Kindle forces budget e-reader price chops

It's pretty hard to compete against the Kindle these days, which is why many second-tier e-reader makers have been forced to lower the prices of their devices.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
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David Carnoy
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Sony has trimmed $50 off the list price of the PRS-350 Pocket Edition, making it a more tempting purchase. Sony

When it comes to e-readers these days, most of the action here in the U.S. seems to be concentrated around the Kindle, Nook, and iPad. But every week or so, we'll notice a traffic spike on CNET for an e-reader that isn't from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Inevitably, this is due to a special discount that some store is running on the product or perhaps even an appearance in a Best Buy circular.

That discount price is usually pretty attractive--and has to be--to compete with the Kindle with Wi-Fi at $139 and the Nook Wi-Fi at $149. But even at $99, we'd have a hard time recommending these products. Here's a quick look at some of the "deals" we've seen out there.

  • Borders Kobo Wireless eReader: Recently, Borders was offering the Kobo Wireless eReader, which carries a list price of $139.99, for $99.99. It's back up to $139.99. This e-ink e-reader, which features an attractive enough design and wireless connectivity, is an OK product, but at $139.99 it's simply not viable. At $99.99, it's a tad tempting (it does offer support for lending from your local libraries), but it's still worth spending the extra $40 on the Kindle, which has a better screen and performance, along with a superior e-bookstore.
  • Velocity Micro Cruz Reader: The Cruz Reader is an Android-based tablet with a resistive touch screen. Some retailers have it for $119, but we've seen it advertised for as low as $99. While it offers decent functionality, its biggest problem is the resistive touch display, which doesn't operate nearly as smoothly as today's capacitive touch screens found on the iPad, Nook Color, and Samsung Galaxy Tab. Sure, those products cost a lot more, but the user experience is much better.
  • Sony PRS-350SC Pocket Reader: Sony started the PRS-350SC out at $179.99 but the price has now dropped to $129.99. If you want a compact e-reader (the screen is 5 inches compared with the Kindle's 6-inch screen) and can live without the Wi-Fi connectivity, the PRS-350SC merits some consideration. It's a decent little e-reader that supports the EPUB format and allows you to check out e-books from your local library. Still, the Kindle looms large for only 10 bucks more.
  • Sharper Image Literati (white): Bed Bath & Beyond has the Literati on "clearance" sale for $99. It has a color LCD, Wi-Fi connectivity, and integration with the Kobo eBook store. The best thing we can say about it is that it's not terrible and comes with a protective case. We still think it's worth spending the extra $40 on the Kindle.
  • Pandigital Novel (black): The Pandigital Novel, an Android-based tablet with a 7-inch resistive touch screen, got off to a bad start because it was rushed to market and had buggy software along with sluggish performance. Pandigital has since made some improvements, but it's still a tough sell at around $150 (we've seen it for less, but not in recent days). While it offers good functionality, the overall experience, like the Cruz Reader, makes you feel like you're using last year's technology. That may be OK for some but we've heard the Novel has seen high return rates (note: it comes in black and white versions that offer slightly different specs).

If you have differing views on these products and other budget e-readers we might have missed, feel free to comment below. We hope that later this year we'll see a compelling e-reader for $99, but for now, the Kindle and Nook--even with their higher prices--remain better choices for budget-conscious consumers.