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Updated: December 19, 2012 7:16 AM

E-book readers

E-book readers are portable devices, usually with display screens optimized to show the electronic text of digital books. These electronic book readers are typically larger than cell phones and smaller than most tablet computers. Tablets with e-book apps, Web browsers and more robust processors typically offer more versatile than e-readers.

Getting started

What are e-book readers anyway? They're portable devices, typically with 5-to-10-inch screens, primarily designed to display the digitized versions of printed books. They're typically quite light--mostly 10 ounces or so--and are about as thin as many smart phones. Prices typically range from $140 to $400, though you might see a model or two for $100 or so.

Most use technologies such as E Ink that rely on reflected ambient light to illuminate their screen. That gives them a relatively long battery life--thousands of page turns, or upward of a week or so in standby mode. Others, however, including virtually all color models, use the LCD screen technology of laptops and many phones. While such LCD screens generally produce type that's less crisp, and more difficult to read in bright light, they're backlit, and so are easier to read in dim light.

E-book readers offer other capabilities, such as built-in music players, but they're designed primarily for reading. You select content and turn pages using buttons, bars, or (on touch-screen models) an onscreen swipe.

Can I read e-books on other devices? You can. The same e-book applications found on readers are also available for many smart phones, PCs, and Mac computers. Some tablet models such as Apple's iPad have their own e-book apps, too. But multipurpose devices are generally less suited to e-book reading than dedicated readers. Their LCD screens typically display type less crisply than reader screens, they run for hours on a charge rather than days, and they're more prone to wash out in bright light.

How do I get e-books onto my reader? They're typically downloaded directly from an e-book store maintained by the reader's manufacturer. Some readers come bundled with unlimited access to a 3G cellular network that allows wireless downloads from those stores wherever you have network coverage--a significant plus. Others allow wireless access via WiFi, which may suffice for many people. A book typically requires a minute or less to download.

Many readers, like virtually all tablets, connect wirelessly only over a Wi-Fi connection to a home network or hotspot. Other units, including some of the Sony Reader models, require you to connect the device to a computer to download content. Downloads using a USB cord and a computer are an option with all units, even wireless ones.

What do e-books cost? E-books can be less expensive than printed books. Prices typically range from free to $30 and up. New best-selling titles often cost less as e-books than as hardcovers. Many classic titles that are in the public domain cost only a few dollars or are available free from the Google Books database of more than 500,000 public domain titles. E-book retailers frequently offer free sample chapters.

The selection of e-books on all the major devices is large and rapidly expanding. That said, not every printed book is available in e-book form and the e-book release is sometimes delayed somewhat, to maximize sales of hardcover editions.

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