E-reader roundup: 8 devices compete for the crown

We look at the current state of the market and review 8 of the most popular e-readers

In ancient times, the elite read their sacred writings, histories, philosophical musings and more on materials such as clay tablets, papyrus leaves and vellum scrolls. Somewhere around the first century, the paper-and-ink book appeared, and the invention of the mechanical printing press in the 15th century brought the printed word to the masses. Now, for the first time in centuries, how we read is undergoing a revolutionary transformation.

Welcome to the world of the e-reader.

Join us as we take a look at the current e-reader market -- not an easy task, since it's constantly in flux -- to determine the current state of the technology, and ponder the industry's burning question du jour: Will dedicated e-readers disappear now that tablets are starting to appear?

We also review eight of the most visible e-readers now available -- including Apple's iPad, which has been touted as a more useful alternative to dedicated e-readers.

A constantly changing market

E-readers -- as well as tablets that provide e-reader capabilities -- are among the fastest-growing segments of the electronics industry. For example, during a session on e-readers that the International Digital Publishing Forum conducted at BookExpo America in May, several of the panelists emphasized the smashing success of e-readers during the 2009 holiday season.

It's also changing rapidly. In the six weeks we spent testing units and writing our reviews, the e-book and e-reader industries morphed almost beyond recognition. The two biggest e-reader vendors -- Amazon and Barnes & Noble -- dramatically reduced their prices, and two others -- Plastic Logic and Kno -- canceled or delayed long-announced, highly anticipated products.

Meanwhile, the latest version of Amazon's Kindle proved so wildly popular that it sold out with hours of being introduced -- a full month before it was even scheduled to ship -- while Amazon announced that for the first time, the number of e-books sold was greater than the number of hardcover books sold. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. not only acquired an e-reader manufacturer (Skiff) but declared its intention to publish an all-electronic newspaper that would compete directly with The New York Times and USA Today.

And there's more, much more. For instance, Stieg Larsson's Swedish thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo became the first e-book to sell more than a million downloads. E Ink Corp., the company that manufactures most of the monochrome displays used in e-readers, projects that it will manufacture over 10 million screens this year alone. School boards and textbook publishers everywhere are feverishly planning for the imminent retirement and replacement of high-priced physical textbooks; tomorrow's students will simply have all the books they need for the next semester transmitted directly to their e-readers.

And practically every day, Publishers Weekly, Publishers Lunch, Editor & Publisher and other online industry trade magazines carry multiple news stories about e-books, e-readers, and all the problems and promises the publishing industry is experiencing as it rapidly transitions from paper and ink to all-digital.

Using e-readers

Although they may incorporate a variety of functions, e-readers are designed primarily for a single purpose: reading. Many e-readers are directly associated with one of the major e-bookstores like Amazon or Borders, facilitating simple, one-click purchases and downloads from among hundreds of thousands of books, newspapers and magazines. There is also a vast reservoir (1.5 million-plus) of free public-domain works (primarily books published before 1923 whose American copyrights have expired) available from a variety of sources.

The majority of the devices use display technology from E Ink, resulting in a monochrome, nonbacklit page that looks far more like a printed page than the images on an LCD screen. And, as with a printed book, you can read in just about any light, including bright sunlight, but when there's no light, you must turn on a lamp to read.

A few devices use a thin-film transistor (TFT) type of LCD instead. Tablet-type e-readers incorporate highly reflective color touch screens that, like a computer monitor or digital camera LCD viewfinder, transmit light directly to your eye. That makes them difficult to read in direct sunlight, but easy to read in low-light conditions.

Most e-readers are small and light enough so that you can hold and read them with one hand, just as you would a paperback. Text is usually displayed one page at a time, formatted to look like a traditional book. To turn the page, the reader either pushes a button or swipes a finger across the screen.

Depending on the brand, you can change the size of the font, specify the typeface, select a set of foreign language characters, zoom in on photos and graphics, or rotate the page orientation from portrait to landscape. If you encounter an unfamiliar word, pressing a button or touching an icon will display the built-in dictionary's definition.

E-readers come with either a physical or a virtual keyboard for recording notes or annotations that can be linked with a word, sentence, paragraph or section, or to search for a specific word or reference. If you want to return later to a certain page, you can bookmark it electronically for easy retrieval.

Depending on the device, you can highlight or save selected text, view other readers' highlights of significant passages, surf the Web, send and retrieve e-mail, directly access Wikipedia, lend e-books to a friend, borrow from an e-book library, or transfer an e-book to your PC, smartphone or other device. Many e-readers also allow you to download and play MP3 music while you're reading, have your book read out loud via a speech-to-text capability, view your photo gallery, or join a social network of like-minded readers to rate, recommend or review e-books you love or hate.

All e-readers have the capacity to download and store hundreds or thousands of e-books and can help you organize your e-books into searchable collections and categories. Some enable expansion via optional SD or microSD memory cards, and many allow you to permanently archive your purchased e-books in the cloud so you can retrieve them at anytime, anywhere and on any device.

Printed books are still useful

There are some significant differences between reading a printed book and an e-book, however. Printed books are discrete, which means that you can leaf through them randomly, backward or forward, stop wherever something catches your interest, and flip to a specific page in seconds. E-books are serial devices that proceed sequentially, so you can't easily thumb through the text at random.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that, like all other electronic devices, e-readers require power to operate. While you can pick up a centuries-old book, turn a page and begin reading, once your e-reader's battery charge is exhausted, you're stranded. (A couple of models feature user-swappable batteries, while others can provide power via a USB cable or AC adapter.) E-readers with monochrome screens can give readers days or even weeks of service on a single charge. However, tablets with power-hungry touch screens need to be recharged after six to 10 hours of reading.

Buying e-books

The process of buying and downloading e-books varies from device to device. The most convenient e-readers are those that feature both 3G and Wi-Fi, which automatically connect to a linked online bookstore, allowing you to browse among hundreds of thousands of titles, usually organized by what's new, bestsellers, author, category, price and other criteria. When you find a book description you like, you can either download a free sample or purchase the book. Since the e-bookstore already has your credit card number and e-reader address, all it takes is a single click to buy the book and have it automatically delivered to the device.

Less sophisticated devices connect to online bookstores and public-domain e-book Web sites via a USB cable that connects to your computer (and which usually doubles as a charger).

As with Macs and PCs, e-reader file incompatibilities must be considered when purchasing or downloading an e-book, newspaper or document. Most e-readers recognize and use the industry ePub file format, but Amazon's Kindle uses a proprietary format called AMZ. What this means is that B&N's Nook, which does use ePub, and Amazon's Kindle can't directly download e-books from each other's bookstores. This probably isn't a problem for most users, since both vendors essentially offer the same inventory at similar prices. But if you already own, say, a Nook and you want one of the new Kindles -- sorry, but you won't be able to transfer your library from one to the other.

Most public-domain Web sites, such as Project Gutenberg, and some smaller e-bookstores allow users to specify which format they want their e-books in. However, many public-domain e-books are available only in PDF or TXT formats, which not all e-readers can handle. What's more, even if your device can display PDF files, it may not format correctly, forcing you to pan across the page to read everything. Some e-readers can correctly format ("reflow") PDF files for easier reading, and some allow users to zoom in and out to better view details.

Most e-readers also allow users to download their own files (including JPEG photos and MP3 audio), but only a few can display Microsoft Word's DOC/DOCX formats, a disadvantage if you want to carry your departmental report or great American novel manuscript with you. Incidentally, while you can download personal files for free to your USB/Wi-Fi-equipped Kindle, you'll have to pay 99 cents to Amazon if you want that same file transmitted wirelessly via your 3G connection.

Do you own your e-book?

Buy a print book, and it's yours forever, to keep, give away or sell to whomever you wish. Most e-books, however, are saddled with what is known as DRM, or digital rights management. This witch's brew of legalese is heavily slanted toward the publisher rather than the book buyer and essentially says that you own the right to read the book, period. It's not yours to lend, sell or give away.

The exception is Barnes & Noble's loan capability, which lets you loan a specific e-book to a friend with a compatible e-reader device one time only, and for no more than 14 days. While it's out, you can't simultaneously read it on your Nook, and when it's returned at the end of two weeks, you can't loan it out again.

Tablets vs. e-readers vs. print books

Although sales of e-readers are going gangbusters, some industry pundits are already speculating that the iPad and other tablets could kill off e-readers entirely. Tablets incorporate e-reader functionality and connection to electronic bookstores, but they're multipurpose devices that can also be used as computers, personal multimedia centers, Web browsers, communications devices or anything else that tens of thousands of apps can open up. However, other experts say that those who do a lot of reading will stick with the more lightweight, easier-on-the-eyes e-readers.

And printed books? Back in the early 1990s, the first crop of digital cameras debuted to an indifferent public, who were quite unimpressed with their high prices, terrible performance and awful image quality. These days, however, digital cameras are ubiquitous and film cameras virtually extinct. Similarly, most publishing experts predict that paper-and-ink books -- as well as physical newspapers and magazines -- will ultimately go the way of the dodo.

But along the way to book extinction, there will be a continual shakeout in the e-reader industry as overpriced, poorly designed or underpowered devices succumb to buyer apathy, while better, less expensive e-readers continue to flood the market.

It's an exciting era for the publishing industry, and a great time for readers everywhere.

Comparing e-readers

Including privately branded devices and Asian knockoffs, there are probably more than a score of e-readers currently on the American market. For this roundup, we focused on currently shipping, readily available models, most by mainstream vendors. These include the Alex, jetBook Lite, iPad, Kindle, Kobo, Libre eBook Reader Pro, Nook and Pandigital Novel.

Sony's latest e-readers

Sony has recently introduced new versions of its three e-readers: the Reader Pocket Edition, Reader Touch Edition and Reader Daily Edition. While the upcoming models weren't available in time for this article, Computerworld did get a first look at the devices -- check out the article: Sony introduces three light, bright touch-screen e-readers

Because of deadline pressures, we could not include a number of e-readers scheduled or rumored for imminent third- or fourth-quarter release, including devices from Velocity Micro, Asus, Acer, Sharp, Sony and Copia. (Check back for future Computerworld coverage.)

How we tested

To put our collection of e-readers through their paces, we downloaded one of the great works of Western literature that we've somehow never found time to read: Leo Tolstoy's monumental novel War and Peace. Since it is in the public domain, downloads are free (except for the $2.99 we paid to secure a version from Sony's library, which turned out to be Volume II and not the entire work).

For 3G or Wi-Fi-equipped devices, we downloaded the book directly from each e-reader's linked bookstore in each device's native format. For e-readers that were directly associated with online bookstores, we first downloaded the novel to a PC (in ePub format) from a third-party Web site like Project Gutenberg or epubBooks, then transferred it to the device via a USB cable. In some instances, we also purchased and downloaded a few best-sellers and other for-sale works. We took note of how painless or tedious the purchase and download process was for each device.

Then, we read. We noted how we enjoyed or disliked the reading experience, checking and comparing variables such as weight, balance and control, layout, how well the unit fit in our hands, bootup speed, how simple it was to navigate around the library, the ease in turning pages or skipping to the next chapter, using the keyboard to input notes or surf the Web, looking up words in its dictionary, changing settings, and other features such as text-to-speed, MP3, free books provided and so on. We also evaluated the quality of each display and how legible the text was.

Spring Design's Alex

Longer than most of its peers, Spring Design's Alex e-reader is slim, trim and elegant to hold and use.

Like the Kobo, Kindle and Nook, the Alex e-reader features a 6-in. E Ink monochrome display, but directly below -- and the reason why it's an extra-tall device -- is a 3.5-in. Android-powered color touch screen. While this over-and-under design supposedly gives users the best of both worlds -- a cool e-reader and state-of-the-art smartphone-like Web browser -- the Alex e-reader's awkward ergonomics and high price erode much of its luster.

The all-black (or all-white) Alex e-reader has a smooth tactile feel and fits well into the palm of your hand, but with single forward and backward page arrows on opposite sides of the device, it's hard reading one-handed.

The E Ink screen is dull-gray, but characters are dark, well formed and legible. The 16-bit color touch screen is roughly the size of a smartphone and is nicely responsive without being overly sensitive.

Besides the page-back/page-forward buttons, there's a power switch on the right, a Back button on the left, and a small sync button between the E Ink and color touch screens. A pair of stereo speakers is on the back, as is a tiny indent for a microSD card, and on top is its Micro USB port and an earphone jack.

What's interesting: The Alex e-reader comes preloaded with a number of public domain classics, plus an Australian version of George Orwell's novel 1984. Its bookstore offers convenient links to popular paid and free e-book sites, including Project Gutenberg, Feedbooks and Smashwords.

What's good: Like the Kindle's, the Alex e-reader's screen is brighter, and the type darker, than some other digital-ink displays'. The full title, author, page number, total pages, progress bar, battery status and local time are displayed in the header and footer.

While you're reading text, the color touch screen displays a progress bar. Slide a finger along it, and the book jumps to the page number wherever you stop. If it's too dark to see the monochrome screen, you can simultaneously display the text on the color touch screen. To conserve the battery, touching the power button will turn off the color touch screen; pressing it again instantly wakes it up. If you wish, you can surf the Web or check e-mail while continuing to read. Like with the iPad, the book covers and contents of the library can be displayed and flipped through with the swipe of a finger.

What's not: The price. It's also a little too tall to stow into a back pocket or a purse. And except for when the tiny font size is selected, the line spacing on the small, normal, large and huge fonts is overly spacious and somewhat distracting.

Bottom line: Spring Design says that two additional Alex e-reader 3G and GSM-equipped models will shortly be available. It's doubtful that any of them will succeed until and unless they are priced competitively.

At a Glance

Alex

Spring Design Inc.

Price (review model): $399

Weight: 16 oz.

Device size: 4.7 x 8.9 x .6 in.

Display type: E Ink; LED backlit color touch screen

Display specs: E Ink: 7 in., 800 x 600 pixels; touch screen: 3.5 in., 480 x 320 pixels

Internal storage: 256MB

External storage: MicroSD card

Connections: USB, Wi-Fi

Other models: None

Book services: None

Ectaco jetBook Lite

The jetBook Lite is a bit outdated in its technology but is compatible with a wide range of e-book formats -- and it can use regular AA batteries or rechargeables, which some might find convenient.

For openers, the jetBook Lite doesn't offer 3G or Wi-Fi connectivity, lacks MP3 capability and has limited built-in memory. What's more, the jetBook Lite's monochrome screen is the smallest and has the lowest resolution of any device we tested, and it uses an inferior-looking TFT (thin-film transistor) display technology rather than E Ink.

The most prominent feature you'll notice about jetBook Lite's black, all-plastic body is its rounded, asymmetrical battery hump in the back. While all the other e-readers have a built-in rechargeable lithium battery, the jetBook Lite is powered by four AA batteries. Making a virtue of necessity, the dimpled hump actually makes it easier to hold the device in your left hand, though righties may find it somewhat inconvenient to hold and turn pages one-handed.

What's interesting: This no-frills e-reader packs a lot of compatibility that will keep it from becoming obsolete anytime soon. It recognizes and displays many popular formats, including ePub, Mobi, PRC, RTF, TXT, PDF, FB2, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP and Adobe DRM. Since it accommodates SD cards, expansion capacity is almost infinite. And if you're a linguist and enjoy reading foreign books in the original tongue, the jetBook Lite supports ePub contents in 28 languages, ranging from Albanian to Vietnamese. Because you can quickly swap out universally available AA batteries, you needn't fear that you'll run out of juice when you're far from civilization and a convenient electrical outlet.

What's good: The jetBook Lite is literally a take-everywhere e-reader because, even with the battery hump, it's small and light enough to slip into your jeans' back pocket. Both the page number you're on and length of the book are displayed, as well as the percentage already read.

The page screen turns quickly, and without the hesitation or ghosting sometimes experienced on E Ink displays. For the lazy-minded, you can program it to automatically turn pages. Content can be easily organized into folders. And just in case you don't know where to look for free public-domain books, there's a folder with a list of Web sites where you can download content.

What's not: When you hold the jetBook Lite in your hand, it feels more like a cheap and insubstantial electronic game than a quality instrument. Characters aren't as crisp, dark or contrasty as those displayed on E Ink screens, and you can even see actual pixels when you bump up the font size to the max. And there appears to be no way to change, add or remove any of the preassigned folders in the jetBook Lite's internal file manager.

Bottom line: The jetBook Lite is a good choice for users who don't want to be tied to a single e-book source, expect to be away from civilization for days or weeks at a time, and couldn't care less about added extras like music and Web access. But for those who are more interested in quality, convenience and versatility, we feel that you'll be happier looking elsewhere for your e-reader.

At a Glance

Ectaco jetBook Lite

Ectaco

Price (review model): $US150

Weight: 8.8 oz.

Device size: 4.3 x 6.0 x 0.9 in.

Display type: TFT , 16 gray levels

Display specs: 5 in. , 640 x 480 pixels

Internal storage: 100MB

External storage: SD/SDHC card

Connections: USB

Other models: Ectaco jetBook eBook Reader Graphite ($180)

Book services: None

Apple iPad

With 4 million-plus units sold since its introduction this spring, Apple's sleek and stylish iPad instantly became the 800-pound gorilla of computer tablets.

And that is both its strength and weakness -- the iPad is a powerful and versatile computer tablet, not a dedicated e-reader. So, how well does it function as an e-reader?

Actually, very well.

Like most Apple products, the iPad is easy to learn and simple to use. Its large, bright color touch screen displays side-by-side or single pages. Turning a page simply requires the light swipe of a finger over the text.

Although the iPad's LED backlit touch screen consumes much more power than E Ink or TFT monochrome screens, its built-in battery can give up to 10 hours of continuous or intermittent reading. Another plus is that Apple's iBooks store makes browsing, sampling, buying and downloading books a quick and painless experience.

What's interesting: We don't know if Apple has set out to establish one of the world's largest online bookstores, but with millions of book downloads made available in an astonishingly short time, it's right up there at the top with Amazon and Barnes & Noble. As an e-reader, the iPad has quickly found an enthusiastic following, especially among those drawn to its remarkable ease of use and large and legible, ultrabright color touch screen. The screen more closely mimics book pages than any e-reader, even down to a swishing sound it makes when you turn the page.

What's good: Besides offering two type sizes and five fonts, users can, with the swipe of a finger, turn pages, adjust the brightness, activate the dictionary, make a bookmark or start a search. (Sorry, but you can't spread your fingers to automatically enlarge or shrink e-book text.) It also quickly and automatically orients itself to whatever way you're holding the iPad. After you exit to check your e-mail or watch a Netflix film, it automatically returns you to the correct page when you decide to resume reading. And in the header and footer, you always know the name of the author, the book's title, what page you're on, and how many pages are left in the chapter and the rest of the book.

What's not: Despite its long list of pluses, the iPad has a few serious ergonomic drawbacks that may somewhat diminish its e-reader appeal.

It's significantly larger and heavier than all other e-readers we tested -- not only can't you read comfortably with one hand, but holding it with both hands quickly becomes exhausting. Heaven forbid that you happen to drop the iPad, because its fingerprint-prone glass touch screen can easily shatter. Also, the highly reflective, backlit touch screen, while bright and highly legible in normal light, is difficult to impossible to read in bright light.

Bottom line: Apple's remarkable iPad is far more powerful, versatile -- and expensive -- than every other e-reader. It's certainly the one to get if you want a tablet that can double as an e-reader. But it's both overpriced and overkill for those who only want a small, compact and affordable device dedicated to reading.

At a Glance

iPad

Apple Inc.

Price (review model): $US599 (32GB Wi-Fi)

Weight: 1.5 lbs.

Device size: 7.5 x 9.6 x .5 in.

Display type: LED backlit 24-bit color touch screen

Display specs: 9.7 in., 1024 x 768 pixels

Internal storage: 32GB

External storage: None

Connections: 3G + Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi-only

Other models: $US499-$829, depending on memory (16GB, 32GB or 64GB) and whether it includes 3G

Book services: Apple iBooks

Amazon Kindle 3G

Far and away the most successful, best-selling line of e-readers -- Amazon doesn't release figures, but it's thought to be between 3 million and 4 million units -- the Kindle is the benchmark by which all other e-readers are measured.

The latest-generation Kindle raises the bar even higher than the vaunted Kindle2 -- it is smaller and lighter, has a brighter screen, and comes with double the memory and significantly better battery life. Most important, the price was lowered even further for the basic 3G model. The public responded to the new Kindle so enthusiastically that it was sold out and back-ordered within hours of being announced.

The all-gray (or all-white) Kindle may not be the smallest and lightest e-reader, but it is the thinnest, slimmer than a No. 2 pencil -- about as thin as Star Trek's futuristic data pads. With page-control buttons on both sides, reading one-handed has never been easier.

The redesigned five-way controller button aids in faster navigation. Instead of offering a virtual keyboard, the Kindle retains its hokey pimple-type QWERTY keyboard directly below the screen. On the rear are stereo speakers, for both playing music and speech-to-text reading (available on select books only).

What's interesting: The 3G model is GSM-enabled, which allows international travelers to connect to Amazon in many countries. The new E Ink screen, while still the same size and resolution as its predecessor, has a significantly lighter background, so the text has more contrast and is easier to read. Page-turning is faster, and readers can choose from three typefaces and seven font sizes, and decide how many lines of text appear on a page. Also, Amazon is working hard to expand its fledgling social network among readers.

Unlike some e-readers', the Kindle's memory is not expandable, but with almost 3GB, it has enough capacity to store up to 3,500 books. If your library is larger than that, you can be assured that even if a particular e-book isn't currently on your device, all your e-books are permanently stored on Amazon's servers and can be accessed by any device you own. It even syncs automatically, so if you leave your Kindle at home, you can continue to read that book you started on your iPhone or your Android phone, and it will automatically open to the same page.

What's good: The best thing about this latest-generation Kindle is that the technology is almost completely transparent. Once you set up your Amazon account on your Kindle, you don't have to think twice about parameters, settings, connectivity or any other minutiae.

Although Amazon sells books in its proprietary format, AMZ, the Kindle can download and read DOC, DOCX, PDF, HTML, TXT, RTF, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, PRC and MOBI files from any number of digital libraries and bookstores. Besides the standard dictionary, it provides direct access to Wikipedia.

Amazon offers a two-year extended warranty against accidental damage or destruction. It also sells a $59 leather case that includes a built-in Kindle-powered light for reading in the dark.

What's not: Instead of displaying the page number, the Kindle shows a progress bar and percentage read, plus somewhat cryptic location numbers (such as 27 19-39) and a meaningless total data amount (e.g., 22247). Web access is still listed as a beta function, meaning that it's very slow and requires some manipulation in order to make it properly display and navigate.

But the Kindle's most glaring omission is Amazon's stubborn refusal to embrace the industry-standard ePub file format, which somewhat limits the number of books available for purchase.

Bottom line: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently predicted that there would be at least a 20th-generation Kindle, which tells us that he believes this to be an evolutionary device that will only get better over time. As it stands right now, the Kindle's design, quality construction, incredible simplicity yet great depth of features helps explain why it's the best-selling e-reader out there.

At a Glance

Kindle 3G

Amazon.com

Price (review model): $US189

Weight: 8.7 oz.

Device size: 4.8 x 7.5 x .33 in.

Display type: E Ink

Display specs: 6 in., 1200 x 824 pixels

Internal storage: 3GB

External storage: None

Connections: USB, 3G, Wi-Fi

Other models: Kindle Wi-Fi ($189), Kindle DX ($379)

Book services: Amazon

Borders' Kobo

Small, light, easy to carry and use, with a long-lived battery and a memory card slot for expansion, Borders' Kobo would, at first glance, appear to be a near-perfect dedicated e-reader. It's only when you look at the details -- and at the screen -- that you wonder if maybe you should have instead spent your money on a Kindle or a Nook.

The all-plastic, two-tone, white-fronted Kobo has an excellent tactile feel, due in part to its slimness and quilted no-slip gray back. Its layout is a model of simplicity -- there's a single blue four-way direction (D-pad) navigation button on the lower right front, four buttons on its left side (Home, Menu, Display and Back), a Micro USB port on the bottom, and the power button and memory card slot on top. However, the Kobo is definitely for the right-handed reader, since the navigation button is positioned on the far right side.

What's interesting: Besides USB connectivity, the Kobo incorporates a built-in Bluetooth interface. However, it syncs only with certain Blackberry devices, not your PC or another e-reader.

Pressing the D-pad up or down enlarges or reduces the size of the typeface. The Kobo supports ePub, PDF and Adobe DRM file formats. There's a status light underneath the bezel that glows red and violet while charging, and blue when fully charged. The blue light also briefly illuminates whenever you page forward.

What's good: The header and footer display the book title, chapter and number of chapter, page number and number of pages in the chapter. Readers can choose among five font sizes and either a serif or sans serif typeface. The Kobo comes with 100 preloaded public-domain books.

What's not: Because it lacks Wi-Fi and 3G capabilities, the Kobo must be attached to a computer to download books. It accepts only SD cards up to 4GB, not higher-density SDHC cards that will handle up to 32GB. And unlike Barnes & Noble's Nook, you can't automatically browse or sample books in a Borders bookstore.

Booting up, loading a book and turning pages is slow. The Kobo's screen is relatively dull, the fonts are thin and light, and the space between lines is large, so prolonged reading can tire your eyes, plus it requires more frequent page turns. The text displays only in portrait mode, not landscape, which makes paging and panning through PDF documents tedious.

Bottom line: In today's fast-moving e-reader market, Kobo needs to stay competitive with price reductions and technology improvements. The Kobo recently dropped its price by $30, but considering how quickly its competitors are pushing the technology envelope, that may not be enough.

At a Glance

Kobo

Borders

Price (review model): $US130

Weight: 8 oz.

Device size: 4.7 x 7.2 x .4 in.

Display type: E Ink

Display specs: 6 in., 800 x 600 pixels

Internal storage: 1GB

External storage: SD card

Connections: USB, Bluetooth

Other models: None

Book services: Borders

Aluratek's Libre eBook Reader Pro

Although not the least expensive e-reader out there, the Libre eBook Reader Pro qualifies as the smallest and lightest of the devices we reviewed. Its black, high-impact-plastic exterior is virtually identical to that of the less expensive Ectaco jetBook Lite, except instead of a hump for replaceable AA batteries, there's a small, tapered rectangular mound on the back for housing the device's built-in rechargeable lithium battery.

Along the right side are eight alphanumeric buttons that, depending upon the mode, either perform some function, skip to a particular page or chapter, or allow you to enter data. Typing out letters and words can be a slow, painful process requiring many button pushes.

On the other side is a 2.75-in.-long slide -- push it down to turn the page, up to return to the previous page. You can also turn pages by pressing the two square buttons on the lower-left front of the device, or the left/right arrows on the D-pad button on the right side. Surrounding the D-pad are four other buttons -- magnify (using six type sizes), function (dictionary, bookmark list, bookmark this page, find, jump to, settings), rotate text, and back.

The on/off button and MP3 audio jack (the Libre has no speakers) are on the bottom, and on top, underneath a pullout flap, are the Micro USB port and SD memory slot.

What's interesting: Aluratek's menu structure is simpler and easier to navigate than Ectaco's. Readers can choose either English or French for their displays, not the United Nations of languages available on the jetBook Lite. Although it's not linked to any particular e-bookstore, the Libre eBook Reader Pro's ability to read and display ePub, RTF, PDF, TXT, PRC, FB2, JPEG, BMP and GIF files assures compatibility with most online bookstores and public-domain libraries.

What's good: While the Libre eBook Reader Pro is a basic, no-frills device, it comes equipped with MP3 capability, a 2GB SD card, earphones, a pouch and even a hand strap. Aluratek also preloads 100 public-domain books (all in English) onto the SD card to get you started.

You can read comfortably using either your left or right hand only, plus you can instantly rotate the text by pushing a single button. The book title (or part of it, if it's in portrait mode), page number, total number of pages, percentage completed and battery status are all displayed as white characters against a black background in the header.

What's not: Loading your book can be slow, although page-turning is relatively quick. The display is dull, characters aren't very sharp or crisp, especially when magnified, and the wide spacing between lines (which can't be tightened up) can be visually distracting. And unlike with many other e-readers, you can't read anything while the device is charging.

Bottom line: Both the Kindle and the Nook completely outclass the Libre eBook Reader Pro in build quality, features, convenience, connectivity, ease of use and overall value -- all at a cost of only a few bucks more. The only way this e-reader can stay competitive is for Aluratek to immediately drop the price below $99.

At a Glance

Libre eBook Reader Pro

Aluratek Inc.

Price (review model): $US170

Weight: 7.6 oz.

Device size: 4.3 x 6.0 x 0.6 in.

Display type: TFT

Display specs: 5 in., 640 x 480 pixels

Internal storage: 117MB

External storage: SD/SDHC card

Connections: USB

Other models: None

Book services: None

Barnes & Noble's Nook Wi-Fi

Smaller but somewhat heavier than the Kindle, Barnes & Noble's two-toned, off-white-and-battleship-gray Nook combines a classic E Ink display, with a small Android-powered LED backlit color touch screen beneath. (If you don't like the color scheme, you can buy and swap the gray back for a number of different-colored backs or slip a custom cover on it.)

It has a good tactile feeling, and although the back isn't made of true no-slip material, its light roughness does make the device easier to hold. Identical forward and backward page buttons are positioned on both sides -- they even have a tiny bump, so you can easily feel where your finger should push to flip the page forward or backward. This arrangement makes the Nook a truly ambidextrous device, easy to hold and read using either the left or right hand. You also can swipe the touch screen beneath (though only when it's dark) to turn pages. All other controls except the power button on top are accessed via the color touch screen.

The touch-screen menu is simple and intuitive, requiring only a finger touch to access the following modes and submenus: The Daily (recent downloads, blogs, firmware upgrades or periodical subscription deliveries), My Library (lists of documents, books, recent deliveries), shop (browse B&N's e-books, magazines and newspapers or set up a wish list), Reading Now (returns you to your current book page), games (Sudoku or chess), Wi-Fi, audio, Web and settings. To conserve power, you can turn off the color touch screen, as well as Wi-Fi and 3G.

What's interesting: Like the Kindle, the Nook is a system rather than simply a device, capable of easily browsing and making one-click purchases and downloads from Barnes & Noble's vast store of e-books, newspapers and periodicals. What's more, your Nook's Wi-Fi connects automatically to allow you to read free excerpts from any e-book while you're sipping a latte at your favorite B&N store. You can also lend or borrow books for free, for up to 14 days. Depending upon the book you're reading, the Nook can display text in up to 16 different languages.

For travelers, the Nook has an airplane mode that allows you to turn off 3G and Wi-Fi while flying, so as not to interfere with navigation instruments. (Of course, you must power down the Nook during takeoffs and landings.)

What's good: With 16 shades of gray, three different fonts and five available type sizes, the Nook's contrasty, highly legible monochrome screen is among the best that we tested. You can personalize your Nook by downloading any picture (via USB, not Wi-Fi or 3G) and make it your screensaver. B&N sells an optional $69 two-year protection plan that will repair or replace your e-reader if it is damaged by spills, drops or other accidents.

The Nook also allows access to the Internet via Wi-Fi (though not 3G, which is reserved for the B&N connection). Like the Kindle, it automatically checks for firmware upgrades and other messages every time it powers up and installs them automatically.

What's not: For all its advantages, the Nook is slow to power up, text can't be rotated, it lacks text-to-speech capability, and it offers monaural audio only. Nor can it handle TXT or DOC files.

Internet access is painfully slow and the beta software still buggy. Tapping the precise spot on the smartphone-size touch screen with your fingernail can be difficult, as is using the virtual keyboard. And while the Nook has a microSD memory card slot and a user-replaceable rechargeable battery, cracking open the case to access them can be daunting and difficult.

The Nook's touted ability to provide access to any e-book at any Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar store has its frustrations as well. The maximum time per book is one hour per every 24 hours, and even that is diminished because the text downloads a page at a time, often keeping you waiting for the next page.

And while you can lend or borrow some e-books with other Nook owners (or friends who download B&N's software onto their computers or smartphones), it's a one-time, 14-day deal, after which you can't loan it out again, even though you own it.

Bottom line: The Nook and Amazon's Kindle are closely matched in ergonomics and price, and in offering readily available, easily downloadable free or for-sale e-books -- but not in performance. However, if you value the ability to use your e-reader in-store or to loan out your e-books, the Nook is the device you'll want.

At a Glance

Nook Wi-Fi

Barnes & Noble

Price (review model): $US149

Weight: 11.6 oz.

Device size: 4.9 x 7.7 x 0.5 in.

Display type: E Ink; color touch-screen LCD

Display specs: E Ink: 6 in., 800 x 600 pixels; LCD: 3.5-in., 320 x 240 pixels

Internal storage: 1.3GB

External storage: MicroSD card

Connections: USB, Wi-Fi (3G in other model)

Other models: $199 (3G + Wi-Fi)

Book services: Barnes & Noble

Pandigital Novel

Is Pandigital's Novel a slightly oversized e-reader or a scaled-down iPad-like tablet? Or, perhaps, it's a smartphone without calling capability? The answer is yes -- it's a bit of all three.

This Android-powered device comes packed with classic tablet/smartphone features, like a bright high-resolution 7-in. color touch screen, Wi-Fi, multimedia and e-mail capability, the ability to run thousands of third-party apps, stereo speakers, and a Web browser. As an e-reader, it allows you to browse and buy wirelessly from Barnes & Noble, use B&N's 14-day lending library, read any ePub or PDF file, and expand the number of books in your library via optional memory cards. All this, and more, for the price of a Nook or a Kobo.

Overall, the Novel has a solid feeling of quality construction and attention to detail. The all-white, all-plastic device is wider and heavier than the dedicated e-readers we tested; it is also thicker than the iPad.

On its left side is a small, round port for the AC charger, surrounded by a squared-off bezel that allows the e-reader to stand on its side without tumbling over. On the bottom are twin stereo speakers and a small, round earphone port. (If you don't look too carefully and see the tiny embossed earphone icon, you could quite easily mistake it for the power port, since the AC adapter plugs in as if it were made for that purpose.)

On the left side is the volume control, and on top are the power switch, Micro USB port, SD memory card slot and reset button hole. Don't assume you can trickle-charge the Novel by connecting it to your computer's USB port -- that simply doesn't work.

What's interesting: While not as fast or powerful as the iPad, the Novel is almost as versatile and can run most Android apps (alas, Netflix is not one of them -- apparently, streaming video is not supported by the device). Like with the iPad, the page auto-rotates to whatever orientation you're holding the e-reader. Besides being able to change font sizes, you can switch from black-type-on-white to a white-type-on-black background, for better night viewing.

What's good: Powering up and switching between modes or apps is speedier than with most e-readers. Although its tap-and-slide navigation isn't as slick or sophisticated as the iPad's, it's a bump up from the Kindle's pimple-like keyboard. Because its touch screen isn't as sensitive as the iPad's, an accidental finger pass isn't as likely to inadvertently turn a page or blunder into an unwanted mode. A light brush of the thumb is all that's needed to turn a page forward or backward.

What's not: Like the iPad, the Novel's touch screen is glass, and therefore highly reflective, fragile and hard to read in direct sunlight. The touch screen requires a lot of juice, so the battery lasts only about six hours, far less than the other e-readers we tested. And because of its weight, reading one-handed is a test of strength and stamina.

Bottom line: While dedicated book lovers may be put off by its weight, reflective screen and limited battery life, for most readers, Pandigital's dual-purpose Novel hits all the right notes: price, performance and versatility.

At a Glance

Pandigital Novel

Pandigital

Price (review model): $US169

Weight: 16 oz.

Device size: 5.5 x 7.5 x 0.5 in.

Display type: LED backlit color touch screen

Display specs: 7 in., 800 x 600 pixels

Internal storage: 1GB

External storage: SD/SDHC card

Connections: USB, Wi-Fi

Other models: None

Book services: Barnes & Noble

Conclusions

Choosing a favorite from among the e-readers we tested is a difficult task. Some models offer advantages and features that the others do not, but no single device has clear superiority.

For sheer versatility, the iPad would win hands down, but its high price and weight, and the difficulty we had in seeing the screen in bright sunlight, make it a less-than-ideal e-reader.

We liked Pandigital's e-reader very much for its iPad-like features and relatively low price, but its short battery life and highly reflective screen are deal-breakers for serious readers.

The Nook's dual screens deliver excellent readability with touch-screen convenience, but it can't handle Microsoft Word or standard TXT files, and we don't care for B&N's lending and in-store reading restrictions.

The Ectaco jetBook Lite and the Aluratek Libre eBook Reader Pro are reasonably good e-readers but have been outclassed in both technology and price by the competition.

Which leaves Amazon's Kindle. The Kindle is a trouble-free, transparent piece of technology, very easy to use, quite convenient to hold and carry, and a pleasure to read on.

So for now, the Kindle is the e-reader of choice -- but this is a market that's evolving almost daily. Stay tuned.

Daniel Grotta and Sally Wiener Grotta are a husband/wife writing team. Together, they have written over a thousand feature stories, reviews and columns for major magazines, plus they have co-authored eight nonfiction books.

Tags PandigitalSpring Designamazon.comconsumer electronicsAluratekEctacoe-readersBarnes & NobleAppleborders

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