At their most basic, ebook readers display pages of text using E Ink Corp.'s electronic paper display technology to mimic the look of an actual book. The screens provide crisp, dark text without the backlighting or rapid refresh rate of a computer monitor, which reviewers say reduces eye strain and makes ebook reading almost as comfortable as settling in with a dog-eared paperback.
That lack of a backlight used to mean you needed a lamp or other light source if you wanted to read in a darkened room. Now some e-readers feature front-lit or top-lit lighting technology, which illuminates e-pages with little to none of the eye strain associated with backlit displays.
While all ebook readers have the same basic functionality, features can vary widely. Almost every major brand can now download ebooks wirelessly. Built-in MP3 players are common, as are dictionaries and basic web browsers. Audiobook and text-to-speech support are also becoming fairly standard. Several top e-readers offer touch-screen interfaces so it feels like you're turning pages in a book.
If you already have a tablet or smartphone, however, you might not need a dedicated e-reader. Ebook apps available for Apple and Android devices can turn your mobile device into a portable reading platform, although the backlit screen of a phone or tablet may not be as comfortable as an E Ink display for long reading sessions. Amazon's Kindle HD, covered in our report on Tablets, is another alternative. Click on the Buyer's Guide tab for a more detailed comparison of e-readers and tablets.
While analyzing expert and user reviews for this report, we found that the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook lines consistently outpace other choices, according to most experts. Several other manufacturers continue to offer ebook readers, but most get mediocre reviews. Kobo has had some traction with its "luxury" e-readers like the Kobo Aura HD (Est. $170) , which gets good feedback from a handful of reviewers, some of whom say it can go head-to-head with Kindle. The biggest gripe is Kobo's smaller book selection, which can't compete with the offerings from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.