With an ebook reader, you can carry thousands of books at a time, and access a library of millions more, on a device that is smaller than a paperback and lasts for weeks on a single charge. After testing the only five competitive ebook readers available in the US, we can say that the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite is the right choice for almost everyone.
The Kindle Paperwhite’s screen has the same 300-dots-per-inch pixel density as every comparable and premium ebook reader, meaning it displays crisp, easy-to-read text and clear images. The Kindle Paperwhite is light and small, with a side-lit screen that allows you to read in dim lighting. Amazon also offers the most impressive library in terms of scope and price, as well as partnerships that, for example, let you easily check out free books from many public libraries.
If you’re willing to pay more, Amazon’s Kindle Voyage is an empirically better ebook reader. It’s lighter, thinner, and equipped with an auto-dimming display, plus convenient page-turn buttons along the left and right edges of the screen. If you’re a heavy reader, or if you enjoyed the physical buttons on older Kindle models, you might want to pay more for those features, but most people will be happy with the Kindle Paperwhite, especially since the two devices have the same display size and resolution. The Kindle Voyage’s features are simply luxuries.
Amazon makes the best e-readers, but if you don’t like Amazon as a company or the Kindle devices, the Nook GlowLight Plus from Barnes & Noble is the best alternative. It’s about the same size as the Kindle Paperwhite and equipped with a similar 300-ppi screen, but it’s also waterproof. However, it doesn’t have the kind of library available to Kindles, or the supporting ecosystem of services.
An ebook reader is a dedicated device that lets you read electronic books—usually those that you buy from the reader’s own ebook store, but also some that you can download elsewhere. Over the past few years, the prices of ebook readers have fallen dramatically, while the hardware has improved significantly and premium features have become standard. If you don’t have an ebook reader, there’s never been a better time to get one.
For current e-reader owners, an upgrade isn’t necessary but can make a world of difference. If you struggle with finding light to read, get frustrated with slow page turns or low resolutions, or merely hate how big your current ebook reader is, upgrading might be worthwhile. You can get a great reader that addresses all of those concerns for a fair price.
Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo all offer apps that allow you to access each ebook reader’s library on an iOS or Android tablet or phone; you can also use a tablet or smartphone to read ebooks from Apple’s iBooks Store (on iOS) and the Google Play Store (on iOS and Android). This flexible arrangement can be great for times when you may not have your reader handy: You can read a few pages, and your progress syncs to the cloud so that you can pick right back up where you left off, on whichever device you prefer. For regular reading, however, we think dedicated ebook readers are a better option for a number of reasons, namely nonreflective electronic-ink displays that give you a more paperlike visual experience (including easy reading outdoors and less eyestrain than with an LCD screen), a lighter weight, and a significantly longer battery life. Just as important for serious reading is the fact that a dedicated ebook reader offers fewer distractions—you won’t be tempted to switch apps to check, say, Twitter or your email.
When you purchase an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, or Google, that book is protected with a digital rights management scheme, which means that the book is available for reading only on devices that support each store’s DRM system. For example, you can read Amazon-purchased ebooks only on Kindle devices or in Amazon’s Kindle apps for other platforms—you can’t view them on a Barnes & Noble or Kobo reader.
In addition, DRM raises questions of ownership. This issue first came to light in 2009 when Amazon remotely deleted digital copies of certain George Orwell books from some Kindles. A recent example (in early 2016) was Barnes & Noble’s announcement that the company would stop selling Nook content in the UK, leaving customers wondering whether they would lose access to previously purchased content. (Barnes & Noble says it has partnered with Sainsbury’s to offer “continued access to the vast majority” of titles, but it has provided no information yet about what “majority” means or which titles customers may lose.)
This isn’t an issue specific to any one seller, and it isn’t a problem with the DRM-free ebooks you can purchase from some independent sellers or download from sources such as Project Gutenberg. But DRM is worth keeping in mind, because it means, among other things, that once you commit to an ebook reader, you’ll likely end up sticking with it because you won’t be able to transfer your DRM-protected ebooks to another e-reader platform.
Few companies ever made ebook readers, but these days the number has dwindled to just three serious competitors: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo are the only major hardware makers with digital bookstores to back up their respective devices. Among them, they offer only seven distinct readers, not counting the Nook-branded Samsung tablets that Barnes & Noble sells. You can find a few niche devices, such as the Ectaco jetBook, but nothing else comes in at a reasonable price with a library to back up the hardware.
Of those seven readers, we focused on the ones that have built-in lighting for reading in dark environments. Unlike tablets such as the iPad, ebook readers use a side-lighting system that provides a glow across the screen, rather than from behind it. Going by this requirement, we quickly narrowed the number of contenders to five: Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite and Kindle Voyage, Barnes & Noble’s Nook GlowLight Plus, and Kobo’s Kobo Glo HD and Kobo Aura H2O.
Once we had those five readers in hand, we compared the physical feel of the hardware and the reading experience. All five devices have the same screen pixel density (300 dots per inch) and, except for the 6.8-inch Kobo, the same 6-inch screen size. On top of that, they all promise somewhere between six and eight weeks of battery life (depending on usage), offer 4 GB of storage, and have approximately the same dimensions. So the specs are less important than how good the ebook reader feels in the hand and how evenly it distributes light across the screen. We compared formatting by downloading Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance to each device and seeing how well each device handled images, charts, headers, and, of course text.
That said, ebook readers can’t stand on the strength of their hardware alone. While all readers allow you to side-load unprotected content, it’s important that they easily provide access to a large library of commercial books. We looked up 65 ebook titles from the February 7, 2016, New York Times Best Sellers list, noting availability and price; our book selection represented a number of categories, including fiction, nonfiction, advice/how-to, and graphic novels. In addition to the Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo stores, we checked for the same tiles in Apple’s iBooks Store and in Google Play for comparison’s sake. For this update, we looked only at English-language books and Roman character sets, but we may test with other languages and characters for a future update.
The 2015 Wi-Fi edition of the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite is the best e-reader for most people thanks to stellar hardware, a massive library that frequently offers better prices than others, and a slew of services unavailable on other readers. You can easily navigate your library, find and purchase new titles (and download them over Wi-Fi), and, most important, read your books. If you go with the base model, it’s the most affordable option when compared with similarly equipped devices from other companies; alternatively, you can pay extra for a model with always-connected 3G wireless, a feature that none of the other e-reader makers offer.
The ideal ebook reader provides a window for reading without allowing too many hardware distractions to get in the way, and that’s just what the Kindle Paperwhite does. It’s a thin rectangle of soft-touch plastic measuring 6.7 inches tall, 4.6 inches wide, and 0.36 inch deep, with a 6-inch-diagonal, 300-ppi touchscreen. It weighs 7.2 ounces, which is right around the average of the models we tested and just a bit more than the weight of an iPhone 6s Plus; the Paperwhite is comfortable to hold for extended periods. Unlike some previous Kindles, it has no headphone port, speakers, or navigation buttons; apart from a bezel around the edges, it’s all reading screen. It also has no physical inputs or controls other than the Micro-USB charging port and power button along the bottom edge.
Amazon’s e-reader software has never been difficult to navigate, but a recent update, rolling out to devices at the time we were writing this guide, makes it even easier. The homepage presents books you’re currently reading, as well as reading lists based off of Amazon and Goodreads, plus recommendations from Amazon. Controls for features such as screen brightness and airplane mode are now more easily accessible.
When you’re reading, you can easily turn a page with a tap or a swipe. The screen is evenly lit across its entire surface, and the text is incredibly crisp. Amazon also got the small details right: Tapping to call up a footnote, for example, opens the footnote on the current page instead of taking you to a separate page, and you can dismiss the footnote with a simple tap. And actually hitting the footnote is easier than on other readers thanks to a much larger touch target.
The huge collection of services that Amazon and its partners offer is a major reason why we love the Kindle Paperwhite. Just a few examples include the capability to share purchased books with people on your Amazon Prime account; X-Ray, which helps identify notable people and terms in your books; and the optional Kindle Unlimited service, which gives you on-demand access to a huge catalog of books for a flat rate every month. All of the ebook readers we tested allow you to use OverDrive to borrow free ebooks from your local library, but most of them require a third-party software client to transfer the files over. With the Kindle Paperwhite (and all other Kindles), OverDrive uses Amazon’s storefront, as well as the same wireless delivery you’d expect from a purchase.
When we searched for the NYT best sellers, Amazon’s library came out as the winner. It wasn’t lacking anything that any other store had except for one graphic novel that’s available as an interactive title only in iBooks. The only other missing titles, absent from all of the e-reader platforms, were two graphic novels, which isn’t unexpected: Digital comics and graphic novels are kind of a different beast, with stand-alone tablet apps optimized for them. Amazon’s Kindle store was also the least expensive for more books than any other store, as 10 of its NYT best-seller titles were either the cheapest or tied for the cheapest.
Amazon’s Kindles are also the only ebook readers available in a version with an always-on 3G connection that allows you to download books anywhere in the world without needing Wi-Fi. The feature is a $70 premium that we don’t think most people will need, but it’s nice to have the option to purchase such a thing, especially if you’re a frequent traveler and heavy reader.
Kindles don’t natively support EPUB, an open-standard format for unprotected ebooks that’s common for public-domain and other freely available books, but this is a pretty easy limitation to get around. Calibre is free software for Windows, macOS, and Linux that allows you to reformat EPUB files into the proprietary format that Kindles can read. PCMag has a great article that explains the process.
Unlike the Nook GlowLight Plus and Kobo Aura H2O, the Kindle Paperwhite is not waterproof or dustproof.
And unless you pay a $20 premium, the Kindle Paperwhite comes with “special offers” (read: ads). They appear only on the lock screen when the Kindle is turned off, or as a small banner on the home screen when it’s on, so they’re unobtrusive enough that we don’t think most people will have a problem with them. Rather than paying that premium up front, we recommend buying the standard version—you can always pay a one-time fee down the line to remove the ads if you don’t like them.
The Kindle Voyage is Amazon’s top-of-the-line e-reader. It adds features that aim to make it a luxury reading experience, including a side light that adjusts brightness automatically, buttons on the side of the screen that you can squeeze to turn pages, a micro-etched glass front that further reduces reflections, and a smaller, slimmer body. Amazon seems to have thrown in just about every feature that it could have added to the Voyage to make reading a book more enjoyable.
The result is that the Kindle Voyage is the best e-reader out there. But it doesn’t offer enough over the Kindle Paperwhite for most people to justify the additional cost. The pixel density of the Voyage’s screen is the same as that of the 2015 Paperwhite’s screen. The Voyage’s adaptive backlight, which adjusts its brightness level based on ambient light, is nice, but the standard backlight on the Paperwhite is fine. And some people may prefer the Voyage’s physical page-turn buttons to the Paperwhite’s touchscreen taps and swipes, but most people are probably fine with the controls on the Paperwhite.
The Barnes & Noble Nook GlowLight Plus is the option we recommend if you don’t want a Kindle for whatever reason. Its specs are comparable to those of the Kindle Paperwhite, and it has a few distinct advantages, although it also falls short in a few ways.
The Nook GlowLight Plus sits right in the middle of the pack when it comes to specs. While all the other e-readers we tested are black, this model is gold on the back with a white bezel around the display. Some people may find this design distracting during reading, but we didn’t have any problems with it. The small raised hash marks on the bezel are also unique, and arguably provide a more grippy surface. One huge advantage of this model is its IP67 waterproofing (“Waterproof in fresh water for up to 30 minutes at a maximum depth of 1 meter,” according to Barnes & Noble). If you plan to read in the tub or at the beach, this a great feature.
We also like the GlowLight Plus’s home button. The capacitive button is located in the center of the bottom bezel, much as on a smartphone or tablet. Pressing it takes you right back to the main screen. We wish the Kindle Paperwhite had a similar hardware control.
On the other hand, the Nook GlowLight Plus falls just a bit short when it comes to the screen’s lighting. On three sides it’s fine, but along the top edge of the screen on our review model, we noticed gaps in the lighting. The effect is one of those things that don’t really hamper reading, because the device has to be at just the correct angle for you to see it, but it can be distracting when you notice it.
In our NYT best-seller library search, Barnes & Noble was missing two of the fiction titles, two of the nonfiction items, and the same graphic novels as Amazon. It didn’t win on price for any title.
We also have some concern about the platform’s long-term viability. Barnes & Noble has announced that it will no longer sell digital content in the UK as of March 15, 2016, on the heels of the company’s departure from the rest of its international markets in 2015. This leaves the US as the only market for the company’s ebooks.
In November 2016, Barnes & Noble began offering a new $50 7-inch Nook Tablet that resembles the budget Kindle Fire. For the reasons mentioned above, however, we don’t think this Android-tablet version of the Nook is a good option as an e-reader. In January 2017, Barnes & Noble suspended sales of the Nook and recalled the tablet’s included power adapter due to a potential electric shock hazard that affected around 147,000 units.
Amazon’s Kindle Oasis is the most advanced, and the most expensive, e-reader available. Its design is unique compared with that of other Kindles, as it features an asymmetrical body (0.13 inch on the thinner edge, 0.33 inch on the thicker edge) with physical page-turn buttons along one edge. It’s shorter than an iPhone 6s Plus and as wide as an iPhone SE lying on its side. In the hand, this e-reader feels shockingly tiny, and with a weight of just 131 grams—nearly 40 percent less than the weight of the Kindle Paperwhite—the Oasis is comfortable for extended reading sessions. It uses an accelerometer to adjust the screen’s orientation automatically, based on how you’re holding the device. It gets ”weeks” (Amazon’s claim) of battery life on its own, but the included leather cover, which adds about 100 grams of weight, hosts a battery that extends the use time to “months.”
With such a high price, we’d expect the Kindle Oasis to have every appealing ebook-reading feature, but it’s missing some features that other, less expensive models offer. For example, it lacks the Kindle Voyage’s auto-brightness feature (which automatically adjusts the screen’s brightness level based on ambient light), and it isn’t waterproof like the Nook GlowLight Plus and Kobo Aura H2O. We’ve also noticed that in comparison with other Kindles, the Oasis can take a moment or two longer to wake up after being asleep for a few hours.
The Kindle Oasis is the e-reader we’d choose over any other if money were no issue. But cost does matter, and the Oasis’s $290 asking price is simply too high for us to recommend this model for most people. You should wait until its interesting features trickle down to other Kindle readers, or until the Oasis itself is significantly less expensive.
When it first launched, the Kobo Aura H2O was the largest of all the major ebook readers available: It was the tallest, widest, and heaviest of any reader from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Kobo, and the thickest compared with the other edge-lit models we considered. (Some older nonlit models are thicker, but none by more than a millimeter.) The 6.8-inch screen was larger than the 6-inch display on every competing reader, but it had a lower resolution at 265 ppi. Expandable storage (up to 32 GB) by way of a microSD card was novel, but since you could fit thousands of books on the 4 GB every other reader had, it was ultimately unnecessary. We appreciated that the Kobo Aura H2O was IP67 waterproof and dustproof, but so is the Nook GlowLight Plus, which is much smaller and less expensive.
Kobo announced the Kobo Aura H20 Edition 2 in May 2017. The Edition 2 is smaller and lighter than the previous version, with the same 6.8-inch screen size and 265 ppi display. Battery life has decreased from two months to “weeks,” while storage is now fixed at 8 GB, rather than the expandable 4 GB the original model shipped with. The Edition 2 is rated IPX8, versus IP67 on the previous version. This means it’s more waterproof—able to survive submersion under more than a meter of water—but no longer dustproof. Although we have not spent any hands-on time with the second edition, we don’t think these upgrades are substantial enough for us to reconsider our current picks.
One of Kobo’s other side-lit ebook readers, the Kobo Glo HD, is more expensive than the Kindle Paperwhite and lacks the waterproofing of the Nook GlowLight Plus. It also has jarring page refreshes every six pages, which most current-generation readers don’t.
Announced in August 2016, the Kobo Aura competes more directly with the Kindle Paperwhite, at the same price. It has a more standard 6-inch screen and single-color front light. Surprisingly, its screen is only 212 ppi, a lower resolution than what you get from any comparable model. Such a low resolution at this price, without any special features, disqualifies this reader from our consideration.
Kobo also shipped its new high-end reader, the Kobo Aura One, in August. Selling for about twice the price of Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite, the Aura One offers a number of premium features, but it has some drawbacks. The 7.8-inch display gives it the largest screen among readers from the three major players. That also makes it heavier than most of the competition, at 230 grams, but it’s still a few grams lighter than the Kobo Aura H20—it feels surprisingly light given its screen size, and it’s much thinner than we expected. Its lighting system color-shifts to reduce blue light, which some people say makes falling asleep easier. The reader is also IPX8 waterproof, meaning it can survive up to 60 minutes in 2 meters of water. The Aura One has built-in OverDrive, allowing you to access and rent books directly from your local public library, and 8 GB of storage instead of the standard 4 GB.
The value of the Kobo Aura One’s larger screen is debatable. Some people will benefit from being able to use larger text and to see more on the screen, but we think it would be a drawback for many others, because the Aura One’s size makes it harder to carry around, and it won’t fit into a pocket, whereas 6-inch readers can. As with the Kobo Glo HD, we disliked the page-refresh animation that happens every six pages, and we found images to be more pixelated than on other readers.
We didn’t consider Amazon’s basic Kindle from 2014 (including the Kindle for Kids Bundle) or the Kobo Touch 2.0 as competitors because they don’t have lit screens, and because they have far lower screen resolutions of 119 ppi and 115 ppi, respectively. The Kobo Aura does have a lit screen, but it’s only 212 ppi.
In late June 2016, Amazon announced a new version of its entry-level Kindle. The updated model is 9 mm shorter, 4 mm narrower, about 1 mm thinner, and 30 grams lighter than the previous version. It’s also the first non-Fire Kindle to support Bluetooth audio, specifically for accessibility via a screen reader feature called VoiceView. (The Paperwhite has VoiceView but requires a special Kindle Audio Adapter for using wired headphones.) The screen resolution remains the same and is about half as sharp as the 300-ppi Kindle Paperwhite, Voyage, and Oasis; the display also still lacks illumination, so it doesn’t really compete for our recommendation. Amazon doubled the amount of RAM from 256 MB to 512 MB, which should mean faster navigation, while storage remains at 4 GB, still plenty of space for storing ebooks. The new Kindle comes in both black and white, marking the first time since 2012 that Amazon has offered a white Kindle.
(Photos by Nick Guy.)