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

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For 3G or Wi-Fi-equipped devices, we downloaded the book directly from each e-reader's linked bookstore in each device's native format. For e-readers that were directly associated with online bookstores, we first downloaded the novel to a PC (in ePub format) from a third-party Web site like Project Gutenberg or epubBooks, then transferred it to the device via a USB cable. In some instances, we also purchased and downloaded a few best-sellers and other for-sale works. We took note of how painless or tedious the purchase and download process was for each device.

Then, we read. We noted how we enjoyed or disliked the reading experience, checking and comparing variables such as weight, balance and control, layout, how well the unit fit in our hands, bootup speed, how simple it was to navigate around the library, the ease in turning pages or skipping to the next chapter, using the keyboard to input notes or surf the Web, looking up words in its dictionary, changing settings, and other features such as text-to-speed, MP3, free books provided and so on. We also evaluated the quality of each display and how legible the text was.

Spring Design's Alex

Longer than most of its peers, Spring Design's Alex e-reader is slim, trim and elegant to hold and use.

Like the Kobo, Kindle and Nook, the Alex e-reader features a 6-in. E Ink monochrome display, but directly below -- and the reason why it's an extra-tall device -- is a 3.5-in. Android-powered color touch screen. While this over-and-under design supposedly gives users the best of both worlds -- a cool e-reader and state-of-the-art smartphone-like Web browser -- the Alex e-reader's awkward ergonomics and high price erode much of its luster.

The all-black (or all-white) Alex e-reader has a smooth tactile feel and fits well into the palm of your hand, but with single forward and backward page arrows on opposite sides of the device, it's hard reading one-handed.

The E Ink screen is dull-gray, but characters are dark, well formed and legible. The 16-bit color touch screen is roughly the size of a smartphone and is nicely responsive without being overly sensitive.

Besides the page-back/page-forward buttons, there's a power switch on the right, a Back button on the left, and a small sync button between the E Ink and color touch screens. A pair of stereo speakers is on the back, as is a tiny indent for a microSD card, and on top is its Micro USB port and an earphone jack.

What's interesting: The Alex e-reader comes preloaded with a number of public domain classics, plus an Australian version of George Orwell's novel 1984. Its bookstore offers convenient links to popular paid and free e-book sites, including Project Gutenberg, Feedbooks and Smashwords.

What's good: Like the Kindle's, the Alex e-reader's screen is brighter, and the type darker, than some other digital-ink displays'. The full title, author, page number, total pages, progress bar, battery status and local time are displayed in the header and footer.

While you're reading text, the color touch screen displays a progress bar. Slide a finger along it, and the book jumps to the page number wherever you stop. If it's too dark to see the monochrome screen, you can simultaneously display the text on the color touch screen. To conserve the battery, touching the power button will turn off the color touch screen; pressing it again instantly wakes it up. If you wish, you can surf the Web or check e-mail while continuing to read. Like with the iPad, the book covers and contents of the library can be displayed and flipped through with the swipe of a finger.

What's not: The price. It's also a little too tall to stow into a back pocket or a purse. And except for when the tiny font size is selected, the line spacing on the small, normal, large and huge fonts is overly spacious and somewhat distracting.

Bottom line: Spring Design says that two additional Alex e-reader 3G and GSM-equipped models will shortly be available. It's doubtful that any of them will succeed until and unless they are priced competitively.

At a Glance

Alex

Spring Design Inc.

Price (review model): $399

Weight: 16 oz.

Device size: 4.7 x 8.9 x .6 in.

Display type: E Ink; LED backlit color touch screen

Display specs: E Ink: 7 in., 800 x 600 pixels; touch screen: 3.5 in., 480 x 320 pixels

Internal storage: 256MB

External storage: MicroSD card

Connections: USB, Wi-Fi

Other models: None

Book services: None

Ectaco jetBook Lite

The jetBook Lite is a bit outdated in its technology but is compatible with a wide range of e-book formats -- and it can use regular AA batteries or rechargeables, which some might find convenient.

For openers, the jetBook Lite doesn't offer 3G or Wi-Fi connectivity, lacks MP3 capability and has limited built-in memory. What's more, the jetBook Lite's monochrome screen is the smallest and has the lowest resolution of any device we tested, and it uses an inferior-looking TFT (thin-film transistor) display technology rather than E Ink.

The most prominent feature you'll notice about jetBook Lite's black, all-plastic body is its rounded, asymmetrical battery hump in the back. While all the other e-readers have a built-in rechargeable lithium battery, the jetBook Lite is powered by four AA batteries. Making a virtue of necessity, the dimpled hump actually makes it easier to hold the device in your left hand, though righties may find it somewhat inconvenient to hold and turn pages one-handed.

What's interesting: This no-frills e-reader packs a lot of compatibility that will keep it from becoming obsolete anytime soon. It recognizes and displays many popular formats, including ePub, Mobi, PRC, RTF, TXT, PDF, FB2, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP and Adobe DRM. Since it accommodates SD cards, expansion capacity is almost infinite. And if you're a linguist and enjoy reading foreign books in the original tongue, the jetBook Lite supports ePub contents in 28 languages, ranging from Albanian to Vietnamese. Because you can quickly swap out universally available AA batteries, you needn't fear that you'll run out of juice when you're far from civilization and a convenient electrical outlet.

What's good: The jetBook Lite is literally a take-everywhere e-reader because, even with the battery hump, it's small and light enough to slip into your jeans' back pocket. Both the page number you're on and length of the book are displayed, as well as the percentage already read.

The page screen turns quickly, and without the hesitation or ghosting sometimes experienced on E Ink displays. For the lazy-minded, you can program it to automatically turn pages. Content can be easily organized into folders. And just in case you don't know where to look for free public-domain books, there's a folder with a list of Web sites where you can download content.

What's not: When you hold the jetBook Lite in your hand, it feels more like a cheap and insubstantial electronic game than a quality instrument. Characters aren't as crisp, dark or contrasty as those displayed on E Ink screens, and you can even see actual pixels when you bump up the font size to the max. And there appears to be no way to change, add or remove any of the preassigned folders in the jetBook Lite's internal file manager.

Bottom line: The jetBook Lite is a good choice for users who don't want to be tied to a single e-book source, expect to be away from civilization for days or weeks at a time, and couldn't care less about added extras like music and Web access. But for those who are more interested in quality, convenience and versatility, we feel that you'll be happier looking elsewhere for your e-reader.

At a Glance

Ectaco jetBook Lite

Ectaco

Price (review model): $150

Weight: 8.8 oz.

Device size: 4.3 x 6.0 x 0.9 in.

Display type: TFT , 16 gray levels

Display specs: 5 in. , 640 x 480 pixels

Internal storage: 100MB

External storage: SD/SDHC card

Connections: USB

Other models: Ectaco jetBook eBook Reader Graphite ($180)

Book services: None

Apple iPad

With 4 million-plus units sold since its introduction this spring, Apple's sleek and stylish iPad instantly became the 800-pound gorilla of computer tablets.

And that is both its strength and weakness -- the iPad is a powerful and versatile computer tablet, not a dedicated e-reader. So, how well does it function as an e-reader?

Actually, very well.

Like most Apple products, the iPad is easy to learn and simple to use. Its large, bright color touch screen displays side-by-side or single pages. Turning a page simply requires the light swipe of a finger over the text.

Although the iPad's LED backlit touch screen consumes much more power than E Ink or TFT monochrome screens, its built-in battery can give up to 10 hours of continuous or intermittent reading. Another plus is that Apple's iBooks store makes browsing, sampling, buying and downloading books a quick and painless experience.

What's interesting: We don't know if Apple has set out to establish one of the world's largest online bookstores, but with millions of book downloads made available in an astonishingly short time, it's right up there at the top with Amazon and Barnes & Noble. As an e-reader, the iPad has quickly found an enthusiastic following, especially among those drawn to its remarkable ease of use and large and legible, ultrabright color touch screen. The screen more closely mimics book pages than any e-reader, even down to a swishing sound it makes when you turn the page.

What's good: Besides offering two type sizes and five fonts, users can, with the swipe of a finger, turn pages, adjust the brightness, activate the dictionary, make a bookmark or start a search. (Sorry, but you can't spread your fingers to automatically enlarge or shrink e-book text.) It also quickly and automatically orients itself to whatever way you're holding the iPad. After you exit to check your e-mail or watch a Netflix film, it automatically returns you to the correct page when you decide to resume reading. And in the header and footer, you always know the name of the author, the book's title, what page you're on, and how many pages are left in the chapter and the rest of the book.

What's not: Despite its long list of pluses, the iPad has a few serious ergonomic drawbacks that may somewhat diminish its e-reader appeal.

It's significantly larger and heavier than all other e-readers we tested -- not only can't you read comfortably with one hand, but holding it with both hands quickly becomes exhausting. Heaven forbid that you happen to drop the iPad, because its fingerprint-prone glass touch screen can easily shatter. Also, the highly reflective, backlit touch screen, while bright and highly legible in normal light, is difficult to impossible to read in bright light.

Bottom line: Apple's remarkable iPad is far more powerful, versatile -- and expensive -- than every other e-reader. It's certainly the one to get if you want a tablet that can double as an e-reader. But it's both overpriced and overkill for those who only want a small, compact and affordable device dedicated to reading.

At a Glance

iPad

Apple Inc.

Price (review model): $599 (32GB Wi-Fi)

Weight: 1.5 lbs.

Device size: 7.5 x 9.6 x .5 in.

Display type: LED backlit 24-bit color touch screen

Display specs: 9.7 in., 1024 x 768 pixels

Internal storage: 32GB

External storage: None

Connections: 3G + Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi-only

Other models: $499-$829, depending on memory (16GB, 32GB or 64GB) and whether it includes 3G

Book services: Apple iBooks

Amazon Kindle 3G

Far and away the most successful, best-selling line of e-readers -- Amazon doesn't release figures, but it's thought to be between 3 million and 4 million units -- the Kindle is the benchmark by which all other e-readers are measured.

The latest-generation Kindle raises the bar even higher than the vaunted Kindle2 -- it is smaller and lighter, has a brighter screen, and comes with double the memory and significantly better battery life. Most important, the price was lowered even further for the basic 3G model. The public responded to the new Kindle so enthusiastically that it was sold out and back-ordered within hours of being announced.

The all-gray (or all-white) Kindle may not be the smallest and lightest e-reader, but it is the thinnest, slimmer than a No. 2 pencil -- about as thin as Star Trek's futuristic data pads. With page-control buttons on both sides, reading one-handed has never been easier.

The redesigned five-way controller button aids in faster navigation. Instead of offering a virtual keyboard, the Kindle retains its hokey pimple-type QWERTY keyboard directly below the screen. On the rear are stereo speakers, for both playing music and speech-to-text reading (available on select books only).

What's interesting: The 3G model is GSM-enabled, which allows international travelers to connect to Amazon in many countries. The new E Ink screen, while still the same size and resolution as its predecessor, has a significantly lighter background, so the text has more contrast and is easier to read. Page-turning is faster, and readers can choose from three typefaces and seven font sizes, and decide how many lines of text appear on a page. Also, Amazon is working hard to expand its fledgling social network among readers.

Unlike some e-readers', the Kindle's memory is not expandable, but with almost 3GB, it has enough capacity to store up to 3,500 books. If your library is larger than that, you can be assured that even if a particular e-book isn't currently on your device, all your e-books are permanently stored on Amazon's servers and can be accessed by any device you own. It even syncs automatically, so if you leave your Kindle at home, you can continue to read that book you started on your iPhone or your Android phone, and it will automatically open to the same page.

What's good: The best thing about this latest-generation Kindle is that the technology is almost completely transparent. Once you set up your Amazon account on your Kindle, you don't have to think twice about parameters, settings, connectivity or any other minutiae.

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