Update: Kindle Voyage's over-the-air update adds features like Word Wise, Family Library and, in the US, Kindle FreeTime Unlimited. Page 2 reflects these change.
The Amazon Kindle Voyage is a device that's a victim of its own success. The world cried out when ereaders began to erode the magic of the book - and now the ereader fans are raging against the dying of their light with the advent of reading on smartphones and tablets.
So what does Amazon do? Make a super cheap model that allows reading to be more accessible than ever? No, it goes the other way, making a premium model that brings the best of its reading technology in one place.
The Kindle Voyage is more compact, sharper and essentially just a step up from any ereader the brand has made since the inception of the technology a few years ago. A flush display makes the device easier to keep clean and carry around, the screen's resolution is the highest it has ever been, and it even comes with an ace origami-style case (at additional cost).
But then again, there's the price: it's £169 in the UK, $219 in the US and, well, it's not available in Australia (but should be about AU$250).
That's about 50% more at least than the next-best device from rivals, and a lot more than the Kindle Paperwhite, which brings, arguably, a lot of the same features.
So what's the big deal? Is this the 'big present' you should be putting on your Christmas list because you love reading so much? Or should you spend a little less and get a similar experience?
It's hard for Amazon to make a big deal about an ereader when the technology of tablets is starting to munch away at the need for a dedicated device – and the Kindle Fire range is part of the problem.
But that doesn't mean it's not a brilliant ereader still, and can still compete as a standalone device simply through adding in functionality that a tablet or smartphone just can't.
The main thing to talk about here is the screen. Raised to level off with the bezel, Amazon has created an ereader that feels more design house than something you'd sling into a bag and hope doesn't break.
The resolution has been upped to 300PPI, a huge upgrade from before, and that makes any book or image you care to check out a much nicer experience on the eyeballs.
It also has a more uniform backlight - it's not the most important part, but it can really rankle when you're constantly scanning your eyes over a page only to keep noticing a dark spot.
What IS important is the ambient backlight sensor, so if you're moving from day to night (like some sort of literate, short-term time traveller) then the brightness of the screen will adjust accordingly. In tests I found that this was always a little on the dark side, which was annoying - there should be a setting, like on smartphones, to bolster this slightly.
It's not really anything to do with the day to day running of your book-reading workout, but this case (which costs a HUGE £55 extra... yet only $60 in the US) is a really nice addition to the party. Not only does it have an iPad-like smart cover that turns the display on when opened, but it protects very well and acts as a stand too.
I kept forgetting how to fold it together so the magnets clasped into place (that's right - magnets. No slotting or intricate folding here) but once that mystery was solved it made reading while eating some food a really pleasant experience.
The buttons return
Amazon knows the Kindle is for the commuter, so it makes sense that something called the Voyage should be aimed at making it easier to read a book when you're wedged into another person's armpit.
These are soft-touch buttons – as in they require a level of pressure, but there's no tactile click to them. While they are pressure-sensitive, a haptic buzz will let you know when you've activated the forward or back page turning.
Initially I was a little nonplussed by these, as I'm fine with tapping the screen to shuffle through, which you can do. But by being able to go forward and back on either side of the screen is excellent for commuting, when one hand is used for keeping balance.
Sadly, these aren't perfect in design. The footprint you can hit is oddly thin, and I kept missing the button. It wasn't a hugely regular thing, and you'll probably adjust to not noticing it in the future, but if they were slightly raised it would make hitting them much easier.
That said, after some digging in the settings (which took a while to find as they're locked within menus contained within menus) there is an option to dial up the sensitivity on the keys.
This improved things immensely, although I still wished that I could have a more tactile experience for when my hands shifted slightly during reading.
Design and screen
The design of the Kindle Voyage is much more compact than previous models, with the screen size the same 6-inch offering that came before.
The key thing here is that the Kindle Voyage is not only much more compact, with the dimensions of 162 mm x 115 mm x 7.6 mm (6.4" x 4.5" x 0.30") being smaller than the previous Paperwhite and much less than the Kindle Touch, but also takes a new design language too.
It's similar to the Kindle Fire range, which has an angular, geometric design with a fusion of rubber and plastic. It's attractive, but probably going to get limited viewing time as most people plop a Kindle in a case to keep it safe.
If you decide against that though it's very grippable, and even with smaller hands I was able to hold it very easily and reach all the way around. The weight of 180g (6.3 ounces) really helps there too, meaning I felt no problem with reading for long periods.
The page turning buttons, as previously discussed, are baked right into the smaller bezel, flush with the case to continue the premium feel.
Holding the Kindle Voyage in either hand means it's very easy to hit these keys, although tapping the screen to move forward and backwards through the tome isn't always easy with only a single set of digits.
There's a clear design ethos here from Amazon: make the Kindle Voyage look different - and more premium - than anything that's come before.
If that higher price is going to be charged, then it has to have something that sets it apart, and the design / screen combo is where that attraction comes.
The screen might be the same 6-inch offering as before, but with more brightness, size and clarity than ever before... basically all the things Amazon thinks will make the Voyage similar to (and surpass) the experience of reading a normal book.
At 300dpi, there are more e-ink pixel thrust into this ereader than ever before, making every word seem sharper, clearer and easier to read than ever.
Add to that the more uniform backlight and I got a real sense that this was the Kindle Paperwhite perfected.
Every problem I had with that was answered with the new Voyage, and the fact the screen is flush with the edges of the bezel definitely made me feel like I was holding a more premium product.
I'm not sure the Kindle Paperwhite needed to be more premium, as I was perfectly happy with the recessed display that's characterised previous models, but it's a nice touch to have.
There's also some techno-smarts in the screen as well: borrowed from the smartphone world, the ambient light sensor will tune the brightness of the backlight to make it easiest to see the letters on the page, wherever you're reading.
I like this idea in theory, but it always erred on the side of darkness when I was craving a slightly brighter display, but this could be to help make reading kinder on the eyes.
The screen is also packed with 'micro-etching' to make it feel more like paper when sliding your finger across it. I'm not sure that this was really needed (nor does it give that impression) but it's nicer to feel texture over a super-smooth glass in an ereader.
Interface and reading
In terms of interface, the Kindle Voyage is much as expected. It's a very similar set up to that seen on the previous models, with the actual reading experience predictably front and centre.
Open a book and you'll be greeted with only the words; press the top or bottom of the screen and you'll be offered the chance to head back to the homescreen/interact with the book or scroll to a given location, respectively.
The former is slightly more feature rich than before, with the ability to raise the brightness of the screen, go to the Store to buy more books (for those with an attention deficit) or raise or lower the size of the letters.
You can also head to specific points in the book (the bottom tap will open a slider rather than going to a pre-defined point) or you can use the X Ray feature.
I'm not a fan of X Ray, even in its expanded state. I've got nothing against it, but I never feel the need to use it (plus it's not enabled on all books). You can do some cool things and see which names / locations / terms are mentioned, and sort it by chapter, page or title.
I feel like, perhaps, I'm missing something here. Why would I need to know the frequency a character is mentioned? I like to have it in case I need to remind myself who a certain character is, but otherwise it seems like an odd way to sort through a book.
The other thing that we get in the UK is the Vocabulary Builder, and this is a good feature. Long press on a word and you'll see the dictionary definition, and then it will be added into your vocabulary 'binder' on the Voyage.
From there you can test yourself over which words you've learned, which is really helpful for scientific textbooks or similar.
The new Word Wise feature is intended to make this process even easier with short and simple definitions that automatically appear above difficult words.
This post-launch update explains stuff on the go while reading, though the interface can look convoluted to reading purists. I'm all for keeping the reading experience clean and clear.
So how is it actually reading stuff on this Kindle Voyage? Well, it's predictably brilliant to guzzle down any book. The pictures (while greyscale) are much sharper than ever before, making some legible where they wouldn't have been before.
The increase in sharpness is tangible, especially if you're upgrading from the Kindle Touch or earlier.
The brightness, while a little dark when using the automatic mode, is a great feature and pushes the Kindle Voyage into the realm of 'better than a book' in terms of the reading experience.
I also said that the buttons on the bezel were a bit of an issue for me, not really functioning as perfectly as I'd hoped.
I still chose to use this method of flicking through the latest autobiography or novel I was reading, as it's definitely the smoothest way to keep your eyes on the words without fumbling to hit the screen every time you want to turn the page.
The speed of the Kindle Voyage is also very impressive. Flicking from page to page is faster than previously, with the words rejumbling themselves to jump forward in the book. It didn't feel onerous, and I could spend longer using the Kindle Voyage before getting tired of the experience.
There are loads of extra features here that genuinely enhance the reading experience too. For instance, I loved the ability to translate words and even whole passages into a number of other languages, as it means I can attempt to pick up a forgotten language and check I'm on the right lines (or vice versa).
Highlighting text is as simple as dragging your finger across, and from there you can make a note, highlight, annotate or even share with others if you're connected to the internet with the Voyage.
It's all very simple and well-contained - it might not be something you'll do regularly, as it's not to do with the core reading experience, but it makes it all more inclusive.
The text can move from very large indeed right down to only good for those with excellent eyesight - often we see ereaders fail to cater for all eyesight levels, so this again is a good move to keep the range wide.
I also tried reading a few newspapers on the Voyage - downloads were regular and always there when I needed them.
I'm still not convinced this is a better experience compared to newspapers themselves or a tablet, but apart from some confusing swiping needed to get through sections, I could easily jump from story to story once I'd got to the section I was looking for.
Essentially, the Kindle Voyage is still light years ahead of the phone or tablet for reading on the go. The iPad Air 2, the iPad Mini 3, the Galaxy Note 4: they all suffer from having a powered, rather than e-ink, screen, and the eye strain is slightly higher.
The gap is narrowing a lot, and that's why the Kindle Voyage exists, to show there's still another level of reading experience that dedicated devices can offer where the catch-all phone or tablet can't.
Store and battery
The Kindle Store is one that impresses online, but is something a little harder to get your head around when you're browsing it on the Kindle.
The front is easy to use, but the categories are a little limiting in that they offer written ideas of what's happening rather than just pushing you in the direction of more books you might like.
The deals are there, front and center, too, although it would be nicer if they offered you the chance to have your recommendations, or even books that you might like, percolated up to the top rather than the mish-mash of cheap tomes.
There's also the issue that, on start up, the bottom layer of the homescreen is taken up with novels that your Kindle either thinks you might like or is pushing - this can be turned off in settings, but is a few layers down.
That said, when you want to actually search for a book, things aren't too bad at all. The newest version of the Kindle software comes with an enhanced search that combines results from your library, Goodreads suggestions and the Kindle Store, on the same page and all with previews.
The speed with which you can type on the screen, even with the e-ink, is very impressive and bordering on multi-touch, as I found very few mis-types while trying to browse for new books.
The page turning options also work for leafing through the titles offered up for your search, and as such it's not tricky to find what you're looking for (if it's there, and more often than not it is).
The buying process is not only incredibly simple (one tap and you're downloading) but straight away comes up with a warning that allows you to cancel if you didn't mean to purchase.
A word of advice: if you've got kids using the Kindle, or young ones that like to fiddle, then perhaps put a passcode on to stop them downloading freely.
There is Kindle Freetime too, which is a nice touch: you can set your children up with this profile (well, it doesn't have to be a child, but it's a bit weird if you're using it to coerce your father into reading more) and then download books you think are suitable for them, as well as monitor their reading progress.
It's a nice tool for parents worried about the amount of time kids are spending away from the pages of a good book and more time SnapBooking or whatever the new craze is.
In the US, Kindle FreeTime Unlimited puts money behind this parental initiative. It's $2.99 per month for unlimited access to "hundreds of hand-picked chapter books and early readers."
Harry Potter series is here as are a bunch of Newberry Medal and Honor winning titles I've never heard of, making it money well spent for parents who aren't apprised of the trending kids' books that haven't gotten the book-to-movie treatment.
Family Library is another money saving feature thanks to the latest Kindle software update. Sharing books between linked Amazon accounts makes Kindle book ownership a more family-inclusive experience.
Now, this is a slightly odd one. I didn't find battery life to be AMAZING on the Voyage. Before this puts you off, let me place it in context: I'm not saying the ereader lasts hours, or even days, before needing a charge. It generally got well over a week before crying for power, but that's still odd for a Kindle.
I'm used to one without a backlight, admittedly, but even when using a Paperwhite previously I didn't notice this level of battery drain.
Admittedly the experience of using the Voyage was such that I used it more than any other Kindle previously, meaning a good reading session a couple of times a day.
The non-backlit versions can last longer when I've had similar spells of word-ogling frenzies, but it's worth keeping a loose eye on the battery life should you purchase the Voyage so you're not left short on a long train journey.
Amazon claims 6 weeks of reading at 30 mins per day with wireless turned off... but you'll never turn the wireless off generally (or there should be a very easy way to do it) and while I spent longer than half an hour reading, it wasn't that much longer... perhaps two hours at the very most, but there's no way I'd get anywhere close to a month and a half.
Having said that, even when the warning messages come on I was still able to comfortably finish my commute and plug it in when home - it was the times when I moronically forgot about this that really irked when I fired the Voyage up the next morning.
The funny thing about Amazon is that it doesn't really have a huge amount of competition in the ereader space. Of course, there are rivals, but for the catalogue and ease of use, most people are aware of what Amazon is doing over the others.
There's also no real direct comparison to the Kindle Voyage, as it's a very well-specified device that no other brand has been mad enough to try and put out. Others are all about getting the best price and the most books into readers' hands, where Amazon has tried to improve the experience.
The obvious rival is its predecessor. Still on sale for £109 in the UK and $119 in the US, this model offers many of the same tricks and experiences at roughly two-thirds the price.
What do you lose? Well, the text isn't as sharp, the backlight doesn't adapt to your surroundings (and is a little less uniform) and you don't get the fancy forward and back buttons.
Beyond that, you probably won't notice much of a difference. But those page turning buttons, when you get used to them, are a real differentiator, and the backlight uniformity on the Voyage is so much more pleasing, along with its more compact dimensions.
An ereader that doesn't quite match the quality of even the Kindle Paperwhite, let alone the all-new Voyage.
That said, it's only £80. That's an excellent price for something that's more compact, offers a bright and premium glow and has a nice and sturdy design.
The battery life is impressive, and the design is such that the Glowlight fits snugly into any bag.
It doesn't have the resource of the Kindle library, and there's a real sluggishness to the touchscreen. It also takes time to browse and download books, which irks when the Kindle is so swift at the task.
That said, it's a really good budget option should you be unwilling to part with your cash in the white halls of Amazon.
I've chosen this over something like the Kindle Fire HDX as it's slightly better for what people will want in a tablet. Available for £319 it's rather a lot more money, but offers a huge amount more in the functionality department. (The Kindle Fire HDX is actually only £199, but I feel that it doesn't offer as wide a range of functionality).
The main question here is: what do you want it for? If you're someone who values the experience of reading, or likes to settle down for a long session with a hot cup of cider (or shots of absynth, if that's what does it for you) then the Voyage is the luxury item that offers the best experience there.
But if you're only going to read a couple of times a week and would love the power of one of the best tablet experiences on the market the rest of the time, the iPad Mini is a great option, if not a little more cumbersome.
The question here isn't whether the Kindle Voyage is a good ereader. It is... in fact, it's an excellent one.
The issue is whether I can recommend you spend that much money on what is, really, a one-trick pony when others are cheaper or tablets so much richer in functionality.
How high a price are you willing to pay for the chance to gobble down books with your eyes?
The biggest win for Amazon here is the page turning buttons. Yes, they should be a little more tactile, but for sheer functionality I'm enamoured with them. This was highlighted to me when I dropped back to the old touch and instantly wished I could read one-handed for an entire journey.
The screen is sublime too. I don't think it's leaps and bounds ahead of the competition when it comes to sharpness (it is, but not instantly obvious) but the overall reading experience felt a lot slicker throughout my time with the Voyage.
The speed of the new ereader is strong, and the amount of options to play with to tweak the way you digest books is perfect. Amazon knows what it's doing here.
The real problem here is that the price is really rather high. If this replaced the Kindle Paperwhite at half the cost the Voyage is retailing at, I'd have suggested that all but the super-budget devices pack up and go home.
There's also the fact that the buttons don't always work under the finger (not very regularly, but having to reshuffle your hand to make sure the page turn happens correctly is annoying).
I'm torn here. The question of whether the Voyage is worth the money still perplexes me to some degree.
It's a lot of money. Yes. There's no doubting that. But the build quality, combined with the reading experience, tell me this is a premium product in the same way you can tell someone has a rather high salary when you slide into their Bentley.
Reading is a hobby, and as such you should consider this something to invest in. A smartphone is functional for a lot of people, a necessary evil even, but you buy an ereader because you want to carry a lot of books with you without needing a wheelbarrow.
And if you're investing in that experience, why not invest a little more? At least the model doesn't come with a contract, even if you spend the £229 / $289 for the Wi-Fi and 3G model, which I'd urge you to look at given it's a brilliant trick being able to get your latest newspaper or try out a book you've seen on a billboard while waiting at the station.
The reason the score isn't perfect is that I can't justify the price, as no matter how much you want it, that's still a hefty premium to pay.
So if you're considering this as a gift for a loved one, especially someone that's stuck using an old, battered Kindle, you'll delight them with the Voyage. It's the difference between a designer label and a budget buy - you don't logically need to spend the extra money as it's the same category of clothing, but when you try both on, you know which one impresses more.
The Kindle Voyage is a premium ereader that's designed for avid readers, those that know it will get a huge amount of use over the coming years.
If this is for a casual reading experience, go cheaper, but if you (or the inteneded giftee) loves the ebook experience, I'd recommend splashing out a little more if you can afford to. It'll be worth it... but you'll have to really love them.