Amazon Kindle Oasis 2019, long-term test: A few features short of perfection

The latest top-end e-reader from Amazon offers adjustable backlighting warmth and is a pleasure to use. It would be even better with a case, an audio jack and a USB-C connector.

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Image: CNET

Amazon's Kindle Oasis is a high-end e-reader that's now on its third edition. It's an interesting idea, taking what is a fairly basic concept and elevating it to the point where customers are prepared to pay £320 ($350) for the top specification.

I've used both previous Oasis versions, other Kindles and products from Kobo -- Amazon's main rival in the UK -- such as the premium Kobo Forma, plus Android and iOS apps from both companies, and a range of other e-reading resources. I also read a lot of books on paper. So, how does the latest Kindle Oasis stack up?

The first thing to note is that the Oasis is a lovely product both to hold and to read with. It delivers a premium experience in this respect, and has the edge for me over Kobo's Forma, primarily because of the aluminium back and excellent page-turn buttons. There is a significant bulge on the back where the battery sits, and this makes a nice area to grip, whereas the Forma and other Kindles are flat-backed. The 2019 Oasis looks exactly the same as its predecessor: if you sit them side by side, there's absolutely nothing to distinguish them apart from the model numbers on the back. 

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The two latest Oasis models may look the same, but they're not completely identical. The new Oasis weighs 188g and measures 159mm by 141mm by 3.4mm at its thinnest and 8.4mm at its thickest. The previous model is very slightly heavier at 194g, although its dimensions are identical. Like its predecessor the new Oasis is IPX8 water resistant, and so should survive a brief dunking in the bath.

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Adjustable backlight warmth, from white to amber, is the headline feature of the 2019 Kindle Oasis.

Image: Amazon

The new feature that has made headlines is the adjustable 'warmth' backlight setting. It's nothing new for an e-reader's backlight to be manually adjustable or automatically respond to ambient light. What's new here takes its cue from smartphone screens that reduce blue light as day turns to night.

The same is on offer here, and there's plenty of control over this new feature. You can set to your preference manually, choose a setting that will activate and deactivate at selected times, or have the system gradually adjust backlight warmth as the sun rises and sets.

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Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

I've never really been a fan of Kindle screen lighting. I tend to use it as little as possible, because it makes the 'paper' look too white for my liking. I prefer the unlit, slightly grey background. But the new adjustable warm light is different, making the 'paper' look creamier and more like real paper. I found myself picking a setting about halfway up the warmth range for regular daytime reading, and allowed the warmth graduation to change with sunrise and sunset (the Kindle Oasis uses location awareness to get this gradation right, by the way).

If you're considering an upgrade from the 2017 Kindle Oasis, there are two feature improvements to take into account. The version with an integrated SIM comes with 4G rather than 3G, which makes downloading ebooks on the move a lot faster. The other improvement is an update to the e-Ink screen, which works that little bit faster now. To be honest, I might not have noticed the speed gain unless told about it, and it's still slower than flicking a page of an actual book. I'm lucky enough to have the previous-generation Oasis to hand, and comparing the two across the same book I didn't really notice any difference. Faster e-Ink is not a reason to upgrade your device, in my opinion. 

Battery life is superb, largely because e-Ink technology is remarkably power-frugal. Amazon says the Oasis battery will last for up to six weeks if you read for half an hour a day with wireless off and the light setting at 13 -- that's about halfway up the brightness scale. It's easy enough to switch in and out of airplane mode from the main screen, so there's no need to stay connected and drain the battery. Obviously using Audible audio books will have a greater impact than just reading text. I also found the Oasis held its charge well after periods of not being switched on: a week's non-use did not require an instant charge before I could get on with reading.

It doesn't take too long to get to a full charge: 3 hours will do it. During testing I found that 'little and often' top-ups were useful -- half an hour here, half an hour there. But if you're backpacking or otherwise relying on access to mains power every couple of days, then rapid charge could be a real boon, and Amazon has missed a trick by not catering for it.

Arguably another missed trick is the continued use of Micro-USB for the charge cable. Along with the Kobo Forma, which I also use regularly, the Oasis is among a dwindling band of Micro-USB hold-outs. 

I'm also miffed that it's not possible to boost battery life with a 'battery case'. That was a feature of the first, smaller, Kindle Oasis, and a welcome one, but it was dropped for the previous-generation Oasis in favour of a flip cover attaching to the thin part of the back with magnets. Even the magnets are gone with the 2019 Oasis, which is a shame as the magnet case was an elegant solution to protecting an expensive device in transit.

While the Oasis supports Audible, it doesn't support any other audio book formats, and if you want to listen to audio you'll need a Bluetooth headset, because there's no audio jack (or speaker). Using Bluetooth will have an effect on battery life, of course. It would also have been good to see Amazon add 5G into its connectivity mix. OK, maybe that's slated for the next update, but meanwhile, anyone currently able to use 5G is hampered here.

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The 2019 Kindle Oasis is a touch lighter than the previous version, and has an upgraded (faster) e-Ink screen.

Image: Amazon

None of this is to say the reading experience is not great. The 7-inch screen is just about the right size for comfortable reading, although I remain a fan of the smaller 6-inch screen of the original Oasis. The new Oasis has the same touch-friendly features to help you get around the screen that you'll find in other Kindles, and synchronisation of reading position with the Kindle app is as good as ever.

The 300dpi e-Ink screen is excellent, with plenty of fonts, text sizes and page layouts to play with in order to get things just how you like them. You'll want to make sure the setting to refresh the page with every turn is on. This was off by default on my review device, but only with it on was I assured of no residue from earlier pages lingering as I moved through books.

In the end, the defining feature of the latest Oasis is its 'warmth' backlighting, and to have that you need to sacrifice the option for a magnetic case, while not gaining much else.

Perhaps Amazon is in something of a holding pattern with the 2019 Oasis. When user ergonomics are already great, it's difficult to improve on them. But a headset jack and a USB-C charge connector would be welcome, and could have been achieved without impacting case size, design or usability.

Amazon Kindle Oasis 2019 pricing (inc. VAT):

£229.99 / $249.99 (8GB, wi-fi)
£259.99 / $279.99 (32GB, wi-fi)
£319.99 / $349.99 (32GB, wi-fi and 4G LTE)

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