Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently teased the imminent unveiling of a new Kindle. The result? The Kindle Oasis, which was announced last week. It's the company's most ambitious e-ink reader, and as amazing as it looks, it's not for everybody. Here's everything you need to know.
That's an unprecedented price for an e-ink reader. For that amount of money you could get an iPad mini 2 (not the current generation of iPad mini, but still a great tablet), or Amazon's full-size Kindle Fire HD10 tablet, with enough left over for a case and some apps. That price tag also swims against the stream for this category. While most e-ink readers have been coming down in price, the Oasis makes previous luxury-priced models look cheap by comparison. At $160, Kobo's Aura HD seemed excessive in 2013. Then came Kindle's Voyage, another stunner at $200. Now the Oasis forces e-book fans to do yet more soul searching, to determine whether they're sufficiently in love with reading on e-ink displays (as opposed to a tablet's LCD screen, for example) that they'll pay roughly $100 more than any mainstream e-ink device has ever cost. The Aura HD and Voyage asked consumers to prove their commitment to e-ink reading. The Oasis, by comparison, is asking for a blood oath.
But it's not actually crazy expensive at all.
Like most smartphones, the majority of e-ink readers come with a hidden cost: the price of a case. These devices are too small for most pockets, and are essentially intended to be carried in bags, where their unprotected screens can be damaged relatively easily. This is notably unfortunate for e-ink readers with front-lit screens (which is nearly all of them now), since even a small tear or hole in the outer surface of the display can redirect the light flowing in from LEDs mounted at the top and bottom of the screen. A slightly worn e-ink screen, in other words, starts leaking light wherever its damaged, and that optical distraction defeats the entire purpose of these devices, which is to immerse you in the reading experience. A case is indispensable. Also, most cases can be folded back to prop the reader on an airplane tray table, or your bed, for no-handed reading. You need a case for these things.
For the Oasis, that exorbitant price is instantly somewhat reasonable, once you realize that it comes with a folding leather case, which itself comes with its own built-in battery. Amazon says that the combined case and device provide months of power. We won't know just how long that means until we're able to review them, but Amazon seems to be enhancing one of the biggest benefits of e-ink readers over tablets, which is their exponentially greater battery life. A standard e-ink Kindle might last a month per charge. But multiple months? That's impressive.
It's optimized for one-handed reading.
One welcome introduction in the Oasis is a radical (for e-ink readers) redesign, shifting the majority of the device's weight to the right side. It also has physical page-turn buttons on that side, so you can thumb forward or back through books without having to touch the screen with your other hand. All of this makes one-handed reading more comfortable, and lets Amazon taper much of the device to a sexy degree, by stuffing most of the electronics into one area. It also has physical buttons. And before you lefties get up in arms about handedness-bias, the Oasis has a first for a Kindle e-ink reader: It can flip its orientation entirely, shifting the bulge and those buttons to the left side. This is a victory for both the left-handed, and for the lazy, because you can prop the device up on either side of you while reading in a prone position (presumably in bed). We'll need time with the Oasis to confirm just how different it feels in the hand, and how often those page-turn buttons come in handy, but this appears to be real, and even a surprising innovation from Amazon, in a category that hasn't been truly innovative in years.
It leaks less power while inactive.
One of the features we were hoping for in a new Kindle, but, frankly, didn't expect to see, was a software tweak to further extend the device's battery life. Specifically, we've noticed that a Kindle that sits on a nightstand, unused (because those House of Cards and Daredevil episodes from Netflix aren't going to binge-watch themselves), discharges surprisingly quickly. After a month or so, we'd pick up a Kindle to find it completely dead, a genuine problem when heading out the door for a long flight. We wanted something that would limit this gradual leak, and make Kindles even closer in dependability to the hard copy books they're designed to replace.
And we got it. Or it seems like we did, based on Amazon's claim that the Oasis has a hibernation mode that “minimizes power consumption when your Kindle is inactive…” Like everything else that looks promising about the Oasis, we'll need to see for ourselves how much of a difference this makes during actual, long-term use. Still, this is maybe the most surprising feature in the new Kindle. It's a fix for a problem that most Kindle owners probably never noticed. It's also evidence that Amazon isn't sitting on its laurels when it comes to e-ink devices. This is a category that's almost bereft of competition. Even if you think that e-ink readers are up against tablets, Amazon makes a brisk business on its own line of Kindle Fire tablets. There's really no reason for the company to pour R&D resources into significantly improving a product that already does its job better than anything in its category. But Amazon innovated anyway, with features big and small. That's great news for anyone who understands what a chore it is to read at length on a phone or tablet. For whatever inscrutable purpose, Amazon is still investing in the future of e-ink reading.