AMAZON KINDLE OASIS (2017) REVIEW: TOTAL IMMERSION

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A decade after its release, the Kindle is a curiosity. Tablets — including some made by Amazon — have long since outstripped the e-reader in power and features. A low-end tablet does 10 times as much as a high-end e-reader, for one-fifth of the price. And yet, each year, Amazon introduces a new twist to the Kindle line, pushing the device a little closer to perfection.

The Kindle Oasis, which goes on sale today starting at $250, represents a worthy step in that tradition. But a handful of flaws, coupled with the device’s high price tag, offer reasons to hesitate before making a purchase.

The Oasis itself is a beauty: a 7-inch, 300 ppi display, fit snugly into a squarish, booklike shape. The ergonomic design packs the device’s innards into a thick portion on one side of the device, with the screen tapering out into an absurdly thin 3.4 millimeters on the other. As a result, the Oasis balances beautifully in the hand. The center of gravity always rests in your palm, no matter which hand you’re reading with. An accelerometer rotates the page when you switch hands, and the page transitions are the fastest I’ve ever seen on an E Ink display.

At 194 grams, the Oasis weighs 10 grams less than its more affordable cousin, the Kindle Paperwhite, and only 56 grams more than an iPhone 7. The Oasis isn’t pocketable the way a phone is — not in my pockets, anyway — but it passed my subway test. Standing shoulder to shoulder with passengers inside a crowded San Francisco MUNI train, I comfortably held the Oasis for the duration of 30-minute commute without tiring my arms.

As usual, you navigate the Kindle primarily using page-turn buttons on the thicker end of the device. You can also turn pages by tapping directly on either side of the screen, but I found the tap targets much too wide. Usually, when I went to define a word, or highlight a passage, I inadvertently turned the page first.

The marquee feature of this year’s Oasis is its water resistance. Amazon says you should feel comfortable taking it into the tub, the pool, or the ocean. The Oasis is designed to work after immersion in up to two meters in water for up to an hour. We splashed water on our Kindle during a photo shoot and experienced no problems afterward, but were unable to do more rigorous dunk testing during the weekend we had to review the device.

The Oasis does not have speakers, but it pairs easily with Bluetooth headphones for listening to books through Amazon’s Audible service. Connecting the device to my AirPods was a snap, though I found the Oasis was greedy with the connection: my AirPods would often reconnect to my Oasis after I had re-paired them with my iPhone, making for some mild frustration as I went about my day.

I’m a recent convert to audiobooks, and the idea of a Kindle that would narrate for me held great appeal. One of Amazon’s most underrated services is Whispersync, which syncs your place in a book across all your devices and, if you have bought the audiobook as well, the audio narration. In practice, this means that I can read a book on the subway and then have it narrated for me as I walk the last 10 minutes or so to my office, maximizing the time I can spend in the world of a book. Amazon’s mobile apps have a feature called “immersion reading” that lets you read the book on the page as it’s being narrated for you, which is useful, I find, when tackling books with archaic or unfamiliar language (I recently slogged through Crime and Punishment), or books with unconventional structures (such as George Saunders’ marvelous Lincoln in the Bardo, which has an audiobook that features 166 narrators). Keeping my eyes on the page as the narrators read draws me further into the world of the story, while still leaving room for the narrators’ performances to bring life to the text.

Bizarrely, the Oasis does not support immersion reading. You can read your book, or you can have the Kindle read to you through your Bluetooth speakers, but you can’t do both. Tap the “switch to listening” button in the top menu and the Oasis switches to a static page showing the time left in the chapter, a grayscale picture of the cover, and various audio controls. On one hand, immersion reading likely accounts for a tiny fraction of the books consumed on Kindles — primarily because doing so requires buying the ebook and the audiobook separately. On the other hand, it’s exactly the kind of serious reader feature that the Oasis is seemingly built to support. The fact that the free Kindle app on my iPhone allows for more immersive reading than a $250 reading machine feels deeply unfortunate.

In most other ways, though, the Oasis lives up to the promise of a premium e-reader. If you read your Kindle for 30 minutes a day with wireless and Bluetooth off, and set your backlight at about 40 percent of maximum, Amazon says the Oasis will last for six weeks on a single charge. In a world where I am still charging my phone multiple times per day, even a week without having to charge a device feels like a luxury. Battery life remains the single best reason to choose an E Ink display over the far more beautiful displays found on tablets.

For readers who wish to more fully customize their experience, the Oasis comes with eight fonts, in 14 sizes, at five different levels of boldness. If you’re sensitive to the light, you can invert the display to display white text on a black background. You can also enlarge the display of icons on the home screen and library, which may be especially useful for older readers. An ambient light display can adjust the brightness for you automatically.

But despite the annual introduction of new features, the Kindle is still defined by what it can’t do. It can’t check Facebook or post to Instagram. It can’t show notifications when you get a new email. Despite what it calls an “experimental” browser, it is not designed for extensive web surfing. The promise of the Kindle is that you can leave the rest of the world behind for a while, so as to better surrender yourself to the story you have chosen. It is a single-purpose tool, but that purpose is powerful, and explains the enduring appeal of the Kindle in a world that has largely passed it by.

I’ve spent countless weekend mornings in coffee shops trying to force my way through one novel or another on my iPad, only to find myself distracted by a tweet, a text, or a game. The Oasis feels downright meditative by comparison. Everything it can’t do makes it better suited to doing the one thing it can.

And yet at $250 for a Wi-Fi-only 8GB Oasis, it still feels like more than all but the most dedicated of readers will be willing to spend. A Wi-Fi-only Amazon Fire tablet with 8GB of storage can be had for $50 — and will give you the entire internet in return. A $120 Kindle Paperwhite offers a very similar reading experience, minus the water resistance or Audible features, for less than half the cost. A new iPad is considerably more expensive, but offers a much wider range of functions in return.

Still, there is value in leaving all those functions behind. The Oasis is an ideal device for canceling out, however briefly, the distractions of the wider world. But all that comes at a very high price. And while the Oasis takes reading seriously, there are moments where it still does not take reading seriously enough.

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