What the best ebook readers have

  • An E Ink screen. Although backlit LCD screens won't physically harm your eyes, most people find them uncomfortable to use for prolonged bouts of reading. Some e-readers now offer front- or top-lighting, which makes them easier to read in the dark.
  • Access to a large book library. An ebook reader is only as useful as the ebooks available for it, and Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble's bookstores are widely cited as two of the best.
  • Compact size. Most ebook readers are designed to be relatively paperback-sized and easy to slip into a pocket. Larger e-readers have fallen out of favor and production. If you want a big-screen reader, consider a tablet computer instead.
  • Good battery life. Most e-readers will last 2 weeks to a month between charges with wireless turned off, or a few days to a week with wireless on. Those that rely on the battery to power lights, interactive touch screens and other features, however, need to be charged more often, sometimes as frequently as every day.

Know before you go

What kind of controls do you like? Consider the positioning of buttons and other navigation controls. Left-handed users may struggle with landscape mode on e-readers where control buttons are on the right. Toggle and joystick controls are easy to use, but typically take more time than interacting directly with the device via a touch screen. If you plan to do all of your ebook shopping through the e-reader itself rather than buying books online using a computer, the Amazon Kindle Keyboard 3G's full QWERTY controls may be your best bet.

Do you want your ebook reader to do more than just read ebooks? Some e-readers have basic music players, annotation programs, document sharing, text-to-voice capability, handwriting recognition, web browsing and games. These features used to cost extra, but now you can find them on even some basic models.

Do you even need an ebook reader? If you want to check email, play with apps and surf the Internet more than you actually read ebooks, a tablet such as the iPad, Nook Tablet, or Amazon Kindle Fire or FireHD may be a better purchase. And if you already own a tablet or smartphone, ebook apps let you read books right from your mobile device. Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer Kindle and Nook apps, respectively, for both iOS and Android, but experts also like a third-party app called Eucalyptus. Stanza is another well-regarded iOS app, but it works only with the iOS 5 operating system -- not the most current iOS 6 -- and it won't be updated again.

How will you download books? Critics say the easiest e-readers to use are those with wireless connectivity because ebooks can be purchased and downloaded on demand. Many major ebook readers come with Wi-Fi installed, but the Kindle also offers free 3G connectivity in its step-up versions. E-readers without wireless capabilities require a USB connection to a computer to download ebooks. Most major e-readers are compatible with both Macs and PCs, but check before you buy.

How much memory do you need? Memory on e-readers varies, but they usually have space for at least 1,000 ebooks. Some come with expansion slots that allow users to save titles to memory cards, helping to free up space on the device itself. The Kindle Paperwhite comes with free cloud storage for titles purchased on Amazon.com.

What's to come

What's the future of the Nook? Facing fierce competition from Amazon and Apple, Barnes & Noble has announced that it will outsource production of its Nook HD and Nook HD+ color tablets, but will continue to make its Nook Simple Touch and Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight e-readers. In July, MSN.com spoke with spokesperson Mary Ellen Keating, who said, "Nothing's going to change for our customers. We believe we have a competitive advantage and will continue to serve our customers."

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