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Technology

E-Book Readers: Paperless at a Price

Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader cost too much for what they deliver.

Amazon.com bills its Kindle as a "revolutionary wireless reading device." And it does have some cool features. The Kindle (and its top rival, the Sony Reader) is roughly the size of a slim paperback and can store a bookcase of digital books. Plus, if your eyesight isn't perfect, the device can magnify the type. But revolutionary? Not really. At least for now, the latest e-book readers offer book lovers convenience at a price.

Crystal clear. Both the Kindle ($359) and the Sony Reader PRS-505 ($300) feature a high-contrast, 6-inch screen. Both screens are surprisingly easy to read, even in sunlight, and mimic ink-on-paper pages. They're not backlighted, so you'll need reasonably bright ambient light to use them.

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The metal-cased Reader has a cleaner, more elegant design and fits snugly in its handsome leather pouch. The numbered buttons in a row along the Reader's right edge provide basic navigation. To find a book by author, for instance, click button number 3. Lefties and righties have separate controls for turning pages, and there's a headphone jack for listening to MP3s. To charge the Reader, you connect it to a personal computer using the supplied USB cable. Sony charges an additional $30 for an AC charger, which is chintzy considering the Reader's high price.

To buy books from Sony's eBook Store, you must use a Web-enabled Windows PC and then transfer titles via USB. The Sony eBook software does a poor job of guiding new users through the book-shopping process. The eBook Store has more than 20,000 titles, but that doesn't match Amazon's library of more than 125,000 digital books. Both devices can also store electronic versions of newspapers and magazines.

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The Kindle's white plastic exterior pales beside its competitor's metal sheen, and it seems more fragile, although we didn't drop kick the gadget to gauge its toughness. In our tests, the Kindle kept slipping out of its leather case (which doesn't fasten securely, like the Reader's).

Wireless edge. Aside from a reading list six times longer than that of the Reader, the Kindle has another big advantage: a direct link to the Internet. It uses a Sprint wireless connection to download books from Amazon.com, thus eliminating the PC middleman.

The Kindle is simple to operate, too. Navigation buttons are clearly labeled (for example, "next page"), although their location on the device's right and left borders makes it far too easy to turn pages accidentally. The mini keyboard is handy for entering search terms while browsing online. The clever "select wheel" (similar to a mouse's scroll wheel) is useful for moving between menu options.

Library in a box. The Kindle holds nearly 200 books, and the Reader nearly 160. You can store hundreds more on memory cards. (The Kindle has one card slot; the Reader has two. Cards range from $5 to $120 and hold 1 gigabyte to 8GB.) Battery life varies with usage. The Kindle's lasts longer if you leave the wireless link off until you need it. The Reader's battery lasts up to 7,500 page turns between charges, Sony says. Bottom line: Both devices need recharging every few days.

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Of course, a book made of paper needs to be recharged -- oh wait -- never. Plus, it would pass the drop-kick test. But our main gripe with digital-book delivery is the cost. These devices are too expensive given their limited advantages. A portable reader in the $100 to $150 ballpark would persuade us to overlook a lot of drawbacks.

Plus, the electronic books themselves could come down in price. Featured titles on Sony's eBook Store range from about $5 to $19, and Amazon sells most digital bestsellers for $10. Given the significantly reduced publishing and distribution costs, all e-books should cost about $5. Maybe someday.

See current prices for e-book readers and PDAs.