Here’s what you need to know if you’re diving into digital books, along with reviews of all the top ebook readers and tablets that focus on reading.
The transition to digital books is happening faster than anyone expected. After years of false starts—think Stephen King’s novellaRiding the Bullet, released way back in 2000—ebook readers have soared in popularity over the past few years. Amazon’s release of the first Kindle in 2007 was a turning point; now people are buying and downloading digital books at a breakneck pace.
Even better: Prices have dropped considerably across the board, to the point where mainstream casual readers can get a quality ebook reader for a lot less than $100; it’s no longer an early adopter’s game. As a result, you have more choices than ever. But before you settle on a single device, you have some decisions to make. Here’s what you should consider when shopping for an ebook reader:
What Screen Type and How Big?
Basic ebook readers use monochrome, E Ink screens to display text. E Ink looks a lot like paper, and it’s easy on your eyes when reading for long periods. On the least expensive models, it’s not backlit, so you’ll need light to see the text, just as you would with a printed book. But most ebook readers now include edge lighting that lets you see in the dark, like the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite, the Barnes & Noble Nook GlowLight $116.95 at Amazon, and the Kobo Aura HD. With each model, you can vary the intensity of the brightness from barely there to flashlight-bright. On the lowest settings, you can read in the dark while your partner sleeps peacefully next to you.
In all cases, E Ink is much easier to read in bright sunlight, while color touch screens on tablets, like the Amazon Fire HD 6$99.00 at Amazon or the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 Nook $148.00 at eBay, tend to wash out, and their glossy displays can show distracting reflections.
The industry seems to have settled on six inches as the optimal display size for E Ink readers; this is what you’ll find on the current-gen, entry-level Amazon Kindle$79.00 at Amazon, for example. There are exceptions, though: Kobo’s waterproof Aura H2O is larger, at 6.8 inches, and has a sharper 1,430-by-1,080-pixel resolution. And if it’s sharpness you’re after, no E Ink reader is sharper than the Amazon Kindle Voyage $199.00 at Amazon, which boasts a whopping 300 pixels per inch.
Manufacturers are also improving the quality of these E Ink displays. A few years ago, page refreshes were sluggish, the entire screen flashed black with each page turn, and some early ebook readers had problems with text contrast, which made for difficult reading. That’s all history. The latest readers have crisp, clear text, and employ caching schemes that almost never refresh the full page; most of the time, only the letters fade out and back in again. The page refreshes themselves are much faster than before.
Meanwhile, touch screens have an innate advantage: On-screen keyboards make it easy to take notes or run searches within the text of your books. As ebook readers with hardware QWERTY keyboards have all but disappeared, this is an important distinction for power users. Also, maneuvering a massive online book store on a device with a touch screen is a lot easier.
So E Ink is great for reading books, but tablet touch screens offer a bevy of other benefits. Their color screens mean you can read much more than books: magazines and comic books are just two examples. Best of all, even lower-cost tablets like the excellent LG G Pad$169.99 at Amazon can browse the Web, stream video from Netflix, Hulu or other sources, play music, and run Android apps. If you have more cash, the Apple iPad mini 3 $349.99 at Best Buy is more of a multifaceted device, with its razor-sharp 7.9-inch Retina screen, bevy of apps, and surprisingly light weight.
What Kind of Wireless Connection Do You Need?
Amazon’s original Kindle integrated an always-on cellular radio that let you buy and download books from anywhere, over the air, for free (aside from the cost of the book itself, of course). Most devices now offer Wi-Fi as the base level wireless connection—at a much lower cost—with 3G cellular data only available as part of a more-expensive model.
As long as you don’t mind waiting until you’re at home or near a hotspot to shop for new books, Wi-Fi should work for you. A select few may still prefer to pony up for 3G to buy a new book while, say, on a long train trip, or lounging at the beach. Devices without any wireless connection at all have essentially disappeared. Some ebook readers like the Kobo Aura HD and H2O come with memory card slots, so you can sideload digital books or PDFs in addition to buying or downloading media wirelessly.
While we’re on the subject, internal storage capacity is no longer a concern. Most every ebook reader you can buy today can store more than 1,000 books, with some offering room for upwards of 3,000 titles. And if you have more books than that, each of the major vendors offers cloud storage, letting you download books to your device whenever you need them, assuming you’re in a Wi-Fi hotspot (or anywhere you have a cell signal, if you have a 3G-capable model).
What About the Books?
This is where things get a little complex, so bear with us for a moment. There’s no single universal ebook format; essentially, when you choose an ebook reader, you’re making a decision up front as to which ecosystem you’ll support. If you buy a Kindle now, and then want to switch to a Nook later, none of the books you buy through the Kindle store will work on your new Nook.
With free, public domain books, you have some more flexibility, but it’s actually more complicated. For example, Google offers over a million free books in the popular, open Epub format, which many public libraries now use for lending books. However, Kindles don’t support Epub. Amazon launched its own public library lending tie-in, which differs on a branch-to-branch basis. Amazon also has the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, which lets you borrow a book a month from a selection of over 600,000 titles, but only if you pay $99 a year for the Amazon Prime service.
(For an in-depth comparison of supported formats across various ebook readers, check out Wikipedia.)
To make things even murkier, the ebook stores themselves aren’t all the same. Book selection, size, and pricing varies from store to store. The best way through this thicket of digital underbrush is to spend a little time browsing ebook stores before you commit to a device. You can access both Amazon’s and Barnes & Noble’s ebook stores online to see which store carries the most of the books, magazines, and newspapers you want to read. Or, if you’re planning to borrow ebooks from the library, check your local branch to see what format is in use, and then make sure the reader you want supports it.
What About Ebook Apps?
One saving grace is that many of the major ebook reader vendors have developed an entire ecosystem of apps around their chosen format. For example, you can start reading a book on your Kindle Paperwhite at home; then, while waiting in line at the grocery store, you can fire up your iPhone’s Kindle app and pick up exactly where you left off in the same book, but on your phone.
The size of the app ecosystem varies by format. The Apple iPad and iPhone both run iBooks, a flexible app that looks great, but doesn’t have quite the same book selection as Amazon or Barnes & Noble for digital books. The latter two also both make iPad apps, along with versions for iPhone, Android, and other devices; Amazon also has a Cloud Reader that works on the iPad with a direct link to the Kindle Store, and several vendors also make PC and Mac apps.
In short, if you plan to read digital books on multiple gadgets, be sure to read our product reviews, and note each manufacturer’s list of supported devices.
Finally, How Much Do You Want to Spend?
This is one place where there’s nothing but good news: Prices have fallen considerably across the board. Amazon’s base-model Kindle is just $79, and for most people, it’s got all the features they’ll need. While tablets are mostly a separate category of consumer electronics—with higher prices—you’ve got the Amazon Fire, Galaxy Tab 4 Nook, and LG G Pad in the $100 to $200 range, all of which are still great for reading. Even these do-it-all devices cost considerably less than the original, E Ink Kindle, which fetched $400 when it was introduced six years ago.