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Specifications and Features

Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Some people even own both and use them for different things. But if you’re going to buy only one, these are the specifications and features you need to be familiar with to make a smart choice.

Price

A pretty obvious, bottom-line concern is what the device itself costs. Traditional eReaders are relatively inexpensive, usually running $100-$150. The prices on these models are low because they do relatively few things—mostly helping you buy and read books—and because the companies that sell them, especially Amazon and Barnes & Noble, make more money from their customers buying books than devices. Tablets—because they’re more like small, handheld computers—cost $250-$800.

Screen Type

There are two major technologies used for eReader screens. The first, eInk, is a high-resolution technology that is designed to be as close to printed text as possible. Screens that use eInk appear flatter, almost like a piece of paper, and don’t reflect glare. Because they’re designed specifically for reading, eInk screens don’t tend to give readers eyestrain. You’ll find eInk screens on traditional eReaders like the Kindle or Nook.

LCD, on the other hand, is the kind of screen you’ll find on your laptop. If you don’t like reading on your laptop screen, you probably won’t like reading on a tablet, either. The upside of an LCD is that it’s much more versatile. Rather than just being designed for reading, LCDs are also great for games, the web, video, and many other uses. You’ll find LCDs on the iPad, Kindle Fire, and other tablets.

Reading in the Dark

Many book-lovers enjoy reading in the comfort of their beds. That means they need a device that enables comfortable reading in the dark. If you expect to read in the dark, you may want to avoid eInk screens. LCD screens use a technique called backlighting, which creates brighter screens (though it can also cause eyestrain). To make reading for long periods comfortable, eInk screens don’t use backlighting—but that means that they can’t light up at all. If you want to read using an eInk screen in low light, you’ll need a light.

Screen Size

How much screen size matters to you will depend on what you want to do with your device. The more you want to do, the larger a screen you’ll want. If you want to browse the web, watch videos, play games, and use apps, you’ll appreciate the extra space the iPad’s larger, 9.7-inch screen. If you want a device dedicated to reading, the paperback-book sized screens of traditional eReaders will feel comfortable, and they help those devices to be smaller and lighter.

Weight

A few ounces here or there may not seem like much, but when it comes to an eReader, it can make a tremendous difference. A smaller, lighter eReader is easier to carry and hold in just one hand for long periods. Tablets, on the other hand, can weigh a pound or more—and while that may not seem heavy, try holding a one-pound slab in front of your face for 20 or 30 minutes and see how comfortable it is. Again, how important weight is will depend on what you want to do with your device. If all you want to do is read, the smaller, lighter eReaders will be best.

Memory

Because they’re so much more versatile and are used for apps as well as books, tablets have much more storage space than eReaders. But, because eBooks are just text, they’re relatively small and don’t take up much memory. As a result, the 2GB of memory you’ll find on a lot of eReaders will allow you to store more than 1,000 books, while 2GB wouldn’t be nearly enough for all the things a tablet can do. If you buy a tablet, get as much memory as you can afford. You’ll use it.

Battery Life

Again, this is a matter of a dedicated device tuned specifically for reading versus a multifunction tablet. With all their functionality and LCD screens, tablets like the iPad have batteries that last for about half a day’s continuous use (at best). eReaders, though, have batteries that can last for a month or more on a single charge, because they don’t have color screens, backlights, or substantial Internet capabilities.

Internet Connection

There are two kinds of wireless Internet access offered by eReaders: Wi-Fi and 3G. You’ll find Wi-Fi on virtually every tablet and eReader. It’s the kind of high-speed wireless network you’ll find in homes or offices. You can use it only where there’s a Wi-Fi network that you have access to. 3G is the kind of wireless network connection offered by smartphones. It’s available virtually everywhere, but is slower than Wi-Fi.

The eReaders with 3G cost more because they have additional hardware and because 3G data is charged as it’s used, while Wi-Fi generally includes nearly unlimited data. Of the tablets discussed in this article, only the iPad has models with 3G. Those models are more expensive than the Wi-Fi-only units and require monthly data plans, but they allow you to get online virtually anywhere.

Choice of Apps and Stores

Most eReaders and tablets allow you to buy eBooks from just one store. With the Kindle, you’ll be buying your books from Amazon. With the Nook, they’ll come from Barnes & Noble. It’s not surprising that these devices lock you into a single store, but it is restrictive. The iPad is the only device in this article that allows you to read eBooks from virtually any store. Thanks to the free apps from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others, you have the choice to buy books from Apple’s iBookstore or from the other major eBook retailers.

Games

Because traditional eReaders have grayscale eInk screens designed primarily for reading, you won’t find Angry Birds or other games on them. Sure, there’s the occasional crossword or other text-based game, but if you really want to have great games to play between chapters, you’ll want a tablet. The iPad especially is becoming the dominant mobile gaming platform, with high-quality, immersive, and fun apps aplenty.

Other Apps

What’s true for games is basically true for other apps: Though traditional eReaders might offer an app or two, for a truly unlimited experience, you’ll want a tablet. The iPad has an especially deep library of apps of all kinds, from music to games, video to art, books to education, and more.

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