For the last week, I've been reading off of a Kindle e-reader that somehow costs twice as much as a brand new Kindle Fire HD tablet. What a world! And while I still don't know if the Kindle Voyage is worth $200 (or $290 for the 3G model) I do know that it's the best e-reader ever built.
What Is It?
Amazon's attempt to create an ultra-lux e-reader: an edge-to-edge glass-screened marvel that can hold more books within its borders than you could ever hope to read. While it starts at $200 (Wi-Fi only, with special offers peppering your screensaver) you can kit it up to $290 if you'd like to add 3G and prefer your display ad-free and have strong opinions about where to summer on the Cape.
Why Does It Matter?
You can only buy so many bocce ball courts before you start itching for other ways to spend. Also! The Kindle Paperwhite, while a terrifically handy e-reader, has just about maxed out its potential, to the point that it didn't even get an update this year. Stagnation is boring. The Kindle Voyage is not.
While the Voyage is clearly identifiable as a genus of the Kindle e-reader family, you're unlikely to mistake it for a Paperwhite or, heaven forbid, Amazon's $80 entry-level bruiser.
We'll get the tale of the tape out of the way first; the Voyage is 7.6mm thick to the Paperwhite's 9.1mm. It weighs an ounce less. And it shaves a little off the height and the width, but not enough that you'll likely notice. Those specs are booooring, though, compared to what Amazon's actually done here.
The Paperwhite, and most e-readers of the last few years, have looked basically the same; rounded corners on a flat, roughly hand-sized frame with about a pencil's thickness. The Voyage forsakes the bland—but, it should be noted, more book-like—posteriors of its cheaper E-Ink brethren for the gently sloping angles of the Kindle Fire HDX tablet. It's a subtle difference in grip-ability, but also a noticeable improvement. You can comfortably hold a Voyage in one hand for longer than you can a Paperwhite—although you're not looking at much hardship either way given how light and well-balanced they both are.
Kindle Voyage vs. Kindle Paperwhite vs. $80 Kindle
The now-circular power button has also moved to the rear, just north of where your index finger naturally lies. Previous Kindles have placed the power button at the bottom of the device, which sounds like a small difference, but not having to contort your thumb to turn your e-reader on and off has turned out to be one of my favorite improvements. I never realized I hated the other version so much until I was given this alternative.
In fact, just about the only carryover from the Kindle Paperwhite is the size of the six-inch display. Everything else has changed for the better.
Where the Paperwhite and other Kindles feature an inset plastic display, the Voyage is smooth edge-to-edge glass. There's no hard plastic bezel here. And while there are no physical page turn buttons, you can advance or retreat in a book just by gently squeezing the device's edges. Each side has two indicators for what Amazon is calling PagePress; squeeze the long one to turn the page forward, the short one to go back. And you can still tap on the display itself to navigate through the book or the Voyage's various menus.
The display's most notable feature, though, is that it packs in 300 dots per inch, a number that's totally meaningless until you learn that the Paperwhite has a mere 212 dpi, which is still mostly without meaning until you look at the difference in practice, which you can see right here:
From reading distance, the difference isn't nearly as perceptible, although you appreciate it more as you get down to the smallest font settings. But while you could convince yourself that the Paperwhite could pass for a book if you were feeling charitable and had a few drinks, the Kindle Voyage manages to look more like ink printed on a book than some books that I own.
You can also fork over an extra $45 (or $60, if you're into leather) for what Amazon calls an origami cover. Which, obviously, gets its name from the ability to fold into itself to become a stand for your Kindle, a job it performs admirably. Bonus points, too, for having a front that looks a bit like a smushed-down Predator face. Mine came in an electric yellowish color that I wouldn't recommend unless you wanted to warn nearby hunters of your presence.
The Voyage snucks in nicely to the origami cover, thanks to a cozy magnetic grip, but you do end up with added weight. And while it's great when you're propping your device up for hands-free reading, it's significantly less comfortable to hold than a naked Voyage. I ultimately would have preferred to go without a cover at all, but then I remembered that the Voyage wasn't actually mine, and that replacing a cracked screen would cost more than two dozen minor league baseball game tickets.
I'm outside, in my backyard, on a bright early fall day. I prop my Kindle Voyage up on the arm of an Adirondack chair and try to make headway on The Luminaries (it's so good but so long!). I forget that I'm supposed to be checking for glare from the sun, because there is no glare to check, because the Kindle Voyage has micro-etched glass that won't allow it.
I'm in bed, not quite ready for another night of oppressive work dreams. I dig into a Kindle Single about the early days of Late Night with David Letterman that I checked out of the Kindle Owners Lending Library. I forget that I'm supposed to be critiquing how well the frontlighting is distributed over the display—I love my Paperwhite dearly, but sometimes in the dark it looks like a poorly uplit high school production of Vanya—because there's nothing to critique. The light is perfectly distributed across every square centimeter.
I'm in my living room, downloading Simon Rich's new collection over 3G. I want to note how long it takes, but it's up on my screen so quickly that there's really no point unless I wanted to measure it in blinks. As I read, I finally notice some very subtle ghosting, memories of pages past haunting the Voyage in a barely perceptible way. I head to the options menu and select Refresh Every Page, ready to accept the trade-off of slower page turns in exchange for a crisper read. Various laws of physics say they must have been slower... but not in a way I could notice.
To sum up: if the point of a Kindle is to take away all other distractions so that you can just read, the Voyage is the pinnacle of that process to date.
And when you do want to do non-reading things, or more probably supplementary things like taking notes or highlighting, you'll be able to get them done faster thanks to the Voyage's responsiveness. The keyboard, crucially, has so much less lag than the Paperwhite that switching back to the older device feels a little torturous.
That's not to say that the Voyage is perfect. It is not! PagePress is a neat idea, but the feedback it gives every time you squeeze feels like a ligament twinge. It makes me uncomfortable. The Voyage is the first Kindle with an adaptive front light that adjusts based on the brightness of the room, but it never quite adjusted to where I wanted it. Similarly, the new Nightlight feature—which gradually lowers the brightness so that your eyes can adjust to the dark—works as promised, but I didn't find it particularly useful. I also think it's time to put the experimental web browser out of its misery, not that you'll be tempted to use it in the first place.
I'm also a little concerned about the battery life. After a week of consistent but not intensive reading, mostly with Wi-Fi on, I'm down to about 50 percent. That's certainly not bad, but it's not weeks and weeks. I wouldn't want to pack the Voyage for a vacation without remembering a charger, which is one more thing to worry about, which is antithetical to the point of a Kindle—or a vacation, for that matter—in the first place.
It's the best display I've ever seen on an e-reader, and maybe more importantly the best-frontlit display. Pages turn about as quickly as it takes to snap your fingers, which incidentally feels like a delightful magic trick. Search, highlighting, and annotation also have less lag than ever, thanks to a keyboard that actually registers your input in something close to real-time.
The Voyage is also more comfortable to hold than any other e-reader I've used, as long as you're willing to keep it out of a case.
There aren't a ton of new software tricks here, but it's worth mentioning that Amazon helps you find things to read, and navigate through what you're already reading, better than anyone else.
I'm a little worried about the battery life. The haptic feedback on PagePress makes something deep down inside me cringe a little. For this much money, I wish it was either waterproof or came with a nice steak dinner.
Should I Buy It?
It's tricky to say whether something like the Voyage is worth it; so much depends on your personal ratio of "financial means" to "love of reading books on E-Ink displays with roof-shattering DPI."
If you have enough money that you simply want the best and don't care what it costs, get the Voyage. If you don't mind the occasional splurge, or want to get a gift that says I sprung for the nice one, get the Voyage. It is the best, full stop. Just keep in mind that best doesn't perfect; in the next few years we'll almost certainly see a Voyage that's much cheaper, or waterproof, or both. PagePress could use some refinement, as could the light sensor. Someday we might have Mirasol displays, or something like them, offering the option of full color. But that's then! This is now. I'd just recommend going with the Wi-Fi only version to save yourself some cash.
I suspect, though, that for many people the $100 Paperwhite is more than good enough, in the same way that for many people—myself included—a $12 bottle of wine is just as satisfying as $100 bottle. Even if you can tell the difference, it's usually not enough to justify the expense. And in this case, the $100 you save on your Kindle can go towards the most important part of any e-reader: the books you fill it with.