Should you buy a tablet instead of an eReader?

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: August 5, 2011

Back in late 2007, Amazon's Kindle eBook reader (eReader for short) kick-started a change to the way we read books forever. The days of buying print books are slowly fading as electronic renditions of leisure books, magazines and even textbooks become increasingly popular. Instead of carrying a bag of clunky books, you can carry one lightweight, rechargeable device that contains the exact same information (sometimes more) in a fraction of the space.

Shortly after the introduction of the Kindle and other various eReaders came tablets. The Apple iPad was the first high-end tablet on scene and baffled us with a relatively steep price tag. Now tablets are flooding the market and quickly turning into common household items … even essential business tools. Not only that, they are slowly becoming more affordable and more functional, too. More importantly, however, tablets have made many question the practicality of dedicated eReaders. I have talked to several eReader owners who wish they had bought a tablet instead. Likewise, I have spoken to tablet owners who still prefer (or would prefer) using a dedicated eReader for reading books. Covering some of the same ground, the two have been neck and neck, fighting for a foothold in the mobile electronics market. When it comes down to it, which should you buy? Are eReaders still worth buying?

Here are a few facts about tablets and eReaders that may help you in your decision:

Functionality

Generally, a person would buy an eReader for, well ... reading. (Right?) I cannot tell you how many eReader owners I have talked with that wish their eReader could do more. It is worth noting that eReaders are capable of more than just presenting eBooks in an easy to read fashion. Both Kindles and Nooks allow users to download and play games, browse the Internet (sort of) and more. But in my experience, it's more trouble than its worth. There are also eReaders that kind of fall into both categories like the Nook Color. It's an over-powered eReader that runs Android. As per usual, developers have taken it under their wing and it even has official support for CyanogenMod. I've tried this as well. I'm not a fan.

Tablets, on the other hand, straddle the line between keyboard-less computers and smartphones. They are great for consuming all sorts of media, playing games, browsing the Internet and they are even useful in the workplace. They can also be used for reading, albeit the display is not ideal for such.

Display

When you spend hours on end staring at a display reading, one of the biggest deciding factors can be the actual technology used in the display. Unlike the display on your PC or larger, more capable tablets, eReaders are typically equipped with a display composed of E Ink technology. The idea behind this is to make the display appear more like print than an actual display. An E Ink display does not show color, but instead provides a high contrast, grayscale image that strongly resembles that of a page from an actual book. An eReader's display can easily be viewed in bright sunlight and is great for reading outdoors or inside. That said, the display is not backlit, meaning a lamp or book light is required when reading in low lighting.

On the other end of the spectrum, a tablet's display greatly favors that of a laptop. It sports a backlit, colorful display that is great for a multitude of uses. But reading for an extended period of time is much more taxing on the eyes with such a bright display. Within some dedicated reader applications on tablets, there is the option to invert colors (black background with white or gray text), which makes reading in the dark without a lamp possible. But even with this inverted colors feature, my eyes still begin to burn after some time.

Portability

Size and weight on both technologies varies quite a bit. For a rough comparison, the Kindle (Wi-Fi) weighs in at a mere 8 ounces while the iPad and most other tablets weigh over 20 ounces. The Kindle itself comes in both 6-inch and 9.7-inch model, and the newest Nook sits comfortably between the two. Most tablets are between 7-inches and 10.1-inches. Thickness on the two also varies, but they're all generally under half an inch thick.

Battery life

Much like display technology, battery tech is worlds apart between eReaders and tablets. In short, an eReader's battery life is usually rated in weeks and months, whereas a tablet's is rated in hours (thanks to the display). Amazon rates the Kindle's battery at three weeks with the wireless radio on and up to three months with the radio off. The iPad, which is known for some of the best battery life in a tablet, is rated at 10 hours of browsing the Internet. The ASUS Eee Pad Transformer is a tablet that is also known for its incredible battery life – with the aid of a keyboard dock. In my use with the Transformer, I consistently hit the 17 hour mark before having to plug it up.

Playing games, watching videos and streaming data on a tablet can easily alter the battery life on a day to day basis. With eReaders, however, battery life will still last nearly a month with or without being used.

Price range

Price is easily one of the most difficult deciding factors in the tablet's favor. You can get a high-end reader for just north of $100 while a decent tablet usually starts around $400. With such a large difference in price, it can be a rather tough decision to pull the trigger on a tablet over an eReader.

Which should you buy?

Considering every case is different, there is no cut and dry answer. Both are great devices and perform well within their own boundaries. That said, deciding between the two really shouldn't be a hard decision as the two devices are worlds apart in functionality. Tablets have definitely created a rather large hurdle for eReaders as they, too, offer a decent method of reading books and syncing your progress on the go. But eReaders are not dead just yet. Tablets may come with mountains of added functionality for a little over double the price, but reading for an extended time on a tablet can be taxing on the eyes. E Ink technology and price are the only two (albeit strong) arguments in the eReader's favor. If PixelQi's displays go mainstream, however, eReaders will face a daunting battle.

So what's the verdict? If you are looking for a device to strictly focus on reading, an eReader will suit your needs and your wallet better. A tablet is likely to create many distractions with addictive games and thousands of applications at your disposal. If you are looking for an all-around entertainment device, the low price tag of an eReader and "extra functionality" may be enticing, but an eReader should never be considered a tablet substitute. Shell out the extra cash for a tablet and reap the benefits.

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