Computers

Kindle Paperwhite raises the bar for ebook readers

October 21, 2012 

I’ve been looking at small screens and how to read on them ever since I loaded Kipling’s “Captains Courageous” onto my first Palm device. The change in readability has been phenomenal as we’ve progressed into the era of the Kindle and the Nook, but the Kindle Paperwhite moves into a clear lead in terms of readability, thanks to an excellent new display that shows how far we’ve come while holding out room for improvement in lighting and choice of textual fonts.

Unlike the LCD screens found in tablets, e-ink readers are not backlit, but both the Paperwhite and the Nook now include an adjustable light for reading in dim settings. Amazon has brought front-lighting (where the light shines down on the text, rather than past it into your eyes) to a higher level, but there are still uneven areas of light and shadow along the bottom of the screen, particularly when you turn the light up to a high setting. The light is more evenly distributed than what you find on a Nook, but screen lighting with e-ink is an evolving, imperfect technology.

But be aware that Paperwhite is a pleasure to read with its light on nothing more than the low default setting, because of the clarity of its text. The six-inch display seems more “paper-like” than that of earlier models, with a screen that offers 62 percent more pixels than the earlier Kindle Touch, giving a resolution of 1024 by 768, which makes letters sharper and easier to read in various light settings. Comparing the two models, I find the Paperwhite’s contrast to be much improved, an upgrade that moves the new Kindle decisively past the older screen technology of the Nook.

More fonts

And like the Nook, the latest Kindle is now moving toward more font options, which are handsomely supported by the higher screen resolution. For reading on a screen to begin to equal the excellence of the printed page, devices are going to have to offer font options as rich as those in the print world. We’re a long way from that with e-ink screens, but at least the six font choices available on the Paperwhite in a wide variety of sizes offer the chance to vary the look of the page, and as the technology improves, we can hope for a wider selection.

You can pay extra to buy a Kindle Paperwhite with 3G connectivity, but I opted for simple WiFi as I rarely find myself in a situation where I can’t wait until I’m in WiFi range to download a book. Amazon’s menu refers to “airplane mode,” which means turning the WiFi off – oddly, you choose the ‘on’ option to turn the WiFi off – the implication being that you’ll otherwise leave the wireless on all the time, which would shorten the otherwise excellent battery life. I keep WiFi off and am nowhere close to needing to recharge the unit despite heavy use for the last three weeks. If Amazon is aiming at an ebook model something like a smartphone, where the device is Net-connected full-time, I can’t see any real advantage in the practice.

Extra storage

One place the Nook takes the lead is in allowing you to plug in an SD card for extra storage, which Amazon continues to leave out of the Kindle. The Paperwhite will hold approximately 1000 books in its less than 2 GB of storage, but why not let the reader make the call by offering a plug-in storage option?

Even so, I have no hesitation in calling the Kindle Paperwhite the best ebook reader I’ve yet encountered. With its easy-to-use operating system and a crisp screen that makes the adjustable lighting all but superfluous in most settings, the Paperwhite is easier on the eyes than LCD-based tablets for long reading.

Watch lighting, screen display and responsiveness improve as Amazon and Barnes & Noble continue to push each other forward.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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