E-readers are a niche sort of technology, the antithesis of the “jack of all trades, master of none” philosophy that governs most tablets, phones, and other gadgets. These are intentionally limited devices, built around one central use: to read books.
Today’s best e-readers come pretty close to matching (and even beating) the print book experience. They offer screens with crisp, clean text, batteries that last for weeks, and benefits that print books can never match, like integrated backlights, waterproofing, and a nearly infinite library in your pocket.
And with the latest wave of e-readers pushing the technology farther than ever, there’s never been a better time to give one a shot. Even if we’re still working on replicating the perfect new book smell.
Update July 26th 2019, 8:30AM ET: Updated guide to add recent 2019 Kindle models.
The best e-reader: Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (2018)
Amazon has long dominated the e-reader game with the Kindle Paperwhite, which marries the high resolution display and built-in light of Amazon’s top-of-the-line readers with the lightweight, pocketable design of the company’s base model Kindle. Even before the latest update, Amazon said that the Paperwhite was its best selling model, and for good reason — it’s a nearly perfect mix of functionality and price point for an e-reader.
The 2018 Paperwhite — the first major update in years — advances things even further, adding waterproofing, support for listening to Audible audiobooks over Bluetooth, and an improved design with a flush display. The screen is a 6-inch 300ppi E Ink panel that’s crisp even for tiny font sizes, the integrated light lets you read in the dark, and the hardware is still small and thin enough to slide into the back pocket of my jeans.
The old Paperwhite made even better
The Paperwhite has all of the full power of Amazon’s years of refinements of Kindles behind it — the user interface is simple, but easy to manage, the fonts and formatting of books are great, and buying more things to read is almost dangerously easy to do right on the device. Amazon also has its services to sweeten the pot — Prime members get access to free content through the Prime Reading Program, users can sign up for an optional Kindle Unlimited subscription to further their a la carte options, and Amazon’s purchase of Goodreads means that the largest literature-related social media network is built right into the device. And of course, the biggest and cheapest ebook library around.
Amazon sells the Paperwhite for $129.99 at full price, but you should never spend that much on it, considering that Amazon frequently runs sales (the lowest price yet has been $90). Be aware, however, that the usual Amazon annoyances still apply. Adding cellular data will add $70 to the price, bumping up internal storage from 8GB to 32GB will add $30, and removing the ads from the home and lockscreen will cost another $20.
There are also a few annoyances that come with the hardware, like the lack of USB-C charging or faster 802.11n Wi-Fi. But sadly those apply to almost the entire e-reader marketplace, so it’ll be tough to avoid those issues until manufacturers start to step up a bit.
Ultimately, though, in terms of getting the most -reader bang for your buck, nothing else comes close to the Paperwhite.
The step up: Amazon Kindle Oasis (2019)
Amazon’s Kindle Oasis was already the absolute best e-reader if price isn’t a factor, and the updated third-generation version makes it even better, adding a color-temperature adjustable screen. It’s a small change, but it makes it both easier to read in the dark as well as just plain nicer to use, due to the tinted color helping the screen look more like actual paper than before.
The absolute best e-reader, but it’ll cost you
Everything else about the 2019 Oasis is otherwise unchanged, for better or for worse. The design is still outstanding, with an asymmetrical style that’s weighted perfectly to rest in one hand. And it still has an anodized aluminum case and physical page-turn buttons that are far nicer than the cheaper Kindles’ touchscreen-only UX and plastic shells. It’s also IPX8 waterproof and supports Audible audiobooks over Bluetooth.
Head to head with the Paperwhite, the Oasis has a few specific improvements: a larger screen, a front light with 12 LEDs (over the Paperwhite’s five) for more even lighting, and an adaptive light sensor that can automatically adjust the brightness for you (although not the color temperature, which would have been a nice addition).
But the Oasis still has its hefty price tag to contend with: nearly twice as much as the Paperwhite (or close to three times as much if you can find a Paperwhite on sale, which it frequently is), which makes it hard to recommend over the Paperwhite, even with the new screen. But if you want the best digital reading experience at any cost, nothing else beats the Oasis.
Amazon may be the 1,000-pound elephant in the room when it comes to ebooks, but it does have one major competitor: Kobo, the Canadian-based subsidiary of Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten, which has its own full lineup of Kindle competitors as well.
Kobo’s readers do have some great features that Amazon’s don’t: native support for Pocket articles, the ability to browse and borrow books from the popular Overdrive library system directly on the device (Amazon requires a computer to do it), and the simple fact that it doesn’t involve buying into another Amazon service, which certainly appeals to some people.
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