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E-books catch on

E-readers are no longer a novelty. The growth in products, in tandem with sizeable price drops, caused sales to surge over the holidays. You can buy a basic dedicated e-reader at Best Buy, Walmart, or online for $79.

A new study by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project indicates that 29% of adult Americans own at least one e-reader. Ownership is growing faster among women than men.

E-readers use e-ink, a way of displaying black-and-white images and text that uses little battery. One charge lasts one or two months, depending on your wireless use. The display resembles paper, without the glare in direct sun. All e-readers feature the option of increasing font sizes.

Thousands of titles are free; most are $9.99. Beyond downloads from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, you can download from libraries and share with friends.

New, more expensive devices combine e-readers with tablet features such as Web surfing, email access, and more. Most offer options of a 3G wireless data network or WiFi. They offer an array of downloadable third-party applications.

Early Kindle edge

Amazon Kindle (under 6 ounces) was the first e-reader in November 2007. The next step up, at $99, is the Kindle Touch. A touchscreen makes it easier to use; no need to swipe it to turn a page (but touchscreens weigh more). The Kindle Touch has a virtual keyboard and built-in WiFi. If you travel a lot or want to access more than e-books, you can buy one with 3G access (AT&T cellular network) for $149.

The newest model, Kindle Fire, is an Android-based tablet/e-reader with a 6-inch touchscreen, email functions, and improved Web browser. It weighs 14.6 ounces. Its WiFi-only version is $189.

Expect a price differential for ad-supported and nonsupported models.

Kay Winn, Rich Square, North Carolina, followed the e-reader market for a couple of years before buying a Kindle Fire. As a dedicated Amazon shopper, she enjoys the color, touch, and surfing capability. Size and weight also are factors. “I like the size because I can keep it in my purse,” she says.

Nook plays catch-up

The Nook, developed by Barnes & Noble in 2009, now has versions ranging from $99 to $199: Nook SimpleTouch (7.5 ounces); Nook Color; and Nook Tablet (14.1 ounces). Nook Color offers a large collection of interactive kids' books, built-in WiFi, and music apps. The company's bricks-and-mortar stores may help the Nook gain market share more quickly.

iPad weighs in

The Apple iPad, with a 9.7-inch color screen, is a tablet/e-reader with many third-party apps. It starts at $499. A built-in battery allows up to 10 hours on WiFi or a 3G cellular network. It weighs 1.33 pounds. It's available at Verizon stores, Best Buy, and Target.

“The iPad isn't compatible with Flash Player,” Winn says. “This limits video options. To make the best e-reader choice, decide how you'll use it, and buy the one that best suits your individual needs and budget.”

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