It’s not an easy choice. There is a lot of good hardware on the market right now, so let’s break it down into several categories. There are two main areas that you need to give some thought to in making your choice: the platform and the provider.
The Platform – tablet or e-ink?
Here is the first choice you need to make – tablet or e-ink. Tablets run from expensive (i.e. the iPad) to pretty cheap. e-Ink readers are cheap and offer extremely long battery life. I got through Hurricane Sandy with my Kindle PaperWhite and had plenty of battery life left after the power came on two weeks later. A tablet, on the other hand, will only last 8 to 10 hours per charge. The other advantage of e-ink is that the readers are small and light. You can put them in your pocket and carry them anywhere. If you know an older person, or someone with arthritis, an e-ink reader might be ideal for them. The disadvantage of e-ink readers is that they are one-trick ponies. By the very nature of their display, they are not really suited to showing graphics or playing games. They are also black & white only. If you want color or a multi-purpose device, then a tablet is the way to go. The more expensive the tablet, the more it can do. My iPad, for example, has taken over about 75% of what I used to do on my MacBook and I can read on it too (but it’s heavy). If you do get an e-ink reader, then I strongly recommend that you get one like the PaperWhite or Koboglo that has a built-in light. e-Ink is just like a book in that you need light to read, unlike tablets that are backlit. Having the light built-in is a real convenience and doesn’t seem to affect battery life too much. e-Ink readers, because they can do less, are probably less confusing to a non-techie person. They do one thing and do it well. A tablet might be a bit much for some people to handle.
The other option you have with both tablets and e-ink is WiFi or WiFi/3G. A WiFi unit will connect to the ebookstore, through your WiFi network. A 3G (cellular) unit will connect using the same cellphone system that your mobile phone uses. The advantage of this is that you are always able to connect. If your WiFi goes out, like in Hurricane Sandy, you can still connect using your tablet or e-ink reader. I actually used my PaperWhite to download books during my power outage and my 4G iPad kept me in constant touch with the net and allowed me to continue browsing the web and doing my daily Twitter posts. The disadvantage of all this is that these units are significantly more expensive and, depending on the unit, you may be charged for your cellular usage.
What do I recommend for a platform? Kindle PaperWhite if you want e-ink and an iPad or iPad Mini if you want a tablet. Why? Well, the PaperWhite is a great unit and is part of the huge Amazon ecosystem that includes world-class customer service. Notice, though, that I don’t recommend a Kindle Fire or Fire HD tablet. This is because these tablets, along with the Kobo and B&N tablets, use a variant of the Android operating system. This means that the app stores for them have far, far fewer apps than are available on the iPad. If you want a tablet, then you want to do more than just read, so the number of applications available to you is important. There is simply no comparison—the iPad is head and shoulders above any of the others when it comes to apps. Also, and this is important, no matter where you get your books, from Apple, Kobo, or B&N, there is an iPad app that will allow you to read them on your iPad/iPad mini. You are not locking yourself into one bookstore forever, as we will discuss below. The iPad itself is too heavy, in my opinion, to be a good reader, but my iPad Mini has taken over from my PaperWhite and is just the right size and weight to read for hours.
Here is the dirty little secret of ebooks. Unless you are a techie, if you buy an e-reader and use the manufacturer’s ebookstore, you will probably be locked into that provider for the foreseeable future. For example, B&N books can be read on its e-readers, but not on a Kobo e-reader. Apple books from the iBookstore can only be read on Apple equipment. The platform and the hardware are in lockstep together. We’ll discuss how to get around this later.
So who’s the best provider? If you live in the USA then, in my opinion, Amazon is the best. It has the largest selection of ebooks by far. I don’t know how many times I’ve looked for an ebook at Kobo or B&N and couldn’t find it, but I was able to get it from Amazon. Second Amazon generally has the best prices for ebooks. You can even borrow a book for free if you are a Prime member. If you live outside the USA, then I would go for Kobo. Kobo is building its international presence rapidly and is owned by an overseas company that knows how to operate outside the US. Barnes & Noble is OK, but I don’t see anything in particular to recommend that company over anyone else. Stay away from Apple and iBooks. The problem there is that Apple’s prices are the highest around, the selection is the smallest and you will be locked into Apple equipment as it is the only software that can read its book format.
So how do you get around the provider lock-in? Well, get an iPad/iPad Mini as your reader. Amazon, Kobo, Copia, and B&N all have reading apps that will work on the Mini (or regular iPad). Using these apps, you can buy books from whoever you want and read them on the device. You do not have this option if you are using an e-ink reader; you will be locked into the provider whose reader that is. This isn’t a terrible thing (I’m almost exclusively Amazon, myself), but you should realize this will happen. There are other ways around it, but they all require you to be a bit of a techie.
So those are my suggestions. I will be happy to answer any questions you have in the comments section below!