Until now, I was convinced the e-reader was a goner. After all, that black-on-gray "e-ink" display technology has peaked and cheap tablets are eating up what's left of buyer interest. Then I fell in love with Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite. It solves two of e-ink's biggest problems — lousy contrast and lack of integrated lighting — while preserving the e-reader's core advantages: readability, affordability and insanely long battery life.
E-ink is opaque — unlike see-through LCD — and because of that, it's a lot harder to light it. There's no way to "back light" the thing; you have to light it from the side. When Sony tried to do this in 2008, it destroyed the value of the e-ink screen with oppressive glare, even when the light was off. Nobody bought that product, and Sony doesn't sell a light-up e-reader now. This past April, Barnes & Noble introduced its Nook SimpleTouch with GlowLight, and while that reader does a far better job of preserving the e-ink's readability, the lighting looks uneven.
Amazon stayed away from e-ink lighting tricks until this fall, and the wait has paid off. The technology used to light-up the new Kindle is more advanced than anything I've seen previously: Despite the limitation of an LED array — in this case, four tiny lights buried at the bottom of the screen — the entire screen glows with near-perfect evenness, no matter how bright or dim you set it.
What surprised me about the Paperwhite wasn't that Amazon finally cracked the lighting problem. It's that the lighting actually solves the other big e-ink problem: contrast. E-readers have long suffered the criticism that their pictures aren't really black-on-white, but black-on-gray. The reading experience falls short of greatness, no matter how "easy on the eyes" the technology is supposed to be.
The Kindle Paperwhite uses lighting to increase the contrast, making reading easier — day or night. Here you can see the same device with brightness turned all the way down (left), and all the way up.
By some color-temperature trickery, the Paperwhite's light system turns gray into white. Not only do you leave the light on all the time, but it is ideally kept at its brightest in all but direct sunlight (where you can't see the lighting). And speaking of direct sunlight, let me assure you that the Paperwhite retains the outdoor virtue of e-ink despite the lighting system and the capacitive touch sensor layer.
The other thing e-readers will continue to lord over tablets is battery life. Amazon says the Paperwhite gets up to eight weeks on a single charge, but that's only under certain conditions: that the wireless is turned off, the light intensity is set to 10 (max is 24) and you read just half an hour each day. Odds are, your habits won't align with this perfectly, so you may have to charge it more than every two months. But I will say that since I do most of my leisure reading at night after we turn the lights out, I have had the lighting set near the bottom.
So, do I have any gripes? Sure. On the technical side, it's a little annoying that there's no ambient light sensor — you have to mess with the lighting yourself every time you change environments. But it's easy to do it, so that's not a true concern.
In the box you find a USB cable but no charger, nothing you can plug in the wall. Chances are, you already have something like this from a phone, iPad or previous Kindle, but if you need one, it's $10 extra. Alternatively, you can just charge it every so often by plugging it into your computer.
Previous Kindles have had speakers, and advanced functions like MP3 playback and text-to-speech narration — this Kindle is more streamlined, though it does have the "experimental browser" that we've seen on Kindles from the start.
A much more serious nuisance is that, for the starting price of $119, you have to put up with ads on the lock screen and at the bottom of the home screen. Even when you pay the $20 bounty to opt out of Amazon's "special offers," you still get a stream of recommended titles on your home screen, and those never go away. (Seriously, Amazon, how is that not an ad?)
Barnes & Noble has retaliated, dropping the price of its ad-free (and incredibly long-named) Nook SimpleTouch with GlowLight from $139 to $119. And Barnes & Noble wants to ensure that shoppers know that the Nook does in fact come with a wall charger. If all things were equal, this would be a compelling proposal, but things are not equal. If you don't live inside a Barnes & Noble, the Nook's advantages fall short of the Paperwhite's superior technology.
If you are a frequent Amazon shopper with a $79-per-year Prime membership, then a Kindle gets you one additional benefit: One free "lending library" book per month, including the Harry Potter series, "Hunger Games" and a ton of other bestsellers.
So if you don't care about ads, then the Paperwhite's $119 starting price is a bargain. Eliminate the ads and buy a charger and you get to about $150, still not bad. If you don't have Wi-Fi, you'll have to get the 3G version, which is $179 with ads, $199 without — a bit more steep, perhaps, but not a terrible one-time payment, especially for someone who doesn't have home broadband.
Amazon's growing less abashed about trying to get you to spend more money — and I think there'll be a point where it backfires. But for now, the Paperwhite's virtues outweigh any of the tacky marketing, and it can be declared hands down the best e-reader yet, without any need for qualifiers.
Wilson Rothman is the Technology & Science editor at NBC News Digital. Catch up with him on Twitter at @wjrothman, and join our conversation on Facebook.
First published September 30 2012, 5:39 PM