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The Unbearable Lightness of the Kindle Paperwhite

If you know me, you know I’ve got a gadget obsession. But these days, I’m more interested in what my newest toy can do to keep me offline (chalk it up to getting older). While Amazon’s newest Kindle is not a perfect device by any means, its many benefits on the road is an excellent addition to its obvious portability.

Though paperback books are here to stay for just a little bit longer, investing in an e-reader may just be worth it. Beyond the obvious features of the Kindle, it lets you stay connected to a huge selection of books – at often a lower cost. I eventually caved last and traded in my stalwart paper companions last December, when I got tired bleeding through my wallet for expensive and imported books. With that said, let’s get the Paperwhite’s shining points out of the way.

Note: This is not intended to be a complete review of the Kindle Paperwhite, but it is intended to be a review of the Kindle Paperwhite as a travel device. The cheapest model is available at Amazon for US$119 with special offers and without 3G.

There are two things that matter the most when it comes to a device and when you’re traveling: how heavy it is, and how big the device’s footprint is. A device’s weight is pretty self-explanatory: the lighter you pack, the more mobile you’ll be. A device’s footprint, however, is not something everyone always thinks about. It is, quite literally:

The surface space occupied by a structure or device when laid flat.

Therefore, a gadget’s dimensions (particularly the length and width) play a huge role in how much space you can save in your luggage. This is particularly important when you’re trying to maximize available packing space in your bag. Thinness, while sexy, isn’t necessarily the biggest selling point here.

The Paperwhite's thickness against a standard paperback novel.

The Paperwhite’s thickness against a standard paperback novel.

That’s important, because the Kindle Paperwhite excels in this category, coming in at 6.7 x 4.6 inches (or 169 x 117 mm). This comes in very closely with the a paperback’s smallest size at 7.01 x 4.33 inches, with the difference being fractions of an inch. It’s also quite a thin device coming in at 0.36 inches (9.1 mm), substantially skinnier than your average novel. Just because we said thinness isn’t the most important feature, it is still an important factor to consider. It’s also super, super light at 7.5 ounces (213 grams). There is just generally not much competition between the Paperwhite’s footprint and lightness versus a book’s heft and dimensions: the Kindle wins hands down.

Since this is a review, the e-book reader’s other features should probably get a mention. The in-built light is fantastic for reading late at night. There’s also the astounding ability to sync your Kindle across multiple devices. I also assume its 2GB of space will get you a zillion books enough to occupy you for years on end. (That’s not actually true. It only has enough space for approximately 1,100 books.) Unlike previous versions of the Kindle, an audio text-to-speech feature and music player were dropped in the Paperwhite model. But we’re not here to hear about me wax poetic about not being able to listen to Adele while I’m chugging through Game of Thrones. You can check out The Verge or Gizmodo for that.

As far as file formats go, traditional e-book formats are accepted (.mobi, etc.) in the e-reader. Microsoft Word and text files play well, and are easily transformed into a Kindle-friendly version. Unfortunately, where the the Kindle doesn’t shine–surprisingly–is with PDF files. Given how often maps files are distributed in the PDF format (see Lonely Planet), it’s certainly not ideal. Text-based PDFs fare just slightly better, only because there are ways to convert it to a more readable format.

Loading up Lonely Planet's Argentina edition.

Loading up Lonely Planet’s Argentina edition.

Clearly though, ditching the guidebook via the Kindle is a brilliant idea, even if it doesn’t quite live up to expectations. Guidebooks are heavy and antiquated things, one might even argue. After perusing some Lonely Planet guides, I found it difficult to navigate through the book. This isn’t any fault to Amazon, however: it’s mostly due to how Lonely Planet has lagged behind considerably in formating their digital publications. (The Rough Guide to Turkey I loaded up seemed to fare much better.) Due to poor link navigation that were often too close together, I spent too much of my time trying to get to the right section of a book. The glossy pictures and rich maps that typically accompany a guidebook aren’t there as well, making it a less immersive experience. If you’re switching from a paperback guide, expect a version that almost feels stripped down.

If you have notions of turning the Paperwhite into your very own Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it might not go as well as you plan. The worldwide 3G model, which was previously available for previous Kindle models, does not come with unlimited wireless browsing. Though there is a cumbersome workaround, the device is officially restricted to the Amazon Store and Wikipedia only. Amazon’s experimental browser isn’t great, either. (It’s really true!) Let’s just put it this way: You’re better off emailing web documents and confirmations to yourself if you need a place to back up documents. It’s also why I suggest most people opt for the cheaper model without the 3G.

Yeah, doesn't necessarily work too well now. ({a href="https://xkcd.com/548/"}xkcd{/a})

Yeah, doesn’t necessarily work too well now. (xkcd)

One great feature, though, is being able to stay connected to the U.S. (or your country’s) Amazon store wherever you go. English-language books, abroad, tend to lean toward the expensive side and often sell for much more than they would in America. Add a little cherry on top when you realize that English-language book selections in bookshops may not be as extensive in Mexico City as they are in Nashville. Kindle editions also usually sell for slightly less than their physical counterparts back home normally, so this simple feature ends up being an effective money-saver.

Fortunately, anyone who has a Jetson phone from the future these days will appreciate the Kindle’s battery life. Testing the device over a few months, reading casually while eating, cooking, sleeping, traveling and job-ing, I managed to charge the device only once every month. Just to put that in perspective, I often averaged close to 2000-3000 pages worth of content in about a 30-day timeframe. Yes, once a month. I can’t even remember the last time I didn’t religiously stick my smartphone in an outlet as part of my bedtime ritual.

Still, one of the (very few) deficiencies of the device comes back around to a problem that’s prevalent with all e-book readers. How are you supposed to trade books with someone else or lend it out to a friend? Ok, maybe the age of swapping books with other travelers on the road is coming to an end, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t still a little bit of charm left in it. Not only does it lead to the kind of experiences that face-to-face can only lend, chances to read new books–books that you usually wouldn’t read–are squashed. Travel, after all, is about experiencing the novel and seeing things through a new lens; learning about things you’d never encounter in your day-to-day life.

That doesn’t change the fact I still love my Kindle.

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