There was a time when eReaders and tablets occupied very separate places in the device market. eReaders downloaded and displayed books — simple — while tablets took on the more complicated task of running interactive apps, playing video and accessing the Internet.
Well, that isn't the case anymore. eReaders are beginning to encroach on tablet territory with color touch screens and Internet browsing capabilities, while tablets are looking to outdo eReaders in the way they display books.
Even so, there are still many differences in the functionality of eReaders and tablets and a lot of differences between the different types of models in each category. The best way to approach the decision is to work out what it is you want to do.
Let's start with the most basic functionality of both eReaders and tablets. You may wonder why anyone chooses an eReader when they could have a tablet. One reason is price — tablets can cost up to $500 more than the most basic eReader — but another is the way both devices display books.
Black & white eReaders use something called e Ink®, which looks like real text on paper and prevents issues such as glare. Tablets on the other hand can be hard on the eyes after long periods. eReaders are therefore perfect for displaying books and periodicals that will be read in a linear fashion, and their in-built access to online book stores makes it easy to download thousands of titles.
Publications such as magazines are a different matter though. Newspapers and magazines generally aren't designed to be read in a linear fashion on the Web, so a traditional eReader, with its slow-to-load e Ink and lack of touch screen, can make navigation a bit of a chore. Tablets on the other hand make easy work of newspapers and magazines via interactive apps or tablet-optimized Web sites, and can display full-color images and video.
There are also some new eReaders with color, non e Ink touch screens that may be more suited to newspapers and magazines. So if this is really all you want to do, a new-generation eReader might be right for you.
Sharing documents and videos
If you're out at a meeting, you might want to share text, images or video with colleagues — something that's easier on a small device than on a bulky laptop. Neither eReaders or tablets are really designed for users to upload their own files, although it can be done. eReaders can support some text files such as .pdf, and some give you the option to convert text into their own proprietary file formats, but tablets win in this respect — the more sophisticated models can fully display and edit Microsoft® Office files.
Tablets give you far more options for multimedia as well. They can upload and play audio and of course video, making them ideal for editing and sharing clips, although some don't support the Adobe® Flash® format, limiting the number of video-enabled Web pages available. Some new eReaders are just beginning to be able to play video, although they're still more limited in how this can be used than tablets.
Web browsing and apps
eReaders are only just starting to include full mobile operating systems such as Android™, and these models usually also come with touch screens and full mobile Web browsers. So if you want to access basic information on the Web as well as download books and publications, then a next-generation eReader may be for you.
Tablets, on the other hand, are more adept at displaying and navigating mobile Web pages, with the Apple iPad® and others using "pinch" technology to maximize, minimize and move Web pages around the screen. As mentioned above, some don't support Adobe Flash, limiting the range of Web sites available.
Where tablets really come into their own — and the major selling point for many users - is the ability to run apps. Like apps for cell phones, apps for tablets are self-contained pieces of software and will do everything from editing a film or a piece of music to creating and displaying presentations. App development is generally proprietary to the mobile operating system, so different models of tablet will have different numbers of apps available. At the moment the Apple iPad and tablets based on the Android operating system offer the most options.
Email is still something of a chore both on an eReader and tablet. Most eReaders come with a built-in email program, but you'll often be forced to take a new email address for the vendor's email system rather than being able to port your own. Email on eReaders is also notoriously cumbersome, especially the versions that use buttons rather than a touch screen.
Tablets on the other hand often offer email apps based on popular services such as Microsoft Exchange, Gmail, Yahoo and AOL, so you will be able to port your existing email address to your tablet. You will have to cope with the usual limitations of a mobile device — typing on a virtual screen, for example. But tablets offer a workable way to access email on the move.