In the five years since Amazon.com released its first Kindle, the market for dedicated electronic readers has been transformed.
With Kindles starting today as low as $69, it's hard to remember that the then-brand new device commanded $399. Still, it gave a major boost to what had been a slow- to-take-off market. Before Kindle, reading books electronically was highly uncommon, even for the most voracious bookworms. Today, of course, it's anything but novel.
Helped by ever-lower prices for Amazon's many rivals - notably, Barnes & Noble Nooks, readers from Sony and Kobo, among them - dedicated e-readers make popular gifts.
People who love to read can tick off the major benefits, chapter and verse: E-readers are light, paperback-size, easy traveling companions.
You can schlep hundreds of books at once, enabling you to choose what to read according to what strikes your fancy at the moment, almost as if you were picking which songs on your MP3 player to listen to based on your mood. You can change text sizes and fonts, look up words in a dictionary, and bookmark and highlight pages and passages.
These days, there's often a social component, too - with the ability in some instances to share reading recommendations on Facebook and Twitter.
If you have wireless connectivity, most likely through Wi-Fi but sometimes (on certain Kindle models) cellular, you can search for and browse books in massive online bookstores, even fetching a sample before committing to buy. Those e-books typically arrive in a minute or less, often at reasonable prices. You can read newspapers and magazines, too.
If you own multiple reading devices - and that means computers, smartphones and tablets, as well as dedicated readers - you can start reading on one machine and pick up where you left off on another.
What's more, you can virtually borrow e-books from the public library and in Barnes & Noble's case, lend some e-books to a friend, albeit under stringent restrictions. Loans are 14 days for certain titles.
How do you choose the proper electronic reader? Here are key things to keep in mind:
-Sizing up the screen. The screens on today's most popular dedicated electronic readers are based on glare-free monochrome or gray-scale E-Ink technology. They do a bang-up job of replicating the experience of reading on real paper. You can read without eye strain. Text is crisp. Page turns are getting faster.
Conventional models have 6-inch displays, with the major companies in the space claiming supremacy for their own high-contrast screens. The truth is screens on the latest models are generally excellent. If possible, visit a retailer where you can compare one display with the next.
Kobo thinks an even smaller screen size is in order, thus the recent introduction of the $79.99, 4.7-ounce Kobo Mini. It has a 5-inch E-Ink touch display and is billed by the company as "the world's smallest and lightest full-featured e-reader," one you can easily stash in your pocket. Of course, that's discounting the fact that your even smaller-screen smartphone can easily double these days as an e-reader, too, provided you download the free reading apps from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others. Of course, battery life is a concern on smartphones, but the battery on Kobo Mini may give way before the battery on e-readers.
-Touch vs. physical buttons. The move in recent years to touch screens lets you go from page to page through swipes and gestures, plus do other things such as changing margins or line spacing.
If you prefer to navigate with old-fashioned physical controls, the entry-level Kindle has a 5-way controller, plus physical page turning buttons. The aptly named Kindle Keyboard 3G has a physical QWERTY-style keyboard that's useful for typing the names of authors and titles as you search for something to read. It starts at $139 with what Amazon refers to as Special Offers, shorthand for ads and sponsored screensavers.
Other Kindles are also priced lower with ads. The entry level Kindle is a bargain at $69 with Special Offers, $20 more without. Special Offers don't provide major distractions, but competitors still try and make hay out of the fact that their readers don't have ads. For its part, Barnes & Noble's Nook Simple Touch costs $99.
-Dedicated reader vs. tablet? A question you hear a lot these days is, why purchase a dedicated reader at all, especially a black-and-white or gray-scale model, when you can immerse yourself in a color tablet with souped-up multimedia capabilities?
In other words, if you're not reading on a tablet, you can use the thing to watch movies, admire photos, surf the Web, play games and more. Moreover, on the tablets, you still have access to the same online bookstores and same e-books and periodicals that you do as an owner of a dedicated reader.
Lots of consumers are taking the more versatile route and choosing Apple's iPad (or iPad mini) or picking an Android tablet, such as the Google Nexus 7.
Amazon and Barnes & Noble have been hedging their bets, too, with their own entries in the tablet market. Amazon sells the Kindle Fire and Fire HD models. Barnes & Noble sells NookHD or Nook HD + tablets.
But there are trade-offs. Battery life on tablets with color LCD screens is measured in hours. Battery life on dedicated E-Ink readers is measured in weeks, if not months. You pay more for a full-fledged tablet, too.
-Seeing the light. Until recently, tablets provided at least one other advantage over the dedicated readers: the ability to read in the dark. On E-Ink devices, you needed to provide a lamp or other reading light if you were in dim surroundings.
On the flip side, you could at least make out E-Ink screens in direct sun, something that's nearly impossible on most tablet screens.
In the past year or so, that's changed. Barnes & Noble, Amazon and Kobo have all introduced conventional readers with built-in reading lights. Barnes & Noble got there first with the $119 Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, since matched by the $130 Kobo Glo and the Kindle Paperwhite.
The Paperwhite costs $119 with Special Offers, or $139 without the ads.
Amazon also sells a pricier version called Paperwhite 3G, $179 or $199 with or without ads. The 3G refers to cellular wireless, useful if you want to browse Amazon's vast online bookstore when you can't connect to Wi-Fi. Amazon doesn't charge additional fees to use the 3G network. But before splurging on the extra hardware cost, ask yourself how often you envision needing to download books from an area where you can't connect through Wi-Fi.
Paperwhite provides a couple of other bright features. One is called X-Ray, and it's an easy way to jump to passages in a book where a particular character or idea is mentioned. Another is Time To Read, a feature that can tell you how much time is left in the chapter you're reading and/or the book itself, based on your reading speed. The feature is particularly useful at bedtime, as you try and determine if you have enough stamina to finish what you're reading.
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