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HTG Reviews the New Kindle Paperwhite: The King of the Hill Climbs Higher

In September, Amazon released a new version of their best-selling Kindle Paperwhite. We’ve put our old and new Paperwhites through the paces to help you decide if the new Paperwhite it is worth it. Read on as we compare the 2012 Paperwhite to the new release.

Introducing the New, New, Paperwhite

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When Amazon released the Kindle Paperwhite in 2012, they pulled out all the stops. Press conferences, press releases, emails to current Kindle owners, and a multi-day Amazon front-page extravaganza all ensured that everyone knew there was a new Kindle in town, and boy was it something to see: nice form factor, crisp screen, easy-on-the-eyes backlighting, and a host of improvements over the previous Kindle models were all welcome improvements.

So welcome, in fact, that the already ubiquitous Kindle went on, in Paperwhite form, to dominate the ebook reader market over the last year. There’s very little doubt, on any front, that the Kindle Paperwhite is essentially the apex predator of the ebook world. In light of that, people were quite curious what Amazon’s announcement of the new Kindle Paperwhite would bring. There were very few complaints about the 2012 version, units were still selling briskly, and, frankly, unlike the tablet or smartphone market, there isn’t a whole lot to change or innovate on in the monochromatic e-ink ebook reader market.

The Paperwhite clearly didn’t need a complete overhaul, then, it needed a refinement, and that’s exactly what Amazon delivered. Let’s take a peek at what’s new outside and inside the new Paperwhite.

Note: Our reviews traditionally include a section devoted to setting the new device up. The Paperwhite setup is as simple as turning it on, picking your language, updating it for the local time zone, plugging in your Wi-Fi password, and then plugging in your Amazon login and password to access and sync your purchases. As such, we’ve opted to skip the setup section as its a pretty simple self-driven setup. If you have any questions about the specifics of setting up the Paperwhite refer to Amazon’s Quick Start Guide here.

Form and Styling

The form factor of the new Paperwhite is identical to the old Paperwhite (although through the magic of engineering it did slim down from 213 grams to 206 grams). Unlike iPad iterations where each new version needs to shave a millimeter or two off, the Paperwhite stayed exactly the same size in every dimension: a case that fits Paperwhite 2012 fits Paperwhite 2013.

The only physically observable differences between the two units are the emblems and branding. The silver Kindle logo on the front bezel of the reader has a fatter and more closely spaced font; the difference is so negligible, however,  that without having two units side by side, you’d never even notice the difference.

The obvious physical difference is found on the back. If you use a case for your Kindle as many users do, this change doesn’t matter a bit to you. More than a few new Paperwhite purchasers, presumably those who read a naked Kindle, have complained about the change to the back though:

Where there was once a fairly understated, matte Kindle logo, there is now a much bigger and glossy Amazon logo. While we do prefer the old logo, comments proclaiming the new design garish and unsightly are a tad melodramatic; the new design would hardly stop us from purchasing the updated Paperwhite.

The New Screen: Whiter, Brighter, Smoother Lighting

Enough about the form factor. Let’s talk about the thing that matters most in an ebook reader: the screen. The early Kindles had a non-backlit e-ink screen that was a very light grey with black text.

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The early Kindles gave you the sense that you were reading a paper-like page, but there was always the feeling that the experience was digital, as it looked more like an electronic readout than a true printed page. The release of the Kindle Paperwhite last year went a long way towards increasing the resolution of the screen, moving away from the text-on-grey to a more text-on-white reading experience. In addition, the introduction of the backlit “lightguide” made it easy to read anywhere without a bulk add-on light.

The Paperwhite 2013 builds on those improvements, although some of them are quite subtle. One of Amazon’s claims about the new Paperwhite, for example, is that the contrast is higher and the white of the display is brighter and whiter (with less blue/gray tint). Comparing the two models side by side does reveal in fact that the older Paperwhite (seen on the right and beneath the newer model) is in fact a little more blue-grey tinted:

Other elements of the improved display were difficult to isolate or, if they could be isolated, were difficult to photograph. When we compared illustrations in books to see if the new contrast ratio and screen resolution made a huge difference, it was very difficult to tell one display from the other, as both provided satisfactory crispness and clarity. One element that was definitely an improvement in the new Paperwhite, but a difficult one to photograph, was a significant decrease in ghosting. The e-ink in the new Paperwhite refreshes much cleaner than that of the old Paperwhite and ghosted lines, illustrations, and such, are virtually nonexistent.

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There is one area, however, where the improvement is so great that it merits heavy emphasis. Many owners of the previous Paperwhite, especially those who were early adopters and snatched up the new Kindles in the first few months of production, noticed that the backlighting wasn’t perfectly smooth and had a sort of splotch-and-spotlight effect. It wasn’t glaringly obvious but, like noticing that one of the pickets in your front fence was unevenly spaced, you couldn’t unsee it once you noticed it.

It proved particularly difficult to photograph the uneven lighting of the original Paperwhite, as what was obvious while holding it in your hands wasn’t as obvious in-camera. The following photograph is of the two Kindles side by side, the 2013 version on the left and the 2012 on the right. The contrast has been adjusted very slightly in the photograph to recreate how the color cast, and uneven lighting appears on the older model:

Anyone that has an old Paperwhite with the lighting problem will recognize the spotlights-at-the-bottom pattern immediately. It wasn’t awful, but once you noticed it you couldn’t stop noticing it in the future. The new Paperwhite completely fixes the uneven lighting and at any brightness the backlighting is perfectly white and smooth. Of all the features we compared in the two models, this was, by far, the most welcome improvement.

The final display change was an increase in touchscreen sensitivity. We have a feeling this change is going to be a mixed bag for many Kindle fans. One the one hand, the screen is even more responsive and responds more accurately to touch. On the other hand, the screen is even more responsive. Some users will be pleased with the new sensitivity, some will likely be upset that the touchscreen responds to even lighter touches than before.

 Under the Hood: Faster Processor and Improved Software

The new Paperwhite might have lost a few grams during the update, but the processor inside is a heavyweight compared to the previous generation: the new 1Ghz processor is 25% faster than the old one and promises improved page turning and rendering. Does it deliver on that front? We opened up books big and small, image heavy and imageless, and we flipped them back and forward, open and closed, jumped to and fro in the table of contents, and otherwise manipulated the text with an eye on rendering speed; after all that poking around, we can certainly confirm things are faster.

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There’s no doubt that the new Paperwhite does in fact open books faster, move you through them more efficiently, and make accessing the GUI and otherwise manipulating books snappier. Honestly, though, this isn’t much of a selling point. Ebook readers aren’t tablets or smartphones, and while we appreciate any speed increase we can get, the act of reducing an ebook opening process from 1.2 seconds to 0.9 seconds doesn’t radically alter our reading experience. Compared to the vast improvements in the display and lighting, the processor increase isn’t as much a “Wow!” as it is a “Ehh, thanks for delivering what we’d expect in a product revision”.

Where the under-the-hood changes really shine through, however, is the improved GUI. It’s subtle, to be sure, but there are many elements that make using the Kindle even more enjoyable. One welcome area of  improvement is the bookmarking system which accompanies a brand new feature, Page Flip.

You can now bookmark anywhere in a document and, with one click, pull up your bookmarks and even reference them as thumbnails. Tap the upper portion of the screen to bring up the menu, tap the new bookmark icon, and you can bookmark anything in your book. The photograph above shows where we’ve bookmarked two locations in the book and are previewing the prior location (text, illustrations, and all) with a simple tap.

Close behind the improved bookmarking is the improved word lookup and Wikipedia integration:

It isn’t that prior versions didn’t have a dictionary and Wikipedia lookup, it’s just that now the response time is snappier and accessing Wikipedia is right there at the forefront. It’s perfect for those times that you’re not looking up a word as much as a concept or cultural artifact and really need more than the dictionary can offer.

In addition to the improved bookmark function, there’s a fantastic new feature called Page Flip. When you pull up the GUI menu while reading a book, you can now tap on the bottom of the reading pane and scrub forwards and backwards through the book with a nearly full page preview of the page you’re scrubbing to. After referencing whatever it is you want to reference, you can close the Page Flip preview and resume reading right where you left off.

The combination of bookmark previews and Page Flip scrubbing previews are as close to sticky-noting or keeping your finger stuffed in a previous section of the book as you’re going to come while using an ebook reader. It’s a really welcome improvement, and if you’re the kind of reader that enjoys jumping back to reference previous chapters, diagrams, or other material, it’s worth the price of admission all by itself.

What’s Promised but not Quite Delivered Yet

Like any company with a marketing department worth its salt, Amazon has left a few promises dangling out in front of Paperwhite purchasers. Here are some of the features that are promised to be right around the corner but haven’t quite made it to the delivery stage yet.

Kindle FreeTime: FreeTime is a relatively recent addition to the Kindle Fire lineup and offers parental controls for their tablet devices. Amazon has promised, but not yet delivered, a FreeTime for the Paperwhite which offers distraction-free reading for kids, progress tracking with a badge/reward system, and parental reports. We’ll be the first to admit that we’re early-tech-adopting parents who already have a Kindle in our kids’ hands, but we know we’re not the only ones out there. We’d love to see this feature sooner rather than later.

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Goodreads Integration: The Kindle has had limited Facebook and Twitter integration for ages, but it’s lacked integration with one of the most well-matched social platforms around: Goodreads. The world’s most popular ebook reader and the world’s most popular book cataloging, ranking, and reviewing web site are really a match made in heaven. Why they didn’t include this sooner (and why we’re still waiting for the “COMING SOON” label to vanish from this one in the Paperwhite feature list) is beyond us.

Cloud Collections: It’s no secret that the collections system on the Kindle is rubbish. It’s been half-baked since day one and only marginally improved for the original Paperwhite. Amazon is now dangling the promise of “Cloud Collections”, the ability to organize your books into cross-Kindle cloud-based collections; you’ll see your collections and categories on all your registered Kindle devices and reader apps. We’re tired of jumping through DIY hoops to get decent collection management!

We know we can’t have everything we want the moment we want it, but all of these features have been a long time coming and we’d like them as soon as possible.

The Good, The Bad, and the Verdict

We’ve had a chance to play with the new Kindle Paperwhite extensively, we’ve put it in the hands of picky literati friends and Kindle veterans, and we’ve switched back and forth between our old Paperwhite and new until it became a blur. After all that poking, prodding, and reading, we’re ready to report.

The Good:

  • The new screen with upgraded contrast and lightguide is an absolute pleasure to read; screen quality is what really matters in an ebook reader, and it blows every other ebook reader screen (including the previous Paperwhite’s screen) out of the water.
  • Amazon’s increased focus on usability and integration offers a a solid return on investment: the new GUI including upgraded bookmarking and the new page scrubbing are great.
  • While the slight increase in page turns and faster e-ink refresh isn’t enough to steal the show, it’s a welcome upgrade.

The Bad:

  •  The with-special-offers/without-special-offers duality still exists in the Kindle market. While the ads aren’t that obtrusive, we’d really like to see Amazon do away with the tiered pricing and additional advertising.
  • If you pay over $100 for a piece of hardware, you expect a charging cable and a charger. Come on Amazon, we know you’re banking on us already owning one and attempting to keep costs down and have a smaller environmental footprint, but consumers expect a charger when they buy a high priced item.
  • The things-promised list is full of things consumers really want: kid-friendly Kindle controls and rewards, better collection management, and Goodreads integration. We want the promised goodies!
  • We realize this last one is an unreasonable nitpick given the nature of the ebook market and how Amazon has structured the Kindle store, but we’d really love ePub support. In the meantime, we’ll keep converting with Calibre.

The Verdict: The reality is, the good list radically outweighs the bad list; in fact The Bad listed above is really just a combination of things we wish the Kindle did now and devoid of criticism about what it’s actually doing right now.  The Kindle Paperwhite was the best ebook reader when it came out last year and the new Kindle Paperwhite is a polished reiteration of all the things that worked the first time around with a healthy serving of upgrades hidden within.

So where does that leave you as a consumer? If you have a 2012 Kindle Paperwhite, it’s tough to justify an upgrade. We love the new Paperwhite, but if you just bought one for $139 six months ago, there’s really no urgent reason to buy a brand new one (if you can sell your old one on Craiglist for $100, however, then we’d have something to talk about). If you’re still using and older model Kindle like the Touch or Keyboard (or one even older than that) the upgrade path is clear: the new Paperwhite is a fantastic ebook reader and the crisp, even backlighting and silky GUI alone are worth the upgrade cost from a pre-Paperwhite reader.

 

 

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 11/18/13

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