Five years ago, Amazon released one of the most important mobile gadgets of the decade. E-books had been around for years, but few cared until the arrival of the Kindle. Today Amazon's digital reader is now an entire product line.
Update: Though a couple of these readers are still around, this guide is outdated. Check out our brand new e-reader comparison for 2013.
Like any revolutionary product, the Kindle spawned rivals. The most prominent is Barnes & Noble's Nook. The competing products have evolved in sync with one another: getting smaller and cheaper, adding touch screens, and expanding into subsidized tablets.
As we compare the best eReaders on the market, we're focusing on the dominant players:
We could have easily included Sony's Reader, but we narrowed it to these top six. Our list is dominated by the Kindle and Nook, but they've proven themselves to be the undisputed market leaders.
So, without further ado, let's break down the top eReaders of the 2012 holiday season …
Sizes are all in the same ballpark. In terms of surface area, the standard Kindle is the smallest, and the Kindle Keyboard is the largest. The Kindle Keyboard is also the thinnest, with the beefy Nook Simple Touches measuring the thickest.
All of these readers are relatively light. The standard Kindle takes the crown for lightest, with the Kindle Keyboard weighing the heaviest.
Notice a pattern? Manufacturers have settled on six inches as the standard for e-ink readers. The Kindle Paperwhite, both Nook Simple Touches, and the Kobo Glo all have touch screens. The rest rely on physical controls.
Though text looks great on all of them, the Kindle Paperwhite and Kobo Glo have the highest resolution. The Paperwhite, Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight, and Kobo Glo offer backlit displays for low-light reading.
E-books don't take up much space, so the numbers you see above should suffice for most customers. Purchases are also stored in the cloud, so you can remove books from your device without losing your purchases.
All but the Kindle Keyboard are sold in Wi-Fi only models. Only the Paperwhite and Keyboard Kindles are sold with free 3G data. Frequent travelers may find these models to be worth the extra money.
Low-powered e-ink screens always delivered great battery life, and this batch is no exception. The Kindle Paperwhite, Kindle Keyboard, and Nook Simple Touch win the race at an absurd two months without a charge.
For those times when you do need to charge your reader, the standard Kindle is the quickest. Its battery can go from dead to full in three hours.
Backlit displays are the biggest step forward for eReaders in years. The Kindle Paperwhite, Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, and Kobo Glo all let you read in the dark. The biggest concern is keeping that display evenly-lit, and the Paperwhite and Kobo achieve this better than the Nook.
The biggest reason to choose the standard Kindle is for its rock-bottom price (see below). The Kindle Keyboard, meanwhile, is for … well, those who want a keyboard. It features a rudimentary web browser, so you could hypothetically tap out emails in a pinch.
The standard Nook Simple Touch is a great reader, but with a higher price tag than the Kindle, it's primarily for those who prefer the Nook's content and design.
The Paperwhite and standard Kindles don't include a charger, so you may need to spend a few extra bucks on that.
If you want cheap, the standard Kindle is affordable for almost anyone at US$69. All of the Kindles ship by default with "Special Offers." These advertisements are mostly non-intrusive, but if they bug you, you can turn them off for a one-time payment of $20.
As much as smartphones and tablets have become integral parts of our lives, there's something to be said for eReaders. They're lighter, easier on the eyes, and better recreate the feeling of reading a book. Not to mention, they contain fewer distractions (Steinbeck or Angry Birds?).
Still, if you dare cross onto the other side of the fence, Amazon and Barnes & Noble will be happy to sell you a tablet. For help with that decision, you can check out our 2012 Tablet Comparison Guide.
See the stories that matter in your inbox every morning