E-reader roundup: 8 devices compete for the crown

We look at the current state of the market and review 8 of the most popular e-readers

Bottom line: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently predicted that there would be at least a 20th-generation Kindle, which tells us that he believes this to be an evolutionary device that will only get better over time. As it stands right now, the Kindle's design, quality construction, incredible simplicity yet great depth of features helps explain why it's the best-selling e-reader out there.

At a Glance

Kindle 3G

Amazon.com

Price (review model): $189

Weight: 8.7 oz.

Device size: 4.8 x 7.5 x .33 in.

Display type: E Ink

Display specs: 6 in., 1200 x 824 pixels

Internal storage: 3GB

External storage: None

Connections: USB, 3G, Wi-Fi

Other models: Kindle Wi-Fi ($189), Kindle DX ($379)

Book services: Amazon

Borders' Kobo

Small, light, easy to carry and use, with a long-lived battery and a memory card slot for expansion, Borders' Kobo would, at first glance, appear to be a near-perfect dedicated e-reader. It's only when you look at the details -- and at the screen -- that you wonder if maybe you should have instead spent your money on a Kindle or a Nook.

The all-plastic, two-tone, white-fronted Kobo has an excellent tactile feel, due in part to its slimness and quilted no-slip gray back. Its layout is a model of simplicity -- there's a single blue four-way direction (D-pad) navigation button on the lower right front, four buttons on its left side (Home, Menu, Display and Back), a Micro USB port on the bottom, and the power button and memory card slot on top. However, the Kobo is definitely for the right-handed reader, since the navigation button is positioned on the far right side.

What's interesting: Besides USB connectivity, the Kobo incorporates a built-in Bluetooth interface. However, it syncs only with certain Blackberry devices, not your PC or another e-reader.

Pressing the D-pad up or down enlarges or reduces the size of the typeface. The Kobo supports ePub, PDF and Adobe DRM file formats. There's a status light underneath the bezel that glows red and violet while charging, and blue when fully charged. The blue light also briefly illuminates whenever you page forward.

What's good: The header and footer display the book title, chapter and number of chapter, page number and number of pages in the chapter. Readers can choose among five font sizes and either a serif or sans serif typeface. The Kobo comes with 100 preloaded public-domain books.

What's not: Because it lacks Wi-Fi and 3G capabilities, the Kobo must be attached to a computer to download books. It accepts only SD cards up to 4GB, not higher-density SDHC cards that will handle up to 32GB. And unlike Barnes & Noble's Nook, you can't automatically browse or sample books in a Borders bookstore.

Booting up, loading a book and turning pages is slow. The Kobo's screen is relatively dull, the fonts are thin and light, and the space between lines is large, so prolonged reading can tire your eyes, plus it requires more frequent page turns. The text displays only in portrait mode, not landscape, which makes paging and panning through PDF documents tedious.

Bottom line: In today's fast-moving e-reader market, Kobo needs to stay competitive with price reductions and technology improvements. The Kobo recently dropped its price by $30, but considering how quickly its competitors are pushing the technology envelope, that may not be enough.

At a Glance

Kobo

Borders

Price (review model): $130

Weight: 8 oz.

Device size: 4.7 x 7.2 x .4 in.

Display type: E Ink

Display specs: 6 in., 800 x 600 pixels

Internal storage: 1GB

External storage: SD card

Connections: USB, Bluetooth

Other models: None

Book services: Borders

Aluratek's Libre eBook Reader Pro

Although not the least expensive e-reader out there, the Libre eBook Reader Pro qualifies as the smallest and lightest of the devices we reviewed. Its black, high-impact-plastic exterior is virtually identical to that of the less expensive Ectaco jetBook Lite, except instead of a hump for replaceable AA batteries, there's a small, tapered rectangular mound on the back for housing the device's built-in rechargeable lithium battery.

Along the right side are eight alphanumeric buttons that, depending upon the mode, either perform some function, skip to a particular page or chapter, or allow you to enter data. Typing out letters and words can be a slow, painful process requiring many button pushes.

On the other side is a 2.75-in.-long slide -- push it down to turn the page, up to return to the previous page. You can also turn pages by pressing the two square buttons on the lower-left front of the device, or the left/right arrows on the D-pad button on the right side. Surrounding the D-pad are four other buttons -- magnify (using six type sizes), function (dictionary, bookmark list, bookmark this page, find, jump to, settings), rotate text, and back.

The on/off button and MP3 audio jack (the Libre has no speakers) are on the bottom, and on top, underneath a pullout flap, are the Micro USB port and SD memory slot.

What's interesting: Aluratek's menu structure is simpler and easier to navigate than Ectaco's. Readers can choose either English or French for their displays, not the United Nations of languages available on the jetBook Lite. Although it's not linked to any particular e-bookstore, the Libre eBook Reader Pro's ability to read and display ePub, RTF, PDF, TXT, PRC, FB2, JPEG, BMP and GIF files assures compatibility with most online bookstores and public-domain libraries.

What's good: While the Libre eBook Reader Pro is a basic, no-frills device, it comes equipped with MP3 capability, a 2GB SD card, earphones, a pouch and even a hand strap. Aluratek also preloads 100 public-domain books (all in English) onto the SD card to get you started.

You can read comfortably using either your left or right hand only, plus you can instantly rotate the text by pushing a single button. The book title (or part of it, if it's in portrait mode), page number, total number of pages, percentage completed and battery status are all displayed as white characters against a black background in the header.

What's not: Loading your book can be slow, although page-turning is relatively quick. The display is dull, characters aren't very sharp or crisp, especially when magnified, and the wide spacing between lines (which can't be tightened up) can be visually distracting. And unlike with many other e-readers, you can't read anything while the device is charging.

Bottom line: Both the Kindle and the Nook completely outclass the Libre eBook Reader Pro in build quality, features, convenience, connectivity, ease of use and overall value -- all at a cost of only a few bucks more. The only way this e-reader can stay competitive is for Aluratek to immediately drop the price below $99.

At a Glance

Libre eBook Reader Pro

Aluratek Inc.

Price (review model): $170

Weight: 7.6 oz.

Device size: 4.3 x 6.0 x 0.6 in.

Display type: TFT

Display specs: 5 in., 640 x 480 pixels

Internal storage: 117MB

External storage: SD/SDHC card

Connections: USB

Other models: None

Book services: None

Barnes & Noble's Nook Wi-Fi

Smaller but somewhat heavier than the Kindle, Barnes & Noble's two-toned, off-white-and-battleship-gray Nook combines a classic E Ink display, with a small Android-powered LED backlit color touch screen beneath. (If you don't like the color scheme, you can buy and swap the gray back for a number of different-colored backs or slip a custom cover on it.)

It has a good tactile feeling, and although the back isn't made of true no-slip material, its light roughness does make the device easier to hold. Identical forward and backward page buttons are positioned on both sides -- they even have a tiny bump, so you can easily feel where your finger should push to flip the page forward or backward. This arrangement makes the Nook a truly ambidextrous device, easy to hold and read using either the left or right hand. You also can swipe the touch screen beneath (though only when it's dark) to turn pages. All other controls except the power button on top are accessed via the color touch screen.

The touch-screen menu is simple and intuitive, requiring only a finger touch to access the following modes and submenus: The Daily (recent downloads, blogs, firmware upgrades or periodical subscription deliveries), My Library (lists of documents, books, recent deliveries), shop (browse B&N's e-books, magazines and newspapers or set up a wish list), Reading Now (returns you to your current book page), games (Sudoku or chess), Wi-Fi, audio, Web and settings. To conserve power, you can turn off the color touch screen, as well as Wi-Fi and 3G.

What's interesting: Like the Kindle, the Nook is a system rather than simply a device, capable of easily browsing and making one-click purchases and downloads from Barnes & Noble's vast store of e-books, newspapers and periodicals. What's more, your Nook's Wi-Fi connects automatically to allow you to read free excerpts from any e-book while you're sipping a latte at your favorite B&N store. You can also lend or borrow books for free, for up to 14 days. Depending upon the book you're reading, the Nook can display text in up to 16 different languages.

For travelers, the Nook has an airplane mode that allows you to turn off 3G and Wi-Fi while flying, so as not to interfere with navigation instruments. (Of course, you must power down the Nook during takeoffs and landings.)

What's good: With 16 shades of gray, three different fonts and five available type sizes, the Nook's contrasty, highly legible monochrome screen is among the best that we tested. You can personalize your Nook by downloading any picture (via USB, not Wi-Fi or 3G) and make it your screensaver. B&N sells an optional $69 two-year protection plan that will repair or replace your e-reader if it is damaged by spills, drops or other accidents.

The Nook also allows access to the Internet via Wi-Fi (though not 3G, which is reserved for the B&N connection). Like the Kindle, it automatically checks for firmware upgrades and other messages every time it powers up and installs them automatically.

What's not: For all its advantages, the Nook is slow to power up, text can't be rotated, it lacks text-to-speech capability, and it offers monaural audio only. Nor can it handle TXT or DOC files.

Internet access is painfully slow and the beta software still buggy. Tapping the precise spot on the smartphone-size touch screen with your fingernail can be difficult, as is using the virtual keyboard. And while the Nook has a microSD memory card slot and a user-replaceable rechargeable battery, cracking open the case to access them can be daunting and difficult.

The Nook's touted ability to provide access to any e-book at any Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar store has its frustrations as well. The maximum time per book is one hour per every 24 hours, and even that is diminished because the text downloads a page at a time, often keeping you waiting for the next page.

And while you can lend or borrow some e-books with other Nook owners (or friends who download B&N's software onto their computers or smartphones), it's a one-time, 14-day deal, after which you can't loan it out again, even though you own it.

Bottom line: The Nook and Amazon's Kindle are closely matched in ergonomics and price, and in offering readily available, easily downloadable free or for-sale e-books -- but not in performance. However, if you value the ability to use your e-reader in-store or to loan out your e-books, the Nook is the device you'll want.

At a Glance

Nook Wi-Fi

Barnes & Noble

Price (review model): $149

Weight: 11.6 oz.

Device size: 4.9 x 7.7 x 0.5 in.

Display type: E Ink; color touch-screen LCD

Display specs: E Ink: 6 in., 800 x 600 pixels; LCD: 3.5-in., 320 x 240 pixels

Internal storage: 1.3GB

External storage: MicroSD card

Connections: USB, Wi-Fi (3G in other model)

Other models: $199 (3G + Wi-Fi)

Book services: Barnes & Noble

Pandigital Novel

Is Pandigital's Novel a slightly oversized e-reader or a scaled-down iPad-like tablet? Or, perhaps, it's a smartphone without calling capability? The answer is yes -- it's a bit of all three.

This Android-powered device comes packed with classic tablet/smartphone features, like a bright high-resolution 7-in. color touch screen, Wi-Fi, multimedia and e-mail capability, the ability to run thousands of third-party apps, stereo speakers, and a Web browser. As an e-reader, it allows you to browse and buy wirelessly from Barnes & Noble, use B&N's 14-day lending library, read any ePub or PDF file, and expand the number of books in your library via optional memory cards. All this, and more, for the price of a Nook or a Kobo.

Overall, the Novel has a solid feeling of quality construction and attention to detail. The all-white, all-plastic device is wider and heavier than the dedicated e-readers we tested; it is also thicker than the iPad.

On its left side is a small, round port for the AC charger, surrounded by a squared-off bezel that allows the e-reader to stand on its side without tumbling over. On the bottom are twin stereo speakers and a small, round earphone port. (If you don't look too carefully and see the tiny embossed earphone icon, you could quite easily mistake it for the power port, since the AC adapter plugs in as if it were made for that purpose.)

On the left side is the volume control, and on top are the power switch, Micro USB port, SD memory card slot and reset button hole. Don't assume you can trickle-charge the Novel by connecting it to your computer's USB port -- that simply doesn't work.

What's interesting: While not as fast or powerful as the iPad, the Novel is almost as versatile and can run most Android apps (alas, Netflix is not one of them -- apparently, streaming video is not supported by the device). Like with the iPad, the page auto-rotates to whatever orientation you're holding the e-reader. Besides being able to change font sizes, you can switch from black-type-on-white to a white-type-on-black background, for better night viewing.

What's good: Powering up and switching between modes or apps is speedier than with most e-readers. Although its tap-and-slide navigation isn't as slick or sophisticated as the iPad's, it's a bump up from the Kindle's pimple-like keyboard. Because its touch screen isn't as sensitive as the iPad's, an accidental finger pass isn't as likely to inadvertently turn a page or blunder into an unwanted mode. A light brush of the thumb is all that's needed to turn a page forward or backward.

What's not: Like the iPad, the Novel's touch screen is glass, and therefore highly reflective, fragile and hard to read in direct sunlight. The touch screen requires a lot of juice, so the battery lasts only about six hours, far less than the other e-readers we tested. And because of its weight, reading one-handed is a test of strength and stamina.

Bottom line: While dedicated book lovers may be put off by its weight, reflective screen and limited battery life, for most readers, Pandigital's dual-purpose Novel hits all the right notes: price, performance and versatility.

At a Glance

Pandigital Novel

Pandigital

Price (review model): $169

Weight: 16 oz.

Device size: 5.5 x 7.5 x 0.5 in.

Display type: LED backlit color touch screen

Display specs: 7 in., 800 x 600 pixels

Internal storage: 1GB

External storage: SD/SDHC card

Connections: USB, Wi-Fi

Other models: None

Book services: Barnes & Noble

Conclusions

Choosing a favorite from among the e-readers we tested is a difficult task. Some models offer advantages and features that the others do not, but no single device has clear superiority.

For sheer versatility, the iPad would win hands down, but its high price and weight, and the difficulty we had in seeing the screen in bright sunlight, make it a less-than-ideal e-reader.

We liked Pandigital's e-reader very much for its iPad-like features and relatively low price, but its short battery life and highly reflective screen are deal-breakers for serious readers.

The Nook's dual screens deliver excellent readability with touch-screen convenience, but it can't handle Microsoft Word or standard TXT files, and we don't care for B&N's lending and in-store reading restrictions.

The Ectaco jetBook Lite and the Aluratek Libre eBook Reader Pro are reasonably good e-readers but have been outclassed in both technology and price by the competition.

Which leaves Amazon's Kindle. The Kindle is a trouble-free, transparent piece of technology, very easy to use, quite convenient to hold and carry, and a pleasure to read on.

So for now, the Kindle is the e-reader of choice -- but this is a market that's evolving almost daily. Stay tuned.

Daniel Grotta and Sally Wiener Grotta are a husband/wife writing team. Together, they have written over a thousand feature stories, reviews and columns for major magazines, plus they have co-authored eight nonfiction books.

This story, "E-reader roundup: 8 devices compete for the crown" was originally published by Computerworld.

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