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Does it still make sense to buy an e-reader?

With tablet prices dipping lower and lower, there's an argument to be made that the e-reader's days are numbered. Should they be?

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
3 min read
Should you buy something like a Kindle Paperwhite when you can get a full-blown color tablet for just $40 more?
Should you buy something like a Kindle Paperwhite when you can get a full-blown color tablet for just $40 more? Amazon

I've been an e-book fan for as long as I can remember. Ever since I found myself stuck on a slow-moving mountain train with nothing but my PalmPilot and an e-book, I've been hooked on digital reading.

Flash-forward some 15 years and e-books are everywhere, thanks in no small part to the Amazon Kindle -- a dedicated e-reader with a special "e-ink" screen that I still consider a marvel of modern technology. (Know why Kindles and other e-ink devices have such phenomenal battery life? Because every pixel on the screen is either "on" or "off" until it needs to change. And only when you make a change -- like, say, for turning a page -- does the screen consume any power. Extraordinary!)

Remember when the Kindle cost $399, and you couldn't even get one for the first six months? That was a mere five years ago; today you can get a Kindle for as little as $69, assuming you prefer to it any number of competing Kobo Readers, Nooks, and the like. Heck, as of yesterday, the touch-screen-enabled Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch now sells for just $79.

Tempting as those prices may be, it's time to start debating whether these devices really have a future. Given that most people already own a smartphone, and more and more are buying tablets every day, does it still make sense to buy an e-reader?

It probably goes without saying that you can read e-books on your phone. Just install the Kindle app, Nook app, Kobo app, and so on, or use something like Apple's iBooks or Google's Play Reader. Although you may balk at the idea of reading on such a comparatively small screen, it's really not bad once you get used to it. Plus, smartphone screens are getting larger all the time -- iPhone 5 or Samsung Galaxy S3, anyone?

Needless to say, tablets are just as versatile when it comes to reading (unless they're running a specialized version of Android, in which case you may be limited to specific e-book apps). And for the deal to beat, look no further than Amazon's $159 Kindle Fire, which was state-of-the-art just a year ago and is still plenty powerful. Indeed, it's a full-blown tablet, capable of everything from apps and games to music and video -- all displayed on its lovely 7-inch color screen.

Compare that with, say, the $119 Kindle Paperwhite, which has a 6-inch grayscale screen and really serves only one function: books. For just $40 more, it's like making the leap from bicycle to Ferrari.

There are, of course, plenty of points in favor of the humble e-reader. Battery life, for one: your average e-reader can last weeks between charges, not days like most tablets.

Many book lovers also prefer the gentle look of the e-ink screen to the harsh glare of a backlit tablet. (The former is also vastly superior for outdoor reading.) What's more, e-readers don't distract you with games, apps, e-mail, and other attention-grabbers the way tablets do. And say what you will about price: $69 or $79 is still half (or less than half) the cost of a Kindle Fire, to say nothing of a $199 Google Nexus 7, $269 Nook HD+, or $329 iPad Mini. If you're on an e-book budget, a simple e-reader will leave you with extra cash for actually buying books.

All that being said, I can see a time in the not-too-distant future when Amazon and B&N abandon e-readers in favor of an all-tablet lineup, because, let's face it, tablets are sexy, and they do a lot more than just e-books.

So now I'll turn the discussion over to you. Does it still make sense to buy an e-reader? Or should you invest a few dollars more in a tablet? Personally, I'm in the latter camp, as I've been reading on tablets for years and don't mind their supposedly eye-unfriendly screens. And when I'm caught up in a really good book (like I am now with "Gone Girl"), no amount of app distractions can tear me away. Tablets FTW!