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E-book readers

E-book reader buying guide

Last updated: May 2014

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Getting started

What are e-book readers anyway? They're portable devices, typically with 5-to-10-inch screens, primarily designed to display the digitized versions of printed books. They're typically quite light--mostly 8 ounces or so and up--and are about as thin as many smart phones. Prices typically range from around $80 to $300, with many models costing $100 or so.

Most use technologies such as E Ink that rely on reflected ambient light to illuminate their screen. That gives them a relatively long battery life--thousands of page turns, or upward of a week or so in standby mode. Others, however, including virtually all color models, use the LCD screen technology of laptops and many phones. While such LCD screens generally produce type that's less crisp, and more difficult to read in bright light, they're backlit, and so are easier to read in dim light.

E-book readers offer other capabilities, such as built-in music players, but they're designed primarily for reading. You select content and turn pages using buttons, bars, or (on touch-screen models) an onscreen swipe.

Can I read e-books on other devices? You can. The same e-book applications found on readers are also available for many smart phones, PCs, and Mac computers. Some tablet models such as Apple's iPad have their own e-book apps, too. But multipurpose devices are generally less suited to e-book reading than dedicated readers. Their LCD screens typically display type less crisply than reader screens, they run for hours on a charge rather than days, and they're more prone to wash out in bright light.

How do I get e-books onto my reader? They're typically downloaded directly from an e-book store maintained by the reader's manufacturer. Some readers come bundled with unlimited access to a 3G cellular network that allows wireless downloads from those stores wherever you have network coverage--a significant plus. Others allow wireless access via Wi-Fi, which may suffice for many people. A book typically requires a minute or less to download.

Many readers, like virtually all tablets, connect wirelessly only over a Wi-Fi connection to a home network or hotspot. Other units require you to connect the device to a computer to download content. Downloads using a USB cord and a computer are an option with all units, even wireless ones.

What do e-books cost? E-books can be less expensive than printed books. Prices typically range from free to $30 and up. New best-selling titles often cost less as e-books than as hardcovers. Many classic titles that are in the public domain cost only a few dollars or are available free from the Google Books database of more than 500,000 public domain titles. E-book retailers frequently offer free sample chapters.

The selection of e-books on all the major devices is large and rapidly expanding. That said, not every printed book is available in e-book form and the e-book release is sometimes delayed somewhat, to maximize sales of hardcover editions.

Is other content available? Yes, most readers also allow you to buy magazines and newspapers, either as single issues (typically for prices comparable to buying their printed counterpart) or as subscriptions, which can cost less than subscribing to the printed versions.

Is an e-book reader right for you? E-book readers are much thinner and lighter than a single hardcover book, and can hold thousands of titles. Buying an e-book reader makes the most sense if you're a voracious reader or someone who often lugs books among several favorite reading locations.

A reader can also be a fine choice for the visually impaired. Type size can be enlarged, and a few models also allow fonts to be changed. Amazon Kindle models will even read text to you, albeit in a somewhat mechanical voice.

Types

Dedicated e-book readers

These devices, including Amazon Kindles and Barnes & Noble Nooks, focus primarily on displaying e-books and are all we include in our Ratings. Many also offer newspaper and magazine subscriptions as secondary capabilities that are compromised somewhat by their monochromatic screens. Many have black-and-white E Ink screens, and so offer decent or better type and long battery life, while others have LCD screens, with shorter battery life and less crisp type but the ability to reproduce color.

Brands


E-book readers are portable devices, usually with energy-frugal black-and-white display screens optimized to show the electronic text of digital books.  These electronic book readers typically have screens that are 6 inches in size--and thus larger than smart cell phones and smaller than most tablet computers.  Tablets with full app stores and e-book apps, Web browsers, and more-robust processors and graphics capabilities typically offer more versatility but have shorter battery life and less readable type than single-purpose e-book readers.

Amazon

Amazon's virtual online store opened in July 1995 and continues to grow. Its first piece of hardware, the Kindle, was released in November 2007. The Kindle now has a variety of e-reader e-ink offerings that include Wi-Fi and/or Wi-Fi and 3G, with or without a light, different sized screens, and with and without "special offers," which are models that have limited time offers and ads on the screen savers.

Amazon also makes tablets: the Kindle Fire HD and the Kindle Fire HDX, which are Wi-Fi only and/or Wi-Fi and 4G LCD color devices for music, boks, movies, games, and more, and come in a choice of two screen sizes and more (see tablets).

Barnes & Noble

Barnes & Noble's e-book reader, the Nook, the bookseller's first electronics device, entered the market in December  2009.  Barnes & Noble offers an e-ink Wi-Fi-only version of the Nook, with a light, and two LCD Wi-Fi color devices with different screen sizes (see tablets) that come with software to read books to kids, play games, read e-mail, and more.  

Ectaco

A company known mostly for its electronic dictionaries and language learning products, Ectaco was among the first of many companies to enter the e-book reader market. It produces a line of jetBook e-book readers and introduced the first color e-ink reader, designed primarily for use in schools.

Kobo

A Canadian company that makes a range of e-ink devices that connect to its own e-bookstore, Kobobooks.com.  Kobo has also introduced LCD Wi-Fi only tablets for books, social reading, music, movies, and more.  When Sony departed from the digital book segment in early 2014, Kobo took over Sony e-reader customers, who continue to have access to their full library using Kobobooks.com.

Shopping tips

Consider screen size

Measured diagonally, screens range from about 5 to 10 inches. A 6-inch screen offers a good combination of adequate size and moderate price for most people. It will be small and light enough to slip into a handbag or briefcase.

Consider screen capabilities.

The E Ink screens of most readers are monochromatic, and offer long battery life and fine resistance to glare in bright light. The Barnes & Noble Nook Glowlight and Amazon Kindle Paperwhite have built-in lighting. For nighttime reading on other E Ink devices, you can buy a book light or a cover with a light built in. Some book lights run on batteries; others draw power from the reader itself, shortening its battery life. On many readers, you can use touch capability to help you choose content and turn pages. Other use turn bars or buttons. We prefer models that offer both turning options.

Consider connectivity vs. cost

A model with wireless 3G access offers the most flexibility for obtaining new content for the reader, but models with Wi-Fi-only access generally cost less. E-readers that must be connected to a computer can be the least convenient to use, but they are likely to be the lowest-priced. You'll have to choose between cost and convenience. In any case, don't expect to use 3G or Wi-Fi access to the Internet for much except downloading content from the e-reader's dedicated store. At best, readers have Web browsers that are very limited, and our testers have found most to be virtually unusable.

Consider performance differences.

Readers vary in the clarity of type on their screens, and in the contrast between the type and the screen background--both important to readability. In addition, some models take noticeably longer to complete these page turns than others. There are also differences in how quickly competing readers are usable. While these devices' frugality with power means you can leave them on almost for days and even weeks without running the battery down, some models are a few seconds quicker to wake up from sleep mode, or a few minutes faster to boot up from off mode, than their competitors.

Consider versatility and flexibility

Books ordered from the reader's dedicated e-book store all come formatted for the device. Some readers, including the Barnes & Noble Nook, can also accept books from other e-book stores natively--that is, without the need to convert their format. Some such models, including the Nooks and Sonys, accept those formats with digital rights management provisions, too, which allows you to borrow e-books from some public libraries. They also typically support documents of other types, such as Word documents. Other readers are more limited in their support. With Kindles, for example, Word documents and photos in jpeg format must be sent to Amazon for conversion before they can be loaded.

Most readers have the capability to be a basic MP3 player or basic digital photo frame. Virtually every reader brand has other distinctive capabilities. Kindles can read content aloud, in a somewhat mechanical voice. You can lend e-books from Nooks. Some Sonys allow you to handwrite notes or even drawings, using a stylus.

   

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