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Cool stuff: Your 2010 holiday tech gift guide

By Computerworld staff
December 7, 2010 06:00 AM ET

E-readers for everyone

E-book readers continue to be a popular item, offering a way for people who enjoy reading to carry entire libraries around with them. And while some vendors have fallen by the wayside, there are still quite a few choices of e-readers out there, ranging in price from just under $100 to over $300.

Most of today's e-readers still use E Ink technology, and many have upgraded to the next-generation E Ink Pearl technology, which is sharper and easier to read than its predecessor. And while all current E-Ink displays are limited to monochrome, color is not far away -- the first color E Ink displays were recently unveiled at a trade show in Japan, and at least one vendor expects to be showing an e-reader with a color e-ink display this January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, those who want color can look for e-readers that use high-quality LCDs such as the NookColor or tablets like Apple's iPad. However, color is expensive; if you simply want to make sure your gift recipient always has something to read, there are several good choices available.

Amazon Kindle 3G

Even with all of the e-readers that have hit the market, the Kindle is still the leader, and still a favorite. The latest iteration is, at 8.7 oz., lighter than previous versions, and the device itself is smaller, although the E Ink reading surface still has the same 6-in. diagonal size. The Kindle now uses E Ink's Pearl technology, providing a sharp image with better contrast.

Other changes include a slightly different layout -- for example, the switch that turns the Kindle on and off, or puts it to sleep, is now on the bottom rather than the top, and the buttons that turn the pages are narrower. The joystick that was previously on the far right side of the device has been redesigned into a direction pad that is just to the right of the keypad, and there are no more dedicated number keys.

However, the main attractions continue to be the easy-to-read display, the text-to-speech audio that reads books to you, and the immediate wireless access to Amazon's huge book collection via Wi-Fi or a free 3G connection. (You can also purchase the Kindle Wi-Fi, which lacks the 3G service, for $139, and the larger Kindle DX for $379.)

Reviewers Sally Wiener Grotta and Daniel Grotta are avid readers and Kindle fans:

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently predicted that there would be at least a 20th-generation Kindle, which tells us that he believes this to be an evolutionary device that will only get better over time. As it stands right now, the Kindle's design, quality construction, incredible simplicity yet great depth of features helps explain why it's the best-selling e-reader out there. (Read the full review.)
Price: $189
Tech Specs  |  Phone: (866) 321-8851
Summary: Amazon's Kindle 3G still ranks as one of the best and most convenient ways to take your library with you.
Barnes & Noble NookColor

Although E Ink displays are widely thought to be the most desirable screens for e-readers, they do have their faults. First, like paper pages, they aren't backlit, so you need a light to read them at night. And second, they're currently monochrome.

Barnes & Noble NookColor
Barnes & Noble NookColor
(Click to view larger image.)

Barnes & Noble's NookColor bucks the E Ink trend, and does so very successfully. The bookseller's new e-reader has a 7-in. backlit 1024-by-600-pixel touchscreen LCD that uses In-Plane Switching (IPS) technology, the same technology that the iPad uses. It offers a bright, clear, readable full-color display in a device that, at 15.8 oz., is a bit heavier than most other e-readers.

The NookColor uses a custom version of the Android 2.1 operating system; the result is a well-organized, easy-to-navigate user interface. It includes built-in Wi-Fi and a browser; you can even load in a few Android apps (although there is no access to the Android Market). And like the Kindle, the NookColor offers audio as well -- in fact, it currently offers some children's books with a Read To Me feature where the text is read by a recorded human voice.

If you're feeling generous, you can use the NookColor's LendMe feature to "loan" books to friends for up to 14 days (although each book can be lent to only one person -- period).

But one of the major selling points for the NookColor -- and one that can make the difference to a lot of people -- is the chance to read magazines, graphic novels, art books and other documents in full color. As PC World's Melissa J. Perenson explains:

The first LCD-based e-reader optimized around reading, the NookColor delivers a superbly integrated, largely satisfying, and (for now) unique e-reading experience. Better yet, it has the potential to deliver far more as Barnes & Noble's library of periodicals and children's books grows. (Read the full review.)
Price: $249
Tech Specs  |  Store Locator  |  Phone: (800) 843-2665
Summary: Barnes & Noble's NookColor bucks the E Ink trend and delivers a bright, readable and colorful e-reading experience.
Sony Reader Pocket Edition

Sony's latest Reader Pocket Edition can be considered the sports car of e-readers -- it's small, snazzy and very mobile.

Sony Reader Pocket Edition
Sony Reader Pocket Edition
(Click to view larger image.)

This petite (6.25 by 4.25 by 0.40-in.) and lightweight (7.76 oz.) e-reader is a delight to hold and a delight to read a book on. It has an E Ink Pearl touchscreen, which means that the display is bright and responsive, as easy on the eyes as any non-touch E Ink screen. It also means that the Pocket Reader is much more natural to use than e-readers that depend on hardware buttons for page turning, selecting books and other tasks.

The Pocket Edition is also an excellent e-reader for obsessive note takers -- an included stylus allows you to draw freeform scribbles anywhere on the page, while an on-screen keyboard lets you make more formal comments.

The only thing that might make the Pocket Edition less desirable as a mobile e-reader is its lack of any type of wireless connectivity. To order books from Sony's Reader Store, you have to connect your e-reader to your computer via the included USB cable.

On the plus side, the Reader Pocket Edition uses the ePub format, which is more versatile than the proprietary formats used by devices like the Kindle, as I explained in my October review of the Pocket Edition:

The Sony Readers are less restrictive than the market-leading Kindles, mainly because they use the close-to-standard ePub format; as a result, I had the choice of either using Sony's Reader Library to find books or simply getting e-books from external sources and importing them. It took me only a few seconds to import several PDF and RTF documents that I needed to read for work -- a much less burdensome process than getting similar documents into a Kindle.
(Read the full review.)

Sony's Reader Pocket Edition lists for $180 but is available from some vendors for about $150. Although this is still rather expensive for an e-reader without wireless capabilities, it is still a good choice as a gift for someone who travels (and reads) a lot.

Street price: $148 to $230
Tech Specs  |  Store Locator  |  Phone: (877) 865-7669
Summary: Sony's Reader Pocket Edition is a sleek, sophisticated and lightweight e-reader that's perfect for the literate traveler.

-- Barbara Krasnoff

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