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Cheap Ereaders Buying Guide

Our favorite budget ereader is the basic Amazon Kindle, which costs a mere $69 (with ads) and excels at its one and only function. The Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch GlowLight (starting at $99) our other pick for best cheap ereader.

An outstanding bargain, this model performs like a champ and sports built-in edge lighting -- a very popular feature among users -- yet costs a hair less than our cheap price ceiling. The entry-level Nook Simple Touch (starting at $79) is priced just right for a cheap ereader and includes a touchscreen but no light. The Sony Reader PRS-T2 (starting at $70) is equal to the Nook and Kindle in terms of overall performance and is an excellent deal, but it won't be available much longer and the company has no plans to sell an updated version in the U.S.

Ereader Reviews: Display and Readability
Ebook Stores and Formats
Wi-Fi Ereaders, Storage, Navigation, and Battery Life

Two cheap ereaders that leave reviewers wanting more are the Kobo Mini (starting at $59) and the Ectaco JetBook Mini (starting at $83). The Kobo Mini seems like a product in search of an audience. It's slightly smaller than other ereaders, which arguably is a plus, but the screen's contrast isn't as sharp as the displays on competing models. Moreover, the Kobo library contains fewer titles than those maintained by Amazon and Barnes & Noble and it's a challenge to navigate. The Ectaco JetBook Mini has been around for several years and seems almost anachronistic. It features a sharp display but runs on AAA batteries (rather than the newer and preferred rechargeable fuel cell), its performance can be sluggish, and loading books onto the device is a real pain.

When shopping for a cheap ereader, the first thing to look for is a screen that's easy to read. The good news here is that almost all ereaders use some type of E Ink Pearl screen technology and a handful feature built-in lighting, which facilitates reading regardless of the surrounding light. The most common screen size for ereaders is 6 inches, although a few models, including the Kobo Mini and Ectaco JetBook Mini, use a 5-inch display. Touchscreens are becoming increasingly common even in cheap ereaders. It's a nice feature, but not necessarily a make-or-break option.

The best budget ereaders support several file formats. The EPUB format is the most popular and is supported by most ereaders as well as most libraries and online ebook stores. However, Amazon's Kindles do not and never have supported EPUB, which is one of the Kindles' few frustrating drawbacks. The various Kindle models support other popular formats, though, such as PDF, TXT, and DOC, so these devices are not completely locked into their own proprietary format, AZW. Most ereaders support PDF and a handful of other text formats and should also support a variety of image formats such as BMP, PNG, and GIF. In the past some ereaders supported audio formats, such as MP3, but audio support has fallen out of favor and none of the models we looked at support such files.

Wi-Fi is standard on newer ereaders, as it should be. Wi-Fi support makes it easy for users to find and download content directly to the device. As for storage capacity, a good low-cost ereader will have at least 1GB of useable built-in storage and some are graced with an expansion slot for a memory card. Of course, using the ereader should be intuitive, and it should run fast -- you don't want to wait 10 seconds after you turn a page for the new page to load on the screen. Finally, the best cheap ereaders boast long battery life.

Ereader Reviews: Display and Readability

Ereaders are mostly one-trick ponies -- they are meant for reading ebooks -- and the ereader reviews we read indicate that these little devices facilitate this activity quite well with screens that are easy on the eyes.

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Ereaders try to emulate paperback books, so most have small screens, typically 5 or 6 inches. What matters more than size for the reading experience, though, is the underlying screen technology.

Most of the better budget ebook readers now incorporate E Ink Pearl, whose display mimics the look of printed text on paper. The latest E Ink technology delivers nearly instant page turns, a performance boost that ereader reviews praise. It also enables users to easily read the display even in bright daylight (the more light, the better) without the "page" looking washed out. The Nook Simple Touch GlowLight (starting at $99) and entry-level Simple Touch (starting at $79), Kindle (starting at $69 with ads), Sony Reader PRS-T2 (starting at $70), and Kobo Mini (starting at $59) all boast E Ink Pearl technology.

The Ectaco JetBook Mini (starting at $83) uses an older TFT display similar to those found in smartphones or small tablets. The screen is backlit, however, which makes for easy reading even in the dark. Note that built-in lights are starting to show up in E Ink displays and currently appear in the Nook Simple Touch GlowLight and Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (starting at $119, with ads). Other E Ink ebook readers rely on ambient light.

The screen on the latest entry-level Kindle is slightly better than that of its predecessor, asserts an expert ereader review at PC Mag. Contrast is crisper and text is darker, although the review notes that the difference doesn't jump out at you. In any case, a throng of users who have posted comments at Amazon declare that the screen affords a fine read.

The two Nook models on our list also boast excellent screens, ereader reviews conclude. Comments posted at sites like Walmart and Best Buy state that the display on the basic Simple Touch is clear, easy on the eyes, and free of glare, while PC Mag deems the text crisp. The Simple Touch GlowLight lights up evenly and retains good contrast and dark text even with the light turned on, notes a CNET expert, who adds that the GlowLight is a "killer feature" for nighttime reading. PC World agrees, saying the GlowLight's screen delivers a "silky smooth" reading experience and the integrated light is worth the higher price.

A similarly crisp and sharp display shows up on the Sony Reader PRS-T2 even in the absence of backlighting, according to online reviews. Engadget contends that text on the Reader is sharper than on the backlit Nook but not standard-setting. CNET experts like what they see -- clear contrast, dark text, and precise fonts.

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Ereader reviews of the Kobo Mini screen are less effusive. An expert at Techhive says the screen is fairly easy on the eyes although fonts appear to be dark gray rather than black. An expert review by Digital Trends also considers the Mini's contrast and crispness subpar compared with a Nook or Kindle Paperwhite and the display a tad less responsive than competing models.

Two Ectaco JetBook Mini users who posted reviews on Amazon are satisfied with the display, which presents jet-black fonts due to its TFT screen. Resolution is quite low, however, and an ereader review at Newegg says the display looks rudimentary compared with a Kindle or the Sony Reader PRS-T2.

The Kindle Paperwhite may boast the best display of all the ereaders we researched, but it's priced above our $100 ceiling, even with ads. A CNET reviewer says the newest Paperwhite has a faster and more responsive screen than the previous iteration and its integrated light works well. An expert assessment by Digital Trends commends the bright screen and high black-on-white contrast, declaring this the best E Ink screen to date.

Ebook Stores and Formats

Once you've purchased an ereader, where will you buy ebooks? Each ereader is associated with an ebook store and supports certain ebook formats. Comparing these can be as crucial to your purchase decision as comparing the hardware. A sizeable ebook store and support for a variety of popular ebook formats provides the largest selection of titles.

Ebook Stores.

Amazon sells ebooks for Kindles; Barnes & Noble sells ebooks for its Nooks; Sony maintains a sizeable ebook store for its Reader devices; and Kobo's library is also quite extensive. Ectaco doesn't have a library for the JetBook Mini, but the device can read EPUB files, which is the format most ebook libraries use. Ebook readers can also buy material from online ebook stores, such as Fictionwise.com or Ebooks.com. And most local libraries maintain inventories of lendable ebooks.

Compared to prices of print books, ebooks are a virtual bargain. Lots of ebooks sell for less than $10 and best-sellers typically cost less than $15; some ebooks are even free. Many libraries lend ebooks at no charge, usually in the EPUB format. You can also find more than a million free ebooks from Google and online bookstores. These free ebooks are typically classics whose copyrights have expired, such as Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, Pride and Prejudice, and other well-known titles from yesteryear.

Ebook Formats.

Older ebook readers sometimes support a variety of text, audio, and image formats, but today's devices focus mostly on text, with support for a few image formats. The more text formats an ebook reader supports, the easier it is to find reading material. Perhaps the most popular ebook format is EPUB. Many libraries, bookstores (such as Barnes & Noble), and online vendors make books available in the EPUB ebook format. Nook ereaders and the Kobo Mini support EPUB as well as Adobe's popular PDF format. The Ectaco JetBook Mini can read EPUB files after they've been converted using Calibre software. Other ebook formats include TXT, Mobi, and RTF. Our top picks among budget ereaders also support JPG, GIF, and PNG image formats.

Amazon‘s Kindle ereaders and ebooks stand apart in the virtual world. They use a proprietary format called AZW, including a newer version called Kindle Format 8 (abbreviated as AZW3, curiously) that allows more behind-the-scenes formatting options such as drop caps and support for HTML5 files. Kindles do not support EPUB and cannot read ebooks that are DRM-protected files purchased outside of the Kindle library. Kindles can, however, read TXT and PDF files and they do support the common image formats noted above.

Titles purchased at ebook stores are often DRM-protected, meaning they will work on your ebook reader and PC but not on anyone else's. Sharing is out and everyone has to buy their own copies. (Nooks and Kindles are exceptions to this rule: If you own a Nook or Kindle you can share an ebook with another user of the respective device for up to 14 days.) Most ereaders include support for DRM-protected EPUB and PDF files by using a product called Adobe Digital Edition, which manages and "approves" DRM products on your ebook reader. All the ereaders on our list are compatible with at least some DRM-protected ebook formats. Libraries have accommodated to the many formats, so borrowing ebooks should be hassle-free.

Wi-Fi Ereaders, Storage, Navigation, and Battery Life

Although using an ebook reader is mostly a passive experience, the device should be user-friendly. That is, users should have no trouble downloading and storing extensive libraries of ebooks (Wi-Fi ereaders make this easy), the interface should be simple to navigate, and the battery should last several weeks.

Ereader Connectivity.

When you buy a new ebook or borrow one from a library, you'll need to transfer the material to your ebook reader. All the ebook readers we researched can connect to a PC or Mac via USB cable. With the exception of the Ectaco JetBook Mini, they all are Wi-Fi ereaders that can easily download books over the air, as well. 3G versions are more expensive.

Ebook Storage.

The more storage in an ebook reader, the more ebooks you can carry around. The ebook readers we researched have 2GB of internal memory. These devices reserve about 1GB of that space for the software necessary to run the ereader, leaving 1GB for the user. That may not sound like a lot, but 1GB is enough room to store several hundred books.

Several of our top picks also include a microSD or SD card slot that lets you store several more gigabytes of data. The Nook Simple Touch models and Sony Reader PRS-T2 feature microSD card slots that support up to 32GB and the JetBook Mini has an SD card slot that stores up to 16GB of content.

Neither Kindle model we researched nor the Kobo Mini has a memory card slot. However, Amazon lets users store content bought from the company in the Amazon Cloud, online storage that can be accessed through an ereader with Wi-Fi.

Ereader Navigation.

An ebook reader should have a straightforward interface and navigation tools that don't disrupt the reading experience. Manufacturers keep trying to simplify these devices, and with the introduction of touchscreens, ease of use has improved.

Experts and consumers are enthusiastic about touchscreens, which appear on both versions of the Nook Simple Touch and on the Kindle Paperwhite, Sony Reader PRS-T2, and Kobo Mini. (The Nooks and Sony Reader also come with the usual array of navigation buttons.) The Nook, Kindle, and Reader PRS-T2 touchscreens make for easy navigation and speedy page turns, reviewers say, although one expert detects an occasional hint of lag with the entry-level Nook. Navigation on Kobo's Mini seems less peppy, but its interface measures up, according to experts. One at Techhive noticed some ghosting when turning pages but is more concerned about navigating Kobo's online library, which she says suffers from slow page loads and categories too broad for browsing.

The basic Kindle lacks a touchscreen, as does the Ectaco JetBook Mini. Rapid page turns on the Kindle compensate for the missing touchscreen, in the opinion of PC Mag, and users say navigation is a cinch. The JetBook Mini, on the other hand, is undone by the need to convert common ebook formats to another format, a chore that doesn't sit well with users, some of whom also gripe about comparatively slow page turns.

Ereader Battery Life.

Except for the Ectaco JetBook Mini, which runs on four AAA batteries, the ereaders we researched use built-in, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. The E Ink Pearl technology is easier on batteries than the LCD display technology in the JetBook Mini, and these days most ebook readers are quite energy efficient.

One charge should last up to two months on the newest crop of E Ink Pearl ereaders (i.e., the two Nooks, the Sony Reader PRS-T2, and the Kindle Paperwhite). The entry-level Kindle and the Kobo Mini, both slightly older models, run for about a month before needing a recharge, and the Ectacto JetBook Mini should last a good 80 hours with its replaceable batteries. Experts caution that batteries drain significantly faster in Wi-Fi ereaders when the signal is on but not in use, so be sure to switch it off to extend the time between charges.



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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Ereaders
  2. Discount Ereaders Features Comparison Table
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