Amazon’s first Kindle revolutionized the ebook reader business and sold out within hours. The device was a huge success, despite a $399 price tag. Over the last nine years, Amazon has driven the Kindle’s base price down while improving image quality, performance, available storage, and battery life — the basic Kindle now sells for as little as $80, while the top-end Kindle Voyage is $199. Today, Amazon took the wraps off its new high-end ebook reader, the Kindle Oasis, and announced the device would carry a $290 price tag.
Amazon justifies that price tag with a new form factor, improved backlighting, and a battery case that can drive the Kindle Oasis for up to nine weeks. Unlike any other device on the market, the Kindle Oasis is deliberately asymmetrical, with an extended bezel on one side and a raised bump on the back to make the hardware more comfortable for single-handed reading. A handful of features, like a requested page-turn option, are coming back to Kindle Oasis as well.
As PC Mag notes, the bump on the back isn’t just a gimmick. A built-in accelerometer measures which hand you’re gripping with, and flips the screen to display it correctly and the center of gravity for the device is always located in your palm, no matter how you hold it. Screen resolution is the same, but the additional LEDs improve brightness by 60% and help keep things uniform.
The device’s storage pool remains modest, at 4GB, and its screen resolution hasn’t changed from the 300 PPI offered by the Kindle Voyage or Kindle Paperwhite. Amazon clearly wanted to launch a luxury brand around its Kindle ebook readers, and hands-on reports suggest they succeeded — but whether or not people want a $290 dedicated product is very much an open question. The iPad Mini 2, after all, is just $269, and there are dozens of Android devices available for under $300.
Amazon would undoubtedly counter that the e-Ink displays it uses for Kindle make it a distinct and separate product that can’t be directly compared to other tablets. That’s true, as far as it goes, but people don’t just lock on to single features and then refuse to consider alternatives at any price. There comes a point when traditional tablets may look “good enough” to convince users to buy something more multifaceted as opposed to a dedicated product. The flip side to this, of course, is that Paperwhite and Voyage are both still available at lower price points.
With ebook sales falling for the first time in 2015, Amazon may have felt that creating an aspirational product made more sense than trying to push yet another round of Kindle price cuts and discounts through to a market that’s come to expect them. Amazon’s hardware efforts have always been aimed at hooking customers into the company’s ecosystem, and if you buy a new e-reader, you probably want some content to go with it.