It’s been a good three years since Amazon released its last update to their popular Kindle Paperwhite line of readers, giving fans a host of quality-of-life enhancements that helped make an already impressive device more impressive. Even then the upgrades felt perfunctory, like minimal obligations. Surprisingly, E Ink e-readers were becoming popular again, and thanks to healthy competition from the likes of Kobo it seemed Amazon was being forced to acknowledge there was still work to be done in bringing a better experience to the masses who scoffed at $300+ readers and tablets.
The 2021 Kindle Paperwhite e-Reader feels more like a necessary upgrade, however, like something Amazon couldn’t put off any longer. We’re fast approaching “peak reader” in that nearly everything that can be done with a black ‘n white e-reader has been done, save for improving speediness and clarity (both things this new Kindle does). It may be some time before we get a proper Kindle Color E Ink (i.e. non-tablet) reader, but I suspect most will be more than happy with a bigger, crisper, and better reading experience in the meantime.
While there have been micro iterations of the Kindle Paperwhite since, none have been as big, or substantial, as the 2021 version. Nearly everything that matters has been updated; bigger screen, better hardware, better lighting, better connector, better software…Amazon has brought many of their pricier Oasis’ better features to the Paperwhite and, for many, this will be the best e-reader they’ve has ever made, and perhaps the best overall e-reader currently available.
Chronologically, the Kindle Paperwhite 2021 is technically the Kindle Paperwhite 5, making it a 11th generation Kindle overall. For the purposes of this review, and your sanity, I’ll refer to it by its release year. You’re welcome.
Signature Edition vs. Base Model
For the first time ever Amazon has released two slightly different versions of the Paperwhite, and I do mean slightly. The Kindle Paperwhite Signature Edition has everything the standard 2021 edition has, but adds wireless charging, 4X the storage space (32GB), auto-brightness (thanks to a tiny sensor on the screen), and no targeted ads (which cost an extra $20 to remove in the base model).
There’s even a pricey wireless charging dock if you want to keep everything in the Amazon family. All these extras will set you back an additional $50, which may be worth it if you’re a heavy book consumer, particularly audiobooks. Choose wisely.
Design: Slightly Bigger
Those expecting radical changes in design from previous Kindle Paperwhite versions might be disappointed as the 2021 update looks exactly the same as the previous edition. This also means the Kindle’s notoriously chunky bezels return, albeit the larger screen makes them seem less chunky. Thanks to the larger size, that bottom bezel (complete with the familiar “kindle” logo) seems chunkier than ever, though.
Otherwise, this is still the iconic rubbery rectangle we’ve come to know and love. Dimensions are now 6.9” x 4.9” x .32”, with an expected bump in weight from the previous model (7.3 oz from 6.4 oz), which is slight but still heavier. Personally, this new Paperwhite still feels practically featherweight (get it?) to me but those used to slightly smaller, slightly lighter versions may need some time to adjust how they hold onto it.
Another big change is the 2021 Paperwhite finally ditches the micro-USB port for USB-C, meaning less cables and less clutter (and possibly more compatibility). The power / standby button on the bottom remains the sole physical button, which some have argued is awkwardly placed but I’ve never had an issue with it.
The Screen: Bigger, Brighter, Better
Easily the most notable change is the screen size bump to a larger 6.8-inch E Ink Carta touchscreen, a nice jump from virtually all previous Kindle models’ familiar 6-inch screens. Despite the larger viewing area, however, the screen still rocks the exact same 1448 x 1072 and 300 ppi resolution as its predecessor. However, the larger viewing area and vastly improved lighting array (see below) make the new display look cleaner, brighter, and overall a lot more impressive.
Perhaps the biggest change to the screen itself isn’t (ironically) the bigger size, but the addition of substantially improved backlighting that generously expands the LED backlights from 5 to a whopping 17. Not only will you get a better array of lighting, but a better peak brightness as well. Putting the previous model side-by-side with this newer model really demonstrates just how brighter and crisper those LEDs make things appear.
There’s also the inclusion of blue light filters that can be adjusted tonally from blue(ish) to more orange(ish) temperatures, another nice feature cribbed from Kindle Oasis readers. Only the Signature Edition includes the option to auto-adjust lighting for ambience, but all models are still able to program a schedule to turn on/off the filters and adjust warmth levels. For those who struggle to read computer screens, this is a huge upgrade when reading on that beautiful E Ink screen in darker areas.
Under the Hood: Faster, More Responsive
Word on the street is the 2021 Paperwhite includes a faster processor than its predecessor, and I can’t stress how snappier and more responsive the 2021 Paperwhite is over every other e-Reader I’ve used, including pricier Kindles. From page turns to bookmarks, page scrubbing, browsing your library, looking up definitions… everything you’ll do is considerably faster than before. More than anything, this extra performance may be the best reason to upgrade from previous models.
This is especially true with PDFs, often the bane of E Ink readers, which now load faster and are significantly easier to browse through. I suspect the larger screen and faster internals are more geared towards comic book readers, in particular manga readers, as Amazon has clearly paid attention to what rival Kobo has been up to in this arena. No doubt, they’d love to have every Kindle comic fan subscribe to their Comixology service, and the 2021 Paperwhite is certainly up to the task (as long as you don’t mind all black ‘n white).
As mentioned above the switch from micro-USB to USB-C means the Paperwhite 2021 falls in line with most modern electronics, though at this time it’s still mainly for charging and syncing manually to your computer. Other connectivity includes Bluetooth (for Audible listening) with compatible headsets and adapters, as well as expanded WiFi that finally includes both 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz bands for speedier downloads. One word of caution: none of the new Paperwhite models include cellular options, so it’s strictly WiFi and USB connections going forward.
You’ll still have the same 8GB of internal memory on base models (32GB for Signature users), the same impressive IPX8 waterproof protection to help your reader survive in up to 2 meters (roughly 6 feet) of freshwater, and some of the most amazing battery life in an electronic device. A full week of testing (including ebooks, audiobooks, and various backlighting effects) and I’m still hovering around 75%… this is best-in-class stuff here, folks.
Kindle Software: A Long-Overdue Update
Perhaps the biggest upgrade to the Kindle Paperwhite 11 isn’t unique to just the Paperwhite 11, but it certainly takes advantage of it. Amazon’s 220.127.116.11 software update was the biggest change to the aged Kindle interface in nearly half a decade (!), and was long overdue. As expected, not all of these changes will please longtime Kindle readers, but overall it’s an important update that improves the experience and signals Amazon has been paying attention.
Some users upgrading from the 2018 Paperwhite may already be familiar with the new interface, which includes a host of navigational and visual improvements that make reading books, articles, browsing and everything else look and feel a lot more modern and intuitive. But on the 2021 Paperwhite the new update really feels new, taking full advantage of the improved hardware to bring the experience in line (but not fully) with the snappiness you’d find in a full tablet.
How you navigate the interface has been drastically streamlined, meaning you’ll press “back” a lot less than ever before. Menus are more intelligently stacked, meaning you can make changes within them (opposed to having to constantly go “back” to the home page). Even accessing your library of books and audiobooks is easier than ever, though you may care for Amazon adding recommendations from their store next to your own library.
Even the “experimental browser” is no longer experimental, graduating to a real browser that works decently given the limitations of the hardware. It’s nice to have in a pinch, but the Kindle browser isn’t going to become your goto browser anytime soon.
A word of caution to those ready to unpack their new e-reader and expecting all these changes out of the box: while early reviews talked of the Kindle shipping with the new software, it looks like some consumer versions (including my review unit) don’t include the latest software update already installed. Word on the street is that Amazon was experiencing bugs and system crashes and decided to pull it before shipping the consumer version.
It’s an easy fix, and worth your time, to update the aging Kindle software to the faster and more capable version. Head over to Amazon’s software page, download the appropriate file, connect your device via USB, drag the file onto the Kindle folder, and then hit “update” once you turn it back on. The process only takes a few minutes, but you’ll be living in the future.
Unchanged, thankfully, is the Kindle’s impressive compatibility with loads of formats, meaning you won’t be stuck inside Amazon’s ecosystem. Those looking to “expand” their options will find Kindles are happy to read AZW3, AZW), TXT, PDF, MOBI, PRC, HTML, DOC, DOCX, JPEG, GIF, PNG, PMP and Audible’s AAX formats. You’re can also borrow digital books using the popular Overdrive service if your library supports it, though I’ll admit doing so requires a lot more work than it should.
EPUB remains absent, sadly, though you can easily convert the format to Kindle-friendly MOBI using free online tools or using software like the freely available Calibre suite.
Audible Audiobooks: Take a Listen
As before, the Paperwhite 2021 allows you to download Audible audiobooks directly from Amazon to your device, though you’ll need a Bluetooth headset (or adapter) if you plan on listening to them. Also like before is that finding, downloading, and listening to your books is easy and the interface is fast and uncluttered. Sadly, Amazon’s Immersion Reading experience is still MIA, making the Paperwhite the least sophisticated way of experiencing Amazon’s complete literary ecosystem to its fullest.
Browsing the Audible store is just as easy as browsing the standard book store, as is downloading and listening to your selection. This feature is especially useful if you’ve got an Audible subscription, which not only makes pricing more affordable but Amazon keeps track of everything you’ve purchased in one easy collection, including books and their increasingly impressive Audible Original collection. The player is easy to use and responsive, even on the E Ink touchscreen.
The switch from Micro-USB to USB-C should mean more options for listening, as there are several USB-C to 3.5mm adapters available for those with traditional headsets, but at the time of this review I wasn’t able to test any of them. While I’m sure Bluetooth will be fine for most users, variety (and cheap 3.5mm headphones) is the spice of life.
As always, those with sizable Audible collections or plan on using the Kindle Paperwhite as their primary audiobook-listening device should opt for the beefier Signature Edition as you’ll get 4X the onboard storage (32GB vs 8GB).
Conclusion: A Perfect Compromise
Amazon continues to do a great job making an increasingly complex ecosystem very accessible to the masses with their digital readers, and the 2021 Kindle Paperwhite e-reader is an improvement over the previous model in every area that counts, particularly in the snappier performance. Honestly, it feels like the perfect compromise for diehard book enthusiasts who lusted after some of the Oasis’ better features yet preferred the design (and lower price) of the Paperwhite design. It’s a great marriage of features and price that should satisfy any serious reader, especially comic and graphic novel fans who will appreciate the bigger screen.