Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite: 3 perspectives

Saturday, October 26, 2013
[Update 2: The newly upgraded Kindle Paperwhite offers some slight improvements, but not much to get excited about. The screen lighting is a little less blueish -- a plus. The touchscreen is marginally more responsive. But the increased resolution is largely imperceptible. Not bad, considering the price is the same as the older model. But not worth casting aside an older Paperwhite to buy a replacement.

[And, for the record, the Kindle has replaced the iPhone and traditional books and magazines as my preferred bedtime reading medium. I wish more publications would make themselves available in a text-centric format suitable for the Paperwhite.]

[Update: As of September 2013, Amazon has slightly upgraded the Kindle Paperwhite. Looks like some of those improvements may address to some extent my concerns below. Stay tuned.]

[Originally published Aug. 26, 2013.] I've been an advocate for the electronic book for more than 20 years. I interviewed the late Michael Hart in the '90s about what seemed then his pie-in-the-sky Project Gutenberg goal: Making 10,000 electronic books available to the public at little or no charge by the end of the 20th Century. I began reading some of those Project Gutenberg books on a BlackBerry in 2006 -- an experience I wrote about for the Chicago Tribune. More recently, I've been reading books -- from Gutenberg and other sources -- using a number of iPhone apps.

Kindle Paperwhite
But facing a weeklong vacation with little space for books or magazines and only occasional access to the Internet, I took the plunge and bought a couple of Kindles from Amazon, one for me and one for my wife. Specifically, the Kindle Paperwhite, a touchscreen e-ink display the company describes as "the ultimate reading experience." We're not there yet, but the Kindle far and away beats lugging all that paper in a backpack.

Three takes on the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite:

Lighting and battery life don't match Amazon's hype. My best Kindle Paperwhite reading experiences came in full daylight, no internal lighting necessary. Unlike backlit screens on color devices, e-ink contrast improves in bright light. In more typical indoor lighting -- and certainly for bedtime-in-the dark reading -- you'll want to use the Paperwhite's built-in light, which shines from the frame down onto the screen, instead of out from underneath as with smartphones and tablets. Amazon promises "a perfect reading experience in all lighting conditions." But especially along the screen edges, that illumination can be splotchy -- far from the "evenly balanced whiteness across the entire display" Amazon boasts. As for battery life, Amazon promises the Paperwhite can last "up to eight weeks" on a single charge. But that's based on "a half hour of reading per day with wireless off and the light setting at 10." On the Kindle's lighting scale of 1-24, that's not a lot; and if you're reading just 30 minutes a day, you're not the target audience for a Kindle Paperwhite. In a week of vacation-style, every-free-minute-day-and-night reading (the kind invited by books like Stephen King's "11/22/63"), I burned through two complete charge cycles. That's far better than smartphones, tablets or laptops, but not enough to leave the charger at home.

The interface needs work. The Paperwhite is touchscreen-driven, except for a small, difficult-to-find-in-the-dark power switch at the bottom of the screen. It's useful mainly on rare occasions when the Kindle freezes. The interface is mostly intuitive: A tap on the left takes you back a page, a tap on the right takes you forward, a tap at the top calls up the menu. Pinching and stretching gestures allow you to shrink or enlarge the text size. But entering text of any sort -- in a book search, for instance, or even just the (optional) four-number security passcode -- demands patience, because the onscreen keyboard is sluggish at best, and drops characters even at moderate typing speeds. This renders searching the Web or composing email using the Paperwhite's "Experimental Browser" (yes, it's labeled that way) frustrating. Further, many actions you're most likely to want to perform are buried. Adjusting the lighting level -- which you'd want to do often to extend that battery life -- takes at least four screen taps.† Another shortcoming: Kindle software doesn't support flush-left justification. Regardless of type size, the Kindle insists on running each line of type from the left margin all the way to the right. At larger type sizes, the result is vast and ugly spacing between words, instead of the natural spacing you get with a ragged-righthand margin.

But, boy, is it convenient for reading. Unlike the more advanced Kindle Fire, the Paperwhite can't handle video or animation. Its black-and-white display washes out on color pictures -- notably comic books -- and it's not much better for black-and-white images; so many newspapers and magazines don't offer digital subscriptions for the Paperwhite. But as a black-on-white text-delivery system -- once you've found the right lighting level and text size -- it excels. It's small and light. It fits comfortably in a coat pocket or one hand. If you're willing to put up with ads -- mostly for books and Kindle accessories, to my experience, and only on startup or when the Kindle goes to sleep -- you can save $20. (If the ads get on your nerves, you can later pay the $20 and upgrade to the ad-free version. Me, I'm keeping tabs on the ads for clues to how Amazon founder Jeff Bezos might monetize his new acquisition, The Washington Post, on the Kindle.)

After living with a Kindle for a week, I have no doubt that this -- and not sheets of pulp -- is the future of reading.

Three bonus tips for making the most of a Kindle Paperwhite:

* Thanks to Michael Hart's visionary Project Gutenberg, you can find thousands of classic, public-domain works free. Download them to your computer, then drag them to a Kindle linked to the computer with the included USB cable. (Which is why I can finally stop merely pretending to have read "The Jungle.")

Amazon screen image
* Don't miss the Kindle "X-Ray" feature (not available for all texts). If you've ever come across a character in a book and spent any time at all scouring earlier pages for that character's previous appearances, you'll love X-Ray. With two taps of the screen, up pops an interactive index of people, places and things mentioned on the page you were viewing.

* If you're seeking a case for the Kindle Paperwhite -- and I recommend it -- you can spend a lot. But, as asks, how much do you want to spend to protect a $120 device? It recommends the $10 Fintie Flip Folio, which seems to work just fine. Whichever case you buy, get one whose cover includes magnets to trigger the Kindle's battery-saving "sleep" feature.

† Amazon has bought Lexcycle, whose free (but now unsupported) iPhone and iPad ereader app, Stanza, may have been the best on the market. Amazon should give the Kindle the Stanza app's ability to adjust lighting levels just by running a finger up or down the screen's right edge.

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