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How to choose an e-reader or tablet for the holidays

So you think you’re ready to take the digital leap and start reading e-books. You’re not alone, but you have a lot of choices to sift through. Though e-book readers like the Amazon Kindle have been around for several years, a crop of new tablet devices with e-book functionality, like the iPad, have begun to invade the market. To help make sense of it all, we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of comparisons between e-readers and tablets. Read on to figure out which type of device is best for you.

The difference: E-readers and tablets

E-book readers are devices designed specifically for reading text. They’re made for people who enjoy reading novels and other long articles. Most e-readers have monochrome E-Ink screens, which mimic the look of ink on paper. E-Ink screens are great at displaying text and easy to read in the sunlight, but can’t pull off moving video. Most e-readers don’t have a backlight either, so nighttime reading requires a reading lamp. Long battery life, low prices, and simple e-book store access characterize the majority of these devices. The Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, and Barnes & Noble Nook are the three most popular options.

Tablets are small touch computers meant for a much broader array of tasks than an e-reader. Though some are marketed for specific purposes, tablets are meant to be good at a number of things including e-book reading. Though Microsoft failed to get stylus tablet PCs to take off eight years ago, Apple reinvented the category this year. Thanks to the overnight success of the iPad, tablets have begun to pop up everywhere. Modern tablets usually have a full-color LCD touchscreen measuring between seven and 10 inches diagonally, are great at video and Web-related tasks like e-mail, can install applications, and run on smartphone operating systems. Due to a lack of a physical keyboard, these devices are better for consuming entertainment than creating it. The Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab, and HP Slate 500 make up the first generation of touch tablets.

Blurring the line between e-reader and tablet is the Nook Color, Barnes & Noble’s newest device. Though an e-book reader at heart, the device has a seven inch, full color touchscreen and runs on Google’s Android OS, a smartphone and tablet operating system. It offers moving video, slick magazines, fast web browsing, doc and productivity software, and a small app store.

What do you want to use it for?

Now that we’ve established some basics about e-readers and tablets, it’s time to figure out which type of device is best for you. The best way to do that is to ask yourself what features matter most to you and how you plan to use the device. E-readers are great for reading novels, newspapers, text-heavy magazines, and reading in direct sunlight, but that is all they do well. If you have a strong hankering to browse the web, stream movies & TV, check your email, download apps, play Angry Birds, or look at anything in color, a tablet is probably best for you.


Alright, let’s say you mainly care about books, but all the extra features tablets have sound reasonably fun. Now it’s an issue of price. This is where e-book readers have a big advantage. All of the most popular e-readers are under $400, and many low-end readers cost less than $100. Standard editions of the Kindle, Sony Reader, and Nook all cost under $200. Best of all, many of these devices have free lifetime 3G access built into them.

By comparison, tablets are a pricy investment. Most come with a myriad of pricing plans and options. The iPad is probably the most affordable stand-alone device, but even it has six different models, ranging from $500 to $830. The HP Slate has only one price, but it’s exorbitant: The Windows 7 tablet will run you about $800. The Samsung Galaxy Tab’s price varies by carrier (it is available on five U.S. cellphone carriers) but is generally about $600 to $650 alone, or $400 with a two-year contract.

Choosing an OS

It’s very important to choose an operating system that is easy to use and intuitive for you. In e-readers, this means trying out devices (if possible) to see if you like the way each device navigates between books, chapters, and pages. Some e-readers, like the Sony Reader, require a USB connection to a PC to download books. If this is a problem, opt for a different device. If you’ll want new books while on the go or travelling, opt for an always-connected 3G device, like the Kindle.

The OS matters more on a tablet. Currently, the two dominant platforms are Apple iOS, which powers the iPad, and Google Android, which powers the Galaxy Tab and dozens of upcoming tablets. Fans from each camp could go on for pages about either OS, but the decision boils down to several key differences. Android has a number of exclusive features like Flash streaming support and home-screen widgets, but the iPad is generally a more stable and slick experience with more available apps. Mac or iTunes users will find the iPad more accessible, while geeks and tinkerers will enjoy some of the freedoms Android offers.

Though Samsung has used Android 2.2 for its Galaxy Tab, and it works quite well, the product is not officially endorsed by Google. Future versions of Android (originally developed for smartphones) will officially support tablets. The HP Slate 500 runs on a touch-enhanced version of Windows 7 PC. Microsoft Windows 7 is a great operating system for PCs and laptops, but does not translate as well on tablets. Hopefully a version of Windows Phone 7 will creep onto a tablet next year — that would be worth checking out.

Book stores and App stores

Making sure your device has an intuitive OS is important, but knowing that it has the books that you hope to read is vital. Before buying an e-reader, visit the Kindle or Nook websites to search for a few books you may want to read. Does your favorite device have the books you want? If not, consider the competition. When it comes to tablets, Apple’s App Store is much more robust than Google’s Android Market, and has many more apps customized for larger tablet screens. Before you buy, it’s a good idea to search for a few apps that you consider high priority.

When it comes to e-books, tablets offer more freedom. While e-readers are tied to a single store (Nook or Kindle), the iPad has apps for both stores, as well as its own iBook store.

Screen size

How portable does your e-reader or tablet need to be? How large do you want your screen? Most e-readers are smaller than tablets, do not have touch capabilities, and are made for viewing vertically, much like you read a book or piece of paper (tablets reorient themselves if you hold them horizontally). For example, the Kindle has a 6-inch screen with a small button keyboard. The Nook, on the other hand, has a similar screen size, but instead of a keyboard at the bottom, it has a small color touchscreen for navigation. Those wishing for a larger e-reader screen should check out the Kindle DX, which has a 9.7-inch screen, making it very close to the size of a sheet of paper.

Tablet screens have a similar range. The Samsung Galaxy Tab has a 7-inch screen, while the iPad has a much larger 9.7-inch screen. With tablets, the choice is more crucial, because size is the only thing that separates them from smartphones like the iPhone and Droid. Some reviewers have argued that Samsung’s Galaxy Tab is too small, and isn’t usable for many tasks above those that 3- or 4-inch smartphones already perform competently. Steve Jobs made the same argument when explaining why Apple chose a 9.7-inch screen size. Our advice: The best way to settle on size is to visit a nearby AT&T or Verizon store and try out both devices for yourself.

3G data plan or Wi-Fi?

Internet access is vital to both e-readers and tablets. As cool as these gadgets are, without the Internet, they can’t do much of anything. The majority of e-book readers access the Internet via Wi-Fi. The main reasons to use the net are for downloading new books, accessing the Web, or viewing new newspapers or magazines. However, Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer versions of their e-readers with lifetime 3G access built in, which allows your Kindle or Nook to connect to the Web using cellular networks like AT&T. The 3G models run about $50 more than Wi-Fi-only versions, but when you really want to download a new book and aren’t at home, 3G access comes in handy.

Tablet users aren’t as lucky. Though Wi-Fi versions of most tablets are available, getting an always-on 3G connection is expensive. On most carriers, 3G access will run you about $30 a month for 5GB of “unlimited” data. On a tablet, it isn’t difficult to download 5GB of images, audio, and video from the Web in a month. AT&T is worse, offering only 2GB of data for $25 a month. Some carriers are even offering a $200 discount on the Samsung Galaxy Tab if you sign a two-year 3G contract. Before signing up for a plan like this, ask yourself if the $200 savings is worth the cumulative $720+ you’ll pay while locked into contract. Two years is a long time, especially in the tablet market.

Battery life

Nothing can make or break a device like battery life. E-readers have this category locked down. The Kindle’s battery, for example, can last as long as one month on a single charge. Tablet battery life is more comparable to other electronics. The iPad’s battery life fares best, lasting about 9 to 10 hours. The Samsung Galaxy Tab’s battery life hasn’t been released, but estimates peg it somewhere between 5 and 10 hours. Winner: Kindle.

Making your decision

It all comes down to preferences. E-reader devices like the Kindle and Nook are designed to do one thing and do it well. The 3G version of the newest Kindle is only $189 and is probably the best device out there for reading books. However, for those who are swayed by the allure of video and Angry Birds, and have the money, the iPad (and devices like it) makes a great reading solution as well. It really comes down to how, where, and what you plan on reading. If you really can’t decide, head over to a Barnes & Noble and try out the Nook Color. It has a bit of both worlds built into it.