By John Gruber
Journey across Bhutan with Gray Langur. October 16-29, limited availability.
My Kindle Paperwhite arrived last week. For me it’s an upgrade from the two-year-old model now called the Kindle Keyboard. (Note that those are affiliate links; buy something from Amazon after clicking them and I’ll get a small kickback.) My impressions:
It definitely feels different on my eyes than LED/LCD backlighting. The whole appeal of an e-ink reader to me is the soothing ink-on-paper-like feel. I wrote about this last year:
I got a Kindle about a year ago, and I use it much more than I expected to. I like reading on e-ink. I look at glowing backlit displays all day, every day. I’ve been obsessed with computers my whole life. I love glowing screens. When I’m away from my computer for days, I’m happy when I sit down in front of it. There’s a certain feeling I get when I use any computer — a Mac, an iPhone, an iPad, my TiVo, even an ATM or the credit card slider at the supermarket. Cool, a computer.
I read books on my iPad, too, but reading on the iPad doesn’t have the same mental-mode-switching effect. When I read with the iPad I feel like I’m doing the same basic thing I do as I read on my Mac all day long — just with a different device. It’s more pleasant, in many ways, and definitely more personal. But I’m still in the same mental mode — fully aware that anything and everything is just a few taps and few seconds away.
E-ink feels peaceful to me.
Glowing displays wind me up. Ink on paper and e-ink wind me down. This new display, even with the lighting turned on, still feels like e-ink. The brightest levels seem way too bright, but the help text in the brightness setting interface suggests such levels are only intended for use in “brightly lit rooms”. Exactly as intended, I’ve found it to be handy when reading in bed and on an airplane flying at night.
The downside: it’s unevenly lit at the bottom of the display. It’s shadowy — like the opposite of backlight leakage. This is apparently common, or perhaps even normal. Andy Ihnatko, in his review of the Paperwhite:
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.
It’s not a deal-breaker for me, but it is disappointing, and gives the Paperwhite a sort of low-end feel.
I lasted less than a day before coughing up the $20 to turn off the “special offer” ads. I’m sure the overwhelming majority of Kindle owners leave them on and probably don’t even mind them, but I found them grating.
I skipped last year’s initial batch of touchscreen Kindles, so I can’t compare this to them. The touchscreen on the Paperwhite is surprisingly responsive. The brightness setting is controlled by a slider, and it tracks my finger about as quickly as I could expect for an e-ink display.
All of the buttons on my Kindle Keyboard are rather crummy. Even the essential page-turning buttons have a junky, flimsy feel to them. And don’t get me started on the keyboard. Suffice it to say the keyboard on the Kindle Keyboard is the worst keyboard I have ever owned. Even worse, the silkscreened keycaps have worn off many of the keys. Just terrible.
The Paperwhite has just one button: power. Everything else is done on the touchscreen, and the experience is better than on my old Kindle in every single regard, save one. It’s far easier to navigate the interface, everything from opening books, changing settings, to making text selections. It was a royal pain in the ass to select a word (to, say, get a definition) or highlight a phrase on the old Kindle Keyboard. That’s easy now. Even the keyboard is better. It’s nowhere near as good as the keyboard on an LCD touchscreen device like an iPad or Android tablet, but it’s way better than the old hardware Kindle keyboard, and I think more than good enough for an e-reader.
But page-turning is a bit of a setback. It’s good that you can use the touchscreen to turn pages, but why not include dedicated page-turning buttons as well? The e-ink Kindles are designed to do one thing really well: display long-form text. Page-turning is at the heart of the Kindle reading experience. An active Kindle reader is going to go to the next page hundreds — in some cases, I’m sure, even thousands — of times every week. There should not just be buttons for page-turning, but great buttons. Buttons exquisitely designed and engineered to be perfectly placed and delightfully clickable. The problem with using the touchscreen to turn pages is that you have to move your thumb, from the bezel to the display and then back to the bezel after tapping, each time. With page-turning buttons on the bezel, like on the old pre-touchscreen Kindles, you never had to move your thumbs while reading. Not having to move your thumbs is one way a dedicated e-reader could hold an advantage over tablets like the iPad and Kindle Fire — a missed opportunity here. It’s a little thing, but as always, it’s the details that matter.
E-ink Kindles are the anti-iPad. Single-purpose vs. all-purpose. To remain relevant in an iPad (and Kindle Fire) world, a single-purpose device like the Kindle Paperwhite needs an obsessive focus on the reading experience. Page-turning buttons would make that experience better. That’s why iPods have dedicated hardware buttons for volume and play/pause. They’re optimized for audio playback, and a few buttons make that experience better. Apple tried going button-less with the iPod Shuffle in 2009 and it was a failed experiment. The buttoned version returned a year later.
Even iOS devices like the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch have hardware buttons for volume control and, of course, going to the home screen. (I think the Kindle Paperwhite would be improved with a Home button too, but that’s not as big a deal as page-turning.) The Einstein adage that things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler, holds here. The old Kindles had way too many buttons. But one button, the power toggle, is too few.
The increased resolution of the display — “62 percent more pixels”, according to Amazon — isn’t really that noticeable to me. I guess I’ve been spoiled by the retina iOS displays, but it just doesn’t look that much improved over the old Kindle, font-rendering-wise. It still looks like the output of a fax machine or a decrepit laser printer with a fading fuser.
Though I was excited by them when they were announced, the new fonts were poorly chosen. Futura is one of my most beloved fonts but I’d never set the text of a book or magazine using it. Helvetica is a reasonable choice for a sans serif, but they could have done better. I’ve read many books in my life, and can’t recall a single one in which the body text was set in Futura, and only a handful that were set in Helvetica. Palatino probably looks the best of the new fonts to my eyes, but alas, I have never been a fan of Palatino.
That leaves Baskerville. Baskerville is a fine typeface, and I own several books set in it that are very handsome indeed. But many of the strokes in Baskerville are just too thin to render on this display. Rather than showing off how nice the display is, Baskerville does the opposite: it shows how relatively crude it is, resolution-wise. What you want are letterforms that are heavier; Baskerville on the Kindle Paperwhite looks downright frail, as though it’s withering away in old age.
I thus wouldn’t be surprised if Caecilia remains the most-used font, and that’s a missed opportunity for Amazon. I can’t ever recall seeing a novel printed using a slab serif typeface; on the Kindle, that’s all most users ever see. I believe the Kindle Paperwhite display is capable of rendering truly beautiful typography, but that would require fonts that were chosen or designed with the limitations of e-ink in mind, along with improvements to the font rendering algorithm. The typography in centuries-old books was often beautiful, despite printing technology that was crude by today’s standards. This was possible because the hot metal type was designed with those limitations — ink bleed, to name one major factor — in mind.
Another typographic boner: the Kindle still lacks hyphenation but yet insists upon full-justified text. Full justification without hyphenation inevitably results in unsightly gaps between words on a few lines each page. Any layout engine that doesn’t do hyphenation should default to ragged-right justification — but a dedicated e-reader in 2012 has no excuse for not including a good auto-hyphenation algorithm. Good typographic layout is hard, no argument, but that’s the only thing an e-reader is meant to do. Typographic layout and font rendering are the Kindle’s equivalents to audio fidelity from an iPod — there’s no excuse for it to be less than good, and it ought to be downright excellent.
Amazon’s goal should be for Kindle typography to equal print typography. They’re not even close. They get a pass on this only because all their competitors are just as bad or worse. Amazon should hire a world-class book designer to serve as product manager for the Kindle.