When the original Kindle debuted in 2007, its biggest competitor was paper. Now, e-books are relatively routine, and the Kindle has a new enemy: LCD screens. People are increasingly turning to their tablets or phones to read, and even though Amazon sells a fair number of those, the company has fully cornered the market on e-ink readers. The Kindle is king of e-ink, so it's in Amazon's best interest to keep as many customers as possible from defecting to LCD. That's the best — and really only — explanation for the new Kindle Oasis. But is it enough to keep eyes glued on single-purpose e-ink displays, instead of wandering away to the seemingly infinite splendors of LCD screens? We spent three days with the new Kindle to find out.
The Oasis looks strange, with its square proportions, its lopsided hump, and its raised page-turn buttons, which sit under thumb as you grip the device. This is the gut reaction that most people who've spent a lot of time with Kindles will probably have. But guts are overrated, and the Oasis is ingenious. The Oasis is a full rethink of how we hold and use an e-ink reader, which is with one hand at a time (or no hands). So instead of placing page-turn buttons on both sides of the screen, this asymmetrical Kindle gives you a single pair, and automatically rotates the screen to accommodate a left or right-hand hold. It's a space-saving compromise that frequent e-book readers will appreciate, since pressing buttons can be less distracting than touching the screen, and the device itself is still relatively compact.
But even if you could care less about buttons, the disproportionate design also makes the Kindle more comfortable to hold. By concentrating most of the device's weight onto one side, it takes less effort to grip it one-handed. The Oasis disappears so completely into your hand, you start to wonder why physical books don't include a similar lop-sided heft.
Our other first-day impressions were that the included leather cover — which attaches magnetically to the rear of the Oasis — is handsome and absolutely the sort of thing we'd have picked up separately anyway (e-ink screens are sturdy, but look horrendous if and when they're scratched), and that the touch-sensitive interface is more responsive. Saved books load faster, the on-screen keyboard has minimal lag, and browsing the Kindle store, one slow page-load at a time, is less annoying. Also, the screen quality and resolution is nice, but nothing dramatically different than recent generations.
The cover's connection is strong enough to prevent accidental decoupling, but not so strong that, as with many Kindle covers, you feel like you're hurting the device every time its unseated. We even started to ditch the cover for short stretches at home, popping it back on when it was time to head to more uncertain environments.
There are two versions of the Kindle Oasis, basically. Without the cover, it's a vanishingly thin device that's weighted perfectly for one-handed reading. With the cover, the screen is protected, and the cover's internal battery can extend the Kindle's already long battery life, from about a month, to multiple months. That's Amazon's claim, which we can't verify yet, but the boost in overall capacity is obvious. (When you attach the cover, the battery indicator on the Kindle is replaced, to show the accessory's charge level.)
And the cover is great for propping the Oasis while reading in bed because it automatically flips the screen as you rotate the device. Previous e-ink Kindles didn't allow for full-screen flipping (just a switch from landscape to horizon), so this minor upgrade is a major bonus for bedtime readers.
If a Kindle is drawing attention to itself, that's usually a problem. So consider it a compliment that, by the third day, the Oasis was really just another Kindle. We did appreciate a few upgrades, like the new home screen interface, which includes a column called “My Reading Lists.” These are book titles compiled from both your Amazon Wish List and books you've added to your Want To Read list in Goodreads. Amazon also improved the overall menu options. Now, Settings is at the top of the home screen with a streamlined set of options including light brightness, and an icon for airplane mode (to shut down WiFi as well as cellular data, if you have a 3G-capable model), and separate battery capacity percentages for both the cover and the device.
Finally, the screen really is the best in any Kindle so far. The embedded lights give it a whiter hue. Text doesn't look noticeably crisper on the Oasis, but the cleaner, more even lighting makes it easier to read. Plus, you don't have to be a typography nerd to appreciate the benefits of the two custom fonts that Amazon has created — Bookerly, which has serifs, and the new Amazon Ember, which is sans-serif — for better readability at various sizes on digital screens.
The bottom line: The Oasis is the best e-ink reader to date, and the best value in a Kindle, despite what seems like a luxury price tag. When you factor in the likely cost of that battery-pack cover, the Oasis makes the next-most-expensive Voyage pointless. And when you factor in the improved design and cleaner integrated lighting, it's a worthwhile upgrade from the Paperwhite (and once you've used a front-lit e-ink reader, the cheaper, light-free Kindles are too depressing to talk about). For those who are set on using tablets and phones to read books, the Oasis will seem too expensive, and too similar to previous Kindles, to pull them into the e-ink fold. Let them wander in the desert of LCD eye strain. But for retaining existing Kindle customers, the Oasis is as refreshing and inviting as its name implies.
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