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Kindle Paperwhite review: Industry-best e-reader gets better

The new Kindle Paperwhite has higher-contrast higher-resolutidisplay than last year's Kindles faster processor makes for faster page turns. But its

The new Kindle Paperwhite has a higher-contrast, higher-resolution display than last year's Kindles, and a faster processor makes for faster page turns. But its the new internal lighting that makes it a great upgrade.

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Updated: November 3, 2012 6:07AM

The new Amazon Kindle Paperwhite double-underscores all of the reasons why the Kindle is a great book reader — and all of the reasons why so many people prefer a Kindle to an iPad or even a small tablet such as the Google Nexus 7 or Amazon’s own Kindle Fire HD.

It’s all about the display. Like previous models, the Kindle Paperwhite sports a super-high-contrast e-ink screen that closely replicates the experience of reading a printed page. This time, Amazon has increased the contrast — and added internal lighting.

Well, big deal, right? Backlights have been on other companies’ e-ink readers for years. It was the major new feature of this year’s Nooks, from Barnes & Noble.

It’s noteworthy because Amazon added the illumination to the Kindle in a smarter way. Other models use backlighting strictly as a way of making the reader useful when there isn’t a strong light source. The Paperwhite’s light certainly accomplishes that, but its true function is to make the apparent contrast of the display even greater. Where the previous Kindle Touch displayed super-black text on a light-gray background, the Paperwhite’s background truly looks as white as a sheet of paper.

It’s an impressive, subtle effect. The first time I woke the device and started reading, I wasn’t aware that the backlighting was even switched on. In normal room lighting, there’s a smooth spill of light without any obvious source.

Turns out that the Paperwhite doesn’t have a backlight per se. Instead, four bright LEDs at the bottom of the display focus downward, away from your eyes, and fire into diffraction grids that help to spread the light around smoothly.

Result: Your brain tells you “It’s paper.” At the end of five hours of reading (interrupted only by refills of soda and the appearance of a chocolate biscotti with little bits of pistachio in; yes, it’s a hard life), my brain still thought it was paper. My eyes had none of the complaints that often come at the end of a long session staring at a conventionally backlit tablet or notebook screen.

I only have one complaint: The lighting on my demo unit is slightly uneven at the very bottom. With the backlight set in a certain way (you can adjust the levels to suit the room), I can see a couple of shadows that intrude slightly into the page’s bottom line of text. But it was more of an aesthetic problem than a functional one, and in any case, if the shadows bug you, Amazon has a 30-day, no-questions-asked return policy on the Kindle.

One important note: The backlighting doesn’t seem to affect the device’s battery life in any way that was obvious during a week of use. The battery still seems to last for weeks on a single charge.

The rest of the Kindle Paperwhite experience is the same as last year’s. The screen refreshes fast enough to support a touchscreen user interface that’s flexible, and which removes any need for mechanical clicky-buttons around the screen’s generous frame.

It’s a bit heavier than last year’s model, but not so you’d really notice.

I continue to recommend the Kindle over other ebook devices. The Nook has a serious advantage for anyone who uses a conventional bookstore as their center of reading operations (additional features unlock when it’s inside a Barnes & Noble), but the strength of the Kindle ecosystem is the compelling factor. On top of its huge library, Amazon Prime customers can borrow current best sellers at no additional charge. Amazon continues to add neat features, too. Within the last year, Amazon has added audiobook syncing, for example. I can set down the Kindle, go to my car, fire up the audiobook version of that same book (purchased separately), and my iPhone audiobook player picks up roughly at the last bit I read in the Kindle book.

Amazon has also released a plugin for Chrome browsers that sends whatever webpage you’re reading (say, a long article) directly to your Kindle. Neat stuff.

The Kindle Web browser, which has been “experimental” since the debut of the first Kindle, five years ago, is still in place. As is the range of models. For $139, you get you the Wi-Fi version of the Kindle Paperwhite. The same unit with built-in free 3G mobile broadband (which lets you download books and content when away from a Wi-Fi access point) is $199.

If price is an issue, Amazon will sell you an ad-subsidized version of either one for $20 less. Your lock screen will be an ad.

What of the Kindle Fire HD, which I also recently reviewed? It’s a different beast. If you’re looking for an all-around content consumption device (books plus music, movies, TV shows and games), get the Fire. If you’re just interested in reading, the advantages of the Kindle Paperwhite are too great to ignore.

A bespoke e-ink based book reader will always have advantages that no tablet can really address. Tablet computers grab all of the glory and adulation. But no love of the iPad or the Nexus 7 is genuine unless it also acknowledges an obvious fact: They kind of suck as book readers. They have glossy screens; they can’t be used outdoors or in bright lighting, where an e-ink reader thrives; the battery only lasts a couple of days; they lack “just open the cover and continue reading” simplicity; the iPad is way too big to carry in a pocket or purse, and although Google’s Nexus 7 or the Kindle Fire tablet is just $199, there are a great many people for whom the $80 difference between that and the $119 Kindle Paperwhite might as well be eight grand.

Those are the reasons why I tend to see as many Kindles as iPads on airplanes.

If Apple releases a mini version of the iPad that’s half the price at half the cost in October — a persistent, if slightly fading, rumor — many potential buyers won’t be asking, “Is it as good as the Nexus 7?” Folks who want to read books will ask, “Is it as good as the Kindle Paperwhite?”

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