Amazon Kindle Unlimited vs. Scribd vs. Oyster: E-book subscriptions battle it out

There are three similar book subscription services on the market -- which is right for your reading habits?

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Nate Ralph/CNET

Editors' note, May 8, 2014:This post has been updated with new details on Scribd's catalog.

E-book subscription services are all the rage this year, thanks in part to Amazon. The decades-old book retailer unveiled its own unlimited book subscription, Kindle Unlimited, on July 18, aiming to compete with Oyster and Scribd , comparable services that have been around since 2012.

With three very similar e-book lending libraries vying for your money every month, it's tough to tell the differences between them at a glance. I'm diving into each service to highlight its best features and limitations.

Kindle Unlimited Oyster Scribd
Price $9.99 per month $9.95 per month $8.99 per month
Free trial? 30 days 30 days 30 days
App availbility Kindle devices, Android, iOS, Windows Phone and BlackBerry Android, iOS and Kindle Fire Android, iOS and Kindle Fire
Types of content Audiobooks and e-books E-books Audiobooks, e-books, comics and PDFs

How they work

With each of these e-book subscriptions, you get unlimited access to their entire book libraries for a monthly fee. You can read as many books as you want, for as long as you want, and with each service, you can download books for offline reading. Unlike a traditional library, there are no due dates, so you can hang on to a book for as long as like, just like you would with a Netflix DVD. But like a library, you do not own the books you read, and if you cancel your subscription, you can no longer access any of the titles you've saved.

Amazon Kindle Unlimited

Kindle Unlimited costs $9.99 per month, and offers around 600,000 books that you can rent for as long as you want. The book catalog includes many popular and best-selling books, some of which you won't find in the other services, including the "Hunger Games" and "Harry Potter" series. There are also plenty of classics, such as "Animal Farm," "Moby Dick" and Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

There's no dedicated Kindle Unlimited app; instead, you sign up for the service, browse Amazon's website for books, and download them to your Kindle device. You can also use the Kindle apps for iOS, Android and Windows Phone to find and read books. One of the biggest downsides of this service is that browsing and searching Amazon's website for books can be tedious, since even when you search within the Unlimited titles, you'll still get results that aren't free. The upside, is that unlike Oyster or Scribd, you can also shop for paid e-books on Amazon while also grabbing free books.

If you use a Kindle e-reader, Kindle Unlimited is the your best bet here, since you cannot download Scribd or Oyster books on the e-ink readers. If you have a Amazon tablet, such as the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, or the Fire Phone , you can use Oyster or Scribd. However, neither app is available in the Amazon Appstore, so you'll need to use a workaround to get them onto your device.

Best for: Kindle Unlimited is great if you already have an Amazon device and want to read free e-books on it, as well as shop for paid books. It's also the best choice if you're looking for a wider range of popular, modern series and newer titles.

Oyster

Oyster's main selling point is that the app is beautifully designed, and it gives you several ways to customize your reading experience. It's easy, even enjoyable, to browse the catalog of 500,000-plus books to find something to read. There are many contemporary and classic choices, including "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," Anthony Bourdain's "Medium Raw" and "The Great Gatsby."

While reading, you can use one of five themes to alter the font style, text accent color and background texture of each book, ranging from a simple black-and-white theme to a colorful and modern design. Most books are formatted so they are easy to read, but I noticed that some cookbooks and other books with lots of visual elements had some formatting issues.

Overall, Oyster is a gorgeous e-book subscription service. It costs $10 per month and is available for iOS and Android. Though it's lacking many best-sellers and new releases, it offers plenty of books to keep you busy.

Best for: Oyster is my top choice if you want to read e-books on your iPad, Android tablet or smartphone. The app's design is enticing, and the book selection is varied and easy to browse.

Scribd

Last on my list, Scribd is very similar to Oyster, but with a few unique features. It has a catalog of more than 500,000 books that you can borrow for just $9 per month, one dollar cheaper than Kindle Unlimited and Oyster. The app is simply designed, with books organized into genres and curated collections for you to browse.

The selection varies a little from Oyster's, though both services have many of the same books and seem to add the same books at the same time. Scribd is missing several titles that Oyster has, so just keep in mind the selection is a bit more limited. However, Scribd recently added around 45,000 audiobooks, many from publisher Penguin Random House. It also has more than 10,000 comics from Marvel, Archie, Boom! Studios, Dynamite, IDW/Top Shelf and Valiant.

One perk of Scribd is that beyond just e-books, the Android and iOS apps also give you access to thousands of documents, which include court cases, scientific studies, and even self-published books.

Best for: A close second to Oyster, Scribd is great if you want to save a dollar every month and don't mind missing out on a few titles. It's a great choice if you want to read books on your computer, as well as an Android or iOS device.

Don't forget the library

While paid e-book subscription services are a great way to get your hands on books you might not buy individually, and they offer the convenience of no due dates, it's at least worth looking into your local library's e-book offerings.

In many cities, libraries carry extensive catalogs of brand-new releases and older e-books that you can borrow for free. All you need is a library card. In San Francisco, for example, the city's public library system often gets new releases as soon as they come out. The only downside to this approach is that the books you borrow have a limited lending period with an expiration date, and it's sometimes difficult to renew e-book titles.

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