Make no mistake: After years of false starts and big hopes, e-reading has finally begun to reach the masses. Digital books now account for nearly 10% of total trade book sales, and stand-alone e-reading devices can be had for lower prices than ever before. Apple's (AAPL) introduction of the iPad earlier this year opened the market even further, allowing customers to casually read e-books on the same device they use for playing games, watching movies and surfing the Web.
And in these precious few days left in the 2010 holiday shopping season, e-readers make for an easy gift for a wide range of family and friends. So with that in mind, DailyFinance has assembled a guide to the major e-readers and what each one is best suited for as well as what issues you should consider before buying.
E-Readers: A Buyer's Guide
Struggling to make a decision on which e-reader device to buy? Here's what you need to know about all of the options currently on the market.
Ethan Miller, Getty Images
$139 for the WiFi version; $189 for the 3G model
Where to buy: Through Amazon's Kindle Store, of course. But the Kindle is now stocked at Best Buy (BBY) Walmart (WMT), Staples (STP) and Target (TGT).
Best suited for: Extended reading. The Kindle, now in its third generation, uses an upgraded e-Ink screen that's easy on the eyes, especially in direct sunlight. It doesn't have to be recharged very much -- every week when WiFi is turned on, or every two to three weeks when it's off. And at less than a pound, it's the lightest of the e-readers, making it easy to hold for long stretches of reading.
Issues: The very screen that works in sunlight works less well when the light is dim or off entirely. The selection of books available for the Kindle keeps growing (now over 700,000), but the proprietary format means Kindle books can be read only on certain devices (iPhone, iPad, PCs and Macs) with Amazon's software, and not at all on competing devices like the Nook.
$149 (WiFi); $199 (3G)
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble stores and BN.com. It's also stocked at Walmart, Best Buy and, through a new partnership, Books-A-Million (BAMM), the third-largest bookstore in the country.
Best suited for: Extended reading, just like the Kindle. Lets users lend selected books to others, for a two-week period.
Issues: A book loaned to someone else is off-limits for that time period. At over a pound, the Nook is significantly heavier than the Kindle. Otherwise, not much distinguishes the black and white Nooks from the Kindle. The color Nook, however, is clearly a step up -- and is only $50 more.
Where to buy: Same places as the black-and-white Nooks.
Best suited for: Books and magazines in color. The backlit screen is rich in color hues, which makes reading illustrated books (especially for children) and glossy magazines particularly pleasurable. And at half the iPad's price, it's a good compromise for the budget-conscious.
Issues: At eight hours, battery life is a lot lower than the Nook Color's black-and-white counterparts or the Kindle. An Nook app store is available, but it's not very well populated, and the games and apps aren't as well developed as those available for the iPhone or iPad. And the Nook Color's seven-inch screen isn't as well-suited for magazine reading as the iPad.
$499-$699 (WiFi only); $629-$829 (3G)
Where to buy: Apple Store, Best Buy and Target.
Best suited for: The iPad is a multimedia device that's ideal for games, movies and other consumptive content, so it's great for book readers to get something extra. That means illustrated books, book-related apps, enhanced e-books and other interchangeable terms that describe books that offer a little more. All the major e-book devices supply apps for the iPad, so customers can easily read their Kindle or Nook e-books.
Issues: Backlighting is a particular problem for those with sensitive eyes who want to read in the sunlight (i.e., it's impossible). Battery life is about as long as the Nook Color, and far shorter than for the e-Ink devices. Buying e-books directly from the iBookstore, which stocks a fraction of what's available via the Kindle or the Nook, is a nonstarter (with sales to prove it). And with rumors swirling that a new version of iPad, outfitted with cameras, may be on the market in April, it might make sense to wait for it. Plus, it's likely to be priced lower.
$179 for the five-inch Pocket Edition (no WiFi); $229 for the six-inch Touch Edition (no WiFi); $299 for the seven-inch Daily Edition (WiFi only)
Where to buy: Sony Stores, Borders and Best Buy.
Best suited for: Extended reading, thanks to updated e-Ink screens. And it's good for reading e-books of all stripes, thanks to less onerous digital rights management (DRM) than that used for the Kindle or Nook.
Issues: Sony was an early innovator, which started producing e-readers in 2006. But it has fallen out of favor in the American market. The $299 price tag for a WiFi-only model is prohibitively more expensive than the Kindle or the Nook, and more expensive than the 3G-enabled Nook Color. Only last month did Sony announce the impending arrival od reading apps for the iPad and iPhone, which appear to be too little, too late - since they didn't make it for the holiday season.
$149 (WiFi only)
Where to buy: Borders (BGP) stores and online.
Best suited for: Extended reading, akin to Nook and Kindle. A new social reading application has been added to beef up the device's innate capabilities.
Issues: Borders, which has a minority stake in the Canadian-based company, is on such shaky ground that it will need additional financing to stay liquid in 2011. While Kobo e-books can be read on the iPad and its smaller cousins, the lack of 3G or color capability essentially makes this a nonstarter in the American market -- especially if Borders' own future remains in peril.
Price: Not Applicable
Where to buy: Google has no plans for a standalone device, though one can read Google eBooks on the Web or download an app for the iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch. Aside from Google's website, its e-books are available from your local independent bookstore, thanks to a partnership with the American Booksellers Association.
Best suited for: People who don't want to be tied to a single device.
Issues: Google eBook pricing is still variable. A book priced one way directly through Google may be significantly higher on an independent bookstore's website.
SAMSUNG GALAXY TAB
Price: $399 with a Verizon (VZ) two-year contract; $599-$649 contract-free
Where to buy: Verizon stores; Best Buy
Best suited for: Games and magazines, but compared to the iPad, those features don't quite measure up.
Issues: E-reading devices are available because the Galaxy Tab operates on an Android system, for which both Amazon and B&N supply apps. But the seven-inch screen is less suited for reading than stand-alone e-readers or the nearly 10-inch iPad. The contract-free version is pricey compared to the iPad, and the hassle of a two-year-contract makes the lower price less worthwhile.
This article has been amended since its original publication to correct changes about the availability of Sony apps for mobile devices.