Gear Diary’s End of 2011 eBook Guide

Gear Diary's End of 2011 eBook Guide

Did you receive or are you expecting to get an eReader this holiday season? Or maybe you’re planning on using your holiday bonus to finally snap one up! Either way, it’s the end of 2011, and we’ve got a deep bench of ebook readers at a variety of price points, including some fairly recent price cuts. There aren’t too many rumors about updates heading into 2012, so let’s take a look at where we stand, the pros and cons for each store and device, as well as some tips on how to find books from more sources than just Amazon and B&N!


A quick note before I run through the various ebook readers: I won’t be covering pure tablets, only the reading-centric ones. There’s too many tablets to cover, though I will try to hit the high points of how to read on tablets in the software section. So let’s take a look at the hardware!

Barnes and Noble:

B&N offers a multi-tiered approach to ebook readers. If you like eInk, there’s the NOOK Simple Touch Reader. It’s a touchscreen device with the sharp Pearl eInk screen, making it even more paper-like and clear than predecessors. Our own Michael Anderson has a NOOK Touch and LOVES it, as evidenced from his first impressions review:

I like the nook quite a bit for what it does – and also for what it doesn’t do. I don’t need another tablet or media player or full featured PDA or anything else. I need something that provide an easy way for me to read, maintain my books and shop for new ones – and nothing else.

The nook Simple Touch Reader delivers exactly what it promises – a simple reading-centric device with a touch screen that allows you to perform simple tasks in a natural way. And so far it has accomplished my primary goal in that it has me reading more!

If you’re looking for something that does more than just reading, B&N has two choices for you, the NOOKcolor and the NOOK Tablet. Physically they look extremely similar, though the NOOK Tablet has a higher resolution screen and a bit more horsepower. We haven’t had the chance to review the NOOK Tablet here at Gear Diary, but we have covered the NOOKcolor extensively. I reviewed it last year and liked it quite a bit:

 This is a great screen, and it’s designed for broad viewing angles so you don’t need to hold it head on, but it’s still a backlit screen. It’s not going to be the same paper-like experience the original NOOK or Kindle offer. There’s pros and cons to that, but it’s something to keep in mind. An LCD means smoother page turns without an eInk “flash” but it also means you sacrifice some battery life as well as sunlight visibility. Also, the big, beautiful color screen is a major fingerprint magnet. Keep a microfiber cloth handy if you’re a neat freak.

In the end, it’s up to you if the NOOKcolor fits your needs. However, I think you’d be hard pressed to walk into a B&N and NOT want to play with one. It’s a fun, fun, fun device, and everything about the out of the box experience is designed to make it easy and pleasurable to use. It’s obviously been designed with reading and consuming content as the foremost use, and in that respect it’s a 100% home run.

The NOOKcolor’s big claim to fame, though, is that you can easily access the underlying Android operating system, either to install the Android marketplace or to make it more tablet-like in functionality. B&N does address this gap by adding more apps to the NOOK Tablet ecosystem, but it’s still weak in comparison to the full Android marketplace offerings. NOOK Tablet (and NOOKcolor) offer Netflix, Hulu+, and other multimedia options in addition to reading.

The full lineup is available from Barnes and Noble online:

NOOK Tablet: $249

NOOKcolor: $199

NOOK Simple Touch Reader: $99 (on sale!)


Amazon, like B&N, offers a multi-tiered strategy. There are Kindles for every budget, from a basic, non-touchscreen model to touchscreens to the tablet-style Kindle Fire. All of Amazon’s eInk devices use Pearl screens, and their Fire uses a color LCD. Amazon’s eInk devices have a unique pricing twist: if you’re ok with ads on the screensaver, they’ll knock $30 off the price. Of course, if you don’t want ads, you can purchase the devices without them, and if you buy or receive a “Special Offers” ad-supported Kindle and don’t want the ads anymore, Amazon allows you to pay the difference and remove the ads. One other differentiating point for Amazon is that they offer a Kindle with free 3G for downloading titles; the competition only offers wifi. Just like with wifi Kindles, you can get a 3G Kindle with or without ads.

We haven’t had the chance to review Amazon’s latest eInk Kindles, but Michael and Dan did try the Kindle Fire. Their final conclusion was a bit mixed overall:

Should you buy the Kindle Fire? No.

Well, perhaps that is a bit hasty: in general I say ‘no’ because as an eReader you are better off with a $99 Nook or Kindle. For apps and video and games you are better off with an iPad Touch or iPad … or a discontinued HP TouchPad if you can grab one.

But all of those options cost considerably more than the Kindle Fire – and the Fire is solid, well built, performs well (after the update), has a great screen, loads of content, and more. It is generally superior to any 7? Android tablet on the market at less than half the price. And so it just might meet your needs.

But it brings me back to the importance of assessing your needs – if you are looking for an eReader, don’t assume that this is the best Kindle for reading – it is the WORST, due to the lack of eInk. But if you are looking for a general purpose media consumption device, the Kindle Fire is a solid device that could easily keep you satisfied at an affordable price.

The Kindle Fire offers Hulu+, Netflix, and Amazon Prime videos. Effectively, it’s extremely similar to a NOOK Tablet or NOOK Color, with the added bonus of Amazon’s App Store and Amazon Prime video on demand.

Amazon Prime offers another bonus for Kindle owner-if you own a Kindle, whether it is a Fire or an eInk Kindle, and you are a Prime member, you have access to a free library of titles. You can check out one title per month, and only from your device, not from a smartphone or regular tablet. Still, it’s a nice bonus!

The whole Kindle lineup is available from

Kindle (non touch): $79 with ads/$109 without

Kindle Touch: $99 with ads/$139 without

Kindle Touch 3G: $149 with ads/$189 without

Kindle Fire: $199


Kobo used to only offer their Kobo Reader, a rebrand of a simple design that had been used by Cybook and other manufacturers for years. This year, though, they released their Kobo Touch Reader, a touchscreen, eInk device that competes with B&N and Amazon’s toucheReaders. They also have the Kobo Vox, an LCD tablet device with Kobo’s reading software front and center. Finally, to compete with Amazon, Kobo sells a Kobo Touch with Offers, with ad support similar to the Kindles.

We haven’t reviewed any of Kobo’s current lineup at Gear Diary, but they have a loyal, if small, following in the ebook world. Like Amazon, Kobo is international, so if you’re shopping for or living overseas, keep Kobo on your radar. Their eInk devices generally get praised, but there have been mixed reviews of the Kobo Vox, and for the price, you may be better off looking to the Kindle Fire or NOOK Tablet if you want a tablet-y reader.

Kobo’s full lineup is available at

Kobo Touch: $99 with offers/$129 without

Kobo Vox: $199


While Sony used to have a huge selection of ebook readers at various price points, they’ve refocused down to one, the PRS-T1. It runs Android underneath all the ebook-focused software, and it’s a touchscreen with a stylus, allowing you to underline, take notes, etc. I had the chance to review it recently, and while I loved the hardware, overall it’s not my favorite of the “major” readers:

The big question here is, who is the audience for this device? If you are an ebook enthusiast, enjoy finding books from multiple sources, and you’re looking for something you can tweak to your heart’s content, this is a great choice at an affordable price. However, if you’re looking for an ebook reader you can hand someone without compromise, and without them needing to reach for a computer or manual…this isn’t necessarily it. I want to emphasize, it’s a nice device, but there’s many compromises that go along with the standout features.

I still stand by that conclusion. It’s not a bad device, but the competition is stiff, and they need to improve some of the sluggishness. On the other hand, it’s on sale right now, and lower prices can make consumers extremely forgiving of faults.

The PRS-T1 is available from

Sony PRS-T1: $99 on sale (reg. $129)

Software and Stores:

With the exception of Sony, none of the major eBookstores have mandatory desktop components. Amazon and B&N offer desktop reading software, and Kobo has a “read anywhere” website option, but you don’t need to sync your device to a desktop to keep it updated. All the major readers and tablet-readers do offer USB connection options so you can drag and drop files onto your device.

Why would you want to do that? With the tablet-readers, that’s easy. Pictures, music, movies, you want to take advantage of the multimedia options. Even eInk devices offer picture viewing, though there’s questionable value there considering most people have a smartphone handy with a much brighter screen. You can also download ebooks from your reader’s store and load them via USB if 3G or WiFi are not available.

That’s where things get a bit stickier and more confusing. Unfortunately, even 4 years after the original Kindle came out, we still have a fractured landscape where ebooks are not compatible between devices and each store has their own flavor of digital rights management. Amazon, B&N, and Apple all use proprietary software, while Sony and Kobo use Adobe Digital Editions DRM. The result is that a book purchased from Kobo can be read on a Sony, Kobo, or B&N reader, but a book purchased from B&N, Amazon, or Apple can only be read in the originating store’s respective software/hardware readers. Confused yet?

What this really means for you, as a consumer, is that you need to choose wisely. Do your research before committing to a platform. Look at what your friends and family use (B&N and Amazon both offer lending programs) as well as whether your favorite authors are exclusive to Amazon or another platform. Of course, if you do wish to keep a hand in a few platforms, there’s always smartphones and tablets…

On both iOS and Android, there are a tremendous number of reading options. There’s Kindle, NOOK, Google Books, Kobo, iBooks (iOS only), Sony Reader (Android only), plus general reading apps like Stanza on iOS (which has had mixed reviews since iOS 5) and Aldiko on Android. These allow you to maintain multiple libraries from different stores all on your device. The downside is that you end up app hopping a bit, but it does give you the flexibility to sample the different stores. Each app offers different options as far as formatting and fonts, so if you’re very particular about how your books appear it’s worth trying each one. Also, Amazon offers page-level sync between Kindles and the Kindle apps, so you can start on a smartphone, continue on a Kindle, and finish on a phone, which is a handy tool, and Kobo and B&N do sync your library wirelessly, so everything is available on your devices, whether it’s a reader or an app.

Finally, let’s say you want a few more options that aren’t just Amazon, B&N, etc. Chances are your local library offers free ebooks for you to borrow. Even better, Overdrive (the company that runs digital downloads for libraries) now offers Kindle books as well, so if you own any of the major ebook readers you’re in good shape. Overdrive also offers a smartphone app, though I haven’t found it terribly impressive. Sony and Kindle users can download books wirelessly (Sony users from the device itself, Kindle users through Overdrive’s site) while B&N and Kobo users can move library books over USB. They expire automatically after their due date, so you dodge late fees too!

If you’re looking for non-mainstream titles or classics, there’s a number of other choices, like Smashwords, Feedbooks, Manybooks, and Project Gutenberg. Everything from self-published titles to classics are available for free or very cheaply, and you might find the books you skipped in high school English are better than you thought!


At the end of 2011, the ebook buying world looks a great deal like the end of 2010. Amazon is still on top, B&N is still hanging onto second place, and Kobo is clinging to third, while Sony, Apple, and everyone else plays mop up with the remaining share. And as I said above, we’re still dealing with a fractured DRM system that shows no signs of converging, What’s improved is that there are more shopping choices, prices are dropping like rocks, and you can read on tablets, eReaders, computers, and yes, paper books too. More than ever, the choice of what platform to buy and use is a personal one; do you like B&N more than Amazon, are you a die-hard Sony fan, or do you like a bit of everything? No matter what you choose, you have some great options!

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About the Author

Zek has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to their first PDA (a Palm M100). They quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. They love writing about ebooks because they combine their two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?