With the holidays coming up, many of us are trying to decide on what type of e-reader or tablet to put on our wish lists. More options than ever are available, but here’s the catch: There’s a law of diminishing returns when it comes to decision-making. According to research I read last year—and remembered because it fits me to a T—choosing from a small number of items is great, but too much choice and our brains go into overload. So I’m here to hopefully help you limit your choices to a reasonable number, at least if you live in the U.S.
First, though, there are questions to consider.
Do you plan to use your device to read text-based books like novels, or are you interested in both novels and color image-heavy media like cookbooks, how-to books, books for kids, or magazines? Will your device be used primarily for media consumption, gaming, or for most of the things you currently accomplish with your laptop or desktop? How much money do you want to spend? Do you have an open-source philosophy regarding such things, are you happy to be tied to a proprietary, closed system, or perhaps you’d prefer a hybrid?
Amazingly, all these questions matter. One device might suffice, but some of us may conclude that we need two.
Let’s take them in order, shall we? What do you plan to read on your device? If the answer is almost exclusively novels or non-fiction, the new front-lit dedicated e-readers may work best for you. Amazon offers the PaperWhite. Barnes and Noble offers the GlowLight. If you search for reviews, you’ll find good ones for both.
What is a front-lit e-reader, you ask? The answer is this: It’s an improvement upon the e-ink Amazon and B&N used with their initial dedicated e-book readers. The technology omits the eyestrain associated with back-lit devices while allowing readers to read in no light, day light, or sunlight. The PaperWhite and GlowLight are touch screen devices. Both Amazon and B&N continue to sell e-ink readers, very inexpensively, I might add, but why buy an external reading light for reading in bed or in low light if the technology has improved enough for no eyestrain plus internal lighting?
Both the PaperWhite and the GlowLight are Wi-Fi only. Because use of these devices is primarily restricted to accessing Amazon or B&N to search, browse, or otherwise locate an e-book for downloading, there’s no true need to be connected at all times. If you are at home, the Wi-Fi accesses the bookstores through your home network, and if you are out and about, any of 24,000 AT&T hotspots (including Starbucks, McDonalds, or any B&N bookstore) will do. Just last week I downloaded a book while walking between two terminals at the Phoenix airport.
As to the pricing of these dedicated e-readers, PaperWhite is available for $119 with “Special Offers” or $129 without. GlowLight sells for $119. With the growing importance of “the Cloud” and the relatively small byte size of black and white books, I don’t think you’ll ever run out of space on either, but the GlowLight does provide an SD slot. As to those “Special Offers,” on the first page of Google search results I found a “Special Offers is a disgrace!” link and another proclaiming “Why I’m choosing Kindle with Special Offers!”
What other considerations you have in choosing between the PaperWhite and the GlowLight? I’ve read reviews indicating the PaperWhite offers superior technology, but I’ve also read reviews touting the Glowlight’s superiority. Because Amazon has been at this longer than B&N, they offer more e-books. That probably explains why, according to Publisher's Weekly and Bowker Market Research, 55% of those who e-read do so on a Kindle device while only 14% use a Nook.
On the other hand, e-books formatted for the GlowLight are e-pub, which is an open format more widely used, while Amazon’s format is proprietary. Given that both Amazon and B&N offer apps for smartphones and tablets, that concern may be more philosophical than practical, although before publishers pulled most e-books from the library market, Kindle users were out of luck. That said, if you are an Amazon Prime member, thousands of ebooks, including those published by Amazon's publishing arm, are lendable to you...for free.
What if your reading extends beyond black and white? Up front you need to know that the devices available in color are back-lit, so if you are prone to eyestrain, that may be a consideration. Some heavy readers I know have two devices; one for reading text (documents, fiction and much of non-fiction) and either a basic color device or more of a full-service one. If you want just one e-reading device, thank you, and don’t have a problem reading a back-lit screen for hours, let’s talk about the Amazon and B&N options.
Both, by the way, also offer more than e-reading, but how well they do that is something we’ll talk about a bit later.
The Kindle Fire is a basic small color tablet created with readers in mind, offering 8 GB of memory and selling for $159 with “Special Offers,” $174 without. Amazon also offers the Kindle Fire HD, but it’s more of a tablet than a color e-reader. On the Kindle Fire HD you might play Angry Birds, watch a BuzzFeed video, or stream content from YouTube, Netflix, or Amazon’s film and TV library. Supposedly you can also do the same on the basic Kindle Fire, but honestly, I don’t know if you can do it very well.
The Kindle Fire HD is offered in two sizes: 16 GB ($199-$214) or 32 GB ($249-$264) of memory. Both the Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD are Wi-Fi only, although the latter is of a beefed-up variety I don’t entirely understand. None of which is an issue if you’re at home, but as tablets also stream content, handle e-mail, Internet browsing, and social media usage, connectivity may be an issue if you tend to be out and about. That said, I don’t have a dedicated connection on my Macbook Pro, and it’s rarely a problem. Just last week I connected at a friend’s house in L.A. using their network password. But you may determine that true portability in a handheld device is a deal-breaker for you. As a result of my research, I think it does for me where a full-service tablet is concerned.
Nook HD is similarly wireless, but it’s not beefed up. It comes in either 8 GB for $199 or 16 GB for $229, but it also offers expandable memory. With cost as the only determining factor, on its face the Kindle Fire HD offers twice as much memory for only $20 more than the Nook HD. On the other hand, you could conceivably buy an SD card on Amazon to plug into your Nook HD.
What else matters? Amazon did a lot of long-term planning to develop an integrated system like Apple did. While both the Kindle Fire HD and B&N’s HD run off the Android operating system, Amazon’s app store is huge compared to the fairly “locked up” number of apps you might use on the Nook HD.
Which brings us to the next level of devices: the full-sized Kindle Fire HD and the full-sized Nook HD+. Both were created to compete with Android tablets, even with the iPad.
The large Kindle Fire HD is available in either Wi-Fi or 4g LTE. If you opt for the Wi-Fi only large Kindle tablet, it’ll cost you $299-$314 for 16 GB, depending on whether or not you go for Special Offers. For 32 GB of memory you’ll shell out $369-$384. The least costly 4G LTE model, with 32 GB memory, sells for $499. The most expensive is the 64 GB model without Special Offers, at $614. And these prices are before you add in the actual 4G plan, which Amazon sells for $49 a year. Still, the full-sized Kindle is a CNET Editors’ Top Pick; they consider it the “best media consumption tablet.”
B&N’s Nook HD+ is a Wi-Fi only tablet. In some ways it offers more, but not only does it lack 3 or 4G connectivity, it doesn’t have a camera—unlike the full-sized Kindle tablet. On the other hand, it costs less, and like the smaller Nook HD, has expandable memory. The 16 GB is at least $30 less expensive—the 32 GB may be as much as $85 less costly. It’s another Editors’ Top Pick at CNET, which they’ve deemed the best bang for your buck. For specs on both full-sized tablets from Amazon and B&N, you might find this chart at Mashable helpful.
If you want to opt out of Amazon and B&N, you might prefer a straight-up Android tablet, or an iPad or an iPad mini. Remember, there are Kindle and Nook apps available for Android and the iPad OS, but Apple makes it harder for you to buy Kindle or Nook books for an iPad by forcing you to do it from the Internet rather than the app itself. If you’re not particularly tech savvy, my guess is that you’ll want to pick a store’s system and stick with it. Just remember that if reading ebooks is your primary goal, the Kindle store is larger than the Nook store, and iBooks remains smaller than both.
If you choose an Android tablet, you also need to realize that developers make apps first for the iPad, and then for Android devices. It may not be fair, but it’s just how it is. And many Android apps are simply Smartphone apps stretched out for use on a tablet, something that’s at the very least not visually appealing. And another consideration nowadays is Microsoft, which recently jumped into the game with the Surface. I read an article last week indicating the true competitor to the iPad is the Microsoft Surface...I think I might need to take to my bed before my brain explodes.
But before I do, you might want to consider the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700, which transforms, like the Surface, into a laptop. At $599, CNET considers it the Best Premium Android Table. Laptop has several Asus Transformers on its list of the Top Ten Best Tablets. I don’t know if the Asus Transformer Pad is going to be Microsoft Surface’s biggest competitor given that both transform, but have you heard that the Surface Pro’s battery life sucks? I have.
Let’s not forget the Google Nexus and Samsung Galaxy options. They have many, many supporters in Geeklandia as well. The Galaxy Note 10.1 shares the Editors’ Choice Award at PC Magazine with the 4th generation iPad. Its stylus, which some find retro, is not a '90s sort of stylus. Instead, it's for drawing, writing by hand, and scribbling (my husband bought a stylus for his iPad that he uses to draw). There’s also a Galaxy Tab 10“. It’s older than the Note, but has its own fan base. Where the Android tablet seems to shine is in the mini-tablet category.
The Google Nexus 7” is a mini, but it rates extremely high, and the higher memory version is not Wi-Fi only. It runs on the absolute latest Android OS version—Jellybean. It’s also cheaper than the Galaxy Tab 2 7”, which runs off of Ice Cream Sandwich. The Nexus 7” is CNET’s favorite small tablet, rates higher at PC Magazine, and is Laptop’s Best Budget Tablet. On the other hand, according to Tech 2, if you’re going to forego the iPad mini, go for the Galaxy Tab 2. And if none of that helps, you might want to consider the Android Geek. If you want performance and a great user experience, you should aim for the Google Nexus 7, but if you’re a media oriented person and you like to store music, movies and such on your tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7” is the right choice for you.
And now, for the elephant, or elephants, in the room: the iPad and iPad mini.
Wi-Fi-only models of the newest full-sized iPads begin at $499 (16 GB) and top out at $699 (64 GB). If you want the Wi-Fi/cell model, those start at $629 for 16 GB; the 64 GB model sells for $829. The Wi-Fi iPad mini, with the same memory options, will cost you $329-$529. The iPad mini with Wi-Fi/cell, and the same memory options, runs from $459-$659. These prices are exclusive of data plans.
|8 GB||16 GB||32 GB||64 GB|
|Kindle Fire HD||$199-$214||$249-$264|
|Nexus 7||$199||$249/$299 (cell)|
|Galaxy 2 7” *||$249|
|iPad||$329/$459 (cell)||$429/$549 (cell)||$529/$659 (cell)|
Kindle, Nook, and iPad also provide Cloud storage
* External storage available
|8 GB||16 GB||32 GB||64 GB|
|Kindle Fire HD 8.9||$249-$314||$369-$384|
|Fire HD 8.9 4G||$499-$514||$599-$614|
|Galaxy Note 10.1||$499 *||$549|
|iPad||$499/$629 (cell)||$599/$729 (cell)||$699/$829 (cell)|
Kindle, Nook, iPad, and Microsoft also provide Cloud storage
* External storage available
** $499 without touch cover
As a result of all the research I’ve done over the past year or so, I think I may be one of those people who needs a dedicated e-reading device; I get enough eyestrain from the hours I spend on my laptop each day. When my two-year-old+ Kindle 3 dies (and it’s getting buggy now), I’m likely to move up to the Kindle PaperWhite. But I don’t know what I’ll choose in terms of a tablet or mini-tablet. It would be most inexpensive for me to stay in Amazon’s system and add a Kindle Fire, but is that the smartest long-term option? Is long-term thinking even necessary given how quickly technology is changing right now?
For me, it boils down to need versus want. Do I need primarily a color e-reader or media consumption device and simply want a full-service tablet because they’re so cool? The answer is “pretty much.” Which means I would do best to choose a Kindle mini-tablet and save the heavy lifting for my laptop. That, though, does not sound all that festive, and I may decide to upgrade into a more full-service device, in which case I’d go for the Nexus 7”. Reviews across the board are strong, and in its largest memory configuration, it’s available in 3G. What good is streaming content on a portable device if it's not entirely portable? What if I want to watch an episode of Parks and Recreation while I’m at a park?
If money were no object whatsoever—and if my “frugal” mother and “spend it like there’s no tomorrow” father didn’t sit on my shoulders like an angel and devil, constantly confounding me—I’d opt for a full-sized tablet. And as I already use a Mac, the iPad with all the trimmings would win out. My husband loves his.
Whatever you decide you’d like for yourself, I’ve no doubt you’ll be happy with your shiny new technology. Please let me know what you choose, and how well you like what you buy or receive from Santa or Hanukkah Harry. I’ve not gone into detail about all the specs for all these devices because if I did, you’d be reading here for hours. My suggestion? Narrow it down to just a couple, and do your research from there. Good luck, and a happy and merry Chrismahanukwanzakah!
Laurie Gold cannot stop reading and writing about romance—she’s been blabbing online for years. She remains a work in progress. Keep up with her on her My Obsessions tumblr or goodreads, where she spends much of her time of late, or follow her on Google+, Pinterest, or on Twitter @laurie_gold, where she mostly tweets about publishing news and [probably too often] politics.