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What Should You BUY as an eReader? cNet re-print

Yes, it’s true: now is a better time than ever to be in the market for an e-book reader. Hardware prices are more affordable, and more titles are available electronically–anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions, depending on whether you include the huge library of free public-domain titles–than at any point in history.
The market has consolidated around a handful of major players: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Sony, and Apple. Recently updated products from the first three include excellent options in the sub-$250 (and even sub-$150) price ranges. Also, a flood of new reading-centric apps continues to solidify the Apple iPad’s position as the premium media tablet of choice–though new Android tablets are coming on strong.
With these new variables, now is a perfect time to re-evaluate the e-book reader landscape and figure out which product is best for you. If you’re an experienced shopper, you can jump straight to our current recommendations–or check our lists of top e-book readers and top tablets. If you’re looking for a more in-depth discussion, read on to consult this quick guide, which boils the purchase decision down to eight questions:
1. How much are you willing to spend?
At the bottom of the price scale, you’ll find lesser-known readers such as the Aluratek Libre, Kobo Wireless eReader, and the Sharper Image Literati that now cost as little as $99 to $129. (In fact, the Kobo can be found on closeout at Borders stores for as little as $40 to $60.) However, we strongly steer bargain hunters toward the latest versions of the Amazon Kindle (CNET Editors’ Choice) or the Barnes & Noble Nook. They’re priced at $139 and $149, respectively.
As you approach the $200 price point, you can step up to an e-book reader with built-in cellular data that lets you download books, magazines, and newspapers anywhere there’s AT&T coverage. You’ll pay a $50 premium on top of the Wi-Fi-only models mentioned above to get their otherwise identical 3G equivalents: the $189 Kindle (CNET Editors’ Choice) or the $199 Nook. (There’s no charge for the wireless service itself–see question No. 4 below for more details.)
If you want to pay a premium for touch-screen support (and ultimate portability), check out the new Sony Reader Pocket Edition PRS-350 ($179). Unfortunately, it lacks any sort of wireless option, so you’re required to download books to your PC first, then transfer them via a USB cable. (For touch-screen support plus built-in Wi-Fi and 3G, you’ll need to spend $299 on the Sony Reader Daily Edition PRS-950, which also features a larger 7-inch screen.)
Sitting in the middle price range of the e-reader category is the $249 Barnes & Noble Nook Color (CNET Editors’ Choice). This Android-powered color LCD touch-screen reader straddles the gulf between the entry-level e-ink readers mentioned above, and the more expensive–and versatile–tablets discussed below.
Amazon’s large-screen Kindle DX and the Apple iPad dominate the high-end e-book reader market. The Kindle DX costs $379, whereas the iPad 2 ranges in price from $499 (16GB, Wi-Fi only) to $829 (64GB, Wi-Fi plus Verizon or AT&T 3G). Yes, these devices are considerably more expensive than the aforementioned readers, but the iPad is more of a Netbook or laptop competitor than it is strictly an e-book reader competitor. The iPad offers a variety of step-up features–via tens of thousands of downloadable apps–that currently aren’t available on more-affordable mainstream e-readers. That said, the Nook Color also delivers some of the same Web browsing and multimedia features as the iPad, and it may become a more formidable competitor as more Nook-compatible apps are introduced in 2011.
We know there are a variety of competing e-book readers available that we didn’t mention, including the Entourage Edge and the Alex eReader. That’s because we don’t consider any of them truly competitive with the Nook, Kindle, Sony Readers, or iPad at their current prices. However, any new Android tablet can be considered a competing e-book reader–those with support for the full Android Market should have access to Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and other e-book apps.
Best e-book readers (under $150): Amazon Kindle (Wi-Fi), Barnes & Noble Nook (Wi-Fi)
Best e-book readers ($150-$200): Amazon Kindle (3G/Wi-Fi), Barnes & Noble Nook (3G/Wi-Fi)
Best color e-book reader (under $250): Barnes & Noble Nook Color
Best e-book readers (above $250): Apple iPad 2, Amazon Kindle DX
2. How large of a screen (and weight) do you want?
Even if you plan to never leave home with your e-book reader, you should consider its size before buying one. Since you hold the device in front of you whenever you want to read, the weight and size can be an issue.
The smallest and lightest dedicated e-book reader we’ve seen to date is the aforementioned Sony Reader Pocket Edition PRS-350, which has a 5-inch touch screen and weighs just 5.5 ounces (without a case). With its 6-inch screen, the latest Kindle is a svelte 8.7 ounces (without case)–15 percent lighter than its predecessor. The E-ink Nooks–also with a 6-inch screen–round out the “light” group at 11.6 to 12.1 ounces.
The Nook Color boasts a larger 7-inch screen, but it weighs almost a full pound (15.8 ounces). The Sony Reader Daily Edition PRS-950 also has a 7-inch screen (e-ink), but tips the scales at an impressive 9.6 ounces.
If you want a truly large (9.7-inch) screen, you’ll want to buy the Kindle DX or Apple iPad 2. However, at 1.2 pounds and 1.3 pounds (without case), respectively, some people find these devices to be too heavy to hold for long reading sessions. Yes, the iPad 2 has some improvements over its predecessor, but glare–and weight–are still an issue when using it as an e-book reader.
Remember, all e-book readers let you adjust the font size of the content you’re reading, so even a small screen can display much larger type than you’re used to seeing in a book, magazine, or newspaper. In other words, a smaller screen does not mean you need to sacrifice readability.
Lightest e-book readers: Sony Reader Pocket Edition PRS-350, Amazon Kindle (Wi-Fi), Amazon Kindle (3G/Wi-Fi)
Large-screen readers: Amazon Kindle DX, Apple iPad 2
3. What are your screen preferences: E-ink or color LCD? Touch or not?
E-ink: As close as you’ll get to a printed page
Dedicated e-book readers such as Nook, Kindle, and Sony Reader use an e-ink screen. However, e-ink screens have some drawbacks: they’re black and white, and the pages don’t refresh as quickly as those on an LCD do. However, they do an excellent job of reproducing the look of printed paper. With few exceptions, they’re not backlit–so you can’t read in the dark–but you can read them in direct sunlight, which is something you can’t do on an LCD screen (a fact Amazon is keen to point out in its advertising).
If you prefer to read at night with e-ink, however, all is not lost; cases with built-in lights are available for the Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader models.
(Credit: Apple)
LCD: Bright, backlit–and potentially tiring
In contrast, the iPad’s LCD screen is a bright, colorful, beautiful display; the Nook Color has a smaller but still brilliant color LCD as well. Both are full touch screens (the e-ink Nook has a small LCD touch screen that’s used for navigation, but its larger e-ink display doesn’t respond to finger swipes). But those advantages have trade-offs. The iPad’s reflective screen makes it hard to read in bright light, and many people find that the backlight tires their eyes over long reading sessions.
So, which screen is better for reading: e-ink or LCD? We can’t answer that question for you. (See LCD vs. e-ink: The eyestrain debate.) If you don’t have a problem staring at your laptop or LCD monitor screen for hours on end–or if you enjoy reading in low light without an external light source–you’ll probably like the iPad’s screen. Likewise, if you enjoy reading Web sites, magazines, and newspapers, and if you want support for interactive children’s books, you’ll want to go with color. However, if you prefer the look of newsprint or if you enjoy reading outside, an e-ink display is your friend.
Touch screen: Prevalent but not universal
A related concern: is touch-screen support a must-have? To date, the 2010 Sony Readers (starting at $179 with no wireless) are the only worthwhile e-ink touch-screen models we’ve seen. Conversely, the Apple iPad’s capacitive color LCD touch screen is arguably the standard against which all touch screens are judged. Meanwhile, the smaller Barnes & Noble Nook Color is the best color LCD touch-screen we’ve seen on a sub-$250 reading device. The entry-level Nook splits the difference with a touch-screen color navigation pad that sits below a black-and-white e-ink screen.
We expect touch-screen support to become standard by the end of 2011, whether on LCD or e-ink models. In the meantime, you’ll pay a premium for touch-screen support.
Whether you’re checking your preference for e-ink versus LCD or touch screen versus keyboard controls, we’d strongly recommend that you try a few devices before you buy one. You’ll find most major e-book readers (Kindles, Nooks, Sony Readers, Apple iPads) under one roof at your local Best Buy. (Note that the Kindle and Sony Readers use the new and improved “Pearl” e-ink screen, whereas the one found on the e-ink Nook models is a generation older.)
Best e-ink screens: Amazon Kindle (Wi-Fi), Amazon Kindle (3G/Wi-Fi), Sony Reader Pocket Edition PRS-350, Sony Reader Touch Edition PRS-650, Sony Reader Daily Edition PRS-950
Best LCD color screens: Barnes & Noble Nook Color, Apple iPad 2
Best touch screens: Barnes & Noble Nook Color, Apple iPad 2, Sony Reader Pocket Edition PRS-350, Sony Reader Touch Edition PRS-650, Sony Reader Daily Edition PRS-950
4. Do you need always-on wireless data?
The entry-level Nook, Kindle, and iPad models have only Wi-Fi for going online; the $189 Kindle, the $199 Nook, the Sony Reader Daily Edition, and the more-expensive iPads have access to the 3G cellular networks of AT&T or Verizon in addition to Wi-Fi. Many new Android tablets, such as the Motorola Xoom and Samsung Galaxy Tab, are also available in carrier-specific versions. Notably, the 3G data service on the applicable Nooks, Kindles, and Sony Readers is free. On the iPad, you’ll pay a monthly fee to the cellular company, but it’s a prepaid monthly service, not a long-term contract; in other words, you can cancel or restart any time, without paying an expensive early termination fee. On Android tablets, you’re often locked into a contract–which, like a cellphone, gives you a discount on the hardware.
The 3G premium on the Nook and Kindle is $50 each; on the iPad, it’s $130, plus the monthly data bill. Is the extra money worth it? As with the screen decision, this is a personal preference. Personally, I think Wi-Fi is adequate for an e-book reader. If you plan to take a long trip to a remote area–the desert, mountains, moon, wherever–you can always download and purchase a long list of books in advance and take them with you on the reader.
For the iPad, which offers a wide range of additional online features–such as e-mail, video, a full Web browser, social networking, and so on–a 3G data connection may be a more useful feature. However, with more phones offering Wi-Fi hot-spot functionality and establishments such as Starbucks offering free Wi-Fi, there are plenty of ways to get seamless online coverage with your reading device without it having 3G network support built-in.
Best Wi-Fi readers/tablets: Amazon Kindle (Wi-Fi),Barnes & Noble Nook Color, Apple iPad (Wi-Fi), Barnes & Noble Nook (Wi-Fi)
Best 3G readers/tablets: Amazon Kindle (3G/Wi-Fi), Barnes & Noble Nook (3G/Wi-Fi), Apple iPad (3G/Wi-Fi)
5. Do you need access to your e-books on additional devices?
One of the advantages of having your reading collection “in the cloud” is that you can access your books on multiple devices, though some e-book vendors offer better cross-platform support than others do.

The Android Kindle app
(Credit: Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)
Amazon and Barnes & Noble are currently neck and neck when it comes to device support. In addition to their respective e-book readers, both vendors offer free apps on the iPad, iPhone/iPod Touch, Android phones, BlackBerry phones, Windows PCs, and Macs. So even when you leave the e-reader at home, for instance, you can pick up your book right where you left off and continue reading it on your phone or PC screen.
Sony currently offers Windows and Mac versions of its software (currently called Reader Library, soon to be rebadged as “Reader Desktop Edition”). The company has pledged to offer iOS (iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad) and Android Reader apps before the end of 2010.
For now, you can read Apple’s iBooks on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch only.
Kobo also has good cross-platform e-book support. In addition to Apple iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch, you can get a Kobo app for BlackBerry, Android, and Palm Pre phones.
The bottom line is that Amazon and Barnes & Noble currently have the best support for a wide variety of devices. But since this software is free, you can mix and match e-book stores as needed. You can also “try before you buy” as each platform offers hundreds, if not thousands, of public-domain books that you can download and read for free.
Best cross-platform providers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo
Most versatile hardware readers: Apple iPad, Apple iPhone/iPod Touch, Samsung Galaxy Tab, Android phones with full Android Market support, Android tablets with full Android Market support
6. Do you need support for the EPUB format?
Each of the readers listed above can download and display books from their respective online bookstores, and the iPad works with several (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and iBooks, to name a few). However, there’s also an open e-book file standard known as EPUB. Using this format, you can obtain loaner books from certain online local libraries, as well as download free (mostly public domain, pre-1923) books from a variety of sources, such as Google Books.
Of the leading e-book readers, only the Kindle cannot read files in the EPUB format. If that’s a must-have feature, then, you’ll want to steer clear of Amazon’s reader. That said, thousands of the most desirable public-domain titles are available on the Kindle for free. As a result, we don’t consider the Kindle’s lack of EPUB compatibility to be a black mark on the device. (Note: Expert users can convert EPUB files to Kindle-friendly format using the freeware Calibre software.)
Best EPUB support: Anything except Amazon Kindle
7. Which device/service offers the best selection of e-books?
Not every e-book store has the same selection of titles. Moreover, comparing the relative numbers of titles in each store is difficult, because some of them count periodicals, games, and–most importantly–free, public domain books. But by most estimates, Amazon’s Kindle store has the best selection of books overall, with over 700,000 titles. Barnes & Noble is second, and Kobo, Borders, and Apple bring up the rear.
Note that not every book is currently available electronically. Also, some publishers delay the electronic version of the book for weeks or months after the publication of the paper version (a process known as “windowing”).
How can you tell if your favorite author or favorite books are available on a given format? Thankfully, most e-book stores can be searched through a standard Web browser:
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Borders
Kobo
The one exception is iBooks (Apple). To search Apple’s selection, you’ll need the free iBooks app on a compatible device (iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch).
Ironically, the most popular e-book readers offer compatibility only with one store each: Kindles work only with Amazon’s store; Nooks work only with Barnes & Noble. Tablets and smartphones that offer wider app support are the closest thing to “universal” readers. The iPad, for instance, can toggle between reading apps from Apple (iBooks), Barnes & Noble (Nook), Amazon (Kindle), Kobo, and many others.
The same is true for the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which has access to the Android Market. The Kindle app is preinstalled, and you can also download the Nook, Borders, or Kobo apps. (Don’t expect to ever see Apple’s iBooks app offered on the Android Market.)
Most versatile hardware readers: Apple iPad, Apple iPhone/iPod Touch, Samsung Galaxy Tab, Android phones with full Android Market support, Android tablets with full Android Market support
8. Do you want more than just reading?
This is basically the “dedicated e-book reader or multifunction tablet?” question. Though the Kindle and e-ink Nook can do some other things, their Web browsers and onboard games pale in comparison with what you can do on tablets like the iPad, the Galaxy Tab, and even the Nook Color.
The Nook Color is the big wild card here. It’s not as versatile as those tablets, but it’s already got a worthwhile Web browser, works as a decent media player (for some audio and video files), and supports Pandora’s free music streaming service. Barnes & Noble is pledging to deliver more apps in 2011, and–since the Nook Color uses a version of the Android operating system–porting existing Android apps should be pretty straightforward. The addition of (for instance) a good e-mail app, social media apps (Facebook, Twitter), and real Flash support (already promised) could go a long way to making the Nook Color a “good enough” tablet for users who don’t want to pay for the far more expensive likes of an iPad or Galaxy Tab.
So, for the time being: If you’re only interested in reading books (plus newspapers and magazines), an e-book reader is the way to go. The Nook Color is a great choice if you want to add some light Web browsing–and the potential for more functionality in the future. If you’re looking for something that approximates a laptop–e-mail, Web browsing, streaming media, games, and so forth–you should consider paying extra for a full-fledged tablet.
Current recommendations
As of November 2010, CNET has bestowed its Editors’ Choice award on two e-book readers: the current Amazon Kindle (both the 3G and Wi-Fi-only models) and the Barnes & Noble Nook Color. The Kindle is our pick for those who prefer e-ink screens; the Nook Color is our recommendation for those who prefer color (at the sub-$250 price point).
With its newly improved firmware, the Barnes & Noble Nook remains a worthwhile choice for e-ink fans (if you prefer EPUB compatibility), though we wish Barnes & Noble would offer it with the better Pearl e-ink screen found on the Amazon and Sony models.
If you want a more full-featured tablet that can double as an e-book reader, the Apple iPad is an excellent choice. The same is true of the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Both offer free Kindle, Nook, Borders, and Kobo reading apps, with full access to those e-book stores. Additionally, the iPad offers Apple’s own iBooks application.
Best overall e-ink e-book readers: Amazon Kindle (Wi-Fi), Amazon Kindle (3G/Wi-Fi)
Best color touch-screen LCD e-book reader (under $250): Barnes & Noble Nook Color
Best tablets for reading: Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab
Depending on what features are important to you–color versus black and white screen, backlight versus readability in the sun, touch screen versus not, cheap versus expensive, 3G versus Wi-Fi, lightweight versus heavy, reading-only versus full-featured–the device you prefer may be different from ours. However, there’s no arguing that the range of choices for e-book readers is better and more affordable now than it ever has been.
Share your thoughts and experiences about e-book reader preferences in the comments below.
Additional reading:
Best e-book readers
Best tablets
Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook Color earn CNET Editors’ Choice Awards
LCD vs. e-ink: The eyestrain debate
How to self-publish an e-book
How to find free e-books for your Kindle
See all recent e-book reader reviews
Shop for products mentioned in this post on CNET.com:
Barnes & Noble Nook (Wi-Fi) — $149.00 – $172.99
Amazon Kindle (Wi-Fi, graphite) — $139.00
Barnes & Noble Nook Color — $249.00
Amazon Kindle (3G/Wi-Fi, graphite) — $189.00
Barnes & Noble Nook (3G/Wi-Fi) — $199.00 – $199.99
Samsung Galaxy Tab (Sprint) — $199.53 – $499.99
Amazon Kindle (3G/Wi-Fi, white) — $189.00
Apple iPad (16GB, AT&T, 3G) — $588.99 – $659.99
Apple iPad (16GB) — $398.00 – $498.99

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June 12, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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