Back in October, I was a proud owner of a Kindle Paperwhite for about two days after a quick decision to return it. Here is my review of it based on our brief acquaintance. Despite this mostly negative review, I’m actually still thinking about buying one. If you own one, I’d love to hear about your experiences so far! Anyway, my feedback in summary:
- Amazon’s quality control sucks, or the product was rushed to market.
- There was uneven lighting across the entire screen of my device, but it wasn’t a big deal to me.
- The claimed 25% contrast increase is simply a lie.
- PDF support has taken a step back with some complex documents no longer loading.
- The experimental web browser is harder to scroll with than the Kindle 4.
- Amazon’s beautiful leather cover is much heavier than expected.
I read many of the initial customer reviews on amazon.com before I got my own unit and many of them complained about uneven lighting, especially at the bottom of the screen. When I got my device, I was already prepared for the worst — part of me was even ready to be pleasantly surprised and say “the unevenness wasn’t so bad after all” like some others had written in their reviews on Amazon.
Unfortunately, the latter didn’t happen. I knew I would have to return it the minute I opened the sleek black package. When starting it up for the first time, I immediately noticed a gray little dot in the dark area of the boot-up image. Hoping that it was just dust on the screen, I tried to wipe it off with my finger, but that didn’t work. Then the screen flicked over to white for the introduction pages, and the little dot remained there, now appearing black. After some additional research (including using my Olympus 45mm lens reversed as a loupe), I could confirm that the dot was indeed some e-ink or dust particle that was “stuck” on the screen, underneath the light layer — in fact, it was even visible when the device was turned off. After I had discovered that spot, it didn’t matter that it was smaller than most dust particles. I had seen it and I couldn’t un-see it.
The uneven light shown at the bottom of the screen. (Photo by archie4oz.)
Yes, the lighting was uneven, too. My unit had stronger lighting in the lower-left corner, as well as some blotches with darker colors. The most off-white area was at the bottom where the four led light shines out. Some of that light in the center had a pink/blue hue. Then there were some subtle shadows at the top. Honestly, these color differences ddidn’t bother me much at all — when you pulled the light intensity down, you barely noticed it. And that’s how the screen should be used anyway, otherwise reading on the Paperwhite is as bad for your eyes as reading on a computer screen. Don’t buy the myth that one type of light is worse than the other depending on whether the light shines into your eyes rather than onto a surface and then into your eyes. The reason why your eyes can see things is because light particles (photons) hit the retina in your eyes. It’s the same with the Paperwhite. The trick to avoid fatigue is to keep light at a low setting so that the screen doesn’t shine brighter than the surrounding. This is easy to achieve with the Paperwhite with its many light levels, but, honestly, you can achieve that with virtually any tablet and mobile phone too. If you’re using an Android phone, check out my review of the Screen Filter app to learn how you can achieve incredibly dim brightness when reading with the Kindle app. But anyway, the Paperwhite has an adjustable built-in light that can get incredibly dim, making it suitable for reading in a pitch dark room. But at the bottom of the screen, there is a shadowy area that just doesn’t disappear regardless of the brightness setting.
As a side-note (literally), it’s funny that the margin settings of the Paperwhite don’t allow you to increase the bottom margin, given that the light is the most uneven there. Changing the margin only affects the sides of the screen. You can change to Landscape Mode if you really want to avoid reading on the uneven part of the screen. However, unlike the old Kindle 4, the Paperwhite will change back to Portrait Mode when you go to the Home screen, meaning you have to rotate your device back and forth when switching between books. Annoying. The Kindle 4 kept its rotation setting even on the home screen.
About the claimed 25% increase in contrast, I can’t spot an improvement in any lighting environment. You’d think that 25% better contrast would be noticed immediately, but no. Comparing the Kindle 4 and the Paperwhite side by side with both devices turned off, showing the exact same ad cover, the Paperwhite screen is surprisingly slightly darker (the “white” area being more yellow) than the Kindle 4! If you use a strong flashlight on both screens, it’s easy to see the light emission layer on the Paperwhite, which is likely what makes the screen slightly darker/yellow compared to the Kindle 4 screen. Crank up the lighting to 5-6 (still a very low setting), and there is a noticeable increase in brightness. The contrast doesn’t increase though, since the black then becomes a little more blue instead. Maybe if you’re comparing the screens in bright sunlight you can see the improved contrast? But I doubt it.
Paperwhite to the left, Kindle 4 to the right. Real, actually white paper in between.
When it comes to measuring contrast, the only honest way of doing it is by measuring it in equally bright environments. This means that if Amazon is comparing the Paperwhite with the Kindle 4 — one with a built-in light and the other one without it — they have to compare the screens with the built-in light of the Paperwhite turned completely off. Based on what I can see with my own eyes, it seems like they just pulled a false marketing stunt and compared the Kindle 4 with the Paperwhite set to a reasonable brightness setting and placed them both in a dim room. Of course the Paperwhite wins in those circumstances, but that’s cheating.
Resolution & fonts
The increase in resolution is there, however, but I have to say the improvement is barely noticeable. You can definitely see it if you look for it, but when reading a book I never noticed it. I could see it when loading a busy PDF file with charts and tiny text though. Really, the most notable improvement in terms of readability is the new fonts. I loved reading with the Palatino font at the second-lowest size — that felt close to reading a real book. If the Kindle 4 had that font, I think I’d be pretty happy with continuing to read on that device.
The PDF support has taken a slight step back. I immediately noticed that one of my 100+ pages PDF wouldn’t load. After trying to load it, the Paperwhite shows an error message saying “Unable to Open Item” because “The title is too large for available memory.” The K4 opens the PDF just fine. Also, flicking pages is surprisingly faster on the K4 when reading a PDF. Was the CPU downgraded or is it underclocked in the Paperwhite? The slowness when paging PDFs seems to be related to the complexity of the PDF. Try e.g. downloading the Olympus E-M5 user manual PDF and you’ll see what I mean. When reading normal e-books, page flicking is perhaps slightly faster on the Paperwhite compared to K4, but both devices are pretty darn fast.
Touch screen & experimental browser
I love the touch screen and don’t mind the lack of page turn buttons on the Paperwhite. However, this has unfortunately rendered the experimental web browser a bit useless, since there is no way to easily scroll down page by page anymore. Instead, you have to swipe like you would on your mobile device — but that’s not fun on an e-ink screen when a swipe only scrolls a few lines after about a second of blinking and thinking. Even if you switch to the (otherwise) very useful Article Mode, you can’t easily scroll down a full page with a single tap. The tap zones apparently only work in books. What a shame on an otherwise excellent (for being on e-ink) web browser. Of course, actually typing on the Paperwhite is a thousand times better than the Kindle 4 since that device lacks a keyboard. But actually reading a bookmarked web page is much more convenient on the Kindle 4.
Lastly, I also ordered the Paperwhite Leather Cover with my Kindle to complete the experience, and because I need some sort of protection when I’m traveling. The cover looks good, even though the leather felt a bit cheap and thin. The magnet with its auto-on feature makes it very convenient to use though. However, it was much heavier than I expected. With the Paperwhite in it, it felt disappointingly heavy, probably twice as heavy as my Kindle 4.
Also, the $40 price tag felt like a ripoff for what it was. For that kind of money, I’d rather spend it on a Saddleback Leather gadget sleeve, which has infinitely higher quality leather and a 100 year guarantee. Definitely a better option if you just want a case for protection when traveling or storing it. Or if you want a cheap protection that you keep on the device at all time, I recommend the MoKo Kindle Cover which currently sells for $12.99 (though was just $9.99 when I ordered mine a couple of months ago).
You already know I returned it, but honestly, I could have lived with the uneven lighting, the slight steps back in web browsing and PDF support, and the increase weight of the overall package. Ultimately it was the dead “pixel” that became the showstopper for me because I couldn’t stop looking at it and frankly I expected better quality control than that. Also, I was traveling for work and wouldn’t have time to allow Amazon to send me a replacement unit, so I decided to return the whole package, including the case. Amazon’s customer service was excellent and very understanding. Big thumbs up to hassle-free returns!
But here’s the twist: I still want this device. The main reason why is because I find myself reading mostly in dim environments. I live in Sweden, so it’s basically dark the entire winter (the sun sets at about 3:30pm this week), and I also read the most in bed. And the reason why reading on my Galaxy Note isn’t good enough is that it’s too tempting to switch to another task on that device, like browsing the web, reading my e-mail, or playing a game. I like the idea of having a device dedicated solely to reading, but the Kindle 4 unfortunately isn’t it because of its lack of built-in light.
I’m still monitoring the reviews on Amazon from time to time and it looks like the average score has gone up. Maybe it’s a good sign that they’re getting their quality control issues sorted out. I might order one again the next time I travel to the Bay Area, but I’ll skip the cover this time and buy something else to protect it. If you already own a Paperwhite, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section below.