With prices starting below the $100 mark, it’s a great time to buy an ebook reader. But before you settle on a single device, you have some decisions to make. As you can see, Amazon’s Kindle line makes up the bulk of our top picks, and for many people will be the perfect choice. But it isn’t the only choice. Here’s what you should consider when shopping.
Basic ebook readers use monochrome, E Ink screens to display text. E Ink looks a lot like paper, and it’s easy on your eyes when reading for long periods. On the least expensive models, it’s not backlit, so you’ll need light to see the text, just as you would with a printed book. But most ebook readers now include edge lighting that lets you see in the dark. With each model, you can vary the intensity of the brightness from barely there to flashlight-bright. On the lowest settings, you can read in the dark while your partner sleeps peacefully next to you.
In all cases, E Ink is much easier to read in bright sunlight, while color touch screens on tablets tend to wash out, and their glossy displays can show distracting reflections.
Fire 7 can browse the web, stream video from Netflix, Hulu or other sources, play music, and run apps.
If you like to read in the bath, by the pool, or on the beach, you might want to consider buying a waterproof ebook reader. You have a few options. The Amazon Kindle Oasis, the latest Kindle Paperwhite, the Kobo Forma, and the Kobo Libra H2O are all rated to withstand submersion in water to some degree. The Kindle Oasis even has page turn buttons so you can easily flip between pages when your hands are wet.
An always-on cellular radio lets you buy and download books from anywhere, over the air, for free (aside from the cost of the book itself, of course). Most devices offer Wi-Fi as the base level wireless connection—at a much lower cost—with 3G cellular data only available as part of a more-expensive model.
As long as you don’t mind waiting until you’re at home or near a hotspot to shop for new books, Wi-Fi should work for you. A select few may still prefer to pony up for 3G to buy a new book while, say, on a long train trip, or lounging at the beach.
How About the Books?
This is where things get a little complex, so bear with us for a moment. There’s no single universal ebook format; essentially, when you choose an ebook reader, you’re making a decision up front as to which ecosystem you’ll support.
With free, public domain books, you have some more flexibility, but it’s actually more complicated. For example, Google offers over a million free books in the popular, open ePub format, which many public libraries now use for lending books. However, Kindles don’t support ePub. Amazon launched its own public library lending tie-in, which differs on a branch-to-branch basis. Amazon also has the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, which lets you borrow a book a month from a selection of over one million titles, but only if you pay $99 a year for the Amazon Prime service. It also gives you unlimited access to Amazon’s Prime Reading library. FreeTime Unlimited Unlimited starts at $2.99 per month, and is great for children—you get a free year of it when you buy the Kindle Kids Edition.
To make things even murkier, the ebook stores themselves aren’t all the same. Book selection, size, and pricing varies from store to store. The best way through this thicket of digital underbrush is to spend a little time browsing ebook stores before you commit to a device. You can access Amazon’s, Barnes & Noble’s, and Kobo’s ebook stores online to see which carries most of the books, magazines, and newspapers you want to read. Or, if you’re planning to borrow ebooks from the library, check your local branch to see what format is in use, and then make sure the reader you want supports it. If it uses Overdrive, Kobo is your best bet.
For more, see How to Get Free (or Cheap) New Ebooks and How to Put Free Ebooks on Your Amazon Kindle. And for an in-depth comparison of supported formats across various ebook readers, check out Wikipedia.
What About Ebook Apps?
One saving grace is that many of the major ebook reader vendors have developed an entire ecosystem of apps around their chosen format. For example, you can start reading a book on your Kindle Paperwhite at home; then, while waiting in line at the grocery store, you can fire up your iPhone’s Kindle app and pick up exactly where you left off in the same book, but on your phone.
The size of the app ecosystem varies by format. The Apple iPad and iPhone both run iBooks, a flexible app that looks great, but doesn’t have quite the same book selection as Amazon for digital books. Amazon also makes iPad apps, along with versions for iPhone, Android, and other devices; in addition it has a Cloud Reader that works on the iPad with a direct link to the Kindle Store, and several vendors also make PC and Mac apps.
In short, if you plan to read digital books on multiple gadgets, be sure to read our product reviews, and note each manufacturer’s list of supported devices.
This is one place where there’s nothing but good news: Prices for ebook readers have fallen considerably across the board. You’ve got plenty of good options for much less than $200.
With that in mind, these are our favorite dedicated ebook readers you can buy today. If you’re getting a Paperwhite, check out our 13 Paperwhite Tips Every Reader Needs to Know. And if you’d rather do your reading on a color screen, head over to our top tablet picks.
The Best For Amazon Readers
Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (2018)
The Best For Library and Third-Party Ebook Reading
Kobo Clara HD
The Best For Manga Fans
Kobo Libra H2O
The Best For Large-Scale PDF Files
Onyx Boox Note2
The Best For Kids and Budget Buyers
Amazon Kindle Kids Edition
The Best For Style-Conscious Amazon Fans
Amazon Kindle Oasis (2019)
The Best For Lowest Price
Amazon Kindle (2019)
The Best For Barnes & Noble Readers
Barnes & Noble Nook GlowLight 3
The Best For Pool-Friendly Library Reading
The Best For Waterproof Barnes & Noble Reading
Barnes & Noble Nook GlowLight Plus (2019)
at Barnes and Noble
Flat front is easy to clean.
Plays audiobooks over Bluetooth.
Long battery life.
Cons: Doesn’t support Immersion Reading.
Bottom Line: For $130, the waterproof Kindle Paperwhite offers more for your money than any other ebook reader on the market.
Pros: Excellent format support. Physical page-turn buttons. Color-changing front light. Light, water-resistant design.
Cons: No library subscription option. No audiobooks. Can’t read Kindle books.
Bottom Line: The Kobo Libra H2O sets the bar for non-Amazon ebook readers with flexible format support and a terrific form factor.
Pros: Excellent value. Parental dashboard lets you monitor your child’s reading and control their Amazon product use.
Cons: Not waterproof. FreeTime Unlimited pushes picture books that don’t look great on the 6-inch screen.
Bottom Line: No matter your age, the Amazon Kindle Kids Edition is a terrific value for anyone looking to buy an ebook reader.
Pros: Adjustable backlight.
Slim, striking design.
Bright, crisp screen.
Clunky Overdrive compatibility.
Bottom Line: The 2019 edition of the slim, waterproof Amazon Kindle Oasis adds a warmth-adjustable backlight for less eye strain, thought most people will be just fine spending nearly half the price on the Paperwhite.
Pros: Small and light.
Color-changing front light.
Excellent native file format support.
Cons: Not waterproof.
Awkward Overdrive interface.
Bottom Line: The Kobo Clara HD is the best all-around e-reader for anyone who isn’t buying books from Amazon.
Pros: Full Google Play support
Solid battery life
Doubles as a secondary monitor
Cons: Wi-Fi turns off during sleep
Some third-party apps don’t display correctly
Bottom Line: The Onyx Boox Note2 is a large-format E Ink reader that can show pretty much any document you need, and it doubles as an Android tablet and a second monitor.
Pros: Front light.
Similar performance to other Kindles.
Cons: Not waterproof.
Relatively low-resolution screen.
Bottom Line: The latest low-cost Kindle improves night reading with its front light, but the slightly more expensive Paperwhite offers better overall value for most readers.
Pros: Sharp screen.
Color-changing front light goes from blue to yellow.
Physical page turn buttons.
Cons: Sluggish UI.
Limited store selection.
Awkward for library books.
Bottom Line: The Barnes & Noble Nook GlowLight 3 illuminates your reading with a warm, color-changing light, but can’t get past Amazon’s superior ebook selection.
Pros: Big screen is great for large type and manga.
Light for its size.
Public library integration.
Handles many file formats.
Materials don’t feel premium.
Bottom Line: Kobo’s top-of-the-line ebook reader is great if you feel other options are too cramped, but it’s more device than most people need.
Alex Colon is the managing editor of PCMag’s consumer electronics team. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English Writing and Literature from Pace University and got his start editing books before deciding technology would probably be a lot more fun.
Though he does the majority of his reading and writing on various digital displays, Alex still loves to sit down and read a good, old-fashioned, paper and ink book in his free time. (Not that there’s anything wrong with ebook readers.)