Just in time for the 2012 holiday buying season, Amazon has unveiled a slew of new Kindle tablets and e-book readers. Among them is the Kindle Paperwhite, the company's first self-illuminated e-ink reader, and its direct competitor to Barnes & Noble's excellent Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight.
At first glance, the Paperwhite looks a lot like 2011's Kindle Touch. That's because aside from the missing physical home button, the chassis is mostly the same, and the two devices both weigh in at 7.5 ounces -- or about half an ounce more than the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight.
But turn the Paperwhite on and you'll see some key differences. For starters, the Paperwhite has that integrated light that Kindle aficionados have been waiting for. It also has a capacitive touch screen rather than the IR-based touch screen found on competing touch-screen models from Sony, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble, which dropped the price of the aforementioned Nook GlowLight to match the Paperwhite's $119 cost. And, finally, the Paperwhite's screen is a higher-resolution 1,024x768-pixel display with 212 pixels per inch that allows text and images to be rendered more crisply. Images also appear more detailed.
In the Kindle Touch, the IR transmitters that measure your finger taps were built into the bezel. Look closely and you'll see that by moving to a capacitive touch screen Amazon's designers were able to shave some thickness off the bezel, making the Paperwhite slightly thinner than the Touch. Amazon says the bezel elevation is 77 percent shorter, reducing the small shadow the raised bezel casts.
About that light. When I first saw it in action, my immediate impression was that Amazon was using backlit technology, even though I knew it had to be front-lit. That's because when you're looking at it in a normally lit room, the light splays across the screen very uniformly and the screen has a pleasing white cast to it -- thus the Paperwhite name. For that reason, Amazon actually expects people to use the light all the time indoors and to only turn it off when outside in bright sunlight.
The only physical button on the device is a power button; the light goes on when you turn the device on, and you can then adjust the amount of light -- or turn it all the way down -- using the virtual dimmer switch on the touch screen. By contrast, the Nook's GlowLight is also adjustable, but can be turned on and off by holding down the physical home button on the front of the device. I had no problems with either scheme.
Of course, one of the main reasons for getting an e-reader with a built-in light is because you want to read in the dark, and I tested the Paperwhite in bed several nights running. As with the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, the convenience of having that integrated light can't be underestimated. Sure, many of these clip-on external lights or cases with integrated lights (such as Amazon's own Lighted Leather Cover) work well enough, but the lighted cases tend to be expensive and I definitely preferred reading with the integrated light.
Because the bezel on the Kindle Paperwhite is so thin, you can't really see the LEDs when you pick up the device; again, that's why my first impression was that it was backlit technology. When you hold the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight in front of you, you can't see the LEDs, either, but the light is more pronounced and noticeably at the top of the screen when you crank the brightness to the highest level. (I tend to use it at about 30 to 40 percent brightness, which produces much less glow at the top.) However, if you lay down the two devices side by side on a flat surface, the Nook's LEDs and lighting scheme become more apparent and visible.
While to me the Paperwhite's light washes across the screen more uniformly than the light on the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, when reading in the dark I did see a little murkiness in spots, particularly toward the bottom of the screen where the LEDs are. In other words, the lighting isn't seamless, even after you adjust the brightness level. That said, it's still pretty darn impressive and that lack of total uniformity should bother only a small fraction of users -- it didn't bother me, but it did bother our in-house video guru David Katzmaier.
Capacitive touch versus IR touch
Back in 2009, Amazon acquired Touchco, a multitouch hardware company, and apparently tasked it with developing a capacitive touch screen for its e-ink e-readers. That investment has finally born fruit over three years later.
In using the device, I found that the capacitive touch on the Paperwhite is superior to the IR touch on competing devices, but it's a subtle improvement rather than a night-and-day performance boost. One of the reasons for that is that the speed and responsiveness of the device are limited by the processor and the sluggish nature of e-ink in general. The higher-resolution display is also pushing more pixels, so page turns and overall responsiveness seemed only slightly faster. It's also worth noting that the built-in "experimental" browser is usable but as always seems to chug along and just isn't terribly appealing. You're better off using your smartphone's browser if you have one.
Don't get me wrong, it's all come a long, long way from the early days of the original Kindle, and Amazon has clearly taken the e-ink device to the next level. The capacitive touch works well, but this is an e-reader, not a tablet, so just don't expect the buttery smoothness of an iPad or even a Kindle Fire HD.
Last year's iRiver Story e-reader had a 1,024x768-pixel display, but the display in the Paperwhite is apparently brand-new (the Kobo Glo also has a 1,024x768-pixel display -- it may be the same display as this Kindle's, but I can't confirm that).
Where the higher resolution comes in handy is with smaller font sizes (with the added sharpness, they are easier to read) and images, particularly cover art for books, which appear much more detailed. If you're someone who's sight-challenged and is interested in buying this device for the bigger font sizes, I can't say the added resolution makes a real difference, but the good news is that you have a number of font sizes and fonts to choose from.
The Paperwhite also has a built-in dictionary (you tap and hold on a word to access it) and Wikipedia quick-search capabilities, and you can highlight sentences and passages, add notations, and share quotes on Twitter and Facebook. You can also translate passages between various languages. I should mention that it's a lot easier to access and employ some of these features thanks to the touch screen and being able to type on the virtual keyboard. That's one of the big advantages of this model over the $69 entry-level Kindle, which has neither a touch screen nor a built-in light.
The Paperwhite borrows some aspects of its user interface from the Kindle Fire, such as the toggle metaphor for displaying content. The cover view interface has a more vibrant appearance, for black and white, anyway, and overall its UI is slicker than that of earlier Kindles, which was praised for being simple, but also pretty bland.
Amazon says that even with the "lightguide" layer on top of the screen to even out the lighting, it's managed to increase the contrast by 25 percent. Obviously, this number is hard for us to measure, but text does appear to be a tad darker than the text on the Touch. And as far as pixels go, the 212ppi comes out to 62 percent more pixels than you'll find on the Kindle Touch.