Amazon's next-generation e-reader may look the same as the original, but it's noticeably improved, with zippier performance and a better built-in light.
Editor's note (June 27,2015):The Paperwhite reviewed here has been updated and replaced by a newer model that includes the same higher resolution screen found in Amazon's top-end e-reader, the Kindle Voyage.
I don't know if the analogy is perfect, but I think of Amazon's new Kindle Paperwhite as the iPhone 5S of e-readers -- it looks nearly identical to the original Paperwhite, but it's zippier and better.
For starters, the new Paperwhite is the first shipping product to feature E Ink's Pearl 2 display, which offers better contrast, along with 1GHz processor (25 percent faster than the 800MHz found in the original Paperwhite), a next-generation built-in light, and a more responsive touch-screen display (1,024x768-pixel resolution with 212 pixels per inch) that has a 19 percent tighter touch grid. It's also a hair lighter, weighing 7.3 ounces instead of 7.5 ounces.
While the two models look the same (there's an Amazon logo on the back instead of a Kindle logo), the most immediate difference you notice is that the display looks whiter -- as opposed to having a little bit of blue twinge -- and the lighting is more uniform (the light is also brighter at its highest setting).
On the original Paperwhite, there was a bit of murkiness (sort of a clouding effect) at the bottom of the display when using the light, particularly at night. The light now displays noticeably more evenly across the bottom and the rest of the screen.
Compared side by side with the original, the old Paperwhite's display does look a little dull and gray (with that blue twinge). The official company line is that the "whites are whiter and the blacks are blacker, so pages are virtually indistinguishable from a physical book." I wouldn't quite go that far, but the display -- and reading experience -- continues to improve and looks more like a printed book.
Amazon encourages you to read with the light on, though not necessarily at full brightness. It's nice that you can easily adjust that brightness, but it's worth mentioning that there's no dedicated physical button for turning the light on and off like there is on the Kobo Aura. You simply use the onscreen slider control to adjust brightness or turn the light off altogether.
Of course, some people don't like to read with the light on when they have ample natural light (or are in direct sunlight). With the light off, it becomes much harder to tell the difference between the the original Paperwhite and the new model. Both editor David Katzmaier and I also thought that text looked slightly sharper with the light off. Katzmaier, CNET's home video guru, uses the now-discontinued 2011 Kindle Touch regularly and wasn't a fan of the slightly flawed lighting scheme on the original 2012 Paperwhite. However, he says that given the choice today, he'd opt for the new Paperwhite over the Kindle he uses now, as well as the $69 entry-level Kindle (which lacks both a touch-screen and self-illuminated screen).
Amazon says the contrast has been increased, but it's hard to tell that the blacks are that much blacker, even if they are. (Peter Larsen, VP of Kindle product management, told me the percentage increase is "double digits," though it varies slightly with each batch of e-ink so it's hard to put an exact number on it.)
The new display requires less refreshing, which is sometimes referred to as flashing (e-ink screens need to be refreshed every so often to eliminate artifacts or "ghosting"). The previous model refreshed every six page turns and in my tests with the new model it refreshed every 13 to 14 pages.
As for battery life, it remains the same at up to 2 months with Wi-Fi off despite the bump in processor speed. To conserve battery life, it's crucial to keep Wi-Fi off. While the "experimental" Web browser remains on board, you really only need to turn Wi-Fi on to buy books (or load ones you have stored in the cloud) or download newspapers and magazines (subscription required). You can also email documents and Web articles to your device, though the Paperwhite isn't packed with storage; it comes with the same 2GB of integrated storage (1.25GB available for user content), which Amazon says allows you to store up to 1,100 e-books. A Japanese version will include 4GB of storage.
Along with the original Paperwhite, I compared this model to Kobo's Aura, which is a nicely designed e-reader that's smaller than the Paperwhite, despite including an identically sized screen. I like the Aura, but the screen and lighting are better on the Kindle. It's not a huge difference, but it's definitely noticeable, and the Paperwhite costs less, starting at $119 for the Wi-Fi-only model that serves up ads -- Amazon calls them "special offers" -- on your home screen. You can opt out of the ads for $20 extra, either at checkout or at any time after you buy the device, so it's worth going with the cheaper model first. A 3G-enabled model -- which lets you access Amazon's store over a cellular network at no extra charge -- will ship on November 5 for $189 (or, again, $20 extra to avoid the ads).
Software changes and upgrades
The rest of the changes involve feature upgrades that Amazon has -- or will -- add through software updates.
These include Goodreads integration (Amazon bought the popular social reading and review site earlier this year); a Smart Lookup feature that streamlines the Dictionary, Wikipedia, and X-Ray (character and story notes for some titles) look-up interface with a single, easy-to-access set of tabs; Kindle Page Flip (a sort of picture-in-picture page-scanning feature); and Vocabulary Builder, which keeps track of all the words you look up in the dictionary and allows you to create flashcards to help you learn those those words.
There's also a new In-Line Footnotes feature ("with a single tap read the complete text of each footnote in-line without changing the page") and Amazon will bring its kid-centric Kindle FreeTime feature to the device in a couple of months. FreeTime allows parents to lock their kids out of the Kindle store, create reading lists and goals, as well as track progress.
Some of the new software features will be available at launch (I was able to test Smart Lookup and Vocabulary on my review sample) while others, such as FreeTime and the Goodreads integration, will be released later this year.
I'm not going to dig into all the existing features the Kindle Paperwhite has to offer, but you can still highlight passages, share them on social media, and choose among several font sizes and types. Suffice to say, Amazon continues to expand the feature set and streamline the user interface. With the new processor in place and the improved touch sensitivity, this Paperwhite just seems to operate a little more smoothly than the previous model. There's still a little bit of the lag that's inherent to e-ink, but the overall the device feels more responsive.
Kindle's killer app: The Amazon ecosystem
The Kindle is a one-stop shopping gateway to Amazon's best-in-class Web store, which arguably offers the largest array of books, newspapers, and magazines on the Web.
Amazon offers more than 1.8 million e-book titles, including more than 180,000 exclusives. The Web retailer also tends to offer discounts more frequently than many of its competitors. (Amazon says, "Over a million titles are priced at $4.99 or less. Over 1,700,000 titles are $9.99 or less.") While many have differing opinions on whether some of these practices are fair to competitors -- or good for the long-term health of the publishing industry -- they are certainly consumer-friendly, at least in the short-term.
A large selection of newspapers and magazines are also available on the Kindle. Note that these e-ink versions are often stripped-down, text-only iterations of what you may get on a Web site, tablet (or paper) version of the same title. Likewise, many of these require separate subscriptions -- so even if you already receive, say, the hard-copy or electronic version of The New York Times, you won't necessarily be grandfathered in to the e-ink Kindle version. (By contrast, newspaper and magazine apps generally do let you use your existing credentials to access them at no additional charge.)
If you're a subscriber to Amazon Prime ($79 per year, which equals less than $7 per month), you already get free two-day shipping for Amazon orders, and thousands of free streaming-video titles from Amazon. On the Kindle, you also get access to the Amazon Lending Library. That lets you "check out" thousands of titles (albeit one at a time) at no additional charge. The list has more than 200,000 titles, but -- fair warning -- many aren't exactly mainstream, popular titles. You can also borrow e-books from most local libraries on the Kindle, as you can with other e-book readers. Amazon also offers a cool "send to Kindle" plug-in for the Chrome and Firefox browsers that lets you send any Web page to the Kindle for later reading; basically a free version of Instapaper.
The other big benefit of choosing Amazon as your e-book provider is that the company offers reading apps on nearly every major hardware platform. That means you can still access all of your Kindle content on iPads, iPhones, Android phones and tablets, Windows PCs and Macs, and any other device with a Web browser.
What you won't get with the Kindle is an "open" platform. Amazon makes no bones about the lack of compatibility with other services or competing book formats. So -- while the Kindle can read PDF, TXT, and MOBI files natively, as well as other file types via conversion -- it cannot read EPUB files from third-party bookstores. (Unprotected EPUBs and other files can be converted to be viewed on the Kindle with the Calibre software.) If that's a deal breaker, go with Nook, Sony, or Kobo instead.
While the 2013 Paperwhite may seem like an unspectacular upgrade, it clearly improves on the previous version. Basically, Amazon has taken an excellent product and made it about 20-25 percent better.
Still, when you review a product that has basically the same design as the previous year's model, there's always going to be a slight sense of disappointment because you always hope that a device like this will manage to drop a decent amount of weight (and some size) with each new iteration. Likewise, while the Paperwhite isn't any more expensive than last year, it's not any cheaper, either.
Looking at the Kobo Aura, you can see where the Paperwhite could've achieved perfection: the Aura is oh-so-slightly smaller and lighter than the Paperwhite, and it's got more storage capacity. Of course, it's more expensive, and -- the big one -- doesn't offer Amazon's far superior shopping and content ecosystem.
And that's when you're shocked back into reality. The Paperwhite's slight shortcomings are mere quibbles on what's still the best overall e-ink e-reader currently available. Toss in the best-in-class Amazon ecosystem, and you've got an easy Editors' Choice for anyone seeking a dedicated reading device.