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The ABCs of E-Book Readers

Save your eyes — and shoulders — with today’s devices.

You don’t need to be a bookworm to see the many advantages of electronic book (e-book) readers over paper books: These lightweight devices can store hundreds of books on something thinner than most magazines; you can download books 24/7; and along with more than a million free books available from the public domain, prices for e-books are generally cheaper than paper books (about $10 to $13 for a New York Times best-seller). Plus, you can even "borrow" downloads from most local libraries.

If you travel or use mass transit often and don’t want several books weighing you down, an e-reader could be your ticket to comfortable reading. All devices included in this review allow the user to adjust the font size and feature e-ink screens that can be viewed in direct sunlight. Battery life continues to get better as these gadgets evolve, with most permitting at least a week of reading without a charge.

Here's a quick look at the features that define four leading models.

Amazon Kindle

The redesigned Amazon Kindle e-book readers feature a 6-inch — but nontouch — screen with e-ink technology.

In the Wi-Fi model ($139), you can download books while in a wireless network, such as at your local café or in an airport lounge or hotel lobby. The Kindle 3G ($189) also works over Wi-Fi as well as via 3G (cellular) technology, so you can be anywhere in the world and download a book or content as long as your device receives a signal. There is no charge for this connectivity.

The Kindle DX ($379), works exactly the same as its smaller brother, but features a bigger, 9.7-inch screen. A number of free Kindle applications ("apps") are available to read your purchased books on supported smartphones or the Apple iPad. With the custom “Whispersync” technology, you can sync your bookmarks and notes on your phone or tablet, while still being able to pick up where you stopped reading on your Kindle.

Made of lightweight but durable graphite, all three models have a physical QWERTY keyboard at the bottom of the device, which makes it easy to search for books and other online content. Plus, you can download and play some free Kindle games.

Kindles also offer a feature that lets you have an e-book read back to you (if the book publisher allows it). Simply push a button and a humanlike voice will read the text.

Keep in mind, however, that the Kindle was designed to work only with e-books downloaded from the Amazon.com Kindle Store, so it doesn't enable downloads from local libraries.

Amazon Kindle

The redesigned Amazon Kindle e-book readers feature a 6-inch screen with e-ink technology. — Amazon.com

Kobo eReader

At $139.99, the Kobo eReader is the least expensive of the featured e-book readers — yet this lightweight device can store about 1,000 downloadable books (or up to 4,000 via an optional Secure Digital memory card).

Books are downloaded in one of two ways: by connecting the device to a computer via USB (included) or by using Bluetooth technology, with a nearby compatible cell phone, to download books wirelessly. E-books can be downloaded from KoboBooks.com or through the Borders website. The Kobo eReader ships with 100 preinstalled books from the public domain.

As a bonus, you can begin reading a book on the device and continue where you left off on a smartphone, PC or iPad (with the free Kobo player app).

The glare-free, 6-inch screen features e-ink technology; users can choose from five font sizes. The rubberized, quilted back makes the device comfortable to hold, while the blue directional pad on the bottom right of the unit is used to turn "pages" and select e-books.

The Kobo, however, does not offer many other bells and whistles, such as MP3 playback, touch capability, annotation support or an integrated dictionary.

Kobo E-Reader

At $139.99, the Kobo eReader is the least expensive of the featured e-book readers. — Kobobooks.com

Barnes & Noble Nook

The nook from Barnes & Noble — which costs $149 for the Wi-Fi version and $199 for the 3G+Wi-Fi model — offers a 5-inch gray-scale e-ink display, along with a 3.5-inch color touch-screen LCD at the bottom to swipe between digital book covers. Or you can turn this bottom display into a virtual keyboard to type in keywords, such as a book’s or author’s name.

While reading, you can select from six available font sizes. Turn pages by pressing the forward and back buttons on the right or left side of the unit (making it equally easy to use for both southpaws and right-handers).

To browse and buy books, magazines and newspapers, simply call up the online store while in a Wi-Fi hot spot (including free access at all Barnes & Noble stores and AT&T Wi-Fi hot spots). With the 3G version, you can download anywhere in the United States via AT&T's 3G wireless network for free (no contract required).

You can try before you buy by downloading a free sample, and even digitally "lend" to someone for up to 14 days at a time per book, which can be read on his or her nook or free nook app (iPhone or BlackBerry).

As with the Kindle, the nook can also play games (such as chess and sudoku). Similar to the Kobo eReader and Sony Touch Reader Edition devices, the nook will allow you to add a memory card if you find the 2GB of memory (about 1,500 books) is not enough for you.

Barnes and Noble Nook

The "nook" from Barnes & Noble offers a 5-inch gray-scale e-ink display, along with a 3.5-inch color touch-screen LCD at the bottom to swipe between digital book covers. — Barnes & Noble.com, LLC

Sony Reader

Sony, one of the first to launch an e-book reader a few years back, has a few different models to choose from: the 5-inch Reader Pocket Edition ($179.99), the 6-inch Reader Touch Edition ($229.99) and the 7-inch Reader Daily Edition ($249.99).

Both the Reader Touch Edition and the Reader Daily Edition have a touch screen that allows you to swipe your fingertip across the screen to "flip" pages. Plus, these models support highlighting and annotation, and they can play back audio stored on memory cards (such as audiobooks or music).

The Reader Daily Edition is the only Sony wireless model, which lets you download content via an integrated cellular data connection (for no extra fees). Downloading books for the other two requires you to do so on a PC or Mac, and then transfer the e-book to the devices via a USB cable (included).

The long and slender Reader Daily Edition is ideal for reading periodicals, such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, which you can buy for $14.99 and $19.99 a month, respectively (delivered six days a week to the device for The Journal and daily for The Times).

You can download "more than a million books" from the online Reader Store, many of which are free Google Books from the public domain. These e-book readers support the open ePub book format to buy elsewhere, too, or you can use this Web store to find your local library to rent books digitally.

Sony E-Reader

Both the Reader Touch Edition (pictured) and Reader Daily Edition have a touch screen that allows you to swipe your fingertip across the screen to "flip" pages. — Sony Electronics, Inc.

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