Finding the perfect e-reader

All the top e-readers dissected and evaluated

We've seen lots of changes in the e-reader market over the past year. Prices have plummeted, with $100 and less suddenly a realistic price for e-readers from the major players -- Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. E-reader shipments have skyrocketed: Analyst firm IDC says that shipments have grown by 167 percent as compared with last year. And, of course, e-readers have become the hot item on wish lists as we head into the final stretch of the year.

Shopping for an e-reader, and wondering which way to turn? I've been evaluating the latest models, and selecting some of the best e-readers for specific tasks. My overall pick, which leads our Top 10 E-Readers chart, is the Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch.

E-Reader Trends

Looking at the overarching trends in e-readers, I can say that the category continues to be dominated by models that use electronic-paper displays from E Ink. The E Ink “Pearl” display, introduced in 2010, remains the technology of choice, especially for dedicated e-readers that focus on providing the best reading quality possible. Since last year, software improvements have enabled E Ink and e-reader manufacturers to boost the perceived page-refresh and page-turn times, although sometimes this approach means that you'll see residual ghosting from a previous page.

The Barnes & Noble Nook Color, a $200 model that we continue to rank as an e-reader, not as a tablet -- despite its growing support for tablet apps -- is the sole color-LCD e-reader that truly passes muster as an e-reader. As a result, it remains high on our Top 10 E-Readers chart. Unlike the multipurpose Amazon Kindle Fire tablet, the Nook Color launched in the fall of 2010 as an e-reader first, and it features optimizations built around e-reading, including a minimal-glare screen and a variety of viewing options that enhance the text display and the presentation of periodicals and childrens' books. (We reviewed and ranked its newer sibling, the Nook Tablet, as a tablet, though that device uses the same display and reading-optimized interface as the Nook Color does. For more on how the Nook Tablet and the Kindle Fire compare as e-reading devices, see "Kindle Fire vs. Nook Tablet: Which Should You Buy?")

The other display trend for e-readers: the transition to touchscreen displays. Given how consumers are accustomed to tapping their smartphone screens to navigate, it only makes sense that touchscreen technology should migrate to e-readers. Sony was first to market last year with the Sony Reader Touch Edition and the Sony Reader Pocket Edition. Then Barnes & Noble released the Nook Simple Touch this past summer, and Kobo answered with the Kobo eReader Touch Edition. Only this fall did Amazon join the party, with its Kindle Touch.

Meanwhile, e-reader prices have dropped precipitously, and the sub-$100 e-reader is now commonplace. Consider this: In the summer of 2011, e-reader prices hovered around $140. Now, the least-expensive model is the Amazon Kindle (fourth-generation), at $79. Granted, to achieve those sub-$100 price points, e-reader makers are asking you to surrender your lock screen and a bit of real estate on your menus to advertisements (“special offers,” as Amazon calls them, or just “offers,” as Kobo refers to them). The exception here is the Nook Simple Touch, which costs $99 with no advertising.

Usability Gains

The latest e-readers are infinitely more usable than their predecessors were, thanks to their improved display contrast, their touchscreen interfaces, and their one- to two-month battery-life specs. E-readers are smaller, too: The third-generation Amazon Kindle, now sold under the moniker Kindle Keyboard, is a veritable giant by comparison to the latest models.

At a mere 0.37 pound, the Sony Reader Wi-Fi is the narrowest e-reader of the lot, and it's a joy to hold in one hand thanks to its unique button design and light weight. Tied with the Sony for lightness honors is the fourth-generation Amazon Kindle (0.37 pound), followed by the Kobo eReader Touch Edition (0.44 pound) and the Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch (0.47 pound). In contrast, the 2010 third-generation Kindle Keyboard weighs 0.60 pound.

As for overall usability, the Nook Simple Touch and the Kobo eReader Touch have the best menu designs and usability, followed by the Sony Reader Wi-Fi, whose menus are more visual and functional than Amazon's but lack a fresh design spin. Kobo has the best “social” e-reading features, too, allowing you to share reading stats with the Kobo community as well as with social networks. Amazon's latest Kindles have virtually the same menus as previous-generation Kindles did, a consistency that some users may appreciate, but the interface feels stale and overly text-based for the current visual era. I dislike how the Kindle Touch's touch menus are organized, as well.

I really appreciate the row of navigational buttons on the Sony Reader Wi-Fi, which make for a good combination with the touchscreen's swipe-or-tap page turns. I also like the feel of the Nook Simple Touch and the Kobo eReader Touch Edition in the hand. Amazon's Kindle page-turn buttons feel good, but I'm not a fan of the navigation buttons located below. Likewise, Barnes & Noble stumbled hard on its page-turn buttons: I like the idea of having buttons in addition to swiping on screen, but the buttons are so awkward to press that they defeat the purpose.

Which e-reader is right for you? Your choice will depend greatly on your tech ecosystem. If you're already committed to one e-reader's format because you've been building up a library with, say, Amazon or Barnes & Noble, chances are you you'll stick with a device that handles that format. Cross-compatibility between e-reader devices remains an issue (Kobo and Sony are the most open, if that's important to you). But if you're buying your first e-reader, take some time considering the options. You can find solid products on the market, and there has never been a better time to buy an e-reader than now.

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Melissa J. Perenson

PC World (US online)
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