Editors' note: This story was first published in July 2010, and has been extensively updated, most recently on December 17, 2012.
Shopping for an e-book reader or a small tablet? At first glance, the task seems daunting -- there are more choices than ever before. The good news is that the list of worthwhile choices is actually fairly short. The even better news? Prices and features are better than ever.
When we say "e-book readers," we're now really referring to four classes of products: black-and-white e-ink readers ($69 to $149); 7-inch color LCD media tablets ($150 to $300); midsize color LCD tablets ranging from 7.9 to 9 inches ($269 and up); and full-size color tablets like the iPad (mostly $400 and above).
The market for those products has consolidated around a handful of major players: Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Google are the leaders, with companies like Kobo, Samsung, and Sony -- and a host of other Android tablet manufacturers -- bringing up the rear.
Choosing among those those categories of tablets and readers is the dilemma facing any shopper today, with key variables such as size, weight, screen type, and app "ecosystem" leading the shopping considerations. But don't worry; CNET's here to help.
While the January 2013 International CES will no doubt bring a wave of new tablets, nearly all of the major manufacturers have updated their product lines for the Christmas season, so the buyer's remorse meter is quite low -- now is a good time to buy.
Best overall e-ink readers: Kindle Paperwhite. In addition to its built-in light and touch-screen, the 2012 Kindle Paperwhite )starts at $119) offers access to Amazon's best-in-class e-book store, helping it win the e-ink race by a nose. The best e-ink alternative is the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, another excellent self-illuminated e-reader -- just note that Barnes & Noble's selection of e-books isn't quite as vast (nor often as cheap) -- as Amazon's. That said, the Nook is ad-free, a privilege that will cost you $20 extra for the Paperwhite. International readers should also consider the Kobo Glo, another worthwhile self-illuminated e-reader, though it's somewhat hampered by Kobo's content selection, which pales in comparison to Amazon and B&N. However, both the Nook and Kobo readers work with third-party EPUB e-book purchases, while the Kindle does not.
Best bargain e-ink readers: While you lose the built-in light found on the models above, the Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch and Amazon Kindle are the two best e-readers you can get for under $80. The Nook has a touch-screen and is ad-free. The Kindle has Amazon's superior e-book selection, but lacks the touch screen found on the Nook (and step-up Kindle Paperwhite).
Best sub-$200 color tablet: Google Nexus 7. There are at least three great 7-inch, $200 tablets on the market today: the Nexus 7, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, and the Barnes & Noble Nook HD. All are worthy of consideration, but the Nexus 7 comes out ahead in overall bang for the buck. And it's the most versatile: unlike the "curated" app stores found on Kindle and Nook, the Nexus 7 offers the full Google Play app store, which is second only to Apple's. That said, we suggest installing the Kindle or Nook apps for reading, since both offer better selections than Google's in-house offering.
Best midsize tablets: Want to go bigger, but still stay at $330 or under? The 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD ($299) and 9-inch Nook HD+ (just $269) offer supersized versions of their 7-inch siblings at still-reasonable prices. Straddling the line is the 7.9-inch iPad Mini ($329) -- the most expensive option, but also the most polished, and with the best app store.
Best tablets for kids: The Amazon Kindle Fire HD, and the Barnes & Noble Nook HD have support for multiple users, including parental controls. Amazon has further upped the ante with the Freetime Unlimited service, which serves up kids books, games, apps, movies and TV shows to Prime members for an additional $2.99 a month -- or $6.99 per family. In fact, you could also opt to give a kid the $159 non-HD Kindle Fire as well, since he or she probably won't miss the extra features.
Best full-size reading tablet: Apple iPad (fourth-gen) (starts at $499). If you want a full-size, full-featured tablet that can double as an e-book reader, the iPad platform remains the best, no-compromise choice. It offers free Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Google Play reading apps, with full access to the content in those e-book stores. (Additionally, the iPad offers Apple's own iBooks application, though those e-books can't be accessed on any non-iOS device.) And the iPad's Good Reader app remains the best way to read, edit, and annotate PDF files that we've seen to date. To be fair, Android tablets also double as good e-book readers, with those same three major e-book apps available -- and, as we mentioned above, the smaller Android tablets (including Amazon and B&N) are better deals at lower price points. But if you're spending $399 to $499 and want a large (9.7-inch) screen, we'd still rather have an iPad.
The $399 iPad 2 remains a great tablet that beats much of the Android competition, and it's a few ounces lighter than the third-gen iPad. But for $100 more, the 2012 iPad offers that gorgeous Retina Display that will especially appeal to readers.
So, that's the cheat sheet. But if you're ready to do a deep dive, it's time to compare color versus black-and-white screen, backlight versus readability in the sun, touch screen versus not, cheap versus expensive, 4G versus Wi-Fi, lightweight versus heavy, reading-only versus full-featured tablet.
For the purposes of this article, we're steering clear of PC-style tablets running Windows 8 and Windows RT. For those, check of CNET's laptop buying guide and tablet buying guide. Likewise, we're also not focusing on smartphones, though some of the big-screen (5 inches and up) "phablet" models such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 are certainly worthy of considering for those seeking a tablet alternative.
Read on to consult this quick guide, which boils the purchase decision down to six questions:… Read more