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Nexus 7, iPad Mini, Kindle Paperwhite - the top book-reading tech of 2012

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Tablet or e-reader?

That’s why I have a Nexus 7 for everyday reading, saving my old Kindle 4 for holidays in the sun. And given how inexpensive both e-readers and tablets are, having two devices is not an extravagance. Of the three 7in tablets mentioned above, the specs and prices are comparable, though the Nook HD has the higher resolution: 900 x 1440 to the Nexus’ and Fire HD’s 800 x 1280. The Nook HD also has a slot for Micro SD storage expansion but the quid pro quo is less on-board storage. The Fire HD and Nexus have no such slot, though the Amazon device does have a mini HDMI connector, handy if you expect to use it to show videos on a TV.

It’s this kind of functionality that separates the tablet from the traditional e-reader. Tablets have colour screens that are capable of video playback; e-ink screens are monochrome and refresh their images too slowly for movies - even ones that say they can hack it as video players. There’s no reason e-readers can’t do music mind, and many did in the early days, but that’s a feature that has now largely been lost as the devices are more tightly focused on book reading.

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite

Amazon uses the Kindle Paperwhite's screen illumination to increase the E Ink screen's contrast ratio - but not as much as this PR shot suggests

That’s why they have lower storage capacities than tablets, though e-books take up such little space that even a 2GB device - which will typically have around 1GB for books - is plenty for a large library of unread volumes. Some e-readers, such as the Sony Reader PRS-T2, have Micro SD memory card slots to allow you to up the capacity to 32GB - limiting if you want to put music and movies on there too, but sufficient for even the greediest of bibliophile.

E-readers are lighter and thinner than tablets and, I’d say, more resilient. LCD screens are a lot more likely to break when dropped than are e-ink panels. Then there’s the user experience. Traditional e-readers and generic tablets like the Nexus 7 don’t feel like handheld shopfronts the way that the tablets from Amazon and Barnes & Noble do. I like the Nook HD very much, but I don’t want my tablet or e-reader to be a shop window for the supplier’s products and services.

While the Nook HD at least supports the closest thing there is to an e-book copy-protection standard - as does Barnes & Noble’s other kit, and devices from Sony, Kobo and Bookeen - Amazon uses its own. Books bought from the Kindle store can only be read on Kindles and Kindle apps on smartphones, computers and tablets. For some book lovers, the wide availability of apps makes DRM a non-issue; for others, not being able to make copies for back-up, and the fact that you don’t actually own e-books, you only rent them is a big deal.

Apple iPad Mini

Apple's iPad Mini: not pocket friendly and equipped with a non-retina screen

There’s a third DRM technology out there: Apple’s FairPlay. It’s incompatible with the others so, again, books bought from the iTunes iBooks shop can only be read on Apple devices. Unlike Amazon, Apple doesn’t provide iBooks apps for other platforms. This lock-in is one reason why the Apple iPad Mini is less attractive as an e-reader than rival small tablets but, for me, a bigger problem is its lower resolution (768 x 1024) screen which doesn’t render text as smoothly or as paper-page like as the others.

Like the Nexus 7, the Acer Iconia A110 and, to a slightly lesser extent the Fire HD and Nook HD, the iPad Mini is a generic computing device so its functionality can be expanded with apps. Of course, if you’re only interested in using the device to read books, that might seem less of an advantage but it does mean you can pick and choose which book viewer apps you use. I can buy and read, say, Kindle books right on my Nexus 7, and content from other online bookshops, but that’s not possible with the Amazon or Barnes & Noble products, though the latter will accept copies transferred to it by USB cable.

2012's top e-book readers: the best...

RH Editor's ChoiceGoogle Nexus 7
Reg Rating 85%

RH Recommended MedalAmazon Kindle
Reg Rating 85%

RH Recommended MedalBarnes & Noble Nook
SimpleTouch Glowlight

Reg Rating 85%

...and the rest

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite
Reg Rating 80%

Apple iPad Mini
Reg Rating 80%

Kobo Glo
Reg Rating 75%

Acer Iconia A110
Reg Rating 70%

Amazon Kindle Fire HD
Reg Rating 60%

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