Amazon won the ebook reader war. Like the iPod, the Swiffer, or Jell-O, the Kindle is just what you buy when you want what it does. Barnes & Noble and Sony went down swinging trying to compete, and Kobo and Iriver are but gnats to be swatted by the great Amazon behemoth. Last year’s $119 Kindle Paperwhite was the best ebook reader ever made, the default choice, the one I recommend to everyone without a second’s thought — and 12 months later it still is. There isn't even viable competition at this point.
Yet there’s still a new Paperwhite this fall, a new $119 E Ink reader with a series of hardware upgrades and some new software as well. A few things have been changed, but this is very much the same device it was a year ago. It’s Amazon at the height of its powers, with nothing to prove and nothing to lose. The question now: when you win a market, when no one else even really puts up a fight anymore, what do you do next?
In the Kindle’s case, you make sure the Paperwhite never gets stashed in a drawer somewhere, a forgotten impulse buy. You find new and clever ways to make sure people keep right on reading, and buying, books.
It happened repeatedly: I would pick up a Paperwhite to test it out, read for a while, and then discover that I was holding the device I bought a year ago instead of my review unit. Only the most discerning of readers will notice the differences in hardware here: a slightly changed Kindle logo, a slightly higher-contrast screen. The only obvious change, the only way I could reliably identify one device from the other, is by the logo on the back. Where there was once a subtle, muted Kindle logo, there’s now a glossy black "Amazon" etched into the soft-touch black back.
Otherwise it’s the same size, the same weight, the same months-long battery life, the same everything. It’s still comfortable, easy to use in one hand, and as handsomely understated as ever. It’s sturdy enough that you don’t need a case like the leather folio Amazon sells, but I’ve grown to love the case — with a magnetized flap that turns the device on when you open it, and a nicely rough texture, opening up the case feels like opening up a well-loved hardback. It’s wonderful.
The hardware's better, but it's not really different
The new Paperwhite comes with a new, slightly more even frontlight, and a faster processor. The light is certainly better, a little whiter and spread a bit more evenly around the screen with fewer dark patches; I noticed it more than the higher-contrast E Ink display, but neither changed the experience of using the Paperwhite in any meaningful way. The light is still wonderfully versatile, dim enough to work in a totally dark room and bright enough to kill most of the glare in a well-lit room.
As for the processor, I still can’t tell what’s real and what’s placebo. Page turns do seem slightly faster, especially combined with the more receptive touch screen — I found myself rarely having to swipe multiple times to turn a page, which hasn’t always been the case with Kindles. Nothing else about the Paperwhite seemed more responsive, though. Typing, scrolling through the store, even turning the device on and off all feel the same, though they are a beat faster in side-by-side tests with last year's model. They’re slow because E Ink is slow, flashing the page anytime something complex happens, but it’s never really a problem.
The Paperwhite has always been a great, utilitarian device that does exactly what it’s supposed to. I still hold out hope that we’ll one day see a flexible-display Kindle or a color Kindle, but those are pipe dreams. Right now, Amazon’s built as good a reading device as is probably possible for $119.
This year, Amazon’s focus isn’t hardware. It’s figured out how to build something we’ll read with, so what’s next? Figuring out how to make us read more, buy more, and get others to do the same. That’s what this year’s Paperwhite is all about.
For better and for worse, the experience of using the Paperwhite remains the same. The UI is still simple and obvious, letting book covers do most of the design work. The file support is still woefully lacking — you can read PDFs and Word documents, but without EPUB support you basically can’t read any books you didn’t buy from Amazon.
When we met with Kindle executives to talk about the upcoming MatchBook feature, which will let you buy a physical book and then get the Kindle version for only a few dollars more, they laid out Amazon’s vision. Print books will be more like artifacts, they told us, like vinyl records — more work, and more money, but that’s part of the appeal. Ebooks will become the commodity, like MP3s, not the perfect solution but the easiest and most common way we’ll read.
Amazon's not killing print books — it's just relegating them to art pieces
To ease that transition, Amazon’s paying close attention to how we read physical books. One common complaint about ebooks is that it’s hard to flip around, to quickly move between pages — if you read Game of Thrones or The Lord of The Rings, you're constantly consulting maps and indices lest you get lost following Frodo around Middle Earth. The new Paperwhite comes with a clever approximation of the feature: you can bookmark any page with two taps, and swipe down to find that bookmarked page in a pop-up window at any time. It takes three seconds to bring up the index or the map, and one tap to get back to your reading. As a perpetual thumb-in-the-back reader, this alone makes me want to read more on the Paperwhite.
Also in the interest of helping you figure out what in the world is going on inside your book, Amazon’s great "X-Ray" feature continues to get better and better. Long-press on the name of a place, a character, or basically anything else relevant to your book, and a pop-up window shows you everything you need to know: a biography, where else that person has appeared in the book, even useful trivia. After spending three Game of Thrones books forgetting the difference between Ser Lloris and Ser Jorah, and trying to remember that Littlefinger and Lord Petyr Baelish are the same person with fairly fickle loyalties, having a quick reference guide at my fingertips was a lifesaver. If X-Ray doesn’t have your answers, you can always look up a word in the dictionary, or now on Wikipedia, all from within that pop-up.
For textbooks or anything complex, X-Ray is a lifesaver
Words you look up get saved into the new Vocabulary Builder app, which serves as a repository for your literary stupidity. It’ll automatically make flash cards for the words you’re learning, and let you mark ones you’ve mastered — I finally know what "solipsistic" means, which is nice, but I don’t know that I’ll be using the app very often.
These are all nice features, all designed to make the reading experience a little easier, a little simpler. (Books are hard.) But the best new feature’s coming soon: the Paperwhite will integrate with Goodreads, the social network for readers that Amazon acquired in March. Goodreads will let you share notes with your friends — a sort of social marginalia that could be really fun — or just see what your friends are reading and whether or not they like it. It’s going to make those recommendations at the bottom of the Paperwhite’s homescreen a lot more useful, and is a compelling reason for people to keep picking up their Kindles. It's also going to make my already itchy book-buying finger even more dangerous, since every book my friends recommend will be just one click away.
Amazon is quickly learning to emulate what’s great about physical books, while still offering what’s uniquely possible on an ebook reader. The reading experience is still wonderfully customizable, with plenty of font and margin options, and I’m almost getting used to not having page-turn buttons thanks to the better touchscreen. But with easier reference tools and (hopefully) the first decent social network ebook readers have ever seen, digital’s more compelling than ever.
If you’re buying an ebook reader, buy a Kindle Paperwhite. I’d recommend spending the extra $20 to get the $139 version without Special Offers, but even those aren’t really so bad — just static E Ink ads on the home and lock screen. (Spending another $50 for the always-connected 3G model is a little harder to justify, I think.) I hope future models eventually get an even better screen, and a headphone jack with Whispersync for Audio support, so I can switch between reading and listening to a book with one tap. (I’m also still partial to page-turn buttons.) But if I hadn’t bought a Paperwhite last year, I’d be buying one this year. Not only is it a great ebook reader, it’s the only one even worth considering — great hardware and Amazon’s spectacular ecosystem are an untouchable combination.
It’s digitized the collection, and it’s digitized the book. Now Amazon’s working on the white-haired, bespectacled librarian we all grew up with that knew everything that was happening in our books, and knew exactly what we’d want to read next. Put her into the Paperwhite, and Amazon will have built a library I won’t ever want to leave.