The latest e-book readers offer book lovers convenience — at a price.

Both the Amazon Kindle ($359) and the Sony Reader PRS-505 ($300) boast high-contrast, 6-inch screens that are surprisingly easy to read, even in sunlight, and mimic ink-on-paper pages.

The metal-cased Reader has a cleaner, more elegant design and fits snugly in its handsome leather pouch. Numbered buttons in a row along the right edge provide basic navigation. 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 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.

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. But the Kindle has one big advantage: A Sprint wireless connection allows you to download books directly from Amazon.com, thus eliminating the PC middleman.

The Kindle is also simple to operate. Navigation buttons are clearly labeled (for example, "next page"). The mini keyboard is handy for entering search terms while browsing online. A clever "select wheel" (similar to a mouse's scroll wheel) is useful for moving between menu options.

The Kindle holds nearly 200 books; the Reader, nearly 160. Plus, 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.

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, 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 best-sellers for $10. Given the significantly reduced publishing and distribution costs, e-books should cost about $5. Maybe someday.


Jeffrey R. Kosnett is a senior editor and Jessica L. Anderson is a staff writer at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to [email protected].