At their most basic, e-book 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 e-book 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 recent 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 e-book readers have the same basic functionality, features can vary widely. Almost every major brand can now download e-books wirelessly. Built-in MP3 players are a common feature, as are dictionaries and basic web browsers. Audiobook and text-to-speech support are also becoming fairly standard. Several top e-readers offer touchscreen interfaces so it feels like you're turning pages in a book.
If you already have a tablet or smartphone, you might not need a dedicated e-reader. E-book 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. Look for a more detailed explanation in our Know Before You Go section.
While analyzing expert and user reviews for this report, we found that the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook lines consistently outpace other choices in the opinions of most reviewers. Several other manufacturers continue to offer e-book readers, but none are really competitive, experts say.
For example, Sony's new PRS-T2 (*Est. $130) has received lots of reviewer feedback, but practically no recommendations. In typical Wired style, reviewer Roberto Baldwin simply says, "Unfortunately, it's brought a knife to a gun fight" in its battle against the latest offerings from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Most others agree.