Digital ink in the Oasis

A premium device at a premium price

The Kindle Oasis, Amazon’s top of the line e-reader serves one purpose well: reading books; over it’s brethren it brings oft-requested features, a svelte design, and a hefty price tag.

To understand the difference in what Amazon is offering with the Oasis in comparison to the rest of its Kindle product line, it’s important to remember that historically the devices have been an approximately break-even offering from Amazon, with the low price intended to encourage their digital store sales. The Oasis then is on the other end of the spectrum: a low-volume high-margin device, a move signaled by it’s immediate predecessor the Voyage.

The exact implications and considerations of Amazon’s strategy will be elided here in favor of examining the experience of using an e-reader, particularly the Oasis, which positions its self as a premium device and sees the return of—amongst other features—physical buttons for page navigation.

The feel of a book has proved a surprisingly important and hard to replicate1 factor for e-readers to replace—the and act of turning pages is a tactile experience, and the moving from left to right imparts a bodily sense of progress. Pages give a grippable sense of place within a story in a way digital progress bars and percentages simply cannot replicate mentally. The habit of checking the page or percentage counter can be quite distracting and make reaching that state in which the world outside the book reseeds elusive.

Disappearing into a book is a private experience that even through intense discussion with close friends, still looses something in translation—forming strong memories, ideas, and thoughts based on interpretation though past experience and memory makes books individual experiences. That is to say, how you interpret, when you encounter, and how you consume a book can be—for many—a unique experience.

Oasis cover and texture

It’s up to the individual how important these tactile experiences are—for instance, I derive a certain satisfaction from the feel of rough paper and hard cardboard covers, the smell of a freshly cracked book, or the whisper of leafing pages. Much of these are learned behaviors (or pleasures) that would not—perhaps—occur to someone who grew up without paper books, but they are factors simply unavailable to e-readers2—at least not currently.

E-Books have a different set of trade offs: portability (both physical and digital), searchibility, and usability. The weight, size, and number of books you carry on your device are not relevant in a digital format, nor if there will be sufficient light to read by—a real and frequent concern for older readers and those who like, for example, reading while their partner sleeps.

Being digital, Kindle’s come with several software features unobtainable by physical books—some may not prove useful on a daily basis, but features like the built-in dictionary3, and—if internet-connected—the wiki or x-ray function are invaluable for longer or more complicated reads. The software will even keep a library-level list of all queried words and passage highlights as a nice replacement for a traditional quote book.

Oasis Library

Also in its favor, the system of digital purchase and included sync between devices has the potential to dramatically lower the barrier to reading by an increase in proximity. Having the same book available (and location/page in sync) on your phone, laptop, and e-reader means that even if you do not take your main reading device with you regularly, you still have the opportunity of reading from your phone, or in a web browser4. Granted this isn’t an optimal reading experience, but it is an opportunity to read that may not have presented its self before.

There are—of course—problems with this system, namely that if you did not opt for the cellular data option built into your kindle (which I did not), then you are reliant on connecting to a wifi network to sync, which isn’t always either possible or convenient.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of an e-reader is having never to undertake the process of getting rid of books. For those that regularly move or live without the luxury of large bookcases, a digital library is a great solution5.

It’s worth taking a little time to consider the value of a Kindle at this point. A tablet could easily replicate the above functionality and more, simply by virtue of being a regular tablet with all the functionality that entails. The traditional argument for dedicated e-readers is two-fold; first, an eInk screen with no backlight is easier on the eyes for long-term reading and before-bed sessions, and second, being a single-purpose device. The real value of an e-reader like the Kindle is—to my mind—that second factor. By being a focused device there is little to distract from the act of reading: no notifications, no social media, nothing else to check. That is to say, you only pick up a kindle to read, and not to do anything else—this ‘One Thing Well’ mentality helps to focus on reading—and what could be more important for a reading device?

Having previously owned a Kindle (purchased 2011), it received regular use and was—to my mind—great value over 6-odd years of abuse, showing no real signs of wear6. After keeping an occasional eye on releases for a worthy upgrade, the Oasis was released in late 2016.

Oasis page turn buttons

The $300-odd USD price tag will (and should) bring many up short—it’s a hefty price tag for a device. To further compound this, there are several cheaper Kindle models that do essentially the same thing. How then to explain the price tag? As an enthusiast or hobbyist device seems the most apt analogy. That is to say, if you highly prioritize reading and want the best eReading experience without consideration for value, then the Oasis might be worth looking at—or at the very least, scrutinizing.

Using the same device for daily7 reading over many years means the details of the device (industrial design, ergonomics, interface) are worthy of close attention for how they shape and inform the experience. Material choice, screen glare, hinges—these things that at first seem small compound over time to become irritations that can’t be un-noticed. Well made products will have few irritations and many small pleasures that are unlikely to be appreciated8. After all, “good design is invisible” is an adage for a reason.

The most important part of the device, the screen, sits flush with front face of the device (a feature of the brand since the screens became touch-sensitive) and the eInk display sits close enough to the surface that there is no discernible recess between the two (a key part of making the screen feel as close to ‘printed’ as possible). The Oasis also sports a pleasingly matt screen designed to remove glare and reflections. Given strong enough lighting the screen will still reflect glare—enough to warrant shifting the viewing angle. Thankfully this happens infrequently enough that it does not detract from the experience day-to-day.

The touchscreen is largely unremarkable, in that it works as expected, and its only real restriction is the speed at which the eInk interface can refresh to display new information. This is more a function of eInk technology than a software fault however. While the overall experience is still some way from the ease and comfort of a traditional ink-on-paper, the high-resolution screen is inching ever closer.

Of concern in some Paperwhite models was the uneven backlighting, which caused an uneven illumination of the page (a surefire way to reduce ease of reading). This does seems to have been remedied, making for a great low-light reading device. Curiously, the adaptive auto-brightness functionality seems to have been removed from the Oasis—this could be an irritation to some, but leaving the brightness setting at a little less than half luminosity seems to work well for most situations. Occasional quick adjustments up or down in more extreme conditions takes care of the edge cases, but of course never having to think about it in the first place would be the ideal experience.

Oasis battery ridge

Of note is the particular positioning of the ‘menu tap area’ in the top right hand of the screen, which is neither particularly intuitive, nor discoverable for newer users. Where then to put it? Granted, this is not a particularly easy problem to solve, as the device is limited to 2 navigation buttons reserved for forward/back, and a power button. With physical buttons reserved for page navigation, an unobtrusive screen icon/indicator seems the best option, although this would intrude on the otherwise spartan screen.

In other areas the Kindle software (largely universal in functionality across devices) has positive accessibility features for the sight-impaired: books can be read aloud by the device9, and the screen’s black text on white can be reversed for increased contrast. Most importantly, there is a good selection of typographic choices from which to mix and match typefaces, leading, justification, orientation, and font size. While not a new feature, the ability to adjust the font size and typeface for individual reading comfort is a major selling point over paper books for those with visual impairments. These controls are still far from comprehensive for typographic sticklers, but do cover the most important areas.

Around the screen, the seams where the front and back meet the body are largely unobtrusive and, while not irritating in use, do not possess the machined seamlessness of high-end devices like Apple produces at it’s best. The felt texture of the cover, the quality plastic of the device, and the rough plastic of the cover make for a pleasant gripping experience and all communicate quality, but one wishes for some of those smaller design details that would truly make the device stand out.

Asymmetrical design being held

By way of illustration, the point at which the battery cover snaps onto the back leaves a somewhat irritating ridge that seems out of place on the otherwise sleek device, creating an uneven back that allows rocking when one edge is pressed into the table10. The jutting ridge does provide something to push against with then fingers when you wish to remove the cover, but the strength of the magnets holding it in place make this impractical for quickly removing the cover without two hands. Undoubtedly there is some solid design and engineering reasoning behind this, but it results in a somewhat oddly shaped device.

The form, size, and weight of the device make clear that this is a single-handed device. Reading paper books is—for the most part—a two-handed activity. Part of the usability of a traditional book lies in its binding and layout, employing two-sided printing bound together with glue and cardboard (and sometimes stitching) that can be turned over, spread, and held in two halves. This results in the book naturally attempting to lie shut, and can make one-handed reading something of a challenge, both in weight and elasticity. The two-handed experience has never been a selling point of the Kindle line, but it has always excelled at sing-handed use.

Asymmetrical design without cover

The Oasis continues to double-down on this with an asymmetrical design and software features to match. For the first time in the line, the Oasis sports a large right-hand bezel out of proportion with the other three, and returns two physical buttons designated for page navigation. Assuming a left-to-right reading direction (there is a vertical layout option), this removes the need for opposite matching buttons. Perhaps more significantly, this changes the balance of the device, allowing for a significant portion of the device’s on-board battery (important in this case since the majority is stored in the magnetic cover attachment) to be positioned directly within a comfortable hand grip, leaving a thinner and lighter section of screen to the right. In effect, this centers the weight and balance over the hand and requires minimal effort to hold—a significant improvement in usability.

The next likely line of questioning is to wonder how many Oasis users bother to remove the cover while reading—it’s not hard to do, but you have to actively think about it, and thus it seems unlikely to be used by many during regular reading.

To compliment the asymmetrical design, the software makes use of gyroscopes within the device to detect orientation, much like regular tablets. Simply flipping the screen 180 degrees flips the display to match. This allows users to rotate so as to position the buttons for a left-handed grip11.

The result of these software and hardware features feels like a maturation of the Kindle line with an opinionated design and feature set. Is this 300-odd dollars worth of reading device? No, at least not when you can get essentially the same functionality from the same product line for 1-200-odd dollars fewer. It is, however, the best e-reader on the market from both a technology and experience standpoint, and continues to increase the amount of time spent reading.

  1. Materials with distinctive and pleasant smells such as leather go some way to helping this, but it doesn’t quite replicate the unique smell so strongly associated with books.

  2. I know several people who have enjoyed and recommended the Kobo, but my experience is admittedly limited to the Kindle line, specifically a Kindle Keyboard (2011).

  3. You can even install your own dictionaries, which I found detailed in an excellent article on the power of older and idiosyncratic (by modern standards) dictionaries.

  4. For example I don’t tend to bring my Kindle on my daily commute and instead read on my phone or, on occasion, in a web browser if things get desperate

  5. Before moving to America in 2014 I had to go though a large collection of books and decide what to keep and what to donate, as there was only so much storage space (and shelf-space my family had to offer). While this brought back some fond memories, it also involved parting with books, which is never a particularly enjoyable experience.

  6. I managed to leave it behind on a particularly sleepy train trip from Long Island. It was starting to show it’s age mostly in the low-resolution of the eInk display and its significant ghosting issues.

  7. At least a little in every day is prefereable, but long uninterupted blocks seem to elude me.

  8. This is increasingly true in the high-end device market, of which Apple leads the way with its opinionated designs (whatever you may think of them, past and present).

  9. I’ve known a few to do this in the absence of properly voice acted audiobooks, but the monotonous tone isn’t exactly appealing

  10. Devices that do not lie entirely flat is a personal pet peeve that I also find particularly irritating in the iPhone 6/7 design. Granted it is a relatively minor complaint in regards to the Oasis, as it only really rocks with determined pushing, and only when placed ‘face-up’.

  11. There doesn’t currently appear to be any way to reverse reading direction for Japanese readers