Last updated: 12 August, 2016
For years I recommended the Keyboard 3G as the best Kindle for travellers. My view didn’t alter even as cheaper touch-based models came out, for one simple reason. The Keyboard 3G was the only model that also offered free, unrestricted web browsing over a cellular connection anywhere in the world.
Sure, the browser was horrible to use and sure, fewer and fewer websites loaded properly with it as time went by. In a pinch, though, it would still do the job when nothing else could.
Now, that’s all changed. It’s almost impossible to buy a new Keyboard 3G, and cellular browsing has been limited to a mere 50MB of data per month.
Local SIM cards are increasingly easy to pick up for travellers, and cell companies like T-Mobile are also slowly making international data roaming less expensive, meaning that there’s less need to browse on a Kindle at all.
With that in mind, it was time for a reassessment. I got my hands on the latest version of the Kindle Paperwhite (Wi-fi only) and put it through its paces.
The first thing I did was to put my old Keyboard 3G and the new Paperwhite side by side. Although the screen size is the same, the lack of physical keyboard on the Paperwhite makes it much smaller overall. It’s also a little lighter, although the 40g difference isn’t as obvious.
The first touch-based Kindles weren’t particularly good. The device often didn’t respond straight away, and felt sluggish as a result. There’s no such problem with the Paperwhite, though. Tapping or swiping to turn pages happens almost immediately, as does pulling down the menu with a tap at the top of the screen.
Swiping did take a little getting used to, however. The slightly rough texture is quite different to the glass in a smartphone or tablet.
Speaking of the screen, it’s where the most noticeable changes have taken place. While it still uses e-ink technology, the screen on the Paperwhite is a dramatic improvement.
Text and graphics are both noticeably sharper, and being able to alter the margins, line spacing, font and text sizes offers plenty of flexibility. Whether you want to cram as many words onto the page as possible, or make everything larger and easy to read, is entirely up to you.
The “killer feature” – an inbuilt light– is a very welcome addition for travellers. For some people, being able to read in the darkness of a hostel dorm room or night flight without disturbing everybody else is worth buying the device for by itself.
Other than that, there are a few other nice touches. Replacing the awkward power on/off slider on the base of the device with a push button makes a lot of sense, as does showing thumbnails of a book’s cover rather than just the title.
Being able to head to the Kindle store or Goodreads from the main menu is useful, and browsing between sections and chapters in a book is much easier and far quicker. Having the estimated time remaining in a chapter (or the entire book) shown at the bottom of the screen is great for those of us that just can’t put a book down without some sort of closure.
Not that I know anybody like that…
In the Real World
Despite the new features, I didn’t expect my reading experience on the Paperwhite to be vastly different to earlier Kindle versions. At the end of the day, it’s just words on an e-ink screen, right?
Well, yes… and no.
While the fundamentals do remain the same, I was surprised at just how much better I found the Paperwhite in every respect. The clearer, brighter screen can take most of the credit for that. Going back to my Keyboard 3G felt like going back in time.
Words were harder to make out, and the dim screen and lack of contrast were suddenly very noticeable. I’d also never thought that having a touch screen mattered particularly much for an e-reader – until I started using a good one.
The smaller size also made a difference, especially when paired with a compact case like Amazon’s (overpriced) one. The Paperwhite doesn’t seem any more robust than previous versions, so you’ll still want to protect it – but it’ll now fit easily into a handbag or large pocket when you do.
I tested the screen light of the Paperwhite in a couple of different scenarios. At low settings in a well-lit room, as expected, it was barely apparent. At the half-way point, however, there was a clear difference, and the maximum setting made the device seem more like a backlit tablet than an e-reader.
Unless you’re sitting on a beach in direct sunlight (which, to be fair, isn’t unusual for many of us), somewhere between a quarter and half is enough. In a darkened room, setting the intensity to a quarter or less is fine – it really doesn’t need much illumination at all to be able to make the words out clearly on the screen.
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Given all of the above, the conclusion is pretty easy to come to. If you’re in the market for a dedicated e-reader, and especially if you already have a collection of books in Kindle format, the Paperwhite is the model to buy.
Just like other e-ink devices, the lack of eyestrain and weeks-long battery life make the Paperwhite an appealing option for travellers who read a lot, but it’s the rest of the features that lift it above the pack.
Since you can’t browse much beyond the Amazon store and Wikipedia when using cell data, the large price jump to the 3G version isn’t warranted unless you’re really planning on spending large amounts of time away from a Wi-fi network. Spend the money on a case and a few good books instead.
For me, handing back my review device was much more of a struggle than expected. Let’s just say that if my Keyboard happened to fall off a yacht in Turkey again (yes, that’s how I killed my last one), there’d be little question about what I’d replace with it. The benefit of some limited cell data no longer seems worth the sacrifice in every other area.
The Keyboard is dead. Long live the Paperwhite.