Either Amazon knows exactly what it’s doing, or it’s completely out of its mind.
What was once an online bookstore is now blanketing the earth with hardware products. Amazon is currently selling a smartphone (the Fire phone), a TV box (Fire TV), five different-color tablets (Fire HD and HDX), and three ebook readers (Kindle). It’s also testing a weird Siri-in-a-box speaker system (the Echo), and a grocery-ordering microphone thing (the Dash).
Some products are experiments. Some, like the phone, are flops. But one is the shining star of the holiday season.
It’s the Kindle Voyage, the latest Amazon e-reader. The price: $200.
Now, until you actually try reading a book on this thing, your first reaction might be a snarky chuckle. Two hundred dollars? For a 6-ounce slab with a black-and-white screen?
Is Amazon not aware of the Law of Diminishing Gadget Prices? Is it not aware of its own pricing history? The first Kindle in 2007 cost $400; today, the basic Kindle goes for 80 bucks.
And now Amazon’s resetting the price graph up to $200. You think, “What are they smoking?”
And then you try it.
E Ink, Inc.
The black-and-white Kindles use a screen technology called E Ink. E Ink can’t display color (only shades of gray), and the screen is slow to redraw itself, so video is out of the question.
On the other hand, E Ink is ideal for displaying words. It looks exactly like black ink on light-gray paper. There’s zero glare, no reflection. You can read this kind of screen in direct bright sunlight — in fact, it loves direct sunlight. Here’s what the Voyage screen looks like next to the iPad Air 2 (the iPad’s brightness is at maximum):
E Ink consumes power only when you actually “turn the page.” At that moment, a quick electronic charge attracts particles into the pattern of characters that you’ll read. Once they’re in formation, they’ll stay that way forever without using any more power. If you could take the battery out of a Kindle, the screen wouldn’t change (nor would it update, obviously).
In other words, you never have to turn off a black-and-white Kindle. Just put it down on the end table and wander away. That’s why Amazon can correctly peg this thing’s battery life at “weeks.” (Specifically, six weeks, with 30 minutes of reading a day.)
The special offers
You should note, however, that after a moment on that end table, a Kindle replaces the page you were viewing with a full-screen advertisement. (The Kindle’s rival, the Kobo reader, displays the book cover as the screensaver, which makes a lot more sense.)
It’s amazing that there hasn’t been more public outcry about these ads over the years. Can you imagine the rioting in the streets if full-screen ads popped up on your phone? Or your laptop or car dashboard?
But Amazon was clever. It also offers each Kindle model without those ads for $20 more. So if you opt to save the money, it’s your fault that the ads are there. You chose them.
And, again, they appear only on the screensaver — when you’re not reading.
Anyway, E Ink has quietly gotten better each year. The gray background has been creeping closer and closer to paper white. The ink has been getting darker and crisper.
And in the Voyage, E Ink has reached its pinnacle. In my video above, there’s a shot I love: closeups of the same page from The Book Thief — the Kindle on one side, the printed book on the other. You simply cannot tell which one is which.
On the Voyage, E Ink’s resolution has reached 300 dots per inch, the same as most printed books. That doesn’t sound like it’s much higher than the 212 dpi of the previous model, the Paperwhite. But it makes the difference between being able to see hints of pixel edges on your “printed” words — and not.
Meanwhile, the Voyage screen and Voyage experience are substantially better than anything that’s come before, for the following reasons:
- The back is black rubberized magnesium instead of plastic.
- The screen is glass instead of plastic, and the glass goes edge to edge, like a tablet’s.
- The glass has microscopic texturing to give it a tiny amount of grip — much finer than on the Paperwhite.
- The body is a tiny bit thinner (0.30 inches instead of 0.36) and lighter (6.3 ounces instead of 7.3) than the Paperwhite. That makes the Voyage the thinnest Kindle ever, but — and I realize this will sound a little Grinchy — it still seems chunkier than necessary. I mean, it’s much thicker than, say, an iPad or an Android tablet, and it does so much less.
- The processor is faster. Pages turn instantly. Popping back to the Library screen is instantaneous. Well, almost: Like all E Ink screens, this one takes a moment to register your finger touch. It’s about half a second — nothing like tapping the screen of, say, a phone or a tablet.
- Like the Paperwhite, the Voyage is self-illuminated. The entire page glows, evenly and satisfyingly. But the Voyage’s backlight goes 36 percent brighter. And, at your option, it can self-adjust to the lighting of the room. In fact, when you walk from a bright place into a dark one, the illumination dims gradually — it’s supposed to match the timing of your eyes adapting to the dark.
There’s a new way to turn pages, too.
You can still tap or swipe the screen (right side of the page for the next page, left side for the previous page). But on the Voyage, you can also squeeze the margin of the device. It’s almost like a mental impulse, especially because, in Settings, you can adjust how much pressure is required to trigger a page-turn.
You also get a little cellphone-like vibration when you turn the page. It’s a gimmicky and pointless form of feedback, since you can see that you’ve turned the page. At least you can turn off the buzz.
Each border of the Kindle offers both next-page and previous-page squeeze zones. So it doesn’t matter which hand you’re holding the Kindle with; it’s easier than ever to keep reading one-handed, even if you have small hands that hold the device by one edge.
Incidentally: Each time you turn a page, a few granules of the black stuff remain stuck to an E Ink screen. After a bunch of page turns, they start to accumulate in the form of ghost images. That’s why, every 12 pages or so, a black-and-white Kindle page-turn blinks all black, then white again. That flicker flushes away those stray images to start fresh.
It’s quick, and it happens a lot less often than it did on previous Kindles. So it’s not an infuriation along the lines of, say, dropping your phone in the toilet. But it’s still a little weird.
All the usual Kindle features are here. You can tap a word to see its dictionary definition, or drag across a passage to highlight it or type in a note. (Typing on the onscreen keyboard is a classic moment where E Ink’s sluggishness gets to you.)
You can quickly and easily make the type size larger when you turn 40 (it could happen, you know). Or choose a different font, or adjust the margins, or adjust the line spacing.
You still can’t change the right margin to “ragged right,” though — all columns are fully justified, which sometimes produces weird word spacing.
Kindle books still transmit their “last page read” location to anywhere else that you can read Kindle books: your phone, tablet, Mac or PC, or the Web.
There’s still the feature Amazon calls X-Ray, which produces a list of all passages in your book that mention a certain character, place, or subject.
Only one new feature appears on the Voyage, called Page Flip, and it’s terrific. It’s meant to address one of the last limitations of ebook readers: You can’t flip ahead to a different page without losing your place.
You still can’t wedge your pinky into the pages of a Kindle book while you flip back. But you can pop up a smaller page image within your main one, which you can use to view any other page in the book. It works great.
Amazon says a whole bunch of other new features are in the works. The most interesting by far is Family Library. It lets you and other family members access one another’s Kindle books, even if they have their own Amazon accounts. It’s about time.
The point about price
You can hop onto a Wi-Fi network when you want to buy and download a new book from Amazon’s online bookstore; the download usually takes about 30 seconds.
There’s also a cellular model that lets you download books when you’re not in a Wi-Fi hotspot. As always, there’s no charge for the cellular service itself, which is a refreshing shock. (There’s even a crude Web browser built in.) But you pay lavishly for the cellular circuitry — it jacks the Voyage’s price up to $270 with ads, or $290 without ads.
I mean, yikes. You’re talking about $300 for a black-and-white ebook reader. For that, you could buy 1.6 of Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets, which have color screens and stereo speakers and run apps. You’ve got to be a pretty hard-core e-bibliophile for this.
Amazon cheerfully points out, however, that the 2-year-old Kindle Paperwhite is still available. It, too, offers lovely backlighting and a touchscreen, and it’s only $120 with ads.
The plain old Kindle Kindle is still available, too — no backlighting, but it does gain a touchscreen in the 2014 edition — for only $80 with ads.
And, hey — you don’t actually need to buy an ebook reader at all to read Kindle books. You can read them on your phone, tablet, computer, or the Web.
Barnes & Noble has pretty much bowed out of the e-reader market, crushed by Amazon’s superior marketing strength. But rivals are still out there. Kobo’s Aura H2O, for example, costs less ($180), has a memory-card slot, has the same E Ink screen as the Voyage — and it’s waterproof. But its book catalog isn’t as good, it lacks many of the Kindle’s featurettes, and it doesn’t offer things like the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library (which, if you’re a member of Amazon’s $100-a-year Prime club, lets you “borrow” a free book a month from a 600,000-book catalog).
Still, the Voyage is a highly refined, super-dedicated device, and it makes reading joyous. It’s a premium e-reader for a premium price for hard-core readers, those people who always seem to carry a book around.
If we’re talking about holiday gifts, well, the $80 Kindle would be a hit with a teenager. But for the book-loving parent or spouse to whom you owe your life or your happiness, here’s a way to show your affection in a way that won’t end up forgotten in the back of the gadget drawer.