Review: 5 eBook readers for less than $175

Price can often play a big part in selection with so many eReaders on the market.

When’s ground-breaking Kindle eBook reader came out in 2007, it cost $399. Now, some eReaders, including the most recent Kindle entry, can be had for just north of $100.

At the price of five or so hardcover books, it’s close to impulse-buy territory for many people. And if people give in to their desires, what do they get? An AP reviewer’s test of five e-readers priced from $114 to $164 finds that cheap, in most cases, means good value.

All five have black-and-white screens that are about half the size of a paperback book. They can connect wirelessly to the Internet for e-book downloads.

The AP reviewer didn’t look closely at battery life, because with one exception, they all claim more than a month of use. The company time machine was occupied.

Here’s the rundown:

• Kindle with Special Offers ($114) is the cheapest Kindle model yet. It’s indistinguishable from a device that costs $25 more, except that it shows advertising as its screen saver and at the foot of the menu.

The reader doesn’t, mercifully, see any advertising when he or she is reading, and overall the ads didn’t feel intrusive. The selection was limited, for the most part, to Oil of Olay, Visa and a car company or two, making reviewers wonder if advertising companies are really sold on Kindle ads.

And it left the reviewers wondering if there is any attempt (or might be in the future) to profile users based on their Amazon account. That could get a bit embarrassing because the ads are visible if a person leaves the Kindle lying around.

The Kindle doesn’t come off very well in this test, chiefly because the screen isn’t touch-sensitive, forcing you to navigate with the aid of buttons. It also devotes a lot of space to a keyboard the user won’t use much. It’s also larger and heavier than its closest competitors.

There’s another difference between the Kindle and other eReaders that few appreciate. The No. 1 sleeper issue with eBooks is that the biggest eBook stores tie their books to their own software. For instance, Kindle books can only be read on the Kindle or Kindle software. If a reader wants to trade his or her Kindle for a Nook in the future, the readers will be leaving all his/her Kindle books behind.

The solution is to not buy books from the big stores and to not use a Kindle. All the other eReaders the AP reviewer tried will accept books from Google Books and smaller online stores. These books can be read on smartphones, PCs and tablets as well.

Buying books this way is more of a hassle—the reader will have to download them to a computer, then transfer through a cable–but it’s more likely the reader will be able to read his/her books on the device of his/her choice in the future.

The reviewer also looked at the Kindle with Special Offers 3G, which costs $50 more. It can download books through AT&T’s cellular network. This is a feature none of the other devices in the test have. If you’re giving an eReader to someone who doesn’t have internet access, this is the one to get.

• The Barnes & Noble Nook ($139) is another small triumph from a bookseller whose first eReader, the original Nook, was shockingly bad. Less than a year later, it redeemed itself with the release of the Nook Color. The reviewer still considers that the best dedicated eReading device, but its $249 price tag places it out of the entry-level category.

The new monochrome Nook has a touch-sensitive screen, making for an easy, intuitive interface. It’s also small and light. In short, it’s a pleasure to use.

Like the Kindle, the Nook uses a screen with “electronic ink” technology. It makes for long battery life and very good legibility in bright light, where color screens look dim.

But it also comes with big drawbacks. It can’t show color and can’t be backlit for legibility in low light, and it takes time to switch between pages. The slow screen can also make the eReader annoying to control, but the Nook makes the best of it by making the screen touch-sensitive.

The Nook also suppresses the “black flash” phenomenon seen on the Kindle. Whenever you turn a page on the Kindle, the screen first goes black. This is how the e-ink resets itself so it can show the new page cleanly, and some people find it jarring. The Nook only flashes this way every sixth page.

• Kobo eReader Touch Edition ($130) is quite similar to the Nook, but takes the touch interface one step further by eliminating page-turn buttons. That leaves only two buttons, for the home screen and for power. Style-wise, this makes it the iPhone of eReaders. It, too, is a pleasant experience, and it suppresses the “black flash” in the same way the Nook does.

However, the reviewer found it slightly inferior to the Nook in that a page often shows a ghost image of the previous page. It looks like someone wrote the last page in pencil and used a bad eraser on it before putting up the new page.

The Kobo eReader also provides fewer options for text presentation. For instance, it won’t let readers adjust margins or line spacing.

• Aluratek Libre Air ($130) is an odd duck in that it isn’t sold by a major bookstore (Kobo is affiliated with Borders) and it doesn’t use an e-ink screen. Instead, it has a reflective LCD screen, somewhat smaller, darker, and greener than e-ink but more nimble and without ghosting problems. When the reviewer reviewed the Libre Pro a year and a half ago, the reviewer preferred its LCD screen over the e-ink readers available at the time. But e-ink screens have improved and the LCD has not, so the reviewer’s preference has shifted.

The screen is still passable, though. It uses more power than e-ink, so the Libre Air is only rated for two weeks of use.

The really big problem with the Libre Air is that it has a horrible bookstore interface. It’s supposed to be able to download books from the Kobo store through Wi-Fi, but this was so difficult that I just gave up.

Readers can load books on the Libre Air through a USB cable, but then they might as well get the Wi-Fi-less Libre Pro, which costs $90.

The AP reviewer names the Nook and the Kobo eReader the winners of this test. The reviewer still thinks the iPad is better as an all-around eReader because of its color screen, its backlighting and its size, which makes it ideal for PDF files. But the iPad starts at $499. At $130 or so, the reviewer can’t fault anyone for getting a dedicated eReader instead.

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