Whether you're buying, gifting, or expecting an eReader this holiday season, the market's changed a lot from last year and the year before that. Here's a complete buyer's guide, starting with the basics and working through the latest trends.
Kindle, Nook, or ... ?
What exactly an "eReader" is, to you, might depend on where you first saw them. Barnes and Noble is pushing its Nook line pretty hard through its retail stores, while the Kindle takes over the front page of Amazon.com every time a new model comes out.
There are other eReader devices, though. Kobo sells a line of basic but dependable black-and-white eReaders, which have tons of fans of their own, and a color version's on its way. Other companies, like Sony, have their own lines; and there are eReader apps for PCs, smartphones, and tablets, which tie into your Kindle, Nook or Kobo device and can even save your place in a book.
The biggest difference
It's not black and white versus color, believe it or not; it's where you'll be buying your ebooks. For better or for worse, when you buy a Nook, Kindle, or Kobo you're basically committing to one company's store, for books as well as music and videos. If you already have a favorite, that makes a good starting point for comparisons, but if you haven't already bought a ton of ebooks from one store then you might as well check out alternatives.
A more versatile device, like Apple's iPad or Google's Nexus 7, can use apps to read all the other stores' books. In the iPad's case, though, it also has its own Apple-controlled bookstore. The good news is, you can read books with special interactive features that are only available on the iPad; the bad news is, you can only read them on the iPad. You also can't shop for new Kindle, Nook, or Kobo books through the iPad apps, because of the App Store's rules. Instead, you'll have to fire up the Safari web browser and buy them online.
What about those HD tablets?
The Kindle and Nook lines are featuring new HD models, some of which are about as good as Apple's Retina Display in that the pixels (the dots that make up the words) are so small you can't see them with the unaided eye. You give up the clarity of black-and-white e-ink for an HD display, but then, you can't watch movies or play games that well on a black-and-white eReader, either.
9-inch or 7-inch?
The Kindle, Nook, and iPad all come in 9 or 10 inch sizes, while the first two (and the Kobo and Nexus 7) also come in 7 inch versions. Bigger is better, to an extent; the big screens are great for movies and magazines, but they're a little heavy to be spending all day reading paperback novels on. They're also a lot more expensive.
Doing anything other than reading?
There's a retro charm to black-and-white e-ink readers; a crispness that comes close to reproducing the feel of words on paper. If you're a heavy reader, you'll probably be happy with one of these, and it'll probably be easier on your eyes. Just keep in mind that you'll be giving up the serendipity of discovering what a color tablet can do, unless you own one already ... since black-and-white readers are comparatively cheap, you might be able to get one as well.
Don't forget to factor in cash for a book light, to go with a black-and-white eReader, unless you're getting a backlit version. And whichever eReader you get (or gift), have fun reading on it!