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Amazon’s Beautiful, Functional, Impractical Kindle Oasis Reviewed

$290 Oasis doesn’t do anything Paperwhite doesn’t do, it just does it better.

© by Andrew Cunningham

Amazon Kindle Oasis

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    The cover while open. There's an indentation in the front for the physical buttons.
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    The Oasis (left) is considerably more streamlined than the Paperwhite, but the Paperwhite costs just over a third of the price.
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    Amazon's Kindle Oasis.
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    The Oasis has the same 300 PPI screen as the Paperwhite and Voyage, but has 10 LEDs for more consistent, even lighting.
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    The e-reader is asymmetrical and relies on a charging cases for three-quarters of its battery capacity.

Amazon’s Kindle has gone through roughly two different design phases. The first began with the original Kindle in 2007 and ended, roughly, with the Kindle DX and Kindle Keyboard in 2010 and 2011. The second phase began with the fourth-generation Kindle and the Kindle Touch in 2011, which got rid of the keyboard and remodeled the devices in the vein of smartphones and tablets.

Amazon has built a bunch of features on top of the foundation laid by the Kindle Touch, but everything up to and including last year’s $200 Kindle Voyage has been a riff on the same basic idea. The Kindle Paperwhite added a backlight, and the Voyage was the first with a super-sharp 300 PPI screen (which the latest Paperwhite later inherited). So what comes next?

The Kindle Oasis is a major departure. It’s an asymmetrical design that’s dramatically thinner and lighter than the Touch design, but with one wider, thicker edge that contains the battery and doubles as a handle. The device itself sacrifices battery life, but it comes with a leather battery case that effectively doubles your reading time.

The issue, as it so often is, is one of price. Rather than making this new Kindle design available at the mass-market price of the Paperwhite or the standard Kindle or even replacing the $200 Voyage, the Oasis starts at a whopping $289. That’s a lot of money to pay for a gadget that only really does one thing, no matter how nice it is. But the Oasis is nice, and hopefully its design trickles down to the rest of the Kindle lineup over the next year or two.

One-handed wonder

It’s possible to use the cheaper tablet-y Kindles with one hand. They’re small and light and you can tap or swipe the screen pretty much anywhere to turn pages. But the Oasis has been designed specifically for use in one hand, and it shows—it feels so natural that the Paperwhite and the Voyage seem clunky by comparison.

The Oasis’ asymmetrical bezel gives you a lot of room to put your thumb, and by default it’s going to rest right about where the page turning button is—yes, though it includes the same touchscreen that all other Kindles use, the Oasis also sees the much-requested return of actual physical buttons for turning pages. The top button turns forward and the bottom button turns backward, regardless of which hand you’re holding the tablet in. The screen automatically detects the way you’re holding it and flips the contents of the screen accordingly.

Because your thumb rests so comfortably on that page turn button, you can make your way through a book without ever having to lift your thumb unless you want to go backward to read something you missed. It’s a simple thing, but it feels really great to hold and to use.

This is true regardless of whether you have the Kindle’s battery cover connected or not, but I found that when I was actively reading I preferred to take the cover off. The Oasis and its cover are connected to each other with magnets and pogo pins rather than any sort of latch, so detaching the Kindle from its battery and then reconnect it to the case when you’re done is simple. When they’re connected, the case actually charges the Kindle’s internal battery rather than powering the e-reader directly. This was a smart decision—the Oasis’ internal battery promises just two weeks of runtime between charges instead of the standard four weeks, but as long as you store the Kindle in its case when you’re not using it you won’t need to worry about the Oasis going dead if you prefer to take the case off while you’re reading. Both Kindle and case are charged via a micro USB port on the Oasis itself, and there’s no way to charge the case’s battery without first connecting it to the Kindle.

The case itself is an understated black, red, or brown leather that makes a closed Oasis look more like a small leather-bound notebook than an e-reader.

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The Oasis (left) is considerably more streamlined than the Paperwhite, but the Paperwhite costs just over a third of the price.

There’s nothing new to report about the Kindle’s software or internal hardware, which as best as we can tell without tearing the thing apart is identical to what you get on “7th generation” Kindles like the Voyage and the latest Paperwhite. They all run Kindle OS version 5.7.4, they all have 4GB of internal storage, and they all connect to 2.4GHz Wi-Fi networks. There isn’t a noticeable speed difference between an Oasis and a Paperwhite (they score the same thing in the Sunspider browser benchmark, suggesting that they use the same internal SoC—a 1GHz Freescale i.MX6 SoloLite, according to Wikipedia).

The screen is the first major point of departure. Both the Oasis and the Paperwhite have the same 300 PPI e-ink display, which makes text and images look more like actual print than a computer display. While the Paperwhite’s screen is slightly recessed, the Oasis’ screen sits flush with its bezel, which makes the Oasis look cleaner and more streamlined. The texture of the screen is smoother and more pleasant to touch than the the Paperwhite screen, which is nice if you prefer swiping to turn pages.

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If there’s a problem with the connection, the Oasis will let you know.
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The battery case charges the Oasis when the two are connected.

 

The screen’s frontlight is another noticeable point of departure. Like the Paperwhite, the Oasis has a user-adjustable frontlight for reading in the dark. It can be disabled if you’re reading in bright indoor or outdoor light since, like all Kindles, the e-ink screen is made to reflect light rather than emit it. For whatever reason, the Oasis lacks the nice ambient light sensor that the Voyage has, so you’ll need to adjust the light manually if it’s too bright or not bright enough.

But unlike the Paperwhite, the Oasis lights its screen with 10 LEDs. More LEDs make for more uniform lighting, making for a more “book-like” experience. The four LEDs in the Kindle Paperwhite have no trouble getting bright enough, but there’s noticeable unevenness, especially across the bottom of the screen. The difference between the Oasis and the Voyage, which has six LEDs, is less noticeable.

The Oasis’ frontlight is also cooler and bluer than the Paperwhite’s, though you really only notice if you have the two e-readers next to one another.

The Kindle Oasis feels like the next step forward for dedicated e-readers. Given the simplicity of theirs screen and internal components, the Paperwhite and even the Voyage feel larger and bulkier than they need to be. The Oasis boils the e-reader down to its essential elements, resulting in something that feels and looks noticeably, obviously better and more modern. And even better, it makes the screen bezels smaller and the body thinner without compromising usability—if anything, the asymmetrical bezel and physical buttons make this Kindle nicer to use than any of its predecessors, including the Voyage and its pressure-sensitive “buttons.”

All of that said, this is still a Kindle, and the Oasis still has some of the same headaches that the cheaper models have. The e-ink touchscreen isn’t as responsive as a modern smartphone or tablet, the hardware can be slow, and sometimes your taps don’t register. Slow hardware is a problem if you’re a heavy highlighter, an activity which is quick and painless on a phone (you can color code your highlights, even) but takes as least a few seconds on the Kindle. Like all modern Kindles, the Oasis lacks the ability to play audiobooks, and its screen is poor for viewing detailed PDFs or color images. If you buy one, you should do it with full knowledge of its limitations.

Pricing Woes

The part of me that evaluates consumer electronics based on how they look and feel really likes the Oasis. It changes the Kindle in ways that make it more comfortable, and with its leather cover on it doesn’t even register as an e-reader unless you get up close. It’s great for one-handed use, and the return of physical buttons will be appreciated by the Kindle Touch, Paperwhite, and Voyage users who miss that feature. The part of me that evaluates consumer electronics based on their utility and value is baffled by the Oasis’ asking price, though, especially relative to the Paperwhite.

This is partly because $289 is a lot to pay for a gadget that only does one thing; you can get full-fledged smartphones and tablets at or below this price. To cite a couple of examples: the high-end version of the Moto G costs $220, and the iPad Mini 2 costs $269. The Kindle Oasis is hands-down better if all you’re going to do is read books, but both of those gadgets are capable mini-computers that can run the Kindle app plus thousands of others. And that’s before you even consider Amazon’s own Fire tablets, which have mediocre-at-best software ecosystems and performance but are nevertheless more versatile than the standalone e-readers.

But even if you appreciate the Kindle not for its versatility but for its focus, as I do, a $289 Kindle Oasis is still confusing. Amazon already sold low-, middle-, and high-end Kindles. Now it sells low-, middle-, high-, and ultra-high-end Kindles—that’s four different e-readers, three of which do essentially the same thing. It’s hard to see the sense in this product strategy, especially since the three lower-end Kindles are well over a year old. Why position the Oasis above the Voyage, rather than replacing the Voyage or moving it downmarket? Why introduce a comfortable, sleek new design and price it so that most Kindle buyers won’t even give it a second glance?

As it stands, those of you who are looking for the best reading experience at any price should buy the Oasis. If you’re looking for a good e-reader at a sensible price, you should buy the Paperwhite without hesitation. The base model Kindle is still decent if you just want the cheapest dedicated Kindle you can get. The vestigial Voyage should be avoided entirely.

SPECS AT A GLANCE: AMAZON KINDLE OASIS
SCREEN  1448×1072 6″ (300 PPI) E-Ink Carta
OSKindle OS 5.7.4
STORAGE4GB (non-upgradeable)
NETWORKING802.11b/g/n, optional 3G
PORTSMicro-USB
SIZE5.6″ x 4.8″ x 0.13-0.33″ (143 mm x 122 mm x 3.4-8.5 mm) for Kindle, 5.7” x 4.9” x 0.07-0.18” (144 mm x 125 mm x 1.9-4.6 mm) for case
WEIGHT4.6 oz (131g) Wi-Fi, 4.7 oz (133g) 3G, 3.8 oz (107g) for cover
BATTERYUnknown capacity; Amazon claims two weeks of life if used for 30 minutes a day with wireless disabled and brightness set to 10, eight weeks with charging cover.
STARTING PRICE$289.99 with Special Offers, $309.99 without; $359.99 for 3G with Special Offers, $379.99 for 3G without
PRICE AS REVIEWED$379.99

The good

• Slimmer, sleeker, and altogether more usable design pushes the Kindle lineup forward.
• Redesigned body and physical buttons make it incredibly comfortable for one-handed use.
• Ten-LED frontlight is nice and even.
• Included battery case looks nice and extends the runtime to eight weeks.
• Amazon’s e-book library is about as comprehensive as it gets.

The bad

• Shorter battery life when separated from its case.
• No ambient light sensor, which is strange since this is a feature on the cheaper Kindle Voyage.

The ugly

•  The asking price is steep, and the Paperwhite is going to make the most sense for most buyers.

 

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