How do you make a tablet feel like a book?
Amazon has been whittling away at this question for years with its Kindle lineup, which seeks to offer a reading experience that is as good, if not better than, old-fashioned paper and ink.
The best of Amazon’s modern Kindle hardware has been the Oasis: not just because of the high-res screen or slim design, but because it alone has physical page-turn buttons for progressing through an ebook.
Those buttons are a crucial part of what makes a good e-reader work because nothing will ever really replicate a book when it comes to physical form. The best e-readers (Amazon’s Kindles, in particular) have succeeded the most when they try not to copy the book experience directly, but adapt it to the strengths of the tablet form. While the Kindle display will never quite be the same as reading a paper book, it offers benefits that paper can’t, like a backlight and adjustable text.
That brings us to the buttons. Turning a page is probably the most important interaction that people have with books. It’s how we move forward in whatever we’re reading or flip back to check a map at the beginning or an index at the end. Nothing will ever really replicate that: the movement of the paper, the susurrus of the pages, and the friction as you turn the page are all impossible to achieve digitally.
Some have tried. Apple’s Books app, for example, emulates paper on a skeuomorphic level by animating a digital page turn when you tap, but it’s a hollow experience.
Amazon doesn’t try to directly copy that. For the first several generations of Kindles, the company used buttons built into the edges of its readers, but they were awkward to hold and (like any moving button) a point of potential failure. So the company threw in the towel for the most part and shifted to touch interfaces, starting with the Kindle Touch in 2011, which were dull but functional.
Except for the Oasis, Amazon’s top-of-the-line Kindle. The Oasis has physical page-turn buttons, a pair of oblong capsules on the thick bezel of the device, that are positioned perfectly beneath your thumb. Like a real book, the buttons make turning a page a physical action. You have to deliberately move your hand to advance or go back. It’s the ritual of turning over a new leaf, adapted for the strengths of the Kindle’s unique form factor and design.
Amazon distilled page-turn buttons to the point of utter simplicity: the Oasis’ top button (regardless of how you’re holding it) moves you forward a page, while the bottom button moves you back. The buttons aren’t capacitive (like the flat touch panels on the Kindle Voyage), nor are they particularly remarkable from a physical standpoint. There’s no swiping tricks or even press and hold or double click functions. But unlike the original Kindle, there’s no awkwardness of placement here; they rest under your hand, ready and waiting for a simple flex of your thumb to turn the page.
The buttons add a physical break between pages. It’s honestly a shame that Amazon doesn’t include them on its cheaper Kindle models because, at least for me, the buttons make the difference between tapping through a book like it’s a long blog post and actually reading a book.