Our recommendations, starting at under $100
Photos, clockwise from top left: Amazon; Shannon Stapleton/Reuters; Samsung; Barnes & Noble
Reader Roundup: The basic Kindle [top left] is an inexpensive device for those who just want to read: an optional light is required for reading in low light. The Kindle Fire [top right] supports more tablet-like features, including the ability to play games. Barnes & Noble's Simple Touch with Glow Light [bottom left] comes with built-in illumination, while the Samsung Galaxy Tab [bottom right] is a full-featured tablet that's great for reading.
Except for Apple’s best-selling iPads, e-readers and tablets are rapidly becoming commodity products. Consumers can choose from among scores of makes and models, ranging in price from US $79 to $830. With such an array of choices, which one makes the most sense for your budget and reading style?
The first choice users must make is whether to buy a dedicated e-reader, a tablet, or a hybrid of the two. Dedicated e-readers are the smallest, lightest, and least expensive of the three options. They’re so small and light that they can be easily read with one hand, just like a paperback. Because they employ a low-power display technology called E Ink, dedicated e-readers can last for weeks between battery recharges. In addition, text on an E Ink display is generally sharper, crisper, and less likely to provoke eye strain (especially in bright light) than text on the LCD screens of typical tablets and hybrids. Depending on the model, dedicated e-readers may incorporate a variety of reading and research aids—for example, a built-in dictionary, the ability to add annotations and bookmarks, or the capability to wirelessly purchase and download e-books.
On the minus side, e-readers are one-trick ponies that lack many features and functions common to tablets—no built-in cameras, microphones, GPS, Bluetooth, e-mail, Internet, or the ability to install a large selection of cool apps. And, except for the just-released $139 Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight by U.S. bookseller Barnes & Noble, which has a built-in LED light, e-reader displays are not illuminated and cannot be read in low light. (For the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader, there are optional LED-equipped covers). Nor are E Ink displays good at showing color (in fact, most are monochrome), photos, or complex illustrations, and useless for multimedia presentations. Another important limitation is that many e-readers—most notably, those in the Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook series—are part of closed commercial ecosystems. So unless you’re prepared to jump through hoops to download third-party material, you’ll most likely have to buy all your content exclusively from the company that sells your e-reader.
Tablets are far more versatile devices, and they all have e-reader capabilities. In fact, every e-book vendor provides software to access its content libraries on tablets, smartphones, and personal computers. Therefore, instead of being restricted to a single vendor, you can buy, download, and read e-books from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, or any other provider. Since all tablets have illuminated color screens, you can read in low light, even in the dark. Color photos, complex illustrations, and multimedia can all be displayed as easily as text (you can even watch movies with subtitles), although at varying levels of clarity, depending on the screen resolution.
But the deal breaker for many is the tablet’s ergonomics: Most tablets are larger, thicker, and heavier than e-readers. Unless you’re an Arnold Schwarzenegger, you won’t be able to comfortably hold a full-size, 10-inch tablet—not even the new high-resolution iPad—for more than a few minutes at a time. Even some 7-inch tablets are too heavy, awkward, or slippery to use for extended periods.
Straddling between the e-reader and the tablet are two hybrid devices: Amazon’s $199 Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s $249 Nook Tablet. Both offer dedicated e-reader convenience with Android tablet functionality. While the Kindle Fire is less expensive, the Nook Tablet offers more memory and expandability. On the other hand, Amazon’s library of e-books and apps is considerably larger than that of Barnes & Noble.
To appeal to budget-minded buyers, both hybrids incorporate certain compromises. For instance, while users can surf the Web, read and send e-mail, and watch Netflix films, neither tablet/e-reader comes with a camera, Bluetooth, or GPS hardware. And users are still limited to buying apps and e-books from either Amazon or Barnes & Noble. While both hybrids display full color and can handle multimedia, battery life is more typical of a tablet (7.5 to 11.5 hours) than an e-reader (2 to 4 weeks). They’re also slightly larger, heavier, and more prone to damage than e-readers.
Based on our experience over the past two years with dozens of tablets and e-readers (our personal library is just shy of 400 e-books), here are our recommendations. If cost is critical and all you want is a simple e-reader, we suggest the $99 Kindle Touch. It’s small, light, conveniently shaped, and virtually goof-proof to operate. And being a Kindle, it feeds directly into Amazon’s incredibly huge and varied e-book ecosystem. (If you don’t want to see a brief onscreen advertisement every time you power up, you can pay an additional $40. Or you can get the basic Kindle, which has physical controls, for $79 or $109, with or without ads.)
If you are willing to spend a little more money, you couldn’t do better than the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight. It’s a sleek, stylish, well-rounded, easy-to-hold device that you can read anywhere, anytime, whether you’re in total darkness or the noonday sun.
If you favor hybrids, there are many good reasons why the Kindle Fire outsells all other Android tablets combined, including the Nook Tablet. It’s a solid, well-constructed piece of engineering that gives you most of the features and functions you want in an Android tablet with all the convenience of an e-reader.
Last, but certainly not least, our favorite Android tablet for e-reading is the $250 Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7. Smaller and lighter than even the Kindle Fire, the Galaxy has just about all the gadgets and extras you want in an Android tablet, including access to Google’s expansive app library.
About the Authors
Sally Wiener Grotta and Daniel Grotta, frequent contributors to IEEE Spectrum, have authored numerous books for traditional mainstream publishing houses. They are now publishing books under their own Pixel Hall Press imprint.