These days, it’s hard to argue in favor of dedicated devices.
Smartphones have taken the place of consumer video recorders, point-n-shoot cameras and even the iPod.
Fitness bands — despite several recent product announcements from Jawbone, Fitbit and Microsoft — will seem silly once the Apple Watch hits shelves early next year.
In this world, Amazon continues to release e-ink Kindles each year, despite themselves making an entire line of iPad-style tablets.
The iPod-vs-iPhone comparison is impossible not to make. Apple’s venerable music player slowly faded away because the iPhone was simply a better way to enjoy music on the go. It did video better, had a built-in connection to the iTunes Store and was already in everyone’s pocket. Carrying a dedicated music player in the other pocket stopped make sense to the vast majority of consumers, so the iPod went away.
I don’t think that’s the case for the e-ink Kindle quite yet. Reading on a Kindle Fire or iPad Air is a fine enough experience, but it lacks in something only the e-ink Kindles can provide: a tactile experience while reading.
E-ink does its best to mimic honest-to-goodness, made-from-dead-trees paper. There’s a quality to reading on these displays that’s just better than reading on an LCD, no matter the resolution.
There’s also the fact that no matter how much stuff Amazon crams into the OS that runs on their e-ink devices, a Kindle isn’t going to chime with an incoming email or Slack notification.
However, is that experience enough to save keep the e-ink Kindle line alive? How does the new Kindle Voyage stack up to previous generations?
I’ve reviewed two previous Kindles: the 2011 base model and the first-generation Kindle Paperwhite.
The Voyage is much less of a leap forward than that original Paperwhite was, but the collection of improvements leads to a better experience.
The Voyage retains the front-lit screen from the Paperwhite, but there’s no hint of dark spots or uneven lighting that plagued early models.
The backlight is far less yellow tinted than the Paperwhite. The LEDs are cooler in appearance, but not so much that the lighting is harsh. I actually prefer the color temperature on the Voyage, as it helps things feel more crisp.
The biggest improvement to the backlight on the new Kindle, however, is its ability to auto-adjust based on ambient brightness. While the manual controls are still present, I haven’t had the need to adjust things myself. Amazon’s gotten auto-adjust right.
The screen itself is now flush with the bezel around it, making the depression seen on previous models a thing of the past.
That’s not to say the text on the screen appears on the surface of the display, like on the laminated displays Apple uses on the iPhone and iPad Air 2. There is an air gap between the screen and the cover, but it’s miles better than the sunken-in displays of Kindles past.
The screen is now 300 ppi, up from the 212 ppi found on the still-for-sale Paperwhite. While the increase in pixel density may not dramatic on paper, in practice, the Voyage is far more pleasant to read. Letterforms are clearer, curves are less jagged, and everything is just more crisp.
The Voyage’s screen is now covered in micro-etched glass, which Amazon says reduces glare and more closely matches the feel of paper than previous screens.
Glare is better on the Voyage, but I wasn’t complaining about it on my Paperwhite. The texture can be felt if you rub your fingers across the display, but unless you have a stack of old Kindles at your disposal, it’s hard to tell the difference from memory.
In my Paperwhite review, I wrote this, regarding the touch screen:
Touches are precise and register quickly, but in my brief time using the device, I haven’t gotten used to poking the screen. But that’s not the fault of the Kindle, but rather my own years of use.
Two years with the Paperwhite were enough for me to get used to touching the screen to change pages, but not enough for me to like touching the screen to change pages.
It’s too easy to fire some other interaction on the touch screen, and if you’re in bed, jockeying your hands around to be able to hold the device comfortably and tap the screen is annoying.
Thankfully, the Kindle Voyage sort of brings back the page-turn buttons of old.
I say sort of because the page control mechanism isn’t a physical button like before, but instead, a set of force sensors that turn the page when the side bezel is squeezed. Amazon calls this “PagePress” and it’s not nearly as awkward as it seems on paper:
PagePress is a custom-designed force sensor made of carbon and silver, which reacts to a subtle increase of pressure, triggers a page-turn, and provides a haptic response only your thumb can perceive. Because PagePress has no moving parts, the haptics provide you with the most minimal indication that you have pressed the button, to reduce distraction from reading.
In practice, this is the best page-turning mechanism Amazon’s shipped on a Kindle. It takes just enough force where it’s intentional, but not tiring, and like previous generation-Kindles, both forward and back controls are present on each side.
The Kindle’s software lets you fine-tune the pressure needed to trigger a page turn and the amount of haptic feedback that’s given from the device. Additionally, the whole thing can be turned off, giving users the biggest range of options ever presented on a Kindle for page control.
Size-wise, the Voyage is slightly shorter and noticeably thinner than the Paperwhite. The Kindle logo on the front is more subdued, but the back of the device is radically different.
The soft-touch material is still present, but it’s now neighbors with a hard plastic section at the top, and the whole thing is divided into angled sections. This makes the Kindle Voyage feel thinner than it actually is, but I prefer the look of the Paperwhite’s back.
(As before, the back is a fingerprint magnet. Human grease is gross.)
The power button has been moved from the bottom lip of the device to the back, ending our long national nightmare of accidentally putting our Kindles to sleep by bumping them against something. The micro USB port is still present at the bottom, as is the LED showing charging status.
Amazon’s $59 case for the Kindle Voyage — dubbed the Leather Origami Cover, but named “Amazon Protective Leather Cover for Kindle Voyage” on Amazon’s webpage is the weirdest case for any device I’ve ever used.
The Kindle snaps onto the back part of the case using magnets, and the cover comes in from the top — not the side — like an old reporter’s notebook.
The cover itself is divided into five sections, making it look like Batman-style body armor. These panels can be folded into a stand when flipped backwards, making the Origami case a type of mini-easel for the Kindle.
While I like the idea of this, in practice, it’s far too fiddly. I can’t ever seem to remember which way to manipulate the case to make it stay together, and the contact point created by the cover-turned-tripod-foot is far too small, allowing the Kindle to tip over if used on a soft surface like a bed.
The relative uselessness of the case, coupled with the fact that it’s just plain bulky is too much for me. I’ve been using it to house my Kindle in while stashed in my messenger bag, but if I’m reading, I flip back the cover and pry the Kindle off the case’s magnetic back. My desire for a naked robotic core — a device that’s best used without adornment, but can be transported in something bigger — has never been true for a Kindle before now.
The Kindle Voyage does a lot of things I ignore. While an occasional trip to the dictionary is nice, I don’t take advantage of most of the software features Amazon has packed into this thing. X-Ray is mostly a novelty to me, as I can keep up with references in a book without an issue, I don’t share on Goodreads and I don’t take notes as I read.
Thankfully, the Kindle’s core experience of just reading can be enjoyed without worrying about these services and features.
At $199 (or $289 if you spring for 3G and no ads) the Kindle Voyage is expensive compared to the $119 Kindle Paperwhite or $79 Kindle. There’s no real way around that.
The question at hand is this: is the extra dough for the Voyage worth it? In my experience — coming from a first-generation Paperwhite — the answer is yes, if you use your Kindle heavily. If you don’t, or if you don’t mind the display you’ve already got, the Voyage may be worth skipping.
I view this sort of like the iPad upgrade problem. Year-over-year improvements may not be worth the money for most people, but there compelling reasons to upgrade every few years for almost everyone.
As far as the future of dedicated devices, I think the Kindle is safe for now. I still prefer reading on my Kindle over my Retina iPad mini and I enjoy using and care about the Kindle, but I can’t help but think I’m in a shrinking minority.