Amazon Kindle Voyage e-reader, in bits

Teardown: Amazon Kindle Voyage e-reader

Tablets are far from killing off the e-reader and Amazon’s Kindle Voyage shows why.

Design matters. Just ask Apple. You can slip quite a few pounds or dollars on to the retail price by offering slightly more features, better aesthetics and greater ease-of-use than your rivals. However, how does that play out when your rival is yourself?

Amazon remains the dominant force in e-readers. Late last year, its introduction of the Voyage e-reader did rather pose that question. It boasts the company’s first e-ink display with a flush rather than recessed panel, its highest display resolution to date (300ppi), automatic adaptive lighting and a new haptic front-mounted page-turning technology (PagePress).

The Kindle Voyage also saw the launch of Word Wise, software that can insert the meanings of more ‘difficult’ words between the lines of text.

The thing is, the Voyage costs upwards of $199 or £169 (Wi-Fi only; 3G at a premium). Using the US prices as the benchmark, that’s $80 more than Amazon’s next best e-reader, the Paperwhite, and $20 more than its entry-level Fire HDX tablet.

Nobody is questioning whether the Voyage is the best e-reader to date. It wins there, no problem. The issue being raised is whether it is that much better.

Amazon has incorporated a number of interesting features within the Voyage. To some degree you could say its designers have innovated at every possible opportunity within this market.

Some of the new ideas and features come down to technology – in this case, the latest Carta e-paper and extremely clear front-lighting of the display – and some are just ‘little things’: for example, the voracious reader who swipes through a couple of hundred pages at a sitting will greatly welcome the departure of a slight lip at the edge of the screen.

However, the Paperwhite continues to get a lot of love from Kindle enthusiasts. In that context, it is interesting to read some of their Voyage reviews on Amazon’s own site.

The display gets an approving nod, as do reduced weight (180g for the Voyage vs 206g for its predecessor) and a better cover/stand (the Voyage gets a flipover Origami cover). But that $80 difference is repeatedly left hanging.

Some in the market have been surprised by Amazon’s decision to go down a premium path. Google has done much the same with its phones and tablets recently, but Amazon’s business model is still perceived to be more dependent on subsidising hardware to shift content.

One thing that still isn’t clear about the Voyage is just how much of a subsidy, if any, Amazon provides. Or indeed whether the Voyage should be seen as an attempt to stop the e-reader space becoming completely commoditised.

Apart from the display, the new reader has very much an off-the-shelf specification. The main processor is a standard 1GHz part from Freescale Semiconductor’s iMX family; power management is provided by a dedicated e-reader part from Maxim Integrated Circuits. When it comes to the electronics, e-readers are mature and well-defined devices. As such, only organically increasing demands are made of the parts that power the main screen.

Aesthetically, design improvements are always welcome, though the form factor for this market has settled at around the 6in-7in point. And while the carbon and silver PagePress sensors are interesting, they offer only marginal differentiation (though we assess these as a nonetheless novel application of strain gauge properties, where materials change resistivity when deformed thus becoming ‘buttonless buttons’).

If we are talking differentiation in terms such as ‘next generation’ and ‘profit’, it all comes back to the display, and specifically how well it mimics and even improves upon the experience of reading on paper.

Here, the Voyage does provide very clear text. Its adaptive lighting also, users say, takes away the need to fiddle often with brightness on the Paperwhite when reading indoors. The required sensor is nestled within a socket on the display assembly and connecting to the motherboard required a lengthy cable. Meanwhile, the Voyage has a micro-etched glass panel that feels more like real paper and makes it easier to read in bright sunlight. Amazon has also made the device surprisingly easy to repair – and yet it all seems to fall a bit short.

One of the apparent problems with the e-reader market is that users set very high standards. You might even call them stubborn. They have stuck with e-readers despite claims of ‘retina’ and whatnot resolution from the adjacent tablet market.

Given that, one point that keeps coming up in reference to the Voyage is that users can still detect ‘ghosting’ on the e-ink display. This is where a little of a preceding page appears to be held in the image as the reader moves on to a new one. It has been an issue with e-ink for some time, and while the Voyage apparently suffers less from it than predecessors, it’s still there.

This, and also some questions about battery life, appear to be consigning the first generation Voyage to that bin marked – depending on how full you see your glass – ‘a good first effort’ or ‘could do better’.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Amazon’s objective here was arguably to prove that there is still enough headroom in e-readers to sustain them as evolving standalone devices. To that end, the user is coming back and saying that the Voyage is not the end of the story.

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