- Review Date: 10/02/2012
- Bottom line: The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite 3G offers always-on connectivity, bright, even edge-lighting, and numerous other improvements, but it's simply too expensive. The Wi-Fi-only version is a better buy.
- Pros: Crisp edge-lighting. Sharp new fonts. Fast, smooth, touch-based UI. Improved home screen. Robust app ecosystem.
- Cons: Ads cost $20 to remove. No more headphone jack. 3G version costs as much as 7-inch color tablets.
Editor Rating: 4.00
Once Barnes & Noble introduced the Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight, the first E Ink-based ebook reader with edge lighting, it was only a matter of time before Amazon responded. Enter the Kindle Paperwhite 3G ($179 direct), an edge-lit version of last year's Kindle Touch. There's more to it than that, though. Thanks to the Paperwhite's effective lighting, improved fonts, near-perfect form factor, and robust ecosystem, it's a fantastic ebook reader. We're withholding our Editors' Choice award for the 3G version because of its high price, and leaving that award with the Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight for now. While we haven't yet tested the $119 Wi-Fi-only Kindle Paperwhite yet, we're pretty confident that it's a better buy given its affordability.
Design, Controls, and Cover
Let's step through the key changes first. The Kindle Paperwhite is now black, instead of dark gray like last year's Kindle Touch. It measures 6.7 by 4.6 by 0.36 inches (HWD) and weighs 7.8 ounces; the model without 3G weighs 7.5 ounces. It's a tenth of an inch shorter than last year's model on both sides, and it's a few hundredths of an inch thinner, but it weighs the same. The matte, soft-touch finish feels a little more sleek and expensive than the Nook Simple Touch's housing, which is more like low-grade industrial rubber in comparison. And the Paperwhite is significantly thinner than the Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight, although the latter remains almost an ounce lighter.
There are no hardware page turn buttons on the Kindle Paperwhite, like there are on the Nook Simple Touch. This may be a blessing, though, since the Nook's are tough to press, and forums are turning up reliability issues with the base Kindle's buttons. The Kindle Paperwhite also drops the Kindle Touch's home button; now it's just a printed logo, and the top edge of the bezel is blank. There's still no AC adapter in the box; you only get a USB cable for charging, although an optional $19.99 AC adapter is available. Another omission: the headphone jack, which used to let you listen to audiobooks, podcasts, and music, is gone. So if that matters to you, go with a Nook.
As far as connectivity is concerned, the Kindle Paperwhite and Paperwhite 3G both support 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi hotspots, with WEP, WPA, or WPA2 encryption enabled. The 3G model works over AT&T's data network as before, and also works on many overseas networks; I had no trouble with it during the review. You never pay for 3G access, but Amazon limits you to either shopping for and buying books, or accessing Wikipedia with it. The Kindle Paperwhite 3G also connected to our WPA2-encrypted labs network without issue.
Amazon's optional new Paperwhite Leather Cover ($39.99) deserves special mention. In addition to coming in six colors, it has a magnetic clasp that stays closed. Open or close the cover, and it wakes the reader or puts it back to sleep. And unlike Apple's magnetic Smart Cover for the iPad, the Paperwhite Leather Cover completely encases and protects the entire device—front and back. The new cover isn't as soft to the touch as last year's version, but the textured finish should prove much more resistant to scratches and fingerprints.
The new Paperwhite display is a gem—for E Ink, that is. It still measures 6 inches diagonally, but with an improved pixel density of 212 pixels per inch. It's also a capacitive touch screen, instead of the older IR-based panel. It's more responsive to finger touches than the Kindle Touch, but since you're still waiting for the E Ink to refresh, you won't confuse the Kindle Paperwhite with a glass Android tablet screen. That said, page refreshes are faster and less obtrusive than ever.
So, about the new edge-lighting: It looks great. When placed side-by-side, the Kindle Paperwhite display is brighter and more even than the Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight's screen. Our camera analyst, Jim Fisher, shot each screen with a Nikon D600 which was set to spot meter on each reader's gray background. With ISO and aperture fixed, the shutter speed difference was 20 percent, with the Kindle winning out with the brighter screen.
You can choose from 24 levels of brightness, which in real life range from barely there, to use-your-Kindle-as-a-flashlight level. Some minor bleed from the LEDs along the bottom edge is visible, but there's less of it than there is on the top edge of the Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight. By almost every measure, the Paperwhite's screen is superior.
User Interface and Reading
Amazon finally improved the home screen as well. Instead of the old, boring, inflexible list of books and collections, the Paperwhite displays covers of recently read books and ones Amazon recommends to you. In lieu of the old Home button, there's a Home icon at the left corner of the reworked Kindle toolbar that brings you back to this screen at any point.
As with all recent Kindles, reading is a pleasure. For turning pages, the Kindle Paperwhite's screen is broken up into three zones. The bottom right zone is the largest; tap anywhere there while reading, and you'll advance a page. Tap the slimmer portion to the left, and you'll go back a page. Finally, tap anywhere near the top of the screen, and you'll bring up the Kindle toolbar.
There are now six font choices with eight size options, plus three settings each for line spacing and margin spacing. The new fonts are an improvement, and help bring the Kindle Paperwhite in line with the Nook and Sony Reader, both of which have offered better font choices for some time. There's also an improvement in sharpness, though it's not dramatic.
As before, X-Ray is still available for drilling down further into the meaning of words and characters, and you can bring up in-depth author profiles. The "experimental" Kindle browser is still very limited. One cool upgrade: The Paperwhite now features Time to Read, which estimates how long it will take you to finish each chapter given your usual reading speed.
A few nits remain. While Amazon finally introduced actual page numbers last year, after stubbornly sticking with its location-based system, they're still not available for many of the books in my collection. I also wish it were easier to organize books. It's easy to create "collections," or groups of books, but they still don't sync properly across devices. If you make a shelf of political non-fiction, you can't view that collection on your Kindle and, say, on your phone.
Storage, Kindle Bookstore, and Battery Life
There's 2GB of onboard storage, which is down from the 4GB on last year's model, and there's still no memory card slot. Onboard, you get 1.25GB free for user content—good for roughly 1,100 books, according to Amazon. That's also slightly less than before, likely due to the new OS's greater memory footprint—and of course your cloud account holds as many Kindle books as you want.
Speaking of which, managing your books in your Amazon account remains needlessly complex. Amazon's interface is sluggish; it takes several seconds and a full page refresh to delete a sample book or free book. The site only displays 15 ebooks on the screen at once, which is a pain when managing a collection of several hundred. On my account, some books showing in the cloud don't appear in the manage window; they're stuck permanently in limbo. Covers don't always display or download properly, and there's no way to replace a cover with a different one if you want, at least without third-party software (and even then, you can't replace it for paid Kindle books).
Account-related gripes aside, Amazon's Kindle Bookstore is still the best there is, at least if you're a fan of Amazon's website in general. There are more lists, more discovery options, more user-created content, more sales, and more ways to buy and download books than anywhere else. There's just more of everything. And thanks to Whispersync, you can synchronize your content across multiple devices, including ebook readers, smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktops. If you have a $79 Amazon Prime membership, you can borrow from over 100,000 titles for free; each one is identified with a Prime badge in the store.
Just as with last year's version, the Paperwhite is good for roughly eight weeks of reading on a single charge, with wireless turned off, although Amazon says that's with the front light setting at 10. A full charge takes four hours. Either way, battery life just isn't a problem with E Ink-based ebook readers, and the Kindle Paperwhite is no exception.
Pricing and Conclusions
Amazon's device pricing is deceptive. At $119, the base Paperwhite appears comparable to the newly-discounted $119 Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight. But the B&N models don't serve ads, whereas you need to pay $20 extra on the Kindle to remove them. Don't get me wrong; the flexibility is nice, and many people don't find the "Special Offers" offensive. But by making the ad-subsidized version the default, Amazon is doing something few other electronics manufacturers have done, and it's not good. I really hope it doesn't become a trend, where every gadget's base price includes some form of advertising.
Justifying $179 (or $199) for the 3G version we tested is much tougher, as it begs comparison with 7-inch tablets like the $200 Google Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire HD. While the convenience of buying a new book on a beach can't be denied, you're trading that against all the other things a color tablet can do, such as watching movies, browsing the Web, playing games, and running thousands of other third-party apps. The Paperwhite 3G is a pure luxury item; buy it if you want the best E Ink Reader, but know that the money could be better spent on a different kind of device as well, depending on your priorities.
Overall, Amazon has another winner here. Existing Kindle Touch owners should probably pass, as their version has more memory and a headphone jack, and Amazon makes a very nice leather case with an extendable LED light for that model. The Sony Reader PRS-T2 lacks a light and has less of an ecosystem around it, but at 5.9 ounces, it's the lightest touch screen reader on the market, and you can write in notes and underline passages with the included stylus. If you already have a Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight, our current Editors' Choice ebook reader, there's little reason to switch, especially given your existing investment in Nook-compatible ebooks. And if you have an earlier Nook, it's still safe to upgrade to the GlowLight, as it's an excellent device all its own.
If you're deciding between the base Kindle Paperwhite and the Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight from scratch, that's tougher, especially both devices cost the same. The Nook weighs a bit less; it doesn't serve ads; it comes with an AC adapter, headphone jack, and memory card slot; and it works with the popular ePub ebook format, which Kindles still don't accept. The Paperwhite is thinner, feels nicer, has a sharper screen with better contrast, and has better lighting—in other words, it's a better ebook reader. If that's your priority, it's tough to go wrong with the Kindle Paperwhite. As soon as we can get our hands on a base, Wi-Fi-only model and test one, we'll report back.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.