E-book readers as stocking stuffers

By Barbara Krasnoff (@BarbaraKrasnoff / ) - November 15, 2011

Everybody is excited about the new spate of tablet/ereaders -- Amazon's Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet and the Kobo Vox -- that are shipping or about to ship. And quite rightly -- these Amazon-based devices allow consumers to have some of the functionality of more expensive tablets such as the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab.

However, in all the excitement, perhaps not enough attention is being given to the "stocking stuffers" -- the smaller and less expensive E-Ink e-readers that may not give you a lot of browsing capability, but that may, because of their approximately $100 price tags, be even more of an impulse buy than their sexier siblings.

All three vendors are vying in this market, either by dropping the price of their existing products, or introducing tweaked versions of previous devices.

Amazon has three lower-cost e-readers, starting with the $79 Kindle --yes, that's its entire name. Well, it's $79 if you buy it along with advertisements (Amazon calls them Special Offers), which appear on the screensaver and on the bottom of the home screen. If you don't want to give somebody a gift that pushes ads at them, you can get an ad-free device for an additional $30. The Kindle is a Wi-Fi-only reader, weighing just under 6 oz. and with a 6-in. E-Ink display. You get about 2GB storage (of which about 1.25GB is actually available) plus free cloud storage for Amazon content. The 2GB may not sound like a lot, but keep in mind that this is pretty much reading material only (as opposed to the Kindle Fire, which has a full-fledged Web browser). Amazon also includes what it calls on its site an "experimental browser" -- in the past, the browsers on the Kindles have been pretty basic; I haven't had a chance to try out the latest version.

The next up is the Kindle Touch, which comes in a Wi-Fi-only version ($99 or $139 "without special offers") and a 3G version ($149 or $189 without ads). Like the plainer Kindle, this has a 6-in. screen and browser; at 7.5 oz. (7.8 for the 3G version) it weighs slightly more and is slightly larger. The real advantage is in the storage; the Touch has 4GB internal memory (about 3GB available for user storage) and, according to Amazon, better battery life.

Neither of these come with the old-style Kindle keyboard; if you miss it, you can get the Kindle Keyboard in both Wi-Fi ($99 or $139) and 3G ($139 and $189) versions; they are slightly heavier and larger than their Touch cousins, but otherwise have the same specs.

Interestingly, the Touch and the Keyboard e-readers come perilously close to the price of a Kindle Fire -- if you want to go ad-free.

Barnes & Noble has only one E-Ink reader: The Nook Simple Touch, which it offers for $99 (at the press event where it was introduced, a lot of emphasis was put on its lack of advertising). The Simple Touch, like the Kindle Touch, has a 6-in. display and weighs 7.5 oz.; it also has 2GB of storage (with about 1GB for user content), but includes a microSD slot. This is a Wi-Fi-only device; Barnes & Noble includes free Wi-Fi connections in its stores and via AT&T hotspots.

Barnes & Noble also, incidentally, dropped the price of its original Nook Color, the first in the field of color e-readers, to $200 (its Nook Tablet is $245).

Almost lost in the battle between Amazon and Barnes & Noble is Kobo -- its Kobo Touch also has a 6-in. display and 2GB storage (1GB available to users) with a microSD slot. It weighs 6.5 oz., an ounce lighter than the Kindle and Nook touch e-readers. The Kobo Touch originally cost $130; in an effort to keep in line with the prices of its competitors, Kobo recently announced a price drop to $99 with ads (on the screensaver and bottom of the home screen, in the same manner as the Kindle).

Back in September, I wrote about the razor blade theory of economics: If you sell a razor at dirt-cheap prices (or give it away), you'll make your profit on the razor blades. When e-readers first started coming out, it seemed as if the vendors hadn't yet learned that lesson; however, with the spate of under-$100 e-readers, it looks like they have, at least, tried to bring the prices down to where even economically-aware consumers could consider one as a holiday gift.

Of course, offering color e-reader/tablets for around $200 to $249 -- up to $200 less than the popular iPad -- can't hurt either. While many commentators are quick to point out that the new color e-readers offer much more limited features, especially in terms of apps and general usability (i.e. no Bluetooth), a family that is finding itself a bit pressed financially could very well find the difference in price significant.

I'm curious as to whether prices will continue to drop in the near future. The popularity of e-readers has proven that we still have a lot of people out there who enjoy reading and who are willing to buy electronic devices that make reading easier. If the profits from e-books become high enough, it's possible that we will be purchasing e-book readers for as much, or less, than a paperback book costs today.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon