What's The Best E-Reader For School?

Amazon Kindle DX
Amazon Kindle DX, our 2011 top pick as an e-reader for students. Amazon

If you thought that the Mac vs. PC wars were a load of fun, "What's the best e-reader for…" is pretty much guaranteed to top that classic OS battle in terms of viewpoints. E-Reader technology is evolving rapidly, multiple (often incompatible) e-book file formats have been established, competition from multi-function tablets is heating up and there are even divided camps based on the best form factor and display type.

It's almost like taking that decades long computer battle, throwing in the fight over smart phone supremacy and adding a smudge of tablet competitions — all in one device and in a matter of only a few years.

There are hundreds of e-readers and tablets out there, all competing for a slice of the education market. Frankly, that's where much of the problem lies. With so many different file formats, display capabilities and hardware specs to worry about, content publishers have fragmented, with some supporting one platform and some another. However, sitting on the fence can become a lifelong occupation if you opt to wait for everything to settle down and a clear winner to emerge. So when the question is asked: What is the best e-reader for school, we're ready to take some criticism and pick a current champion.

Key Features

E-readers are a natural for an educational setting, especially the fact that they can replace heavy knapsacks full of paper books with a single lightweight device.

E-books usually cost less than their paper equivalents and with E Ink models, battery life is measured in weeks or months instead of hours. School use — whether it's college or high school — has a different set of requirements than personal use. If you're considering an e-reader for recreational reading, you probably place factors like style, price and pocket-ability high on your list of wanted features.

If you are buying an e-reader to use for school, there are other features that should be taken into consideration, among them:

  • Availability of content. Having the coolest e-reader in the world does you no good if you still have to buy paper textbooks.
  • Display size. Sure, a Sony Reader Pocket Edition with a 5-inch display literally fits in a pocket, but scrolling around a textbook page that measures 10 inches by 7 inches on paper is likely to be an exercise in frustration.
  • Display Technology. For long battery life and excellent visibility in most lighting conditions (night light required) an E Ink display is superior, but if you want color or backlighting you'll have to live with the glare issues, higher expense and reduced battery life of backlit LCD.
  • Study Aids. The ability to highlight text, make notes and easily look up the definition of words is a must have for a school-bound e-reader.
  • Portability. Ultimately, size does come in to play. If it wasn't an issue, everyone would carry a 17-inch laptop instead of an e-reader; the trick is finding the balance between portability and tradeoffs made to shrink the device.
  • Cost. School is already expensive enough without having to buy yet another gadget.

    The Contenders

    Besides the many second tier e-readers and tablets offered through websites and electronics sellers, there are several manufacturers who clearly lead the market when it comes to these things:

    • Amazon's Kindle e-readers
    • Barnes & Noble's NOOK line
    • Sony's Reader e-readers
    • Kobo's Kobo e-readers
    • Apple's iPad tablets

    Each of these companies has multiple models available and has offered their devices for at least the past year. With the exception of Apple's iPad and the Barnes & Noble NOOK Color, all of the hardware offered by these companies is based on E Ink displays. And, each of these companies offers not only e-readers, but ties them in to an associated e-bookstore for content.

    Thinning The Field

    First off the list are the Barnes & Noble e-readers. The NOOK Simple Touch is a compact device with excellent battery life and a nice display. Unfortunately, that display is only six inches in size. The NOOK Color on the other hand has a larger, 7-inch display with the added advantage of color thanks to its backlit LCD. The LCD means relatively poor battery life and sunlight/glare issues.

    Barnes & Noble offers e-textbooks in the form of its NOOK Study, but selection of titles is limited.

    Next to fall is Kobo. Its eReader Touch is very similar to the NOOK Simple Touch and the same reasons that make it a decent choice as a personal e-reader also make it a poor choice for school.  Kobo's e-bookstore isn't a great source of textbooks either.

    Sony offers a ranger of e-readers, all E Ink based models. While most fall under the too small category, the company does offer a 7-inch model, the Reader Daily Edition. Sony's online e-bookstore does carry digital textbooks, but the selection can't match Amazon's. There is also no rental option for e-textbooks through Sony, although the touchscreen Sony has the advantage of choosing from a virtual keyboard or freehand writing for taking notes. At $299, it's a little expensive as far as e-readers go and this model is likely due for a refresh in a matter of months, so there's also the potential for buyer's remorse.

     

    Apple's iPad and iPad 2 are excellent multifunction tablets and they dominate the tablet market. A number of companies are producing innovative, interactive digital textbooks for the iPad and it has the added advantage of being able to handle other tasks — web browsing, e-mail, music and movies and even gaming.

    On the downside, an iPad is expensive ($499 and up), heavy (over a pound), it's LCD display is difficult to read outdoors or in situations where glare is a factor and its battery is only good for 10 hours or so on a charge.

    The Winner

    While Sony Reader Daily Edition and Apple iPad both offer some compelling features, the winner for 2011 is the Amazon Kindle DX. Not the Kindle 3G or Wi-Fi (they suffer from the same display size issues as most consumer e-readers), but the big brother of the family.

    While its $379 price tag is steep, the Kindle DX still comes in well under $100 below the price of the cheapest iPad. And for that $379, you get an iPad-sized 9.7-inch display with E ink Pearl. It looks great indoors and even better in the sun. You won't be stowing this e-reader in a pocket, but any smaller and the display would require too much scrolling with texts and at 18.9 ounces (just a smidge less than an iPad 2) it's still a lot easier to carry than the armload of heavy books it can replace.

    While it doesn't have Wi-Fi, the Kindle does offer free 3G connectivity that lets a student download e-books, easily access Wikipedia (or check their e-mail) for free, without having to be in a Wi-Fi hotspot.

    Battery life is good for two to three weeks with the 3G turned off. Key features like a dictionary are included, as well as the ability to take notes (although the physical keyboard and button based controls make this more awkward than on the Sony); as an added bonus, Amazon synchronizes those notes to your account, so if you open an e-textbook on a computer using Amazon's Kindle app, the notes are carried over.

    The icing on the cake is Amazon's Kindle Textbooks. Amazon has inked deals with many publishers, offering a solid selection of e-textbooks for the Kindle. Some of the titles are even available for rent, an option that can shave costs significantly.

    These are Kindle books, which means they are incompatible with other e-readers, but they are accessible by using a Kindle app on an iPad, PC or other devices.

    As I said from the start, no one e-reader is currently the perfect solution, but for now, the Kindle DX is the best of the bunch when it comes to an e-reader for school use.