Which is Better for Reading? An E-Reader or a Small Tablet?

tablets and e-readers
Tablets and e-readers, all are good for digital reading, but which is better? Photo by Brad Moon

Only five years ago this wasn’t a question anyone would ask. In those pre-iPad days, the Kindle and (late, great) Sony Reader were pretty much the only games in town for digital reading devices. The iPad changed things in 2010, but those early tablets were big and expensive. The real competition between traditional E Ink e-readers and tablets for consuming the “printed” word didn’t happen until Android tablets went to 7-inches to do an end run around Apple’s market domination. Suddenly tablets were roughly the same size as e-readers and not a whole lot more expensive. That resulted in predictions that tablets would doom the the dedicated e-reader the same way smartphones were killing the point-and-shoot pocket camera. The e-reader isn’t dead yet, but should it be? Which is better for digital reading, an e-reader or a small tablet?

I own a whack of both (a small sample is on the photo above). Yeah, I may have a bit of a problem when it comes to collecting these things…

I was an e-reader guy when they first started becoming popular (are you kidding? I can carry all my books with me and the covers won’t get tattered?) but a small tablet in the form of the Nook Color won me over for a while because it had a backlit display for night reading, page turns were fast, resolution was good and there was no accompanying black flash — the Achilles Heel of E Ink displays.

However, recent generations of E Ink e-readers have flipped the equation around thanks to effective front lighting, more powerful CPUs for faster page turns, higher resolution (my current go-to e-reader has a 265 ppi display) and minimizing of that annoying black flash — now less black, quicker (almost unnoticeable) and only on every eighth page or so. And despite the falling price of tablets, E Ink e-readers still maintain their key advantages:

  • less screen glare
  • high contrast display that’s easy to read outdoors
  • battery life measured in weeks or months instead of hours
  • lighter
  • less expensive
  • generally speaking, less fragile (speaking as a parent of three kids who drop tablets and e-readers with alarming frequency)

There’s also evidence that the backlit displays used in tablets can cause eyestrain when reading at night. Not everyone agrees, but I know I feel it if I read using a tablet for too long after lights out. Even with the various night-reading schemes different operating systems offer.

On the other hand, with tablet ownership up so much, an e-reader may be considered an extra expense as well as yet another device to lug around. And an e-reader doesn’t offer the e-book format flexibility that a tablet does.

There’s a saying in the photography community that says the best camera to shoot a scene is the one you have with you. I think the same thing holds true with digital reading and I’ll happily use a tablet if that’s what’s on hand. However, if I have the choice, I’ll reach for my e-reader first. And for roughly the past year, that’s been a Kobo Aura HD (reviewed here). Some day — probably soon — Kobo or Amazon will come out with something better, but to date I haven’t found a device that beats it.

In my opinion, despite the explosion in popularity of small tablets like the Nexus 7 and iPad Mini, the answer is more clear than ever: an E Ink e-reader beats a tablet for reading, any day.

Unless your thing is reading digital comics. In which case, stick with the tablet (at least until someone shoves a color Mirasol display in an e-reader).

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Brad has been a GeekDad core contributor since 2007 and writes about technology for a wide range of outlets. He's also a WFH dad, resident Canuck, outdoor enthusiast, camper extraordinaire and frequent reviewer of gadgets, devices and gizmos.