When it comes to basic button-controlled ebook readers, experts say there's only one model that deserves serious consideration: the Amazon Kindle (Est. $70 and up) . It was most recently refreshed in 2012 with upgrades in speed and screen quality. It's about the size of a paperback book but slimmer and lighter, weighing just 6 ounces and measuring about one-third-inch thick. The screen's sharpness, contrast and page refresh rate easily top the display of its second-tier competitors. Battery life lasts weeks, especially if you turn off Wi-Fi when you're not using it.
The Kindle's 2 GB of storage isn't best in class, but it's still capable of holding more than 1,000 ebooks and users get free cloud storage for ebooks bought through Amazon.com. Amazon Prime subscribers also get access to a Kindle Owners' Lending Library, which allows them to virtually check out one book at a time from a 180,000-strong catalog. Amazon Kindles can't read the widely used ePub format, however, and books downloaded through Amazon.com are stored in a proprietary format.
To achieve such a low price point, Amazon had to make some sacrifices. The base Kindle version lacks a memory card slot, offers no audio support and ditches a physical keyboard in favor of an onscreen virtual one. Since the Kindle also lacks a touch screen, users must navigate the virtual keyboard using the small five-way controller at its base, which reviewers call tedious at best. "Typing is t-o-r-t-u-r-e," says Michael Calore at Wired. "Thankfully, you won't need to do this very often."
If you plan to search for ebooks frequently, surf the Internet using the built-in web browser or take advantage of the Kindle's social sharing and annotation options, experts suggest springing for the Amazon Kindle Keyboard 3G (Est. $140 and up) . It adds a full QWERTY keyboard, free 3G connectivity, and stereo speakers for audiobooks and text-to-speech, albeit for twice the price of the base Kindle.
Amazon also sells what it calls Special Offer Kindles, which include advertisements on their lockscreens. Reviewers generally say the ads are unobtrusive and, surprisingly, often enticing. If you don't want ads on your ebook reader, non-Special Offer versions of the various Kindles can be had for $20 more than the base models. Those Special Offers enable Amazon to undercut the price of its competitors despite the Kindle's superior hardware, which is why no other basic ebook readers get much critical attention.
The E Ink displays found on ebook readers like the Amazon Kindle look like actual paper, but concerns about eye strain have historically given them a significant paperlike limitation, as well. E-readers typically aren't illuminated, which means you'll need an outside light source if you want to read in the dark.
That changed with the introduction of the Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight (Est. $120) and Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (Est. $120 and up) . They use top-lighting and front-lighting technology, respectively, to illuminate their displays without causing the eye strain associated with typical backlit screens like those found on tablet computers. Most experts give a nod to the Paperwhite over the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, calling the Paperwhite's touch screen easy to use and read.
What really sets the Kindle Paperwhite apart is a more robust feature set. While the Nook Simple Touch provides a top-notch ebook reading experience, the Amazon e-reader includes extras such as a basic web browser, the Kindle Owners' Lending Library with an Amazon Prime subscription and free cloud storage for Amazon titles. Another version comes equipped with free 3G mobile data capabilities (Est. $180) in case buyers want to be able to download books and surf the Internet from anywhere, not just when they're on Wi-Fi.
That said, the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight has some advantages that may make it more attractive to some users. It doesn't include ads on its lockscreen, while the similarly priced Kindle Paperwhite with Special Offers does; a non-Special Offers Paperwhite (Est. $140) costs a bit more. While the Paperwhite is comfortable to hold, reviewers say the Nook Simple Touch's design feels even more natural and unobtrusive. Finally, the Barnes & Noble e-reader includes a micro-SD card slot for expandable storage, a feature missing on the Kindle Paperwhite, although free cloud-based storage is available for all titles bought via Amazon.com.
The original Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch (Est. $80) is also well-regarded and budget-friendly. Critics find a lot to like, including its 2-month battery life, smooth and easy-to-use touch-screen interface, and unobtrusive physical design that feels ergonomic despite being larger and heavier than the Kindle. While experts call the Pearl E Ink technology very good compared to most other ebook readers, they say the Kindle's E Ink display slightly nudges out the Nook's, although it's a very close call. For all intents and purposes, you won't have any issue reading ebooks on the Nook Simple Touch, and its page refresh rates are very competitive with the Kindle's.
The Nook Simple Touch delivers a near-flawless basic ebook reading experience, but it doesn't offer some of the bells and whistles found in more expensive versions of the Kindle. For example, there are no 3G, web browser or audio capabilities to speak of. On the upside, however, it lacks the advertisements found in the Special Offer-enabled Kindle models and includes support for the ePub ebook format, which the Kindle lacks. The Barnes & Noble ebook library is just as vast as Amazon.com's, and reviewers say you'll find virtually any title you search for.
If you want a touch-screen interface or ePub support and can tolerate the lack of 3G, web browsing and audio features, critics say the Simple Touch is your best bet. "It's inexpensive, provides a fantastic reading experience, lasts an insanely long time, and accesses the giant Barnes & Noble library," says PCMag.com's David Pierce.