Electronic book readers (or e-readers) look like they're straight out of Star Trek, but this is no sound stage! You can carry thousands of books, newspapers and magazines, all in a slick little package the size of a paperback book. Amazon’s Kindle filled plenty of stockings this past holiday, but bookstore giant Barnes & Noble now has its Nook e-reader, the Sony Reader line has been around for years and Apple's upcoming iPad will also have its own e-book service. It’s tough to predict where this market is going, but here are the basics on this seriously cool (and legible!) technology.
Don’t Your Eyes Hurt From Reading? Not with “electronic paper,” a display that replicates the look of real ink. You get all cross-eyed from computer screens after a while because they're backlit and flicker at high speeds. E-paper displays are motionless and non-backlit, so they look just like the page of a book or a magazine, and the static display also means way better battery life.
What Other Benefits Do They Give Me? Besides portability, e-readers can actually save you money! Those $30 new releases often sell for $10 or less in digital form. E-readers with 3G wireless can access their digital stores right from the device—no computer required—and download full books in two minutes, or get magazines and daily newspapers regularly delivered straight to you. Highlight and make notes in the digital margins, look up words with built-in dictionaries and search through text for your favorite passages.
How Does the iPad Fit Into All This? Apple made a big splash last month, but what it means for the fairly young e-book market is still unknown. The iPad doesn't use an e-paper display, so legibility might be an issue—and starting at $499, it's definitely not the cheapest option. But it can access the wildly successful App Store, has a great Web browser and can be a killer music and movie player. Plus, if Apple can do for e-books what they did for music—create an industry standard that has everyone else scrambling to catch up—then all bets are off.