Amazon’s philosophy with the Kindle line has been consistent for nearly 10 years now — to make the device disappear, by making it as close to paper as possible. However, with the release of its latest model, called the Kindle Oasis, Amazon is shining a spotlight on the Kindle design itself. It’s bringing its flagship e-reader back into the consumer tech conversation with a bold device, and it carries with it some new compromises.
The Oasis is brighter, smaller, and thinner. It’s also a whopping $290. The device’s funky new aesthetic is a surprise move for the relatively no-frills Kindle category, and yet it packs the longest battery of any e-reader ever made. These changes raise interesting questions for book lovers: what do we really need in an e-reader, and how much should those elements cost us?
It’s worth noting up front: the Oasis’ extended bezel and underside bump take some getting used to. Amazon’s hardware-focused Lab126 incorporated the extra room to both evoke the spine of a paper book and make the device easier to hold in one hand. The remainder of the Oasis’ 4.6-ounce frame is encompassed by a 3.4-millimeter metal-plated slate, giving it the thinnest body of any Kindle to date. It also contains the same 6-inch 300 ppi screen of 2014’s Kindle Voyage, yet with 60 percent more LEDs to give it a wider range of brightness for various reading environments.
Besides its steep price, most of what you’ll notice about the Oasis are these aesthetic elements. The device feels great in one hand, and it can be flipped from the left hand to the right with ease. But the hardware here does not offer much more than a longer-lasting battery and a brighter screen. Despite the rumors, the Oasis is not waterproof, and there’s no substantial boost in processor speed.
For a gadget as utilitarian as the e-reader, the Oasis hits the main marks. With e-ink displays instead of color LCDs and app-less software, e-readers strive only to be a superior way to read text on a screen. To improve the device, then is a mission of relative adjectives: brighter, smaller, thinner. Amazon may have succeeded on improving all those adjectives, but it seems to stubbornly refuse to add water resistance to the list. (Even the latest Nook is waterproof.)
Still, those upgrades don't feel worth $290 for a device that doesn't perform its sole function any better than one more than half the price. In that context, the Oasis is meant to be the first desirable e-reader, marketed with its visual and tactile appeal instead of with its functional role in our lives. It’s appealing to customers who want a digital reading experience to feel more like a holding a well-crafted book and are willing to pay a premium for it.
The best evidence of this mindset is the Oasis’ mandatory leather battery cover. The Oasis and its sleeve were constructed to work as a single unit. The purchase of the e-reader comes with the choice of one of three colors — brown, black, and red — for its external battery. Once locked in via magnets, the Oasis’ multi-week battery life extends to months of standby time, and the whole package ends up looking like a more square-shaped Moleskine. (A detailed and accurate leak earlier this week indicated 20 months of standby time, but Amazon says that is not true and is not disclosing the exact number of months.)
The Oasis with its battery cover looks like a more square-shaped Moleskine
When plugged in, the Oasis and its cover will both charge simultaneously. When unplugged, the cover’s battery will be zapped first before the device switches to its internal one. Amazon is also introducing a new hibernation mode when the cover is attached, meaning the Oasis will start to use the bare minimum amount of juice required to stay powered on after one hour of inactivity.
The battery cover looks as if it could sell for $50 to $70. So perhaps it’s fair to think of the Oasis as priced similarly to the $200 Voyage. Still, not many Kindle owners tend to complain about the current line-up’s multi-week battery life. So the inclusion of the cover seems to be more a symbol of how Amazon’s Kindle team thinks the Oasis should look instead of what’s necessary for it to function.
"The leather cover has a lot of personality and emotion to it," says Marc Walliser, Amazon’s director of industrial design. The Kindle team wanted to give people choices while still offering "more of a paper-like instead of tech experience," he adds.
Amazon is positioning the Oasis at the highest end of the Kindle line, above the Voyage. Preorders start today, with a ship date of April 27th, for a Wi-Fi model or one with Wi-Fi and free 3G connectivity courtesy of Amazon, as is standard for other Kindles. However, it’s easier to think of the Oasis here as a more luxury version of the Paperwhite pressed into a smaller form, with a nifty leather battery case. The company will continue to sell its base model Kindle for $80 and the latest version of the Paperwhite for $120 alongside the Voyage.
The Oasis joins the Kindle family at an interesting time for e-readers. While not quite the Kleenex of the category, Kindle is pretty close to being the only brand an everyday consumer could name with ease. Sure, there’s Canada’s Kobo, and Barnes & Nobles’ Nook is hanging on. But Amazon’s e-reader, through its aggressive pricing and e-book market share, has become more or less synonymous with digital reading.
That doesn’t necessarily translate to sustained hardware sales. E-readers, like tablets, have longer lives than other mobile products. It’s not hard to find a Kindle owner who’s happy with a four- or five-year old device and unwilling to upgrade. By being good at just one thing, Amazon wields a double-edged sword. So long as an e-reader can be used to read e-books, there’s no point in shelling out for a newer, flashier model unless there’s a substantial benefit gained.
In the end, Amazon doesn’t care too much which Kindle you buy. Every Amazon-powered e-reader out there is just another way to push people to buy more books from Amazon.com. But the Oasis’ design is clearly meant to tug at the gadget lover in all of us, and it will surely win over consumers who can part with a couple hundred bucks so they can take advantage of the Oasis’ perks.
For instance, you can’t buy the battery case for any other Kindle product because it won’t fit any other model. It’s also not implausible to think the Oasis could convert longtime paper book readers — those who’ve hated Kindle designs in the past — over to the digital world for the first time.
But for longtime book readers, the Oasis may be a tough sell. These are consumers that long ago decided the fresh smell of tree-borne paper and the feeling of turning a page couldn’t beat a digital collection, no matter how clunky the device looked. They’ve also gotten by just fine for years with far less costly devices. So when positioned against the Kindle Paperwhite, arguably the best e-reader you can buy today, the Oasis is asking an extra $170 for perks that seem secondary to the act of sinking in with a good book.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the Oasis' battery cover gives it 20 months of standby time. Amazon says this information, from an earlier leak, is not accurate and the company is not disclosing the exact number of months. We regret the error.