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Should You Buy an E-reader or a Tablet?

You'll have to decide what's most important: computing power, price or type of screen

Woman smiling with tablet in one hand and a coffee mug in the other hand
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At first blush, an e-book reader — e-reader for short — and a tablet, such an Apple iPad, look awfully similar.

They're both thin, rectangular-shaped slates, held in your hands and used to consume content at home or on the go. You may love, love, love words on paper, but packing an electronic book for a trip takes less weight in your luggage.

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For some people who have trouble holding up a thick tome, e-books can make life easier. Reading on these devices has several other benefits: You can easily enlarge the font size and style, double tap on a word to get a dictionary definition, make annotations on many models, and instantly share what you’re reading with friends and family.

While the two touch screen technologies for reading e-books may look the same, the devices have a few major differences. Those looking to purchase one for themselves or a loved one should understand these distinctions to avoid buyer's remorse.

E-readers excel at simple display

Older adult using an e-book reader while sitting at a pool
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The skinny: As the name suggests, e-readers are ideal for people who simply like to read. They're designed primarily for downloading electronic books, magazines and newspapers from a wireless store.

When reading, tap or swipe the page to flip through the electronic pages. Some e-readers have buttons, too.

Pros: E-readers are usually smaller and lighter than tablets, which make them more portable and easier on your wrists while holding. And their nonglare screen makes them better for reading in bright sunlight, which is not so easy to do on a backlit tablet.

E-readers are ideal for a beach or by the pool. And yes, many are waterproof, too.

They are generally more affordable than tablets, starting at about $75 for an entry-level model from a brand name such an Amazon Kindle or Rakuten Kobo. That’s about 15 percent less expensive than before the pandemic. The charge on an e-reader battery also lasts an average of one to two months, compared with 10 hours at most for tablets.

Cons: E-readers are ideal for reading e-books but not for much else. That's fine for those who want only to read. But e-readers’ lack of power and limited functions, such as no video playback and no apps, mean the experience is, well, limited.

A black and white screen is perfect for books and newspapers. But when reading magazines without color, you'll see the obvious trade-off.

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E-readers typically have screens that measure 5 to 7 inches on the diagonal though Kobo has a 10.3-inch version that also allows you to treat your e-reader like a spiral notebook or legal pad. Yet some people prefer reading on larger tablets that can have 12-inch screens.

Tablets pack computing power

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The skinny: Touch-screen tablets — such as the mega-popular iPad, as well as Android, Kindle Fire and Windows models — are thin and light devices. Use your fingertips to tap, swipe and pinch through content on the screen.

Tablets have a color and usually glossy screen. They’re built not just for reading e-books but also for browsing the web, checking email, listening to music, playing games and watching video. Tablets usually have two cameras.

More than a million apps are available, downloadable from various online app stores wirelessly. All tablets have Wi-Fi, and some can take a SIM card for cellular connectivity.

Pros: Tablets are a computer, just like your laptop, but they rely on touch instead of a mouse and keyboards. You can do almost everything on a tablet you would on a more conventional laptop or desktop, including chatting via video, creating documents, reviewing calendar appointments and shopping online.

Tablets can do things your other computer probably can't, such as shoot high-quality video and help you navigate city streets using GPS. Tablets are versatile devices that also boast large and colorful screens, and they support countless apps at both the Apple App Store and Google Play. Free apps are available for all the major e-book companies, too, including Kindle, Kobo and Barnes & Noble Nook.

Cons: While some exceptions exist, tablets can cost two to three times more than e-reader. The Kindle Paperwhite costs $159, the iPad starts at $329 and iPad mini begins at $499.

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Sure, Android tablets such as the 8-inch Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet and the 8.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab A7 Lite are less expensive. But because a tablet can do so much more than an e-reader with more power, speed and a beautiful color screen, you often need to pay for these luxuries.

Tablets also are usually a bit heavier and bigger than dedicated e-readers, and they're not waterproof. For bookworms, tablets have screens ideal for indoors but not so much for outside because they're backlit and not glare free.

Read between the lines

Whether you decide on an e-reader or tablet boils down to three things:

1. What do I want to do with the device, read or multitask?

2. Where will I use it, outdoors or inside?

3. How much can I afford? Is my budget tight or more flexible?

If all you want to do is read some books on the go, you don't need a pricier tablet with bells and whistles you won't use. If you want a lightweight, thin, touch-screen device that allows you to use apps, browse the web and view videos, invest in a tablet.

No matter what the device, assume that your usage is being tracked. One example: Amazon tracks information on books purchased, when you’re reading, how long you’re reading and what you’ve highlighted inside a Kindle book. The web browser supplied on its Fire tablets has been accused of tracking all of its users’ online movements.

The reason? It’s the same reason free apps aren’t really free. Companies want to show you more targeted and enticing advertisements and to sell information about you to other advertisers.

This story, originally published Feb. 3, 2020, has been updated to reflect new information.