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The Best e-Readers Compared: Kindle, Kobo, Nook and Reader Throw Down

With Amazon's recent announcement that digital e-books outsold hardcover books for the first time, and paperbacks destined to a similar fate in the near future, we can safely say the e-book revolution is upon us. That doesn't necessarily mean, however, that the devices upon which we read those books -- digital e-readers, tablet computers, smartphones -- are anywhere near their final form. Last December, we took a look at the most popular e-readers on the market, and, while many companies have made only incremental alterations to their lineups since then, a few new additions and serious price-drops among others have vastly changed the landscape.

And, oh yeah, there's that whole iPad thing.

At first blush, the iPad seemed like it would radically alter the e-reader market. In the months that have passed, it has sold like hot cakes, but, then again, so have E-ink e-readers. So in putting together this revisited roundup, we found ourselves in a curious dilemma: whether to include the iPad or not. The iPad, as you've undoubtedly heard, is billed by Apple as a new device category altogether (one that involves magic!). All hype aside, we're inclined to agree. Unlike virtually every e-reader on the market, the iPad is, first and foremost, a multimedia device that happens to have e-reader capabilities. And if one were to be honest in analyzing the iPad strictly on its merits as a dedicated e-reader, it's woefully lacking compared to much of the competition. The brilliant, glossy color screen is difficult to see in bright light, and can strain the eyes over long periods. It's also relatively heavy (about three times the weight of many e-readers), and its battery life is around 10 hours versus a couple weeks or more for most e-readers. And, well, it costs at least twice as much as dedicated e-readers. In short, if you're primarily looking for an e-reader, you'd be better served elsewhere. By the same token, if you're looking for a full-featured multimedia experience, the iPad currently has no real competition, and dedicated e-readers simply don't compare.

In light of that schism, for this piece, we tested what we think represent the cream of the ever-burgeoning dedicated e-reader crop. Below you'll find our experiences and recommendations, so hit up the comments to share your own.

Barnes & Noble Nook

Barnes & Noble Nook
Supported files: Fictionwise EPub (Non or Adobe DRM), pdb, pdf, jpg, gif, png, bmp, mp3.

What we like: We weren't especially kind in our initial review of the Nook, and, eight months and several software updates later, we're still finding it hard to muster enthusiasm. Still, we will cop to the following. The Nook is well-made, is a comfortable weight and size for long-term reading, has a nice main display screen that refreshes relatively fast, and features a unique color touchscreen below for navigation. What gets us more excited, though, are the clever ancillary benefits of the Nook ecosystem: the ability to "loan" an e-book to a friend for up to two weeks for free; the fact that owners can read e-books for free whenever physically shopping in a Barnes and Noble store, where they can also get free or special content; and the Nook's superb e-book display, which includes, believe it or not, actual page numbers (unlike every other reader reviewed here except the Sony).

What's missing: As we suggested above, we're sticking to our initial assessment of the Nook as a novel e-reader betrayed by a lack of hardware power and an unfortunately baffling navigation system. Unlike some user-interface innovations that quickly gain traction because they intuitively make sense (e.g., the mouse, the iPod), navigation on the Nook is never second nature. Flipping through the library, or books, or especially a newspaper, involved poking at the slow-reacting color touchscreen a maddening number of times, and we constantly found ourselves swiping at the main display or clicking on the page-turn buttons to no avail. We also don't love that the Nook simply won't display doc, txt, rtf and other common file types. Now, by all accounts, the Nook is a best-seller for B&N with a serious fanbase, and it certainly does a number of things we hope other readers will adopt, but we simply aren't convinced it's the future of e-book reading.

Barnes & Noble Nook $149 (Wi-Fi); $199 (Wi-Fi and 3G)


Kobo E-Reader

Kobo E-Reader
Supported formats: ePub, pdf, and Adobe DRM.

What we like: Other than what is now a ludicrously high pricetag (Update: see below), the Kobo, sold by Borders for use with their online ebook store, turned out to be the dark horse of the bunch. At under 8 ounces, it's about the weight of a typical paperback book and the most comfortable to read for long stretches (followed closely by the Kindle). The Kobo's interface is somewhat like a first- or second-gen iPod with four labeled buttons on the side and a directional pad, and it's by far the simplest of the lot to use. 'Home' takes you to all your media, 'Menu' allows you to navigate within a book, 'Display' helps adjust settings (from any screen), and 'Back' backs you up a step or cancels. Flipping pages or clicking through menus, meanwhile, is done with the D-pad. And, when you hit a button, a blue light at the top right of the frame flashes to acknowledge it. We adore it. Oh, and to get you started, it comes with 100 free e-books. Not too shabby.

What's missing:
As much as we like the Kobo's intuitive simplicity, and we do, it is by far the slowest of all the e-readers we tried (from startup to page turns), it doesn't have Wi-Fi or 3G for uploading content, and it also requires the frequent use of a computer (although it does have an exposed SD card slot). It also supports the fewest number of formats (and no audio ones at all). All of those things wouldn't be a problem for us if its price point weren't similar to or even higher than competing devices that offer much more (Update: The price is now $129; cheaper, but still pricey for what you get, in our opinion). As such, we'd only recommend it to someone who doesn't want to read daily periodicals, and just needs a super light, thin, rugged and simple reader for e-book-reading only. We like it a lot, but it's just too pricey in light of the Kindle 3's price drop.

Kobo Ereader
$149 (Update: $129)


Sony PRS-900BC Reader Daily Edition

Sony PRS-900BC Reader Daily Edition
Supported formats: ePub (Non or Adobe DRM), pdf (Non or Adobe DRM), txt, rtf, doc, jpg, png, gif, bmp, mp3, aac

What we like: The relief of being able to use touch to turn pages and navigate cannot be understated. It has quickly become the de facto standard of navigation for most mobile devices, and anything else feels slow and, well, wrong. (Yes, BlackBerry fans, we know you love your keypads.) And, while it isn't as smooth or anywhere near as fast as a typical smartphone's touchscreen, the 900 works well, and is easy to use instantly. Swipe to turn pages, and poke to select. For more esoteric functions, like switching through font sizes or finding the home screen, there are five buttons on the front. Three others, on the top and bottom, control power, volume and the wireless function. Its metal chassis is sturdy, and the included leather case is slick. Page turns are relatively brisk, and, unlike many readers, its interface options for viewing periodicals are relatively easy on the eyes.

What's missing:
It has to be said: the 900 is a hulk of an e-reader in every sense, and is far and away the largest of the group. It weighs almost 13 ounces (and more with the standard cover), has a gigantic 7.1-inch screen, is 8-inches tall by 5-inches wide, and is more than a half-inch thick. For us, all that is a dealbreaker, as it negates everyday, comfortable, lie-on-the-couch reading -- which is kind of the whole point with these things. And, although the display is very readable, it is unfortunately a tad gray and muddled by the reflective touchscreen overlay, especially in bright light (also the iPad's Achilles heel). Couple those issues with a price tag that is at least 40-percent higher than other models, and we're not sure what the appeal is. Bigger, heavier, harder to read, pricier? Since it's currently the only true touchscreen model on the market, the 900 will surely have its fans, but they'll definitely be making a trade-off.

Sony PRS-900BC Reader Daily Edition $250

Sony PRS-900BC

Amazon Kindle 3

Amazon Kindle 3
Supported formats: Kindle (.AZW, .AZW1), mobi, prc, doc, html, rtf, doc, txt, jpg, gif, png, bmp, pdf; Audible (aa, aax), mp3

What we like:
It's never cool to root for the frontrunner, but we have to be honest. Even more than we were with the Kindle 2, we are psyched about pretty much every one of the Kindle 3's new features. It is an order of magnitude faster than earlier versions, it is slimmer, brighter and lighter, and it has more storage and an even longer battery life. Oh, and the Wi-Fi-only version is one of the cheapest on the market. The new keyboard and D-pad are pretty well executed, and the new E-ink screen is so well contrasted that it nearly glows in the dark.

What's missing: Our gripes are few, and mostly touch on complaints that affect the entire E-ink universe: In a world of lightning fast touchscreen mobile phones, e-readers still feel like a step back in time--almost like a Steampunk device. Still, we have a few minor gripes. We don't love that there's no memory card slot for the Kindle, and that to load even the most common document types requires e-mailing them to the device and then converting them, rather than just dragging and dropping them. (You can drag and drop files, but the Kindle can't read most file types that haven't been converted.) On top of that, the Kindle doesn't play nice with ePub books from other sources (read: lots of free back titles). Still, as far as state-of-the-art tech goes, the Kindle is hands down the e-reader to beat, and the one e-reader we could recommend to anyone without hesitation.

Amazon Kindle 3 $139 (Wi-Fi); $189 (Wi-Fi and 3G)

Kindle 3

Tags: amazon, e-reader, ebook, EbookReader, ebooks, eink, eReader, features, justtellmewhattoget, kindle, kindle 3, Kindle3, kobo, nook, sony prs-900, SonyPrs-900, top