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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Amazon Kindle 3G

Far and away the most successful, best-selling line of e-readers -- Amazon doesn't release figures, but it's thought to be between 3 million and 4 million units -- the Kindle is the benchmark by which all other e-readers are measured.

Amazon Kindle 3G

Amazon Kindle 3G

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The latest-generation Kindle raises the bar even higher than the vaunted Kindle2 -- it is smaller and lighter, has a brighter screen, and comes with double the memory and significantly better battery life. Most important, the price was lowered even further for the basic 3G model. The public responded to the new Kindle so enthusiastically that it was sold out and back-ordered within hours of being announced.

The all-gray (or all-white) Kindle may not be the smallest and lightest e-reader, but it is the thinnest, slimmer than a No. 2 pencil -- about as thin as Star Trek's futuristic data pads. With page-control buttons on both sides, reading one-handed has never been easier.

The redesigned five-way controller button aids in faster navigation. Instead of offering a virtual keyboard, the Kindle retains its hokey pimple-type QWERTY keyboard directly below the screen. On the rear are stereo speakers, for both playing music and speech-to-text reading (available on select books only).

What's interesting: The 3G model is GSM-enabled, which allows international travelers to connect to Amazon in many countries. The new E Ink screen, while still the same size and resolution as its predecessor, has a significantly lighter background, so the text has more contrast and is easier to read. Page-turning is faster, and readers can choose from three typefaces and seven font sizes, and decide how many lines of text appear on a page. Also, Amazon is working hard to expand its fledgling social network among readers.

Unlike some e-readers', the Kindle's memory is not expandable, but with almost 3GB, it has enough capacity to store up to 3,500 books. If your library is larger than that, you can be assured that even if a particular e-book isn't currently on your device, all your e-books are permanently stored on Amazon's servers and can be accessed by any device you own. It even syncs automatically, so if you leave your Kindle at home, you can continue to read that book you started on your iPhone or your Android phone, and it will automatically open to the same page.

What's good: The best thing about this latest-generation Kindle is that the technology is almost completely transparent. Once you set up your Amazon account on your Kindle, you don't have to think twice about parameters, settings, connectivity or any other minutiae.

Although Amazon sells books in its proprietary format, AMZ, the Kindle can download and read DOC, DOCX, PDF, HTML, TXT, RTF, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, PRC and MOBI files from any number of digital libraries and bookstores. Besides the standard dictionary, it provides direct access to Wikipedia.

Amazon offers a two-year extended warranty against accidental damage or destruction. It also sells a $59 leather case that includes a built-in Kindle-powered light for reading in the dark.

What's not: Instead of displaying the page number, the Kindle shows a progress bar and percentage read, plus somewhat cryptic location numbers (such as 27 19-39) and a meaningless total data amount (e.g., 22247). Web access is still listed as a beta function, meaning that it's very slow and requires some manipulation in order to make it properly display and navigate.

But the Kindle's most glaring omission is Amazon's stubborn refusal to embrace the industry-standard ePub file format, which somewhat limits the number of books available for purchase.

Bottom line: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently predicted that there would be at least a 20th-generation Kindle, which tells us that he believes this to be an evolutionary device that will only get better over time. As it stands right now, the Kindle's design, quality construction, incredible simplicity yet great depth of features helps explain why it's the best-selling e-reader out there.

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