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Results: Are Some E-Book Displays Better Than Others?

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite Review: The Best E-Book Reader?
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We’ve measured varying levels of contrast between different E Ink-based displays. In fact, the fourth-generation Kindle's display actually seemed worse than its predecessor's.

Deeper Blacks On Kindle Keyboard (Right)Deeper Blacks On Kindle Keyboard (Right)

At first, we couldn’t be sure if this was an optical illusion or an actual step backward. However, like actual paper, E Ink-based displays require reflected light to read text. So, we took a cue from our exploration of printer paper (Tom's Hardware Benchmarks Inkjet Printer Paper!), where our NIST-certified i1Pro calibration tool allowed us to measure paper's color performance. The i1Pro contains a finely-calibrated light source that illuminates a color patch with a fixed amount of light, removing our eyes as a variable.

We can apply that same methodology to e-book readers because E Ink-based displays operate on the same principle.

The benchmark process is fairly simple. Since E Ink Pearl supports 16 different shades between black and white, we're using Photoshop to create monotone backgrounds starting from #000000 (the six-digit hexadecimal number for black) and progressively increasing the hue until reaching #FFFFFF (white). The end is 16 evenly-spaced shades, from white to black. We then use our spectrophotometer's printer measurement mode to take color space readings.

The L value on the Y-axis is traditionally referred to as the "lightness of a color." This is measured on a 0-to-100 scale, where higher values indicate lighter colors. So, true black would have an L value of 0, while pure white has a value of 100.

According to our previous results, the fourth-generation Kindle suffered a slight reduction in contrast compared to previous models. Subjectively, the Kindle Paperwhite appears very close to the third-generation Kindle (known as the Kindle Keyboard), and our benchmark results largely concur, with a couple of caveats. First, solid black appears slightly darker on the Paperwhite compared to previous Kindles. Unfortunately, lighter shades also appear a tad darker on the Paperwhite.

Interestingly, Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite lets you set the contrast on a five-point scale. This is a new feature unique to the company's e-book reader flagship. By default, the Paperwhite is set to the middle point, which we’re calling “normal contrast.” Notched up to “high contrast,” you’ll see a bigger difference between pure black and true while. However, this comes at the expense of the shades in between.

That's not the end of the story, though. There's a long-running debate about the quality of E Ink screens. Specifically, is there actually a difference between Kindle generations, or are our eyes playing tricks on us? Our benchmarks prove a difference exists using hard data. But that doesn't eliminate another possibility: quality variation. To quote our fourth-generation Kindle review:

“We called up E Ink Corporation to ask if this was a batch-related issue, and was told that this is most likely due to Amazon choosing a particular grade of display panels.”

While we discussed many aspects of e-book readers in that review, that line in particular stirred up quite a lot of controversy. We want to once again say that it is possible to purchase two e-book readers of the same model and get a different experience. It’s not just in your head. E Ink uses a chip called Broadsheet to control its panels, and the following is a quote from GPL source code in the Linux broadsheetfb driver:

Broadsheet is a framebuffer device. It is slightly different from a typical framebuffer controller that drives a normal TFT-LCD display. Most E-Ink display panels require a waveform in order to function. That is, in order to drive the state of a pixel to black, gray, or white, a specific waveform is utilized. Basically, that waveform represents the specific E-field wiggling needed to get the pixel to its optimal state given current temperature, and its previous state. TN/IPS-LCDs use a similar concept but the driving waveform is sufficiently simple that it is internalized in the TFT source/gate driver.

These E-Ink waveforms are specific to a production batch. That is, a batch of display films are produced, then they get characterized and a waveform is generated for that batch. Broadsheet, typically, is attached to its private SPI flash which is then flashed with this waveform. Users won't be able to see the waveform and typically won't ever need to know about it. If however, the display panel attached to broadsheet is changed out, then they will need to update their waveform. That would typically be done at a factory or repair facility rather than by a user.

In a nutshell, once a batch of E Ink displays are manufactured, they go through quality control where a set of unknown characteristics get analyzed. This data is then used to generate a waveform for that batch. The waveform itself represents the specific electrical technique used to transition from black to white (and vice versa). While E Ink manufactures its panels to a tight spec, it’s very possible to get displays at the outer limits of what might be considered acceptable.

Does that mean our benchmarks are moot?

Yes and no. We’ve benchmarked multiple Kindles, and there still appears to be a slight difference between certain models. Fortunately, if you are having a problem, Amazon’s free return policy makes a replacement rather painless, so the possibility of getting stuck with a lemon shouldn't get in the way of your purchasing decision.

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  • 4 Hide
    Stimpack , March 12, 2013 12:12 AM
    I've been contemplating whether I should buy the Kindle Fire or the Paperwhite for a couple of weeks now. While this summation of the Paperwhite and its features helped shed some light (heheh.) on its selling points, I still feel no closer to a decision.

    Nevertheless, it was an entertaining read! In fact, it's made me register an account here. I can't wait to read more articles like this. Fun stuff!
  • 1 Hide
    slomo4sho , March 12, 2013 2:48 AM
    I am still waiting for a Kindle with SD or mSD expandability.
  • -4 Hide
    kartu , March 12, 2013 3:37 AM
    slomo4shoI am still waiting for a Kindle with SD or mSD expandability.

    It's called "Sony Reader T2". It runs Android. And it's rooted.

    And you are not bound to Amazon's store with it, even non rooted you can burrow books from electronic libraries and read common formats like EPUB.
  • -1 Hide
    dirtyferret , March 12, 2013 4:16 AM
    ive read several books on my kindle fire HD, often for hours at a time, and never had an issue with eye strain or battery life. In fact i prefer reading on the kindle HD then a regular book.
  • 3 Hide
    Mark Matthews , March 12, 2013 4:34 AM
    Typo on the top of page "results" page...
    worth should be worse
  • 3 Hide
    Mark Matthews , March 12, 2013 4:37 AM
    dirtyferret
    ive read several books on my kindle fire HD, often for hours at a time, and never had an issue with eye strain or battery life. In fact i prefer reading on the kindle HD then a regular book.


    The one advantage of e-ink readers like the traditional kindle, is you can read it in daylight. I have an iPad and spend a lot of time chilling on the back deck during the summer, and I have to go through a lot of seating arrangements to minimize the glare so that I can see the iPad. Ordering a new Kindle just for this purpose.
  • 3 Hide
    ubercake , March 12, 2013 6:33 AM
    I like my Paperwhite. It's really easy on the eyes and does not have all the distractions of a tablet. When I want to read, I use this. It's great under sunlight, but does in fact have a sort of mild glare under artificial overhead lighting conditions. Nothing bad, though. You can just tilt it a little one way or another to elimnate the glare. What is especially great is when it's dark and you're a passenger on a car ride. You can continue to read. The lighting is great and doesn't fatigue your eyes like an LED or LCD screen.

    Cloud sync is great too for those times when I don't have my Kindle with me. I can pick up my phone with my Kindle app and start reading right where I left off on my Kindle and vice versa.

    Also, the battery lasts significantly longer (we're talking months of daily reading) if you just shut off the wireless connection when you're not downloading any books or sync-ing to the cloud. If you leave the wireless connection on full-time, you need to recharge after about 4 weeks.
  • 2 Hide
    tridon , March 12, 2013 6:39 AM
    I really fell in love with the graphs over Display Performance that showed the differences between the Kindles. Please use this the next time you review a Kindle as well. It would be valuable extra information when deciding whether or not to buy a new version a year or two :)  It will be very interesting to see if the Paperwhite has improved the clearness in a year.

    Great article! *thumbs up the article*
  • 2 Hide
    tridon , March 12, 2013 6:45 AM
    StimpackI've been contemplating whether I should buy the Kindle Fire or the Paperwhite for a couple of weeks now. While this summation of the Paperwhite and its features helped shed some light (heheh.) on its selling points, I still feel no closer to a decision. Nevertheless, it was an entertaining read! In fact, it's made me register an account here. I can't wait to read more articles like this. Fun stuff!


    If you plan to read a lot where there is natural light (in the sun or shadow outside or near windows, etc) I would really recommend the Paperwhite. Just my personal preference. My eyes are really having a hard time reading on a tablet under such conditions. If you mostly read where you can control the lightning condition the Paperwhite would still be easier on the eyes, but there is no longer a real problem reading on the tablet =)
  • 3 Hide
    hadigny , March 12, 2013 7:37 AM
    I've being using 3 models of kindle. The back light on the latest one is great but the touch screen... ARG, my god, a pain in the but. Get me simple buttons, I miss my buttons SO MUCH.
    If you are using your tablet to read, not comment, not surfing the web, not playing, reading, all you need is a previous/next page. The touch screen is not flawless, it will not work then you will skip 3 pages. Then you'll put your kindle on the coach and something will touch the screen and...

    Bring back the button please!
  • 3 Hide
    shadowfamicom , March 12, 2013 8:00 AM
    hadignyI've being using 3 models of kindle. The back light on the latest one is great but the touch screen... ARG, my god, a pain in the but. Get me simple buttons, I miss my buttons SO MUCH.If you are using your tablet to read, not comment, not surfing the web, not playing, reading, all you need is a previous/next page. The touch screen is not flawless, it will not work then you will skip 3 pages. Then you'll put your kindle on the coach and something will touch the screen and...Bring back the button please!


    Yes I am really pretty sick of the lack of buttons in favor of touch screens. Part of the reason I never really used a first gen iPod touch that someone gave me. If I am walking and have my MP3 player in my pocket... I want it to have buttons, for switching songs and volume up and down. Don't even get me started on phones without physical keyboards.
  • 3 Hide
    ubercake , March 12, 2013 8:11 AM
    Quote:
    I've being using 3 models of kindle. The back light on the latest one is great but the touch screen... ARG, my god, a pain in the but. Get me simple buttons, I miss my buttons SO MUCH.
    If you are using your tablet to read, not comment, not surfing the web, not playing, reading, all you need is a previous/next page. The touch screen is not flawless, it will not work then you will skip 3 pages. Then you'll put your kindle on the coach and something will touch the screen and...

    Bring back the button please!

    This is one thing I noticed too going from the keyboard Kindle to the paperwhite. I liked the buttons a lot better on the keyboard Kindle as the touchscreen is a bit laggy. All things considered, though, you can't beat the ability to read in any lighting conditions (no light all the way to direct sun light) with the Paperwhite. The lack of the keyboard is a little annoying, but if you think about how infrequently you use it, it's not so bad.

  • 2 Hide
    sumludus , March 12, 2013 8:30 AM
    Wow. This entire aritcle is a gigantic advertizement for the Kindle Paperwhite. while I agree that it's the best e-reader on the market, I came to that conclusion after comparing it to the Nook and Kobo, not simply previous generations of the Kindle. Of course Amazon's latest incarnation of the device is the greatest; doing otherwise would not make good business sense. But to call ti the best without the mention of any other brand of e-reader anywhere in the article is worse then simple bad journalism; it's becoming an Amazon shill. Shame on Andrew Ku for his poor reporting, and shame on Tom's Hardware for publishing this disgraceful article.
  • 3 Hide
    Mickeyblueyes , March 12, 2013 8:34 AM
    I have had 3 Kindles as well as a to be unnamed competitor. I used to swear that I would never give up the "book" for an electronic reader. Now I have a hard time not making that same claim for the Paperwhite.
    What I like. E-ink. This was the whole idea behind the Kindle revolution. Paper quality, no eye strain, read in the sun. Granted I use my iPad for surfing the net, reading news and all around keeping up. However I do notice the eye strain after a while and I just can't get a handle around curling up with my iPad to read a book.
    Adjustable fonts. Made for older eyes. I used to pass up books because the print was too small or the binding had a chance of doing damage if I dropped it on my head while dozing off.
    I do like the touch screen. I guess it is what we get used to. I was forced to use a button Kindle after my Kindle Touch went down. Never really got the hang of it. Almost everything we encounter now is touch so it becomes intuitive.
    The back lighting. Finally!!! I really dont miss looking for a decent hotel room light to read by. I also don't miss my little external light batteries running out at inconvenient times. I don't even have a reading light on my side of the bed anymore.
    Amazon has copyright agreements in many more countries than other makes. In other words in many countries you cannot download a book. Don't take a minimum wage clerk's word on it. We spend a lot of time out of country and it became very clear to us that Amazon by far gave us the most flexibility. A disclaimer. I do not, have not and never will work for for Amazon.. Oh and the customer service is terrific as well.
  • 0 Hide
    Mickeyblueyes , March 12, 2013 8:37 AM
    Quote:
    Wow. This entire aritcle is a gigantic advertizement for the Kindle Paperwhite. while I agree that it's the best e-reader on the market, I came to that conclusion after comparing it to the Nook and Kobo, not simply previous generations of the Kindle. Of course Amazon's latest incarnation of the device is the greatest; doing otherwise would not make good business sense. But to call ti the best without the mention of any other brand of e-reader anywhere in the article is worse then simple bad journalism; it's becoming an Amazon shill. Shame on Andrew Ku for his poor reporting, and shame on Tom's Hardware for publishing this disgraceful article.


  • 2 Hide
    Mickeyblueyes , March 12, 2013 8:40 AM
    Um, correct me on this but the title of the article is " The Amazon Paperwhite Review: The best e-reader ever? The question mark allows for discussion.
  • 4 Hide
    ubercake , March 12, 2013 8:53 AM
    Quote:
    Wow. This entire aritcle is a gigantic advertizement for the Kindle Paperwhite. while I agree that it's the best e-reader on the market, I came to that conclusion after comparing it to the Nook and Kobo, not simply previous generations of the Kindle. Of course Amazon's latest incarnation of the device is the greatest; doing otherwise would not make good business sense. But to call ti the best without the mention of any other brand of e-reader anywhere in the article is worse then simple bad journalism; it's becoming an Amazon shill. Shame on Andrew Ku for his poor reporting, and shame on Tom's Hardware for publishing this disgraceful article.


    I know what you're saying but the thing of it is, there's probably been very little market penetration for Kobo and Nook. It's like including the E-reader I run across at the counter at the drugstore checkout (I don't even know the brand).
  • 0 Hide
    robj_30 , March 12, 2013 10:40 AM
    ubercakeI know what you're saying but the thing of it is, there's probably been very little market penetration for Kobo and Nook. It's like including the E-reader I run across at the counter at the drugstore checkout (I don't even know the brand).


    Are you kidding? The Nook is a huge seller! Barnes and Noble has 600+ retail locations that are all pushing those devices plus a thriving web site and e-book business. Amazon may sell more, but that doesn't mean there isn't competition worth mentioning.
  • 2 Hide
    gm0n3y , March 12, 2013 10:40 AM
    I agree with sumludus. To have an e-reader review that doesn't even compare against other similar devices is silly. The Kobo Glo is generally considered to be a slightly better device than the Kindle Paperwhite (similar backlighting, faster processor, faster screen refresh, etc). Most people still opt for the Kindle due to Amazon's greater number of books and generally lower prices, but to not even compare the 2 (not to mention the Nook) makes this article largely useless.

    This is basically like having an iPad comparison and only comparing it to the iPad Mini (and excluding the Surface RT, various Android tablets, etc).
  • 0 Hide
    ubercake , March 12, 2013 11:46 AM
    robj_30Are you kidding? The Nook is a huge seller! Barnes and Noble has 600+ retail locations that are all pushing those devices plus a thriving web site and e-book business. Amazon may sell more, but that doesn't mean there isn't competition worth mentioning.

    I'm all for the competition, but look it up. Barnes and Noble is basically with us still due to last year's cash investment of $300,000,000 by Microsoft (17% ownership in the Nook unit). As far as retail paper book stores, Barnes and Noble is going by way of those paper book stores we've seen precede it into the great beyond. Now that Microsoft has their own tablets, what value does the Nook provide them?

    I wish it were different, but I wouldn't put any money on a company that's still thoroughly invested in old ways of doing things (paper book stores). We saw Borders go away pretty quickly.

    Barnes and Noble is far from the thriving company you make it out to be.
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