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A Very Special Holiday E-Reader Roundup

A reader writes: I'm looking to buy my slightly tech-phobic wife a digital book reader for Christmas, and may pick one up for myself as well. The most popular one seems to be the Amazon Kindle, but I've also seen new models by half a dozen other companies and don't really know what I should be looking for. So make my life easier, just tell me what to get!

Dear Reader: Let us first say that we absolutely sympathize with your confusion surrounding the crowded digital-book-reader marketplace. While e-readers have been around for about a decade now, sales have been on a tear ever since Amazon's first-generation Kindle appeared in 2007, and it seems a week hasn't gone by in the past few months that a new model isn't announced by some new company trying to cash in on the craze.

There are two main paradigms to consider when picking an e-reader: ones that can download books and periodicals via a free 3G wireless account; and ones that must be synced with a computer in order to upload content, sort of like an iPod or other digital music player. This is your first crucial decision: Kindle lovers can't shut up about the joy of getting near-instant downloads of their favorite newspaper subscriptions or grabbing a book on the fly, but the practice of regularly syncing with a computer is well-established for anyone who uses a digital music player. The latter isn't such an onerous hardship, and generally means a longer battery life.

The other main consideration is where you'll be buying your books from. There are loads of online sources that provide e-books for free or for sale, from, Google Books, or your local library, as well as the individual stores run by the device makers. The problem is that there are several e-book file formats, some with DRM and some without, and some that are proprietary (meaning you can't transfer it between devices). All of the readers we feature below support the most common types -- ePub and PDF files -- except Kindles, which can do PDF but also Kindle-only AZW files. Which means that if you buy e-books from Amazon, you can only ever buy from Amazon and won't be able to access those books in the future using another type of e-reader. Some people won't be bothered by the distinction; however, it's an important point and has already caused a stir after a prominent author agreed to an exclusive e-book deal with Amazon. Since you have been warned, hit the jump to see our picks and pans.

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