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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

Smiling mature businesswoman sitting at cafe reading email on her digital tablet while having coffee. Female business professional using tablet computer and drinking coffee at coffee shop.

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En español | At first blush, an e-book reader — e-reader for short — and a tablet, such an 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. And for some people who have trouble holding up a thick tome, e-books can make life easier.

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.

Older adult using an e-book reader

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E-readers excel at simple display

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

You can change the font size and style and tap a word to look up a definition, or in some cases, make annotations. Many e-book readers let you borrow books for free from your local library. Some can play downloadable audiobooks, 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 non-glare screen makes them better for reading in bright sunlight, which is not so easy to do on a backlit tablet.

In other words, 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 $89 for an entry-level model from a brand name like Kindle or Kobo. E-readers also have a battery that lasts one to two months, on average, 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 on them, but the lack of power and the limited functions such as no video playback, not to mention no apps, means 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. E-readers typically have screens that measure 5 to 7 inches, but some people prefer reading on larger tablets that are typically 7 to 12 inches.

Man reviewing statistics on a tablet over a wooden desk

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Tablets pack computing power

The skinny: Touch-screen tablets — such as the mega-popular iPad, as well as Android, Kindle Fire and Windows models — are also 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 and are 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.

They have more than a million apps 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.

In fact, 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 and Kobo.

Cons: While some exceptions exist, tablets can cost about three times more than e-reader. For example, the Kindle Paperwhite costs $129; the iPad mini starts at $399.

Sure, Android tablets such as the 8-inch Amazon Fire HD 8 Tablet at $79 (with so-so quality) and the more impressive Samsung Galaxy Tab A at $179 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 go with an e-reader or tablet boils down to what you want to do with the device, where you're going to use it and what your budget allows.

If all you want is a portable and affordable e-reader, you don't need to buy a pricier tablet with all the bells and whistles you won't use. On the other hand, if you would like a lightweight, thin, touch-screen device to carry with you — one that does a lot more than a basic e-reader and has a larger color screen to read indoors — then invest in a tablet.

Do be aware of some potential privacy concerns emerging for Kindle and Kindle app users: Amazon tracks information on books purchased, when we’re reading, how long we’re reading and what we've highlighted inside the Kindle book, according to a report in the U.S. edition of The Guardian. While the company strips off identifying elements when it lumps all users' data together, the information still is being collected and analyzed.

All buyers of electronic devices should beware.

Editor's note: This column, originally published Feb. 3, 2020, was updated to add the privacy concerns highlighted in The Guardian article.

Marc Saltzman has been a freelance technology journalist for 25 years. His podcast Tech It Out aims to break down geek speak into street speak.

How to score free books

While you can buy books for your e-reader or tablet, you also can borrow books for free from your local public library.

The first step is to get a library card if you don't already have one.

• If you read on a Kindle, go to Over Drive's website on any device and tap or click Find a library. Search or browse for a title at your local library and then select Borrow. Find the e-book you've borrowed on your Checkouts page and select Read now with Kindle.

Borrow time is up to three weeks, and it will cease to open the day it's due if you didn't extend the loan period.

• If you're on a Kobo e-reader, go to the Settings area of your device and look for the section called OverDrive. Sign in with your library card info, Facebook or an existing OverDrive account. That's required only once.

Now search for something to read. For older Kobo e-readers without built-in support for OverDrive, follow the Kindle instructions.

• On a smartphone or tablet, use OverDrive's sister app, Libby. Download it for free from the App Store for iPhone and iPad or Google Play store for Android, and sign in with your local library card number.

Now you can go to your library's website and find the Downloads, E-Books or Audiobooks section. Reserved books will appear in the Libby app.

• Kindle owners or those who have downloaded the app for their tablets can borrow e-books from others via and Lendle.

• Outside the library, Project Gutenberg has digitized more than 60,000 books, mostly older works whose copyrights have expired. No app is needed; you'll be able to use your e-reader or a web browser on your tablet or computer.

Other online sources for e-books include GoodReads free e-book shelf, ManyBooks, from the Library of Congress, ReadPrint and Wikisource. Some might require a free PDF reader such as Adobe Acrobat Reader.