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Reading poolside? Which do you choose: A tablet or an e-reader?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains why an e-reader may be better suited for outdoor reading than a tablet. And she also clarifies how spectrum frequencies are likely affecting wireless coverage.

Smaller 7-inch tablets and apps, such as the Amazon Kindle app, have made it easy to turn your tablet into an e-reader. But is it ideal for summertime reading outdoors?

In this Ask Maggie, I offer some advice to a reader who wants to know if it's really necessary to own both an e-reader and a tablet. If you've ever tried to read something on a tablet while getting a suntan, you'll likely know my answer. I also explain to another reader why it seems like he can always get a 2G or 3G signal on his cell phone instead of a 4G signal. He asks why carriers don't do more to extend the reach of their 4G networks.

Tablet vs. e-reader

Dear Maggie,
I currently own an iPad Mini 16GB Wi-Fi model and an iPhone 5 16GB. I also own a 2013 MacBook Pro. As you can tell, I am heavily invested in Apple's ecosystem. I enjoy the simplicity of the products, hardware design and ease of use. However, I am also an avid reader, wholoves eBooks and reads as much as possible on my iPad mini, whether it be books, magazines or Flipboard.

I was considering purchasing the basic $69 model of the Kindle, so that I can use my Kindle to read in brightly-lit conditions, such as outside, and if necessary, use the Kindle app on my iPad Mini in low-light settings. Would buying a Kindle be a waste since I already have an iPad Mini? I know that the Kindle is perfect for book lovers, but I question whether I need another device to do something that I can already accomplish on my current devices. What do you advise? Does it make sense to own both a tablet and an e-reader?


P.S. I love your column on CNET! Ask Maggie has answered so many of my questions in the past! :)

The iPad Mini isn't so easy to take apart.
The iPad Mini. CNET

Dear Asher,
I completely understand your hesitancy to spend money on yet another gadget. I often feel the same way. This is especially true when you consider that you likely paid more than $300 for your iPad Mini.

$69 Kindle e-reader from Amazon Amazon

But even though a tablet like the iPad can be used as an e-reader and is often great for that purpose in certain situations, it's not ideal in every situation. Unfortunately, for you and anyone else looking to read a good book lounging by the pool, basking in the sun at the beach, or simply kicking back at the park on a sunny afternoon, tablets are not the best option when you're in direct sunlight.

The reason is simple, the iPad Mini and other tablets use LCD screens, which are backlit. This is great if you want to read in the dark or in low-light. But it's horrible if you want to read sitting in bright sunlight. It is a little bit better if you're sitting in the shade, such as under an umbrella.

But lucky for you, there is a much better and relatively inexpensive alternative to consider. As you mentioned in your question, the Amazon Kindle is a great option for you, since it uses a technology called e-ink, which allows you to read print on a screen that is not backlit. When you look at a page on a Kindle that uses e-ink, it looks like a page from a book. It works great in the bright sunlight. And personally, I find it much easier to read longer books and passages on a Kindle than a tablet even when I am not in the sun, since it doesn't make my eyes as tired as reading from a tablet's backlit LCD screen.

The other good news is that you can get a Kindle for a relatively cheap price: $69. I don't want to make light of the price of this device. For some folks, $69 is not chump change, especially in this economy. But for me, and I think for a lot of other people out there, it's a reasonable price. Think of it this way, some covers you'd buy to protect your iPad Mini cost as much or more than the $69 Kindle. If you're a real book fiend, like I am, you'd easily spend $69 in just a couple of trips to your local bookstore or on Amazon picking out some good reads for the summer.

In short, I don't think it's a waste at all for you to own both devices. In fact, I own both a Kindle and a Nexus 7 tablet. I mostly use my Kindle for reading books, whether I am on an airplane, the subway commuting to work, at home on my couch, or lounging in the sun. I prefer the e-ink since it's gentler on my eyes, and it resembles an actual book a lot more than the Kindle app on my Nexus 7.

That said, if I want to read a magazine that will have lots of graphics and pictures, I'd rather read it on my tablet. The one time, I prefer the tablet over the Kindle when reading a book is when I am in bed and my husband wants to go to sleep. It's a lot easier to use the tablet with its backlit screen to read in the dark than to buy a special attachment for my Kindle.

I asked some of my CNET colleagues to offer their input on this question as well. And here is what they had to say:

iPad Mini

Brian Tong, CNET senior editor and CNET TV host
I own both a tablet and an e-reader, specifically because they are different devices to me. For my first e-book I started on my iPad but couldn't stand the backlit screen for long periods of time, so I bought a Nook Simple Touch. I'll never go back. Plus it's 99 bucks and I feel more comfortable taking it to a beach. I'm NOT taking the iPad.

When it comes to magazines, I also prefer the tablet. The content is shorter and more digestible and the colors come alive with the color screen. If you're someone who can afford it, I would definitely get both. It's worth it to me. If I had to choose one it would be a tablet. If reading books is your top priority, then get an e-reader. But if you want to do everything, you can't turn down a tablet.

Nathan Bransford, CNET's social media manager and author of several children's books
I use my iPad at home, iPhone on the train, and sync between the two using my Kindle app. But I'm still thinking about getting a cheaper e-ink Kindle for the park/beach. Reading is OK in the shade on the iPad, but the sun is a pain.

Lindsey Turrentine, CNET Editor-in-Chief
I have both and much prefer the e-reader for reading both because of the e-ink and because its so much lighter for one handed reading.

Donna Tam, CNET staff writer
I enjoy reading on my Kindle more because it feels like reading an actual book, but I use my smartphone Kindle app more frequently because it's more portable on a daily basis. When I travel on long flights, I always prefer to read on my Kindle even if it means packing an extra device.

David Carnoy, CNET executive editor and novelist
For me, I only use my e-reader when I am outside in direct sunlight. If I'm on vacation by the pool I'll use e-ink. At home, I tend to use the iPad Mini. That said, I really wish it had a Retina display when reading.

Jeff Sparkman, CNET copy editor
I use a tablet for reading where ever I am because it's usually already in my hand from having played a game on it or getting sucked in to reading

Roger Cheng, CNET executive editor
I just own an iPad (3rd Gen, Retina Display) and I think it's sufficient when traveling. But only because I don't want the hassle of carrying another device, even if it is as svelte as a Kindle or Nook. The sun issue isn't that big a deal for me -- I just find shade. Who wants to sit out in the sun all day? You end up frying.

Stephen Shankland, CNET senior writer
I read a ton on my Nexus 7, whose size I like for reading, but I've kind of gravitated toward my bulky iPad 3 (oops, did I say that out loud?) because its screen goes dimmer when I read at night. I don't want a dedicated e-book reader because I read much more in the dark at night than I do in the day and I don't want another piece of electronica cluttering my life. I prefer the flexibility of a real tablet and don't find it hard to read.

The bottom line:
Some people prefer having just a single device that they can take with them everywhere, while others say it's worth it to have a specialized e-reader, especially if you want to read outdoors. So my advice is to just go ahead and buy the $69 Kindle e-reader. It probably won't break the bank, and you can still use your iPad for reading in certain situations. And as Brian Tong rightfully pointed out in his advice, you'd probably rather take your $69 Kindle to the beach rather than your $329 iPad Mini.

Why am I always getting 2G/3G service instead of 4G?

Dear Maggie,
Lately I have been thinking about how cell phones go from LTE, to 3G, and finally to 2G as they get farther from cell towers. The more I thought about this, the more I realized how stupid this really is. How do much older cell networks end up broadcasting longer distances than newer ones? You would think that when LTE or 3G were developed they would try to make them have longer ranges. I can understand how Sprint might lose LTE and go to 3G because LTE is on a higher band than 3G, but why does this happen on AT&T and Verizon when LTE uses 700MHz frequencies, which are lower than their 2G and 3G broadcast bands?


Dear Ben,
This is a good question. But it sounds like you are a bit confused, so let me try to explain.

The reason why it seems like many carriers offer better coverage with their 2G services is because these are the oldest networks. For most carriers, these networks are more than a decade old. And during that decade, they've spent a lot more time building out their networks using this technology. What's more the bigger carriers have acquired many smaller carriers, which likely already had deployed the basic 2G service in those areas. For many operators, this might mean that there are more towers offering 2G service versus towers offering 3G and 4G service. More towers typically means better coverage.

Still, you are absolutely correct that there is a difference in the distance that signals can propagate depending on the frequency used to deploy that wireless service. Lower frequency spectrum carries signals longer distances than shorter frequency spectrum. Lower frequency spectrum also penetrates through obstacles, such as walls much better than higher frequency spectrum.

Wireless operators use different frequency bands to provide different services. For example, AT&T and Verizon Wireless offer their 2G and 3G services on 850MHz and 1900MHz spectrum. These companies are using 700MHz and 1700/2100MHz for their new 4G LTE services.

Sprint offers 2G voice service on 800MHz and 1900MHz spectrum, but it only offers 3G service on its 1900MHz spectrum. T-Mobile USA, doesn't have any low frequency spectrum and it offers most of its services from 2G, 3G, to 4G on 1900MHz to 1700/2100MHz spectrum.

In part, the type of frequency the carriers use explains why Sprint and T-Mobile don't cover as wide a footprint as AT&T and Verizon, which have a better mix of low frequency and high frequency spectrum for all their services.

So if AT&T and Verizon are using lower frequency spectrum for their 2G and 3G services and they also have lower frequency spectrum for their 4G service, why do you sometimes get a 2G or 3G signal instead of a 4G signal?

The answer to that is that it's likely that either AT&T or Verizon haven't yet deployed the 4G LTE technology in your area. It is not that wireless operators haven't tried to engineer their networks to extend to their entire footprints. But if there is an area that is sparsely populated, it's less likely a carrier will spend money to bring service to that area. It simply isn't profitable for them to spend the money upgrading their network with this service.

That said, the 700MHz spectrum that AT&T and Verizon are using for their 4G LTE services does propagate over longer distances. So it's likely that they can reach more areas using fewer towers than they have when deploying previous generations of technology.

Verizon has said that it plans to cover its entire 3G footprint with 4G service. And the carrier is just about finished with this deployment. So this means wherever you can get a Verizon 3G signal, you should soon be able to get a 4G signal. As of this month, Verizon says that it has deployed 4G service in nearly 500 markets. This translates to 4G coverage for roughly 90 percent of the U.S. population.

Thanks for reading the column, and I hope this helped clear things up for you.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.