By Darren Tobia
December 14, 2010

Smart travel is all about consolidation. One of the best ways book-lugging adventurers can streamline is to invest in an e-reader that can store thousands of books—and other reading material—in a single lightweight device. But with so many e-readers on the market, choosing the right one can be maddening. Here's your rope out of the consumer quicksand.

It’s hard to believe that the Amazon Kindle ($189 for 3G+WiFi), now in its fifth incarnation, debuted just three years ago. Compact, sleek and paper-thin, it is a thing of beauty. While some e-readers have recently set off chasing tablet glory, the brains at Amazon have stuck to honing the classic e-reader, and their work has paid off. It won’t dazzle you with technological fire and music. But it is the most portable gadget (8.5 ounces; 8" x 5.3"), and features the fastest page-turns and most eye-pleasing screen.

Meanwhile, the genius of the Barnes & Noble Nook ($199 for 3G+Wifi) is its attempt to wed the once irreconcilable: the paper-like quality of e-ink with the intuitiveness of color touch-screen navigation. With the latest (automatic!) 3G upgrade, the Android-based Nook can nearly match the Kindle’s page-turn speed.

Among the most underrated features of the Nook is its ability to visually organize reading materials and website bookmarks into colorful thumbnails. Also, if you’re anxious about traveling with your music-stuffed iPod, consider this: the Nook can play up to 26 hours of continuous music. Both the Kindle and Nook have insanely long-lasting battery lives: up to one month for the Kindle; 10 days for Nook.

Finally, some may question the wisdom (or fairness) of including tablets in a roundup of e-readers. But, according to some industry experts, Apple's iPad (from $629 for 3G & WiFi) has emerged as the Kindle’s closest rival. The main reason for this, according to consumers, is the way it has revolutionized magazine reading.

Leafing through magazines and newspapers is perfectly fine on the Nook and Kindle, particularly for narrative and longer text-based publications. But some publishers have been slow to produce content for e-readers. Furthermore, many publishers are creating iPad-only content that's rich with multimedia, which most e-readers can't display.

For lovers of e-ink, the iPad's main drawback is the backlit display screen, which can cause eyestrain with extended use. Apple considers the backlight a strength: you can use your iPad in dark environments without additional accessories.

Verdict: The Kindle

The Kindle is such a stripped-down, self-aware device that it's hard to find fault. I wasn’t bowled over by the Kindle's web access (nor the Nook's), but that's what tablets and netbooks are for.

Darren Tobia is a research assistant at Travel + Leisure.

Composite of photos courtesy of Apple, Barnes & Noble, and