Early models of e-book readers, created about 25 years ago, weighed more than a pound and needed to be connected to a computer. Those heavy slabs gave way to modern, lightweight devices that can download the latest bestsellers and old (and often free) classics in mere seconds.
E-book devices and reading apps continue to evolve, so if you’re looking to upgrade your device, find a gift idea or start reading electronically, here’s a guide.
Choose your devices
You can read e-books on e-readers, smartphones, tablets, computers and other equipment. Before you decide on the device, consider what you want to read.
If you prefer text books, an e-reader like the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, or Rakuten Kobo would make sense. Compared to tablets, the paper-like, monochrome screens are easier on the eyes, the devices have great battery life, and there are no disruptions from other apps.
If you like to read comics, comic books, digital magazines, and other visually oriented materials, you should consider a tablet with a large color screen. With a tablet or phone, you can use one device for a variety of tasks and entertainment options.
Text-only books work well on these too, though screen glare and eye fatigue can get in the way of your reading.
If you need guidance on which e-reader to buy, Wirecutter, the product review site owned by The New York Times, recommends the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite Kids as its best e-reader option this year, with the Kobo Clara HD and Kobo Libra 2 as alternatives.
The site also has recommendations for the best tablets at various price points, favoring Apple’s iPads, Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 Lite, and Amazon Fire HD8.
If you’re upgrading your hardware, consider donating your old Kindle or iPad to an organization that can repurpose it — after erasing your personal information from it.
Choose your platform
An e-book reader allows you to purchase and download books directly over a wireless connection. If you already own a phone, tablet, or computer and want to buy e-books, you can install an e-book store app (or apps) on it and create an account.
The Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Rakuten Kobo all have Android and iOS apps that let you read ebooks, organize your library, and listen to audiobooks (or books with built-in text narration).
These digital libraries also have desktop software or browser-based reading options, which can be great for those who prefer reading on a large desktop screen.
One caveat: You can’t buy e-books directly from these apps. You have to purchase the book or other content on the company’s website, thanks to Apple’s and Google’s in-app purchase policies, and then your books are delivered electronically to your app.
And app store owners have their own rules. The Apple Books app allows you to purchase content directly on your Apple devices. Google Play Books & Audiobooks, which run in a browser, has apps for Android and iOS, but iOS users must first purchase their content on the web.
Set your screen
Once you’ve downloaded a book, explore the settings on your device and in the app to customize your reading experience, such as text zoom.
The steps vary based on the app and device, but clicking on the top of the screen usually reveals a toolbar where you can adjust the font, font size, line spacing, and background color of your eBook. (The iOS 16 update for Apple Books moves its menu and toolbar to the bottom of the screen.)
If you want to look up a word in the dictionary or Wikipedia, translate a phrase, highlight a passage, make a note or search the book, press and hold your finger on the screen over the text until a toolbar appears with pointing and annotation options.
In addition to reference tools, some Kindle books from Amazon include X-Ray, a feature that provides information about characters, plot, and context.
When you’re ready to take a break, you can usually tap in the top-right corner to set a bookmark. If you use the Books app on multiple devices, your bookmarks and other annotations can be set to sync so you don’t lose your place.
Find free books
Online bookstores offer sample chapters to try before you buy, and most also have free public books.
Check with your local library to see if they lend e-books to cardholders. Libraries that use the OverDrive distribution system usually lend digital materials through the Libby app for Android and iOS. (However, the New York Public Library uses the SimplyE app for Android and iOS.)
The Internet Archive, a massive repository of digital content, contains books in the public domain along with an online loan library. Google Books is another collection of scanned books and digital texts; Many titles are free, but the site directs users to stores and libraries for copyrighted works.
Finally, there’s Project Gutenberg, a site that offers free downloads of 60,000 public domain books in a variety of file formats. The site’s founder, Michael Hart, is often credited with creating the first modern e-book available for download when he typed the Declaration of Independence into a university’s mainframe computer on July 4, 1971.