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.
Current recommendationsAs of December 2012, CNET has several reader and tablet products we enthusiastically recommend. But these are very closely matched products that vary according to individual needs, so please read through the rest of the article to see which one is best for you.
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:
1. Apps vs. hardware: Which reading and app ecosystem offers the most flexibility?
One of the advantages of having your reading collection "in the cloud" is that you can access your books on multiple devices, though some e-book vendors offer better cross-platform support than others.
This is where terminology can get a bit confusing: the e-book stores can be available on different devices, including (in the case of Apple) those of rival e-book publishers -- the e-book equivalent of buying a can of Pepsi from a Coke vending machine.
This multidevice support is accomplished through apps. On tablets (iPad, Android, and others), smartphones (iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, and others), and PCs (Mac and Windows), users can download free apps that let them read e-books from a variety of vendors. So, you can read a Kindle book on your iPad, a Nook book on your Android phone, or a Kobo book on your BlackBerry -- and that's just for starters.
As of December 2012, here's how app support breaks down for each major e-book platform:
Kindle: Besides Kindle hardware readers, Kindle books can be accessed on iPads, iPhones, iPod Touch handhelds, Android phones (version 2.1 and later), Android tablets, many BlackBerry phones, Windows PCs, Macs, Windows Phone 7 phones, and via Web browsers (the Kindle Cloud Reader). Full details here.
Nook: Besides Nook hardware readers, Nook books can be accessed on iPads, iPhones, iPod Touch handhelds, Android phones (version 2.1 and later), Android tablets, Windows PCs, Macs, and via Web browsers (the Nook for Web). Full details here.
Kobo: Besides Kobo hardware readers, Kobo books can be accessed on iPads, iPhones, iPod Touch handhelds, Android phones (version 2.1 and later), Android tablets, many BlackBerry phones, Windows PCs, Macs, and via Web browsers. Full details here.
iBooks: Apple's e-book store is currently only available on Apple iOS devices -- iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch.
Sony Reader: Besides Sony Reader hardware, Sony books can be accessed on Android phones, Android tablets, Windows PCs, Macs, and -- after a long delay -- iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad). Full details here.
Nearly all of these apps allow you to sync your position in a book across devices, so if you read up to, say, page 229 on your phone, you can pick up on that same page on your tablet or reader, and vice versa.
All of the apps are free, and -- since each bookstore offers a wide selection of free books -- you can freely experiment with any and all of the apps that work with your respective hardware.
Best cross-platform providers (where to buy your e-books): Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook
Most versatile hardware readers: Apple iOS devices (iPads, iPhones, iPod Touch); Android phones with full Google Play support; Android tablets with full Google Play support
2. Reader vs. tablet: Do you want to do more than just read?
Start by asking yourself what you're really looking for. Do you just want to read books? How about magazines and newspapers? What about browsing the Web? Want to add multimedia to the mix -- music, audiobooks, or video? Are you a Netflix junkie? Do you need Flash support? E-mail and messaging? Gaming?
If you want to stick with "just reading" -- books, and maybe some newspapers and magazines (in black and white) -- an e-ink reader ($69 to $149) is probably your best bet. They come closest to duplicating the experience of reading a book, and, while they have some online features, you won't be distracted while reading by a stream of incoming e-mails, tweets, or Facebook messages.
But if you're willing to pay as little as $200, there's a growing class of small tablets that split the difference between e-ink readers and full-size tablets. The Nook Color blazed the trail in 2010, but the trio of best choices are now the Google Nexus 7, B&N Nook HD, and Kindle Fire HD.
Stepping up in size and price, you'll find the 7.9- to 9-inch models, priced from $269 to $329. The 9-inch Nook HD+ is the cheapest and largest, the 7.9-inch iPad Mini the smallest but most expensive. The 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD sits in the middle, at $329.
At the full-size (around 10 inches) high-end, the iPad dominates, but plenty of Android competitors exist for those who would like to steer clear of Apple. (Yes, plenty of those folks exist.)
3. How large of a screen (and weight) do you want?
Even if you plan to never leave home with your e-book reader, you should consider its size before buying one. Since you hold the device in front of you whenever you read from it, weight and size are critical issues.
The smallest and lightest dedicated e-book readers that we can recommend is the entry-level 2012 Kindle. Unlike the step-up Kindle Paperwhite model, the baseline Kindle includes neither a touch screen nor a built-in light. However, the trade-off is that you get the lightest mainstream e-book reader currently on the market -- just under 6 ounces.
If you're willing to eschew Amazon's advantages -- unparalleled e-book catalog, the benefits of Prime membership -- you could also consider the tiny 4.7-ounce Kobo Mini ($79 for a 5-inch touch-screen).
Touch-screen models all weigh a tad more. Both the Nook Simple Touch and the Kindle Paperwhite tip the scales at a very portable 7.5 ounces, while the GlowLight Nook is even lighter, at just under 7 ounces. Even with cases, all of these 6-inch e-ink models are light enough to hold for extended reading sessions without tiring.
With their color screens and beefier batteries, the 7-inch tablets are heavier than their e-ink counterparts. Most impressively, even with a larger 7.9-inch screen, the iPad Mini tips the scales at just 11 ounces. The 7-inch Nook HD weighs 11.1 ounces, and the weights tick up from there: the Google Nexus 7 is 12 ounces, the Kindle Fire HD weights 13.9 ounces. To put those weights into perspective: the 9.7-inch Apple iPad 2 weighs 1.33 to 1.35 pounds (21.3 to 21.6 ounces -- the heavier one is the 3G model), but it has twice the screen area of the 7-inchers. (The 2012 Retina iPad is a tad heavier, at 1.44 to 1.46 pounds.) That's why many people pick up a 7-inch tablet and say, "This is heavier than I expected."
Remember, all e-book readers let you adjust the font size of the content you're reading, so even a small screen can display much larger type than you're used to seeing in a book, magazine, or newspaper. In other words, a smaller screen does not mean you need to sacrifice text readability. However, small screens often make magazine and PDFs look cramped, since those publications are generally designed with large print sizes in mind.
Beyond screen size, weight is often a bigger issue. Unlike a laptop, which sits on a table or in your lap while in use, you'll be actively holding these readers or tablets aloft. During long reading sessions -- say, more than 45 minutes or so -- many users will find their fingers and arms becoming strained.
Finally, remember that if you add a case or a screen cover to your reader or tablet of choice, it's going to add some weight as well.
4. What are your screen preferences: E-ink or color LCD?
E-ink: As close as you'll get to a printed page
Dedicated e-book readers, such as the Nook, Kindle, Kobo, and Sony Reader, use an e-ink screen. However, e-ink screens have some drawbacks: they're black and white, and the pages don't refresh as quickly as those on an LCD do. However, they do an excellent job of reproducing the look of printed paper. Also, you can read e-ink readers in direct sunlight, which is something you can't do on an LCD screen (a fact Amazon is keen to point out in its advertising).
Previously, the biggest drawback for e-ink screens was that they were not self-illuminating (unlike LCDs, which are backlit by definition). But that's now changed with the release of the Simple Touch with GlowLight, Kindle Paperwhite, and Kobo Glo, all of which use side-lighting technology to illuminate the e-ink screen for reading in dark environments. They cost more than their nonlighted counterparts, but the added value for reading in dark environments (such as the bedroom) is often well worth it.
It's also worth noting that nearly all of these screens are supplied by a single company: E Ink. While some of the newer models have slightly higher resolution, the screens largely offer the same performance across multiple vendors.
Many users of e-ink readers dislike the refresh flashing that occurs between page turns. While those flashes still exist, user settings now give the option to have them happen once every five to six page turns, rather than every time a page is refreshed. Also, page turns on the latest e-ink screens are notably faster than on previous years' models.
The other big advantage of e-ink readers is battery life, which is measured in weeks, not hours. Instead of using a reading app on a phone or tablet that will cut into the battery life you might need for other tasks, you can read as long as you'd like on an e-ink reader, and keep the phone ready for phone calls, email, or web browsing instead.
LCD: Bright, backlit -- and potentially tiring
Color LCD screens found on all tablets are bright, colorful, beautiful displays. But those advantages have trade-offs. The reflective screens on LCD tablets make it hard to read in bright light, and many people find that the backlight tires their eyes over long reading sessions.
High-res tablets such as the iPad's 2,048x1,536-pixel Retina Display and the 2,560x1,600-pixel display of the Nexus 10 are the best-looking LCD screens out there, and arguably provide the best experience for reading text on a backlit screen. But as great as it looks, it's still LCD -- and still suffers from the issues mentioned above.
Touch screen: All but the entry-level Kindle
All tablets (iPad, Android, Kindle Fire, Nook HD, and so on) have touch screens, as do all current models of major brand e-ink readers -- except the entry-level $69 Kindle. Most users will find the touch screen to be the most natural way to interact with a device. That said, if you're only interested in reading -- without taking notes, tweeting, or other text input -- that supercheap, superlight Kindle may well be all you need.
How to choose
So, which screen is better for reading: e-ink or LCD? We can't answer that question for you. (See "LCD vs. e-ink: The eyestrain debate.") If you don't have a problem staring at your laptop or LCD monitor screen for hours on end -- or if you enjoy reading in low light without an external light source -- you'll probably like an LCD screen. Likewise, if you enjoy reading Web sites, magazines, and newspapers, and if you want support for interactive children's books, you'll want to go with color. However, if you prefer the look of newsprint or if you enjoy reading outside, an e-ink display is your friend. And if you like reading in bed, the self-illumination Kindle Paperwhite or Nook GlowLight may well be your ideal solution.
Whether you're checking your preference for e-ink versus LCD or a touch screen versus keyboard controls, we'd strongly recommend that you try a few devices before you buy one. You'll find most major e-book readers (Kindles, Nooks, Sony Readers, Apple iPads, Android tablets) under one roof at your local Best Buy; iPads can be found at Apple stores, of course; and all flavors of Nooks are on display at your local Barnes & Noble store. Nexus 7 tablets are a bit harder to find, but should be at your local GameStop and Staples stores.
5. Do you need always-on wireless data?
When buying many tablets and some e-book readers, you'll need to make a choice between two versions: the Wi-Fi model and the 3G/4G version. In other words, do you want the more affordable Wi-Fi model (which requires you to be near a Wi-Fi hot spot to download books or access the Internet), or do you prefer to pay a premium -- via a higher up-front price and/or a monthly bill -- to add 3G access on a cellular wireless network?
If you're primarily interested in reading books, you're probably going to be fine opting for a Wi-Fi-only model. You only need Wi-Fi access when you're buying new books. E-book files are stored on the device; once a book is downloaded, Internet access isn't necessary. So, if you're a voracious reader, you can (for instance) buy a bunch of books, toggle off your Wi-Fi, and work your way through them at your leisure. In fact, many users keep the wireless on their readers switched off most of the time since that significantly boosts battery life.
If you're using your hardware to access anything besides e-books -- magazine or newspaper subscriptions, e-mail, the Web, apps, and so forth -- ubiquitous wireless access becomes more important. Still, if you're using the reader/tablet primarily at home, Wi-Fi will probably remain sufficient.
Is broadband wireless a must-have? That's a question you'll need to answer. Just remember that, with more phones offering Wi-Fi hot-spot functionality and establishments such as Starbucks offering free Wi-Fi, there are plenty of ways to get online coverage on your reading device without it having broadband network support built in. Still, if you're a power user or frequent traveler, opting for a 3G or 4G product is worth considering.
Broadband options for top tablets and readers
All current Nook models -- e-readers and tablets -- are available as Wi-Fi only.
The Kindle Paperwhite is offered with 3G wireless (using AT&T's cellular network) for $60 more than the Wi-Fi-only model. The wireless is free -- no monthly fee-- but it's limited to shopping for new books and downloading new issues of magazines and newspapers -- don't expect to be surfing the Web and watching video, even if that were pleasant on those e-ink screens (it's not).
Tablets, of course, offer a much wider array of media options, and, as a result, cellular (3G or 4G) data access is much more tempting. While some tablets are offered with the same "discounted hardware plus 2-year contract" plan you find with cell phones. Others are more flexible, offering full-priced hardware that you can choose to add to a new or existing wireless plan at your leisure -- at the time of purchase, a week later, a month later, or never. The good news is that tablet data plans are generally available as a prepaid monthly service, not a long-term contract. Alternately, many new "family share plans" offer the ability to add a tablet to an existing bill for as little as $10 per month, though the data usage is applied to the overall account's data allotment (which can be as little as 1GB a month).
The Google Nexus 7 now has a broadband-enabled 32GB version that's just $299 -- only a $50 premium over the Wi-Fi 32GB version. It's sold unlocked, but includes an AT&T SIM card. It runs on that carrier's HSPA+ network -- not LTE, but capable of 4G speeds.
A 4G LTE version of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 (running on AT&T) is available starting at $499 (32GB, with ads). Amazon offers a unique data plan: with a one-time annual fee of $50, you can get 250MB of data a month for 12 months, with options for 3GB and 5GB monthly plans instead.
There are now three cellular iPad options: the 3G iPad 2 (16GB only), the 4G LTE fourth-generation iPad, and the 4G LTE iPad Mini. The iPad 2 is available on Verizon or AT&T, while the newer iPads add an option for Sprint. Each costs a $130 premium over their respective Wi-Fi-only counterpart.
6. Can I check out e-books from my local library?Many local libraries will let you check out an e-book on loan -- just as you can do with a regular book. Previously, support for this varied across e-readers and tablets. However, now it's basically universal. The Kindle was the last major holdout, but as of September 2011, Amazon's e-reader can be used to read free library loaners as well.
Library support is generally accomplished in one of three ways (all of which, of course, require you to have an account with your local library):
For dedicated e-readers -- download and sync: Users of the Nook, Kobo, and Sony Readers can download e-book files from their local library's Web site and transfer them to the readers via a USB cable. You'll need free software such as Adobe Digital Editions to complete the process. The video below details the process on the Nook, but the process is similar on Kobo, Sony, and other readers that are compatible with EPUB files. (You can also do a version of USB sync for the Kindle -- see below.)
Get free library books on your Nook
For tablets, smartphones, and computers -- OverDrive Media Console: If you're reading on a tablet (iPad or Android), a smartphone (iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone), or a computer (Windows or Mac), reading e-books from the library is far simpler. Just install the free OverDrive Media Console app. OverDrive will allow you to download and read library e-books -- and MP3 audiobooks -- within the app itself, without the need to sync up with a computer. (See the video below for more information.)
Get free e-books from the library
For Amazon Kindle (hardware or app): Amazon partnered with OverDrive to enable library lending, and the result is pretty seamless. Choose the e-book from the Web site of your local library, add the Kindle version to the cart, and check out. You'll be redirected to the book's corresponding Amazon page, where you can automatically send it to your Kindle reader or app (next time you sync via Wi-Fi), or you can download the file and sync via USB.
Amazon Kindle Owners' Lending Library: It's also worth mentioning that Amazon has its own version of a library. The Kindle Owners' Lending Library makes thousands of books available to Amazon Prime subscribers at no additional charge -- think of it as "Netflix for books." (Prime costs $79 per year, and also entitles members to free two-day shipping on most physical Amazon orders, plus free access to thousands of streaming-video titles on Amazon Instant.)
There are many caveats: besides needing to pay the Prime membership fee, you can only "check out" one book per month, and it only works with Kindle hardware (not via Kindle apps on other devices). The biggest issue is the comparative dearth of quality titles -- there are more than 100,000 titles overall, but the majority are self-published titles that don't come from the large publishing houses. And because of the licensing issues (read: potential loss of sales), don't count on more publishers signing on.