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Before You Buy an eBook Reader

Best eReader Features to Consider

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Before You Buy an eBook Reader
Photo &copy Jason Hidalgo

As someone with blackmail-worthy photos of older relatives sporting afros and bell bottoms, I’m quite aware of how quickly “fresh” stuff can get dated. Take it from a guy who used to wear acid-wash jeans.

So given all the recent developments in the eBook reader landscape, I figured now is a good time to update our handy-dandy eReader Buying Guide. Here’s a list of things to consider when selecting a new eBook reader.

Screen type

Remember when an eReader display pretty much meant E Ink? Well, the arrival of the Apple iPad as a viable eReading device has since changed that.

When picking an eReader, ask yourself if you don’t mind reading books on an LCD screen or prefer the more paperlike look of something like E Ink. Each has advantages and disadvantages. E Ink tends to reduce eye strain and greatly improve battery life. An LCD screen can display color and typically comes with touchscreen capabilities as well. Then you have hybrid readers such as the Barnes & Noble Nook and Spring Design Alex, which feature both an electronic paper display and LCD touchscreen at the same time.

For electronic paper displays, make sure you compare screens because some have better contrast than others. Sony’s PRS-300 Reader Pocket, for example, has great white levels and tack-sharp text whereas its siblings the Reader Touch and Reader Pocket have grayer screens.

Size and weight

Size matters. Especially on just how portable you want your eReader to be.

Fortunately, there are all sorts of options out there when it comes to size. Sony’s Reader Pocket, for one, actually fits in my jeans pocket, but its 5-inch screen is still big enough for comfortable reading. It’s also pretty light and is easy to take with you on the go. In the middle of the pack, you have devices such as the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Spring Design Alex, and Sony Reader Touch and Reader Pocket. Then you’ve got the huge devices, such as the Kindle DX and Apple iPad, which sport screens that are about 10 inches in size. Unless you’re a kangaroo, you ain’t fitting those in your pocket anytime soon. But they’re pretty good if you value a screen with larger real estate.

Interface

Controls for eReading devices are typically based on either buttons, touchscreens or a combination of both. Button-based controls require less power and are more accurate but can be more cumbersome to use. Touchscreens are more intuitive but can be laggy, smudge-prone, and typically suck more juice from your battery. The latter appears to be gaining popularity as the interface of choice, though, even for E Ink-based displays.

Button-based devices include Amazon’s Kindle 1, 2, 3 and DX models, plus Sony’s Reader Pocket and the original Kobo eReader. The iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet all use LCD touchscreens. Sony’s Reader Touch and Reader Daily, and Spring Design’s Alex use both touch- and button-based controls.

In 2011, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Amazon also launched touch-based E Ink readers of their own.

Battery life

Depending on whether you plan to read primarily at home or on the road, battery life is an important consideration. Basic eReaders without fancy bells and whistles typically have longer battery life that’s measured in “page turns.” Sony’s Reader Pocket sports 7,500 page turns wile the Kobo boasts up to 8,000 page turns. Devices with Wi-Fi and Web browsing on the other hand, tend to have shorter battery life. Spring Design’s Alex, for example, lasts pretty long between charges when primarily using the E Ink display but runs out of power faster when browsing or watching video on its LCD screen.

Features

Do you want an eReader just for reading eBooks or do you want to your device to do much more?

Some devices — such as the Reader Pocket and Kobo Reader — are designed purely for reading and skip on extra features, including music playback. The Nook, on the other hand, plays tunes, has Web browsing, and also throws in a touchscreen interface. The Alex also has those features plus video playback and the ability to download Android apps. At the higher end of the features spectrum is the iPad, which is almost like a mini-computer.

Formats

On a related note, you’ll also want to check the formats that a device is capable of handling. Popular file formats include EPUB, PDF, TXT and HTML among other things. The more formats a device can play the better.

Also check if an eReader is more open or uses a proprietary format. A more open format such as EPUB, for example, means you can move your eBooks easily from one device to another. In contrast, Amazon’s proprietary AZW format can only be played by Kindle devices.

Capacity

This determines just how much media you can fit into your device at one time. The higher the memory, the more eBooks and files you can fit in. High capacity is especially important for multimedia eReaders that can also play music, video and apps. Besides internal memory, some devices also come with a slot for an SDcard, which allows you to typically bump up your capacity up to 32GB.

Store access

Depending on the device, an eReader can have direct access to certain eBook stores, which means extra convenience, a wider selection and also the ability to easily get the latest bestsellers.

The Kindle, for example, has direct access to Amazon’s online bookstore while the Nook and Kobo have access to Barnes & Noble and Borders respectively.

Devices that don’t have direct store access can still display compatible eBooks but you’ll have to download them from a PC first. Free sources such as Project Gutenberg are an option as well.

Price

Ultimately, this can be the biggest factor when deciding to buy an eBook reader. After all, your wallet pretty much dictates what you can or can not afford.

Analysts and industry insiders have always said that $99 is the magic price point for wide-range eReader acceptance and it looks like the market is starting to reach that point. The Kindle 4, for example, now starts out at $109 — or $79 for folks who don't mind seeing ads on their sleep screens. It's certainly a lot better than it was, say, in early 2010, when you had more eReaders sporting price tags past $400.

For recommended eReaders, check our list of the Best eBook Readers.

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