Review: New Amazon Kindle Paperwhite, Kobo e-readers raise bar, lower costs

After more than 500 years, there's still nothing like a good book.

And even though bookstores appear to be going the way of video stores, there are plenty of people who still enjoy reading. Fortunately, among the welter of tablets and gadgets there are a few devices dedicated simply to electronic tomes.

Forget about the distractions of e-mail and streaming video on a tablet, Amazon's Paperwhite and Kobo's Aura HD are two of the best e-readers for serious readers. While these electronic readers still haven't surpassed Gutenberg's invention in terms of legibility or accessiblity, they are convenient alternatives that are able to download and store thousands of books and last for weeks on a single charge.

Based on E Ink's monochrome display technology, both models are also able to display pages clearly even when you're sunning yourself by the pool. Boomers experiencing vision changes can also change the font size and style. Each is also easy on the wrist, weighing less than color tablets. And best of all, the annoying flash of black between page flips has been minimized. Kobo's ereader only refreshes every half dozen pages; Amazon's model only flashes black about every dozen pages.

Kindle's Paperwhite is less expensive at $119 with built-in Wi-Fi and a light for night-time reading. For that price you have to endure “special offers,” a.k.a., advertising, but I don't find the home page ads that intrusive. If you do, you can pay an additional $20 to eschew the advertising (you can choose this option after you buy the ereader so you don't have to decide at the point of purchase). Amazon has improved the Paperwhite over the previous version with a more even built-in light, a zippier processor, and more responsive touch screen. But it's still a diminuitive screen at just 6 inches.

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The more expensive $170 Kobo matches Kindle's basic technical specs but betters it with a bigger 6.8 screen. It makes a noticeable difference since it's closer in size to its analog relative, the paperback book. An informal panel of friends thought the Kobo screen appeared whiter than the Kindle competitor, although the difference is subtle and all agreed that when a difference was perceived, the Kindle screen (with the light off) seemed ever so slightly yellow, which seemed more like a friendly paperback page.

In many other respects, these ereaders offer similar conveniences. Both offer free iOS and Android apps for reading your books on other devices, when the need arises. You can look up words by tapping on the screen, highlight passages, and shop for titles online.

Kobo is elegant and debonair, with a contoured back that makes it more comfortable to hold. Kindle's Paperwhite doesn't have quite the design aplomb, but it's got a few helpful tricks up its digital sleeve, such as a vocabulary builder that tracks the words you look up and builds a flash-card index of definitions for later study. (It also has an “Experimental Browser,” but don't tell book worms.)

While the Kindle is backed by the Amazon store, both companies offer more ebooks than you can read in a lifetime. And Amazon is something of a tender trap. Once you've purchased a slew of books on Amazon, you're tied to the Kindle for life. Or sort of. There are homespun programs that will convert Kindle ebooks into other formats, but it's a hassle and you lose the synchronization feature when you go that route. Converserly, Kobo supports the open EPUB format, no strings attached.

For serious readers who are reluctantly succumbing to the ebook trend, both the Aura HD and Paperwhite are excellent choices. You don't have to worry about battery life (much) and they represent the state of the art in legibility. And it's nice to know not everything is about streaming video or posting to Pinterest.

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