Double Take: Alternative E Ink Readers to Amazon’s Kindle

The market for dedicated e-ink readers is small—but not yet extinguished

While walking the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show back in 2010, e-ink readers were impossible to miss. The devices could be seen practically everywhere, with a bevy of manufacturers proudly pushing their take on the gadget to potential buyers and members of the technology press. These included offerings that ranged from established brands such as Sony to upstarts from less-known companies such as Aluratek and iRiver. There was even plenty of excitement about the next evolution of the devices—colored e-ink technology.

Then Apple’s iPad came out in April that year. Not only did Steve Jobs’ take on the slate dominate the tablet market, it practically reduced the sizzling E-reader sector to an afterthought that suddenly seemed just about as quaint as e-ink’s black and white display. Like 3D televisions, which were also big during that same year at CES, the e-ink reader segment quickly went from hot to not in the following years.

Fast forward to 2020 and this once-proud segment of the tech market is littered with the graves of failed endeavors. Sony and several other companies pulled out of the e-reader business altogether. Barnes and Noble, meanwhile, has all but scaled back its once ambitious plans. Nowadays, Amazon lords over the e-ink reader space despite its proprietary format thanks to Kindle brand recognition and a well-curated E-book store.

Despite Amazon’s dominance with its various readers, however, there still are some alternatives out there—albeit fewer—to the Kindle line.

Kobo Forma

Kobo Forma

Lifewire / Yoona Wagener

Kobo has been fighting the good fight against market leader Amazon for quite some time. Admittedly, the brand struggled against Amazon’s head start in the digital bookstore space. But while Kobo doesn’t quite have the expansive mindshare that Amazon’s Kindle line has, its devices stack up nicely against the competition when it comes to hardware.

Kobo, which had been most closely associated with the now-defunct Borders bookstore chain, is now owned by Japanese conglomerate Rakuten, which heavily brands itself along with the Kobo name.

Kobo devices—there are several in the line—cross several different price points. The flagship device is the Kobo Forma, which ships in 8 GB and 32 GB variants. Boasting an 8-inch, 300-PPI screen, the Forma is waterproof at the IPX8 standard, meaning it survives up to an hour in 6 feet of water. The e-ink screen supports a resoultion of 1440-pixels-by-1920-pixels. It weighs just a hair under 200 grams and lasts for several weeks of use on its 1200 mAh battery.

The Kobo line of products, however, offers advantages beyond Kindle. For starters, it’s more open and supports more file formats, including EPUB and even Amazon’s MOBI format. If you value freedom, that can be an attractive selling point.

Barnes & Noble Nook Glowlight Plus

Nook Glowlight Plus
Barnes & Noble

Like Sony’s e-readers, the Nook used to be one of the leading challengers to the Kindle’s crown. And while Barnes & Noble did not have the technical chops of Sony, it had the advantage of having its own online bookstore to support it.

Looking back, the original Nook had some pretty good buzz when it came first out. Barnes & Noble released several readers in the Nook line, including the E Ink-based Simple Touch and Glowlight as well as some tablets based on Google’s Android line. Just like Sony, however, the Nook ultimately succumbed to market demand that was less than expected, causing it to fail in fulfilling its initial promise on the e-ink reader front. Meanwhile, the Nook tablets got swept away by the iPad tsunami the same way many other aspiring slates were. Fast forward to today and Barnes & Noble’s Nook line is essentially a selection of various Samsung tablets.

Barnes & Noble decided to refresh its E Ink reader line with the release of the Nook Glowlight Plus on October 2015. As of spring 2020, that model is still the most current on offer.

Like the Kindle Voyage and the Kobo Glo HD, the Nook Glowlight Plus uses the Carta E Ink technology for its touchscreen display. It also features a 6-inch display with a resolution of 300 points per inch. Like its competition, it features lighting so you can continue to read during nighttime.

Despite the similarities, the Glowlight Plus has one key selling point. This E Ink reader is actually waterproof. This means you can take it with you to the beach or by the pool and have fewer worries about ruining the device if it happens to be splashed by water. It also can display EPUB files, unlike Amazon’s Kindle line. However, this particular reader is not compatible with Amazon’s MOBI e-book format like the Kobo is.

Reading on a Tablet

Apart from the internal dynamics of the e-book market, another reason the dedicated e-ink tablet market has declined relates to—well, tablets. Given that Nook and Kindle remain available as apps for Android and iOS/iPadOS, a reader obtains the benefit from the software without having to purchase a dedicated device.