60-second review: E-readers under $200

By The Associated Press

E-book readers are getting a lot of attention this holiday season: Prices have dropped, and there are some great choices out there for under $200. I’ve reviewed three top-of-the-line e-readers that use E Ink screens: the new Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook and the Sony Reader Pocket Edition.

A number of other color-screen tablet computers also offer e-books, including the iPad, Galaxy Tab or the new Nook Color. But this review is for folks who simply want to read books on an easy-on-your-eyes E Ink screen.

The devices are lightweight and don’t use much power because the screen isn’t back-lit, so the battery lasts for several days (in some cases, several weeks). Unlike a typical computer screen, these are easy to read in sunlight.

Amazon has been in the e-bookstore game longer than Sony or Barnes & Noble, so it’s got a leg up in terms of the number of publications available. But the three stores are fairly comparable when it comes to number of new releases and free classics.

With the Kindle, Nook and Reader, there are no winners and losers; after testing it’s clear that each is a great buy. It’s about asking yourself which features you need and which model works best for you and your budget. Here are factors to consider:

WANT WIRELESS? You don’t have to connect the Kindle or Nook to a computer to add digital books and games. Both have easy-to-use wireless features that require a Wi-Fi connection to access the Amazon or Barnes & Noble digital store. Both also can sync the books you’re reading — and the last page you were on — to other devices, such as your iPhone (Kindle and Nook apps are free).

Using your home Wi-Fi is the cheaper option. The Kindle starts at $140 for a Wi-Fi-enabled device; if you want wireless on a 3G network, the price is $190. The Kindle’s unique online perks include the ability to share your favorite book excerpts on Facebook and Twitter or see what other users have marked as their favorite passages as you read.

The Nook is $10 more: $150 for the Wi-Fi version, $200 for Wi-Fi and 3G access. To browse the Web, you have to be connected to a Wi-Fi network. The Kindle lets you browse on either Wi-Fi or 3G.

FEELING TOUCHY? The pocket-sized Sony Reader is 5.7 inches tall with a 5-inch E Ink screen. It may be the shortest of the trio, but it has a somewhat high starting price of $180, likely because of its unique E Ink touch screen. With a finger or stylus, you can navigate and flip pages — even hand-write notes on the pages or doodle on a blank note.

These pluses aside, the pocket edition has fewer bells and whistles than the Nook or Kindle. There’s no way to download books wirelessly nor to play audio. (The Sony Reader Daily Edition model has both features, is larger and goes for about $300.)

The Reader isn’t alone in the touch department. Below the Nook’s main E Ink screen is a separate 3.5-inch color LCD touch screen for navigating through features and typing. The navigation is fast, but the response can feel clunky when you’re trying to scroll in the small space. The Kindle has no touch-screen features.

GOTTA HAVE SOUND? Go with the Kindle or Nook for listening to music while reading or for downloading audio books. If you want to load several gigs of your music library and dozens of audio books, go with the Nook, which has can expand to 32 GB with an optional add-on memory card. It comes with 2 GB, compared with the Kindle’s 3 GB, but the Kindle cannot expand its memory.

COLOR-HAPPY? Numerous covers ($20-$50) are available to add personality to your e-reader, but only the Sony Reader Pocket Edition actually comes in pink. (A larger version, called Reader Touch, comes in red.)

LOVE TO SHARE? If you’re stuck between the Kindle and Nook, know that they both operate well. But if you want to share books, you’re better off with the Nook, which lets you lend files to Nook-using friends and can easily handle digital books from your local library. The Kindle can’t read .epub files, the common e-book format outside of Amazon’s store, but it can read Adobe .pdf files.

COMO SE DICE? All three e-readers let you look up a definition of a word while reading. But the Sony Reader goes bit further, with 10 built-in translation dictionaries for Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish. Double tap a word on the screen to get the meaning or a translation.

BRIDGET’S PICK: The pocket Sony Reader’s responsive touch screen, clean menu design and small size won my heart. But it doesn’t have a way to wirelessly connect to the Sony Reader Store. Being able to connect on Wi-Fi and 3G is one of the best perks of an e-reader, so the Kindle wins my vote. I like its simplicity and lightweight design and the ability to search its bookstore from anywhere.

The lighted cover (sold separately for $59.99) is a perk of its own: It comes with a built-in book light. Snap it into the Kindle, and it can use the reader’s battery for power.

If lack of access to .epub files is a deal breaker and you don’t mind tinkering, keep in mind that there are programs on the Web to convert files and make it work. And many e-books do come in the compatible PDF format.