As a devoted reader of e-books and an early adopter of consumer technology, I felt a visceral frisson of anticipation in April, when Amazon announced its newest, gaudiest Kindle e-reader.
The Oasis was unimaginably thin and light, came with a detachable leather cover with an integrated battery that would extend the time between recharging from weeks to months. It was said to boast the same sharp front-lighted screen as the Kindle Voyage, which was introduced in 2014 as the $199 flagship of the line and remains my e-reader of choice. Reviewers in the tech press grumbled about the new device's $290 base price but were otherwise euphoric. Cnet: "The best e-reader ever, but the sky-high price hurts its appeal."
I placed my order that very day. The Oasis arrived three weeks later, and was so obviously defective that it was back in the mail to Amazon within an hour. Since then I have road-tested three more Oases (Oasises?) purchased at retail, one from Amazon and two from Best Buy. All were purchased with personal funds.
All have been or are about to be returned. Oasis #2, like the first, was plainly defective, but the other two show what seems at least to be a serious design error that mars the only part of an e-reader that truly matters: the screen.
The frontlighting of the Voyage, which comes from six LEDs concealed beneath the bottom edge of the screen, produces a uniform glow that's easy on the eyes but yields a sharp image that appears to sit on the surface of the screen, almost like print on paper. On the Oasis, however, 10 LEDs are arrayed at the side edge in a way that produces visible, and distracting, cones of light and shadow and a subtle shift of tint as the eye travels along a line of print. Some users also find that the Oasis screen image looks washed-out compared to the amazingly sharp contrast of the Voyage. (I agree.)
Screen quality is the number-one complaint about the Oasis on e-reader fan sites such as mobileread and kboards, where disappointment in the new device is palpable. Users are conducting a vigorous debate on both sites about whether the Oasis screen flaws are real or imagined, major or minor, avoidable or inevitable given the technology. But plainly they're serious enough to prompt many users to return their models. "I'm not really comfortable with letting these faults with the screen slide," wrote one user on mobileread, "but I absolutely love the weight, the form factor, the asymmetry, and the size…. It's a beautiful rose with some painful thorns."
The Oasis complaints point to some important issues. The Kindle e-reader line, which now encompasses four models ranging from $80 to $290, is the centerpiece of Amazon's e-book strategy: The devices are the razors from which the company expects to garner unending profits by selling e-books (the blades) readable only on Kindles among e-readers. (Amazon e-books also can be read on laptops, desktops, or tablets and smartphones equipped with the company's software.)
Although the company doesn't disclose hardware sales, Kindles have long been thought to be its most successful branded products. In the marketplace, Kindles dominate such competitors as Barnes and Noble's Nook and the Kobo e-readers produced by a Toronto company now owned by Japan's Rakuten Inc. Both have their fans, however.
The engineers at Amazon's design unit, Sunnyvale-based Lab126, may have felt the urge to widen the distinction between Kindles and those rivals by giving the new product a distinctive size and shape. If so, they succeeded only by imposing compromises on the screen that were unnecessary and harmful.
Size and weight aren't exactly pressing issues for either the Voyage (6.3 oz.) or the Kindle Paperwhite, a front-lighted model with a base price of $120 last upgraded in 2013 (7.2 oz.). Both fall comfortably within the range of standard paperback books. (My comparison paperbacks were a 1996 Robert B. Parker detective novel, at 5.8 oz., and a 1988 Penguin edition of Jane Austen's "Emma," at 8.1 oz.) If the designers felt that reducing weight was so important that degrading the screen image was an acceptable tradeoff, they arguably made the wrong choice.
One other question involves tech-press reviewers. I've found none who mentioned the uneven lighting of the Oasis screen. Then again, most reviews came out before the Oasis was available for retail sale, and many compare the Oasis to the Paperwhite, not to the best-in-class Voyage. That suggests either that the reviewers received cherry-picked review models from Amazon PR — a relationship they should have disclosed — or aren't experienced Kindle users. Either way, they may have misled their readers or, at best, left them ill-served.
The Kindle Oasis certainly represents a major advance in the size, weight and battery life of the e-reader. It's only 4.6 ounces (without the detachable cover). The Oasis' square dimensions are a bit larger than the palm of the hand, though its screen has the same rectangular dimensions as the 6-inch diagonal screens of the Voyage and Paperwhite.
Criticism of its price is a bit unfair. The Voyage sells for a base price of only $199, but Amazon-made covers cost at least $45 and don't offer the additional battery. The first Kindle sold for $399 in 2007, and the price point topped out in 2009 with the large-format DX at $489, later reduced to $379.
All the current Kindle models demonstrate how far e-reader technology has come in only a few short years.
Novelist Nicholson Baker did a memorable deep dive into the Kindle 2 for the New Yorker in 2009, comparing the "greenish, sickly gray" of the screen to a "four-by-five window onto an overcast afternoon." He complained about all the great writing as-yet unavailable on e-books: "No Vladimir Nabokov… no Pynchon, no Tim O'Brien… no Saul Bellow, no Frederick Exley, no 'World According to Garp,' no 'Catch-22,' no 'Breakfast at Tiffany's,' no 'Portnoy's Complaint'…." But he speculated that pressure on publishers to bring out their wares in electronic versions would only grow, and he was right. Almost every gap he listed in 2009 has since been filled with a Kindle edition. The screens have gotten progressively better, with today's ivory-colored screens approaching the grail of print-on-paper sharpness.
My own first Kindle was the clipboard-sized DX, with 9.7-inch screen. I supplanted it with a third-generation Kindle (the "Kindle keyboard") in 2010, followed by both generations of the front-lighted Paperwhite, and finally the Voyage. At the moment, my household Kindle fleet numbers five devices.
In other words, I come to my disappointment in the Oasis honestly. On the first one, shipped from Amazon, five of the 10 LEDs were dark — evidently an internal cable was unconnected. On Oasis No. 2, from Best Buy, the LEDs cast dark shadows over the screen and were unevenly lit. Oases No. 3 (Best Buy) and No. 4 (Amazon) had less obtrusive but still glaring shadows. Their lighting levels didn't match each other, which suggests an alarming flaw in Amazon's quality control.
What's still unclear is whether these issues are the product of poor manufacturing or poor design. Some early buyers of the Paperwhite and Voyage complained about blotchy screens too, but those flaws were soon rectified. One change in the Oasis that disturbs some users is the shift of the LEDs from the bottom border of the earlier models to the side. As a consequence, the shadows and color gradients are noticeable as the eye scans every line of type, rather than gradually as the eye moves down the page.
For Kindle fans like myself, e-readers are a great technological advance. They're far superior to tablets like the iPad in several ways. The tablets' backlighting promotes eyestrain and their print resolution is inferior to the newest Kindles (except for the latest iPad minis, which are slightly sharper). Most important, Kindles are useful for only one thing — reading. That's good, because one can read without the constant distraction of the urge to read emails or surf the web.
On the road, the Kindle's capacity makes it almost impossible to run out of reading material. My Voyage currently holds the complete works of Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, three P.G. Wodehouse novels, every Sherlock Holmes novel and story, and two separate translations of "War and Peace," plus a few contemporary works of fiction and nonfiction. Of its 4 GB of storage, 2.94 GB are still free.
The Oasis shows, at least, that Amazon is still serious about the market for black-and-white dedicated e-readers despite the onslaught of e-readable tablets. That's good. But I suspect that what many Kindle owners really want is a model with the form factor and battery life of the Oasis, and the screen quality of the Voyage. Lab126, you can take this in the spirit it's given as a wish list from the field. Go to it.
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