How to choose

Last reviewed: September 2011

Will you read mainly books?

If so, a fine e-book reader remains your best choice. Its lighter weight will make it more comfortable to hold during sustained reading. And the text on an e-ink screen is easier to read than the text on tablets' LCD screens. That's especially true in bright light, where LCD screens tend to wash out but e-ink ones remain quite readable. Longevity is another plus: Devices with e-ink screens run for weeks or even months on a battery charge, compared with the hours of runtime for devices with an LCD screen.

If you have a more varied menu of reading material, a tablet might suit you. Better tablets, notably the iPad, are best for reading e-magazines and e-newspapers because of their color screens, sophisticated touch navigation, and interactive features. In addition, the iPad has by far the most access to magazines designed for the tablet experience. On Android tablets using version 3.0 or later, you can purchase a large selection of e-magazines using the Zinio app. On most tablets, you can also download apps from Kindle, Nook, and other digital booksellers. Those apps allow you to read books much like you can on a dedicated e-reading device.

For versatility, there's no contest between a tablet and a dedicated e-book reader. Tablets excel at a variety of other uses and applications. (See 12 apps that make the most of a tablet.)

Choose a screen size and shape

Most screens on e-book readers and tablets are 6 to 7 inches or 10 inches. For e-book readers, we recommend the smaller size range, which offers an adequately sized screen for book reading. There's also a practical consideration: Bigger e-book readers are few in number and far more expensive.

Smaller tablets are OK if portability is your top priority, but the extra real estate of a 10-inch screen better suits such activities as Web surfing, video viewing, and gaming. Larger tablets have an operating-system advantage as well; Android 3.0 or greater, which was designed for tablets, is currently available only on 10-inch models. Smaller tablets currently use an earlier version originally created for smart phones.

The iPad and most e-book readers have squarish screens that we find better suited to most tablet uses than rectangular screens. (One exception: Rectangular screens held horizontally offer a wider landscape view that's better for watching movies in something closer to a wide-screen 16:9 aspect ratio.)

For e-book reading, screen shape is mostly a matter of whether you prefer reading fewer but longer lines, as on the Kindle and e-ink Nooks, or more numerous short ones, as on the Sony Reader Daily Edition and Barnes & Noble Nook Color.

Opt for Wi-Fi connectivity

All but a few low-rated devices offer Wi-Fi connectivity, which we think suffices for most people. Most of the higher-rated devices also come in a version that can access cellular data networks as well as Wi-Fi. They cost anywhere from $50 to $150 more than a Wi-Fi-only model.

3G access is free for e-book readers that offer it and $20 and up per month for tablets. (Most 3G tablets require a one- or two-year contract, though you can buy month-to-month access for iPads.) Choose a 3G model only if "everywhere access" to the Net is critical enough that you're prepared to pay extra for it.

Consider software

A tablet's capabilities are determined in large part by its operating system. And as with computers, being able to upgrade the version installed in the factory makes additional capabilities possible and allows the device to use the newest apps.

Apple has provided upgrades for the iPad's iOS operating system. For Android tablets, minor upgrades have often been offered. But so far, no Android model has offered an upgrade from Android 2.2, which wasn't optimized for screens larger than smart-phone displays, to Android 3.0 (or greater), which was designed for larger tablet screens.

With e-book readers, by contrast, manufacturers tend to continually upgrade firmware to boost performance and add capabilities. The growth in the number of fine performers in our Ratings has not eliminated mediocre tablets and readers (both are available to subscribers) from the market, so it's wise to check our Ratings before you buy.