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Originally published October 5, 2012 at 12:01 PM | Page modified October 5, 2012 at 6:36 PM

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Review: Kindle Paperwhite is best tablet in budget class

Amazon’s new offering has a higher pixel count and built-in illumination that distributes light evenly. But the power adapter is extra, and the ads may bug you.

Bloomberg News

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When Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos recently called the new Kindle Fire HD “the best tablet at any price,” he ended up triggering a spate of oh-no-it-isn’t reviews.

So you might be skeptical of his similarly extravagant claims about the Kindle Paperwhite, the latest entry in Amazon’s budget-priced line of e-book readers. You shouldn’t be.

Within its humble category, which features a 6-inch monochrome E Ink screen rather than vivid color displays used in costlier tablets like the Fire HD and Apple iPad, the Paperwhite lays fair claim to the title of best-in-class.

Like the other gray-scale Kindles, the Paperwhite is featherweight (7.5 ounces) and compact, perfect for tossing into a briefcase, purse or gym bag. It can store up to 1,100 books locally, plus has free cloud storage on Amazon’s servers. New titles from the company’s enormous catalog of e-books can be downloaded within a minute or two.

Monochrome e-readers have always been easier than color tablets to use in sunlight. The downside has been their need for an external light source in darker conditions. The Paperwhite, which starts at $119, is the first Kindle with a built-in light, so you can take it everywhere.

That’s a particular blessing for read-in-bed types, who now don’t have to worry about bothering a sleeping partner. Amazon isn’t first to the self-illuminated party: Barnes & Noble introduced its Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight last spring. But the Paperwhite does a better job.

Most important to me, after a week or so of using the Kindle, is how evenly the light is distributed. The Nook’s lights left some noticeable dark spots on the screen, particularly across the top few lines of text. By contrast, the Kindle’s front-lit screen creates a constant glow that can be adjusted up or down through a setting accessed by tapping the top of a page.

Acknowledging that it’s counterintuitive, Amazon suggests setting the light at a low level in a dark room and making it brighter in a bright room. But I had my best results by cranking the light up pretty high and just leaving it there, except in the very brightest of outdoor conditions.

The light isn’t the only improvement Amazon has made to the Kindle’s touch-screen display. It says it also has increased the pixel count by 62 percent, which makes for sharper text and pictures; increased contrast by 25 percent; and has introduced new typography. Whatever it’s done, the Paperwhite has the crispest images I’ve seen on an E Ink device.

One benefit of monochrome e-readers is low power consumption. Even with its light, the Paperwhite claims to go eight weeks between charges when used for half an hour a day. I haven’t had it long enough to test that, but the broader point — that you needn’t worry about having an electrical outlet nearby in normal use — is valid.

Speaking of electrical outlets, you’ll quickly discover one way Amazon has gotten the price down. The Kindle doesn’t come with a power adapter: It’s $10 extra. Without it, there’s a USB cable you can use either with a computer or your cellphone charger.

I successfully recharged the Paperwhite using the small cube that comes with an iPhone. Still, some users will undoubtedly be annoyed.

Even more may be exasperated by another Amazon tactic: “special offers,” also known as advertising. The ads — mostly promos for books and special Amazon shopping deals — appear on the lock screen when the device is asleep and also across the bottom of the home screen.

If you don’t want to see the ads, you have to pay an extra $20 for a no-ads model.

A few other corners have been cut as well.

For instance, there’s no headphone jack on the Paperwhite, so the text-to-speech feature on previous Kindles has gone away. On the other hand, the Paperwhite offers one extra-cost feature that, depending on how you use it, may be well worth paying for: 3G service.

For $179, or $199 without ads, you get no-additional-cost service over AT&T’s network whenever you’re out of Wi-Fi range. Anyone who’s ever been stuck on an airport tarmac and run out of things to read will find it a godsend.

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