Review: Amazon Kindle Voyage

“Thank God Amazon created a new flagship e-reader. The Kindle Paperwhite is a terrible piece of crap.”

“For too long have we suffered the Tyranny of the Kindle Paperwhite and its myriad flaws.”

“I’ve resisted buying an e-reader for years because the best available example, the Kindle Paperwhite, is utter garbage.”

These are fictional excerpts from imaginary reviews. Nobody wrote any of that stuff, because the two-year owner of the e-reader crown—the Kindle Paperwhite—is an exceptional gadget. Just last year, we gave it a 9/10, which is effectively the highest rating get-gadget gives out.

And with good reason: You have to use the Kindle Paperwhite a LOT to find flaws. Sure, its touchscreen isn’t the most accurate input device on the market. While we’re picking at micro-scabs, the recessed screen feels a little dated in an era of flush-faced, full-color tablets that are dollar-bill-thin.

And yet Amazon didn’t just update the Paperwhite to refresh the top of its e-reader heap, the company created a completely different product: the Kindle Voyage.

Here is what you want to know: Yes, the Kindle Voyage is better than the Kindle Paperwhite. It’s thinner, faster, brighter, lighter, newer, has a better screen, has more memory (4GB vs last year’s Paperwhite’s 2GB) commands more magical elf armies, owns a Ferrari, and is nicer to your grandmother.

The Screen

With a resolution of 300ppi, the Voyage’s 16-level grayscale e-ink screen is on a density par with smartphone screens a generation or so ago. It’s not going to blow your brain out of your ears with an incredible facsimile of the real world, but you are only looking at words. The letters that make up those words are very smoothly rendered. Whereas you can discern the pixels of rounded letters and diagonal lines on the 212ppi Paperwhite with the aid of a magnifying loupe, you have to squint to see them on the Voyage in similar circumstances.

The driving point of the Voyage project internally, according to Amazon, was to get even closer to the actual experience of reading on paper. The boosted contrast and sharpness really helps that, but the screen is further enhanced: It sits closer to the surface of the frontside glass. The letters almost appear printed on the underside of the glass.

That glass is etched to further resemble dead tree—in look as well as feel. Its matte surface is intended to cut glare. It does, but not noticeably better than its predecessor. The roughened glass also aims to feel like a page in an actual book. OK. If you’re being very very picky, the Paperwhite’s plastic screen actually feels more like paper than the Voyage’s glass front.

Who cares. Physical books are inferior to e-readers. (That is my opinion. Bring on the debate in the comments, and we will respectfully disagree with one another.) If you want to read a book in the middle of the night, you need to turn on the lamp and wake up your bedmate or make a sheet-tent and bust out the flashlight that will then have a dead battery the next time the power goes out or there’s a disaster or you are searching under your bed for a missing sock.

Tablets and illuminated e-readers thrust us into the future with their LEDs, and the Voyage has the best glowing screen yet. Its light is a scosh cooler than previous Kindles, and, if you let it, it will automatically brighten or dim the screen to match the ambient light in the room. This is a wonderful feature, and really helps eye fatigue when you’re reading in a dark room.

The Reading Experience

There’s only one major step forward on the Voyage, and, fortunately, it directly affects the reading experience. The three-zone touchscreen on the Paperwhite (and its oft-forgotten predecessor, the Kindle Touch), was never its strongest attribute. While the Voyage retains the touch zones—and their ability to let you tap forward, backwards, or into a menu—it also adds dedicated page-turn button-y touchstrips on the left- and right-hand bezels.

These are great, and they make one-handed reading much easier. They aren’t perfect, though. Their extremely shallow click is aided by a haptic buzz, which is a pretty important UX touch. It soothes some of the did-I-hit-that-right nervousness that accompanies any form of touchscreen. The buzz works quite well on a naked tablet, but not so much if you have the Voyage in one its available cases. (Easy fix: Skip the cases—they’re like 50 bucks, and this thing is tough as a cactus.)

The other point against the haptic buttons is that both sides trigger the same forward page-turn—even though the one on the left sits adjacent to the zone on the touchscreen that sends you in reverse. This is probably a boon for left-handed readers, but it would be great if they were at least customizable. Some readers like to flip back and forth.

Extra Points

Testing battery life on any new e-reader is essentially impossible. After charging our test-Voyage fully, I turned on both the Wi-Fi and 3G radios and read a book. Then I gave the thing to get-gadget’s edit fellow, Max, and asked him to flip pages rapid-fire for an hour straight. (Follow him on Twitter, he’s cool.) Then I read another book. At the end of a week of brutality, the battery is about two-thirds-full.

That effectively means the thing has unlimited battery life. Most people will probably be fine if they remember to plug the Voyage in once a month.

And if you should happen to drop the Voyage while fumbling with the charger, don’t fret. This is no delicate tab. Even though it’s only 7.6mm thick (vs the Paperwhite’s 9.1) and 6.4 ounces (vs the Paperwhite’s 7.5) it takes falls like a stuntman. I threw it onto my hardwood floor 100 times (sorry, Neighbors!) and barely even nicked the thing. Then I took it to work and threw it around the office like a crazy person. No damage. I carried it to and from work in my bag with the cover off for most of a week, and I can’t find a scratch on the screen. It’s a beast.

The engineering that went into making the Paperwhite was, according to Amazon, some of the hardest work its hardware engineers have ever done. The effort shows. The screen is a real step forward for e-ink readers, and the magnesium back, faceted with the same design language of the Fire HDX, displays some of the best fit and finish in the Amazon product family. In fact, it’s hard to find fault with the either the direction or execution of the Voyage.

But not impossible.

Why isn’t this thing waterproof? It doesn’t take a Hugo-winner to imagine a situation in which a Kindle would have to withstand a substance that falls from the sky somewhat unpredictably and covers some 71-percent of our planet’s surface. You get caught in a rainstorm and your bag isn’t waterproof. You’re reading at the beach. You’re reading in the tub. You’re done reading in bed, and, when calling it a night, you by mistake knock over your bedside glass of water with your Kindle.

These aren’t extenuating circumstances, they’re everyday occurrences. So it’s great that companies like Waterfi will sell you a customized waterproof Kindle (works great, highly recommend), and points to Kobo and Pocketbook for their off-the-shelf waterproof readers, but Amazon needs to tackle this problem as well.

This shortcoming becomes especially clear in light of the Voyage’s price. While you can get an excellent Paperwhite starting at $119, the Voyage starts at $199; it almost hits the $300 mark when you add 3G and delete the special offers. With that kind of a price discrepancy, you have to either be fanatically devoted to having The Newest Thing or a serious reader to choose the Voyage over the Paperwhite. That said, if you have the scratch, pony up: Once you get used to those clicky strips on the Voyage’s bezel, it is pretty hard to go back.

Update 10:23AM: Updated to acknowledge Kobo and Pocketbook’s waterproof readers.

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