, but isn’t, they do have the strength of portability and even disposability. (I got this idea from an article published recently in the Chronicle, but I can’t find the citation.) The first Kindle book I bought was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. (Sorry, Jason, Ryan, and probably the rest of the ProfHackers, but I didn’t like it.) I’ll never read it again, and so I’m glad that I don’t have a physical copy. I’m also reading John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and enjoying it, but I’ll probably never read it again either. I read a couple periodicals on the Kindle, and I don’t miss disposing of the paper copies. But William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience I bought on paper, in the nicest edition I could find, but it’s a book I read and use all the time for my work. In other words, e-books are ephemera, but I’ve come to realize that I don’t mind a certain portion of my reading being ephemeral.

. . . But Amazon’s ecosystem is pretty good. With those caveats in mind, Amazon has the best ecosystem for e-books, hands down. Almost any book that you can find as an e-book, you can find as a Kindle e-book. Usually the Kindle version can be had at a discount, often a steep discount. For ephemeral reading, cheapness matters more than durability. Amazon also has many periodicals available in Kindle edition. It’s nice to have those periodicals appear on your Kindle when they’re released. The downside is that you are Amazon’s customer, not the publisher’s, so deals like access to a publication’s back issues are usually not available.

I’ve been able to find quite a few e-books through my local public library and through the Boston Public Library. These are general interest or fiction books, not books for my work as a historian. Amazon also has many free books that are out of copyright, such as classic novels. You probably wouldn’t do literary criticism on these editions, but they suffice for pleasure reading. In addition, if you do find a good academic book in your library’s e-book catalog, the Kindle format offers you an advantage that you don’t have in paper library books: the ability to highlight text and see your highlights even after the book itself has been returned.

For the social features of the Kindle, you can see Erin’s post on the topic.

Overall, I’ve found the Kindle Paperwhite to be a great little device for certain kinds of reading. The proof is that for those kinds of reading, especially for pleasure, I’m reading a lot more.

Have you tried the Paperwhite? Do you use a different e-reader?

First image from Amazon’s website. Second image Creative Commons licensed by Flickr user paz.ca.

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