For all of their conveniences, e-readers have never been able to replicate what people love most about physical books. The smell of an old leather binding; the crisp deckle edge of a new hardback; the way a dog-eared paperback feels in your hand. The way they look on a shelf, or stuffed into your back pocket; the way they show people at a glance what you’re reading, so you can connect with a friend or stranger over a shared affinity—or show off your good taste.
Amazon’s most popular Kindle, the $120 Paperwhite, largely embraces its utilitarian, unromantic role in readers’ lives. But lately the company has embarked on a seemingly quixotic quest: to build an e-reader capable of inspiring devotion in the avid book lover’s heart. Two years ago the company surprised people by introducing not only a cheaper Kindle, the $80 base version, but also a more expensive one: the $200 Kindle Voyage, billed as the finest e-reader one could buy. (Disclosure: Slate is an Amazon affiliate; when you click on an Amazon link from Slate, the magazine gets a cut of the proceeds from whatever you buy.)
While the Voyage has its adherents, it has failed to displace the Paperwhite as the company’s best-seller. Nor have a lot of significant rival e-readers emerged to challenge its claim to be the best on the market. One might take this as a sign that people simply don’t actually want a fancier e-reader. But Amazon clearly believes otherwise.
On Wednesday morning, the retail giant announced its newest Kindle, and it’s even pricier than the Voyage. It’s called the Kindle Oasis, and it will set you back some $290. In return, you’ll get a device that Amazon has lovingly designed and crafted to appeal to the sort of people who view books as something worth cherishing. The Oasis is, in short, an e-reader for the book fetishist.
“If you’re an avid golfer, you want to buy the best clubs,” says Neil Lindsay, Amazon’s vice president of devices. “If you’re an avid reader, well, you’re going to want the reading device that’s right for you.”
What’s so great about the Oasis? For the company’s designers, it comes closer than any other Kindle to the ideal that they’ve had in mind all along—that is, a “magical sheet of paper” that can transform itself at a touch into any page of any book.
No, the Oasis isn’t nearly as light or thin or flexible as a sheet of paper. But thanks to what the company calls a “featherweight polymer frame” cloaked in “structural electroplating,” it weighs a scant 4.6 ounces and is just 3.4 mm wide at its narrowest point. That makes it 20 percent lighter and 30 percent thinner (on average) than any other Kindle.
A sheet of paper, of course, never needs to be recharged, and nor does a book. The Oasis does, but only astonishingly rarely. Thanks to a detachable case that looks like a book cover and functions as a backup battery, Amazon says, its newest e-reader can go two whole months on a single charge. The battery in the device itself holds two weeks of juice, while the case holds another seven. A new “hibernation mode” helps save power when you’re not using it. Plug in the device with the case attached and they’ll charge together. “We don’t want our customers to ever worry about plugging in and charging,” Lindsay says.
One other book-inspired trait that’s evident as soon as you look at the Kindle Oasis: It’s a little bit wedge-shaped. To minimize its weight and thickness, Amazon’s designers stuffed all of the major components onto one side—the same side that would be the spine on a physical book.
Another device that shared a similar form factor: the very first Amazon Kindle, introduced nearly a decade ago. Back then, the idea in designing the e-reader asymmetrically was “to create an icon,” says Chris Green, the company’s vice president of industrial design. The first-generation Kindle was “purposely designed not to look like any other consumer electronics.”
That changed in subsequent generations as designers sacrificed aesthetic distinctiveness in the name of making the device sleeker and lighter. Now, Green says, they’ve come full circle: Key electronic components have shrunk to the point that an asymmetric design is the most practical approach.
“With the center of gravity moved into your hand, it really makes this feel like a featherweight,” Green says, brandishing the Oasis as he speaks. “It’s really well-balanced in your hand.” He hands it to me. He’s right.
Hearing Green talk about the Kindle Oasis is a lot like hearing Jony Ive wax poetic about the beauty and tactile appeal of the iPhone. “We’ve just kept pushing, refining, dialing in the details so that your experience becomes all about the story and not about the device.” For instance: The LEDs that backlight the Oasis have moved from the bottom of the screen to the side. That means that there are more of them and that each has less surface area to illuminate, because they’re firing horizontally rather than vertically. The upshot, Green concludes: The screen’s background, when illuminated, is now “a whiter white.”
Who would care about such a thing? It’s possible no one will—at least, not enough to spend $290 on a device whose sole function amounts to just one small feature on the tablet or smartphone that many already own.
Then again, no company has access to more data on customer habits and preferences, or knows better how to interpret it, than Amazon does. Its data scientists pore over customer reviews and purchasing patterns, not only for its own products, but for everything sold in its marketplace. If Amazon thinks there’s a market for a $290 e-reader, I wouldn’t bet against it. And if anyone is going to care about a “whiter white” reading background, it might just be the same kind of person who thrills at the touch of a new deckle edge.
Lindsay waves away the notion that the prevalence of cheap mobile devices would erode the market for a product like the Kindle Oasis. A smartphone or tablet is like a Swiss army knife, he says. An e-reader is a hammer: “It does one thing, but it does it really well.” Like a hammer, sure—or maybe even a book.