E-reader roundup: 8 devices compete for the crown

We look at the current state of the market and review 8 of the most popular e-readers

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Barnes & Noble's Nook Wi-Fi

Smaller but somewhat heavier than the Kindle, Barnes & Noble's two-toned, off-white-and-battleship-gray Nook combines a classic E Ink display, with a small Android-powered LED backlit color touch screen beneath. (If you don't like the color scheme, you can buy and swap the gray back for a number of different-colored backs or slip a custom cover on it.)

Nook Wi-Fi

Nook Wi-Fi

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It has a good tactile feeling, and although the back isn't made of true no-slip material, its light roughness does make the device easier to hold. Identical forward and backward page buttons are positioned on both sides -- they even have a tiny bump, so you can easily feel where your finger should push to flip the page forward or backward. This arrangement makes the Nook a truly ambidextrous device, easy to hold and read using either the left or right hand. You also can swipe the touch screen beneath (though only when it's dark) to turn pages. All other controls except the power button on top are accessed via the color touch screen.

The touch-screen menu is simple and intuitive, requiring only a finger touch to access the following modes and submenus: The Daily (recent downloads, blogs, firmware upgrades or periodical subscription deliveries), My Library (lists of documents, books, recent deliveries), shop (browse B&N's e-books, magazines and newspapers or set up a wish list), Reading Now (returns you to your current book page), games (Sudoku or chess), Wi-Fi, audio, Web and settings. To conserve power, you can turn off the color touch screen, as well as Wi-Fi and 3G.

What's interesting: Like the Kindle, the Nook is a system rather than simply a device, capable of easily browsing and making one-click purchases and downloads from Barnes & Noble's vast store of e-books, newspapers and periodicals. What's more, your Nook's Wi-Fi connects automatically to allow you to read free excerpts from any e-book while you're sipping a latte at your favorite B&N store. You can also lend or borrow books for free, for up to 14 days. Depending upon the book you're reading, the Nook can display text in up to 16 different languages.

For travelers, the Nook has an airplane mode that allows you to turn off 3G and Wi-Fi while flying, so as not to interfere with navigation instruments. (Of course, you must power down the Nook during takeoffs and landings.)

What's good: With 16 shades of gray, three different fonts and five available type sizes, the Nook's contrasty, highly legible monochrome screen is among the best that we tested. You can personalize your Nook by downloading any picture (via USB, not Wi-Fi or 3G) and make it your screensaver. B&N sells an optional $69 two-year protection plan that will repair or replace your e-reader if it is damaged by spills, drops or other accidents.

The Nook also allows access to the Internet via Wi-Fi (though not 3G, which is reserved for the B&N connection). Like the Kindle, it automatically checks for firmware upgrades and other messages every time it powers up and installs them automatically.

What's not: For all its advantages, the Nook is slow to power up, text can't be rotated, it lacks text-to-speech capability, and it offers monaural audio only. Nor can it handle TXT or DOC files.

Internet access is painfully slow and the beta software still buggy. Tapping the precise spot on the smartphone-size touch screen with your fingernail can be difficult, as is using the virtual keyboard. And while the Nook has a microSD memory card slot and a user-replaceable rechargeable battery, cracking open the case to access them can be daunting and difficult.

The Nook's touted ability to provide access to any e-book at any Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar store has its frustrations as well. The maximum time per book is one hour per every 24 hours, and even that is diminished because the text downloads a page at a time, often keeping you waiting for the next page.

And while you can lend or borrow some e-books with other Nook owners (or friends who download B&N's software onto their computers or smartphones), it's a one-time, 14-day deal, after which you can't loan it out again, even though you own it.

Bottom line: The Nook and Amazon's Kindle are closely matched in ergonomics and price, and in offering readily available, easily downloadable free or for-sale e-books -- but not in performance. However, if you value the ability to use your e-reader in-store or to loan out your e-books, the Nook is the device you'll want.

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