Kindle Voyage: With the best e-reader, old eyes can do new tricks

For aging eyes, busy bookworms, or anyone tired of squinting when they read, Amazon has the prescription.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
Amazon's new Kindle Voyage. (Photo: Jason Perlow)

It sucks to get old.

There are the usual things associated with entering middle age, such as the aches and pains.

You can't party as hard as you used to. You get tired earlier. You can't last as long doing... certain things as you used to.   

You learn your limitations. You adjust.

But certain things just start to piss you off. Like reading.

About a month ago my wife and I decided it was time to visit the ophthalmologist and the optometrist. Both of us found ourselves squinting when we were driving, looking at signs and trying to focus on text.

Close-up reading was also becoming exceedingly difficult, especially since I could no longer buy SuperFocus glasses, which I relied on heavily until my last pair broke about two months ago. The company recently went out of business, or rather, according to their voice attendant, was "exploring new business models."

So it was back to regular glasses. My existing pairs, which had my most recent prescription from about four years ago, were no longer cutting it. 

And I hated reading and watching TV. The never-ending squinting. I lost patience. Didn't matter if it was the Kindle 3, which I bought several years ago when I finally gave into Lord Bezos, or the iPad Air, or the Surface 2, with their HD+ screens.

I just couldn't focus on the text at close distance, even if it was blown up. The sharpness and contrast wasn't good enough for extended reading at close distance on either a back-lit "Retina" class LCD or a traditional E-Ink display.

The Voyage comes that much closer to creating the suspension of disbelief that while I am reading, I am not old and decrepit and I don't need $750 glasses to help me read.

I happen to love books. Science Fiction, science, historical fiction, all kinds of stuff. And I have also more than my share of business documents and technical manuals I need to refer to as part of my work at Microsoft.

I wanted reading back in my life.

The ophthalmologist gave me the bad news: I was more than two diopters off from my old prescription. Or to put it uh... blindly, I was a menace on the road and it was a miracle I haven't been in a car accident.

I was not a candidate for laser eye surgery. So it was time for progressive high-index Varilux lenses. Which is a fancy and very expensive way of saying bifocals. $750 per pair. Ka-ching!

The good news is I can see again and there's no immediate threat of me killing anyone or myself on the road anytime soon. I'm at 20/20 in my distance vision which is the best I can ask for with driving.

The question is, would I enjoy reading again?

I tried. My old Kindle 3 was a no-go. Fuzzy. Bad eyestrain.

The iPad Air and the Surface 2 were better, but even with the crisp color displays on these things, extended reading for an hour or so at a time was challenging and the backlight was a killer and messed me up before going to sleep.

I needed a new device just for reading, period.

I decided to pick up the current-generation Kindle Paperwhite with Special Offers, which was released a year ago. If you're coming from an old-school, regular cheap Kindle like the Kindle 3 or even a 167 ppi 4th-generation, the 212 pixel per inch, 16-level greyscale is a massive improvement.

That's as sharp if not sharper than most smartphones and tablets on the market.

Notable on the Paperwhite (which was introduced originally on the Kindle Touch a few years ago and is now in the latest version of the basic Kindle) is a touchscreen interface.

You use it turn the pages and access menus, such as to buy and borrow books from the Kindle Store and Kindle Lending Library/Kindle Unlimited (which is all you can read for $9.99 a month, from a large selection of stuff.)

Unlike the cheaper models, the Paperwhite also has an integrated software-dimmable backlight, which is helpful for night reading as well as for use in darker rooms.

No more clip-on lights that you need to position, and the software dimmer gives you many levels of back-light to choose from, so if you read in bed, you won't disturb your partner.

It's also a very "cool" light, not the type of direct backlit LED that is typically used in in smartphones and tablets, so you don't get that harshness when reading with those kinds of products. The light is engineered so that it illuminates the text without directly shining in your eyes, which is no mean feat.

At $119.00, if you need any kind of corrective lenses at all, and if you do a lot of reading, the Wi-Fi Special Offers Paperwhite is a bargain. Leave the cheap Kindles for the kids that are burning their retinas out sitting too close to the TV and playing XBOX.

Sure, it's a little more expensive than the basic one, but it's worth every penny. This is your eyes we're talking about here.

But Jason, you say, there's a newer Kindle than the Paperwhite. Indeed there is.

The Kindle Voyage, unless you were one of the folks who pre-ordered it, is slated to be back in stock in late November. That's just in time for that post-turkey, food coma couch reading session, or for avoiding your relatives in the guest bedroom (whichever you prefer).

Kindle Voyage is probably best considered an evolutionary improvement over the Paperwhite for most folks.

It's also $80.00 more expensive for the base Wi-Fi model, which puts it in the realm of tablet price territory, and more along the lines of what Kindles used to cost four years ago.

What do you get for that premium price bump? Well, for starters, you get a 300 pixel-per-inch screen as opposed to a 212 pixel-per-inch screen.

Now, if you have decent vision and you look at the Paperwhite and the Voyage, side to side, with the same page of content and same size of text, you might say, "Yeah, this is better, it's sharp, but I'm not sure it's worth $80.00 more."

I mean, for $80 more, you could buy your kid their own regular Kindle.

And you would be right.

Next Page: The case for Kindle Voyage versus Paperwhite

Kindle Voyage, Side Profile with Case (Photo: Jason Perlow)

However, if you have any kind of eyestrain issues at all, if you fidget with the head positioning on the subject with your progressives or bifocals to get the right level of sharpness, if you perceive any level of fuzziness when you read whatsoever, then do yourself a favor and just get the Voyage. 

Because while I can read with a Paperwhite no problem, and it's a pleasurable experience, the Voyage comes that much closer to creating the suspension of disbelief that while I am reading, I am not old and decrepit and I don't need $750 glasses to help me read.

I also find that when I read with it, the font doesn't need to be as blown up so large, so I don't have to turn pages as often.

Sold, right? Ok. A couple more things.

The Voyage is about the same weight as the Paperwhite, about six ounces without a case on it. Which is to say it's effortless to pick it up one handed. Both of the devices have excellent build quality.

The ergonomics and industrial design of the Voyage is slightly different than the Paperwhite, it's "wedgier", it has the button on the top rear of the unit, like the Kindle Fire tablets, and is a circle shape, about the size of a penny. 

In contrast, the Paperwhite has the button on the bottom front of the unit, next to the Micro-USB charging port, and is a small rectangular stud.

I actually prefer the Paperwhite ergonomics, because if you use the Kindle Voyage with the "Origami" OEM case (which was supplied to me with the review unit) you have to flip it over to re-energize the reader if you put the device down without returning it to a closed position.

The magnetic Origami case can activate the device if you open it when the cover is closed, but I preferred simply touching the easily accessible switch on the Paperwhite.

Also, whereas the Paperwhite has no manual page controls, the Voyage includes hardware buttons for page turning on the front, like a tablet or a smartphone, which have haptic feedback (vibration).

But if you use a case, that haptic feedback is largely negated even if you set it to the highest feedback level.

Like the Paperwhite, the Voyage also has the integrated, software-controlled page lighting.

The Voyage also includes a sensor that can automatically adapt the lighting level to the environment, but I found that in darker rooms, I needed to manually bump up the page lighting much higher than the sensor was programmed to.

These are minor nitpicks, but there you have it.

However, I did notice something that may change your mind if you are on the fence about spending the extra $80.00, particularly if you opt for one of the Wi-Fi only versions versus one of the 3G models.

In my tests with the Paperwhite with the most current firmware and several new models of dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi routers, I had a number of issues reliably connecting to 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi bands (none of the Kindle reader devices support 5Ghz yet) unless I set the Paperwhite to a static IP address and manually configured the DNS and gateway settings of my router on the device.

I found this to be a real pain in the neck, and the diagnostics effort to determine the root cause was migraine-inducing to say the least. And I consider myself to be a highly technical person, unlike, say, your 70-year-old mom.

This appears to be a known issue, and there is no known resolution to it yet. That being said, I didn't encounter this problem with the Voyage, which uses almost the same software as the Paperwhite, so it must have something to do with the Wi-Fi chipset on the previous generation.

Both the Kindle Paperwhite and the Kindle Voyage are a class in and of themselves when it comes to dedicated e-reader devices. But if you're getting on in years, or if you need to read extensively and for long periods of time, and you are looking to upgrade your Kindle after several years of use, treat your eyes to the Voyage. You won't be disappointed. 

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