The best e-reader for you
Gone are the days of reading by flashlight: This has been the year of the light for e-readers, with three of the four major players in E Ink-based e-readers releasing models with built-in illumination. But while that's the biggest advancement of the past year, it's not the only one. Together with the continuing explosion in e-reading, it's no wonder e-readers are, once again, a hot item this gift-giving season.
If you've bought an e-reader before, that will quickly narrow down the question of which e-reader to buy, since you've already chosen a book ecosystem for your digital library. But if you're starting fresh, you need to decide which of the latest models best suits you. Read on for my picks, based on specific buying criteria.
Reading light and display
The good news here is that if you're already in the Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Kobo book universe—and want to stay there—any of this year's models with a built-in light would be a solid choice. All three have an adjustable lightsource coming from side-mounted LED lights.
Amazon has the best implementation of the three, even if it does lack a physical hardware button for adjusting the light: The $119 Kindle Paperwhite has the most even lighting and the best contrast of the lot, and it has the highest-resolution display, too. The $119 Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch With Glowlight is also a strong choice; the 'n' button below the e-reader's screen doubles as a physical light control, and the light has a bit of a greenish, glowy quality to its illumination. Meanwhile, the $129 Kobo Glo has the brightest light of them all and a physical button at the top, but its display loses some contrast due to the bright light.
Here, it's no contest: The compact $79 Kobo Mini with its 5-inch E Ink display weighs just 0.3 pound. The Kobo Glo weighs 0.41 pound, the Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight weighs 0.43 pound, and the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite weighs 0.47 pound. The Kobo Mini gives you less of a reading canvas, but for some people the lighter weight will be an acceptable trade-off.
PC-free book shopping
This is an easy pick, too. Amazon has improved its Kindle storefront since the previous iteration. Factor in the $179 Kindle Paperwhite 3G's integrated connectivity, and Amazon takes a solid lead here. Amazon remains the only player with free 3G wireless that can be used both in the United States and beyond U.S. borders. Every other e-reader is Wi-Fi only—every other e-reader beyond Amazon's $139 Kindle Keyboard 3G, that is; that model is the company's older, non-touchscreen e-reader with a physical keyboard. It continues to provide acceptable image quality, but the lack of a touchscreen and the less graphical interface are reasons to steer clear.
Once more, Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite has an edge. You get eight font size options, more than on any other e-reader, and one of the largest font sizes I've seen. Going that large means you'll be turning a lot of pages, but if your eyesight is at a point where you need large type, you'll appreciate the Kindle's extra flexibility here.
Kobo Glo is the best choice if you like the idea of the game-ifying your reading experience. Like all Kobo e-readers, the Glo has Kobo's Reading Life feature, which tracks your reading progress. It supplies stas such as the minutes, hours, and pages read, books finished, and percentage of your library that you’ve completed. You can earn awards for accomplishing goals and share it all via Facebook. Social is one aspect that Kobo has nailed down, and the e-reader stands out among the contenders.
The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite has a slight edge over the other players, but only if you have an Amazon Prime subscription (an extra $79 annually for a variety of services). All of the e-readers from the major players (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Sony) now support borrowing books from your local public library. But Amazon extends that for its Prime users with the Kindle Owners' Lending Library, which contains more than 180,000 titles that you can borrow for free and without a pesky due date to worry about. Barnes & Noble gets a nod for allowing you to share a book with a friend, but you both need to be Nook owners.
Barnes & Noble's Nook Simple Touch is the hands-down winner here. At just $79, the SimpleTouch is a great value. You get a highly responsive touchscreen and great readability with no advertisements, unlike with the base pricing of each of Amazon's e-readers. And the Simple Touch even has a MicroSD card slot, for storing more books if you want. In contrast, Amazon's least-expensive model is its basic, non-touchscreen Kindle (with ads)—at $69.
Read books and magazines in color
If you want color, you're squarely back in tablet territory. And the tablet with the best reading experience is Barnes & Noble's Nook HD; text is sharpest on its uncommonly high-resolution display, and the books, magazines, and even children's books are a step better in presentation than on Amazon's Kindle Fire HD. That said, if you're already in the Amazon universe, the Kindle Fire HD handles Amazon's color content well enough. The bittersweet catch to choosing a tablet is that you gain a color display and the ability to use apps and play media, but lose the light weight, paperlike display, and long battery life of an E Ink e-reader.
Bottom line on e-readers
Which e-reader is right for you? Cross-compatibility between e-reader devices remains an issue. Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Sony can all read an ePub book; Amazon's e-readers can't read ePub books at all.
The good news is that, unlike in years past, all of today's models are reasonably usable. But some will clearly give you a more targeted experience than others, depending on what you're looking for. The most baseline recommendations are to get a device with an integrated light and a touchscreen. Those basic guidelines, which now feel downright integral to the e-reader experience, help narrow the options considerably.