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Kindle Paperwhite 2021 review: A better screen and a nearly perfect size

The new Paperwhite adds USB-C charging, which is good, but the 6.8-inch screen is its biggest improvement.

One of the problems with having a sophisticated, already excellent e-reader like the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite is that it's hard to make it much better. The same might be said for Apple's iPhones and plenty of other devices. But with an e-reader, you're dealing with a limited feature set and a core technology, E Ink, that seems pretty stuck in neutral.

Not surprisingly, then, the new 11th-generation Kindle Paperwhite (2021) ($140, £130, AU$239) isn't a huge upgrade over the Kindle Paperwhite 2018. Though we can give Amazon credit for enhancing it with new features -- namely, a larger 6.8-inch display with an upgraded lighting scheme and USB-C charging -- that offer just enough improvements to tempt you into buying one, whether you're an existing Paperwhite owner or not. The new version costs $10 more than the previous Paperwhite. And a step-up model, the Paperwhite Signature Edition, adds wireless charging and additional storage -- 32GB instead of 8GB -- as well an auto-adjusting light sensor for $190 (£180, AU$289).

8.9

Kindle Paperwhite (2021)

Like

  • Larger 6.8-inch E Ink display in a chassis that's only slightly bigger and a tad heavier
  • Light adds warmth settings and is a touch brighter
  • USB-C charging
  • Improved battery life
  • Fully waterproof

Don't Like

  • No dedicated page-turn buttons
  • A little more expensive than the previous model
  • Costs $20 to remove the ads

The biggest change is the screen. While 6.8 inches compared to the previous 6 inches doesn't sound like much, once you see the two devices side by side, you realize it adds more screen real estate than you think. I measured the actual screen sizes -- not the devices themselves -- and recorded that the previous Paperwhite's display is about 4.75 inches tall by 3.55 inches wide, while the new Kindle Paperwhite's screen is about 5.5 inches tall and 4.1 inches wide. Using an average font size, you get three or four more lines of text per page and a few more words per line. 

While the display is larger, the new Paperwhite is only a little bigger and weighs just 23 grams more than the previous Paperwhite (205g vs. 182g). The 2021 model also has a smaller 10.2mm bezel. It'd be nice if it was slightly slimmer and had almost no bezel, but it does feel like it's edging closer to being the perfect size. It remains small and light enough to fit in a jacket pocket with a more spacious screen. You get a similar sensation when you hold the flagship Kindle Oasis ($250) for the first time, but its metal back gives it a colder feel compared to the Paperwhite's textured plastic back.

Like other Kindle devices, many cover options are available, including Amazon's own, which now includes a snazzy cork cover ($50). 

Read moreBest e-readers for 2021

kindle-paperwhite-2021-vs-paperwhite-2018-2

The new Paperwhite (left) vs. the previous version (right).

David Carnoy/CNET

In some sense, the next-generation Paperwhite is a less fancy-looking version of the Oasis, which has a slightly larger 7-inch display. Like the Oasis and the previous Paperwhite, this 2021 version has a 300-ppi display, so text and images appear with the same degree of sharpness (Amazon calls it "laser-quality" text).

With the Signature Edition, you're getting a Kindle with comparable features to the Oasis such as the auto-adjusting light sensor, but you're also getting USB-C and wireless charging, features we assume will come to the next Oasis. Unlike the Oasis, however, the new Paperwhite doesn't include physical buttons for turning pages -- you'll still need to tap the screen for that.

Upgraded light

Amazon says that at its max setting, the adjustable "warm" light has a 10% brightness boost over the previous Kindle. You can see the difference in brightness, but it's quite subtle. The real lighting upgrade is the ability to adjust the light's color (warmth) from a sort of bluish-white to sepia tone, depending on your preference -- I usually go with a middle setting. This is another feature that's trickled down from the Oasis. (The Signature Edition just adds the auto-adjusting component.) 

kindle-paperwhite-signature-edition-light

The standard Paperwhite (2021) adds color temperature adjustment while the Signature Edition (shown) also has the Oasis' auto-brightness feature. 

David Carnoy/CNET

Battery life is also improved, according to Amazon: It's rated at up to 10 weeks now. (That's with Power Saver mode engaged.) I left the Wi-Fi on, and after 3 days of light reading (about 5 hours total), the battery was down to 89%. At night while indoors, I read with the light on, and during the day I took the Kindle outdoors, turning the light off.

Of course, the nice thing about E Ink e-readers is that unlike the LCDs on phones and tablets, they're made to be viewed in direct sunlight: You can take them to the beach or pool and not worry about having your screen washed out. And speaking of washing out in the wet sense, this Paperwhite, like the previous model, is fully waterproof (IPX8 certified) and can survive a dunk underwater. That also makes it a good choice if you like to read in the bathtub. 

Along with improved battery life, Amazon says it's equipped the new Paperwhite with a more powerful processor and that page turns are 20% faster. Although E Ink is inherently sluggish compared to the responsiveness of an iPad, I did find the device zippier overall than the previous Paperwhite. It's also worth noting that Amazon recently redesigned the Kindle interface for the first time in five years (that redesign is available for legacy Kindles). Most people, including me, like the redesign, as it makes it easier to access the Kindle's most useful -- and used -- features and settings. 

kindle-paperwhite-2021-waterproof

The new Paperwhite is fully waterproof like the previous Paperwhite.

David Carnoy/CNET

Yay for USB-C

After Amazon's Fire tablets were upgraded with USB-C charging, a lot of folks have been waiting for USB-C to come to the Kindle line. Practically speaking, because the majority of newer devices use USB-C these days, it's convenient to carry around fewer cables, and it's also slightly easier to plug in a USB-C cable than a micro-USB cable. Moreover, you seem to get a performance boost, though Amazon's official charge times have tended not to match my real real-world experiences (you can typically charge to near 100% but the last bit of charging is the slowest part). Instead of taking about 4 hours to charge with the previous Paperwhite, Amazon says that the new Paperwhite takes "2.5 hours to reach full charge time using a 9W adapter or larger." No power adapter is included with either the standard or Signature Edition Paperwhite, and you'll need a Qi charging pad to wirelessly charge the Signature Edition (I tested it, and it worked fine). 

The new Paperwhite also comes in a Kids Edition for the first time for $160. That model includes a cover, a one-year subscription to the Amazon Kids Plus service and two-year "worry-free" guarantee that allows you to replace the device at no charge should it get damaged in any way.

kindle-paperwhite-2021-wireless-charging

I charged the Signature Edition on a Qi wireless charging stand. If you read like this, you'll never run out of battery.

David Carnoy/CNET

Cellular connectivity remains an option for the high-end Kindle Oasis, but these new Paperwhite e-readers are Wi-Fi-only. They come with a free four-month Kindle Unlimited membership. Bluetooth connectivity is available for listening to Audible audiobooks over wireless headphones or a Bluetooth speaker. Amazon says both models are built with 60% post-consumer recycled plastics and 70% recycled magnesium. 

Kindle Paperwhite 2021: Final thoughts

When Amazon first announced the new Kindle Paperwhite (2021) I wasn't sure how much of an upgrade it would be. On one level, as I said, it isn't a huge step forward. But once I was able to handle both the new Paperwhite and the previous version, the larger screen was more appealing than I thought it would be, even as someone who's well acquainted with the 7-inch screen of the Oasis.

I wouldn't say it made me want to run out and immediately ditch my old Kindle Paperwhite, but it did give me a little itch to upgrade and had me looking at trade-in options. Aside from the lack of physical buttons for page turns (some people are devotees of those buttons), you get about 90% of what's in the Kindle Oasis for $110 less.

While there are other e-readers out there that don't lock you into Amazon -- Kobo, for instance just announced its Libra 2 and Sage e-readers with 7- and 8-inch E Ink displays respectively -- those models are more expensive. It just shows what a good value the Paperwhite is, particularly when it goes on sale (most likely for $100) this holiday season. At $10 more than the previous Paperwhite, the 2021 Paperwhite remains the best e-reader for the money.