We've all been there, trapped on a plane for hours with in-flight movies, TV reruns and music that's staler than week-old white bread. But there's a limit to how much reading material you can stuff inside your carry-on. Or is there? Portable devices for reading electronic books can pack in hundreds of books, newspapers and blogs, and lighten your load. A test of four models made a believer out of this bibliophile. But the devices have some drawbacks over a bound book: They shouldn't be read in the tub, spills may short them out, and if they are accidentally left behind, you are out a pile of money and a good read.
VERSATILITY'S THE WORD
First look: The iRex iLiad, a slim, black tablet about the size of a DVD case, is more than a reader; it's also a doodle pad. It has a stylus so you can write notes to yourself or draw stick figures, and you can read your own documents, books, blogs and newspapers. It's Wi-Fi capable. The base model comes with 256 megabytes of memory, expandable to 8 gigabytes. Books are downloadable from www.ereaderoutfitters.com, an iTunes-like site that has free books that are out of copyright and new bestsellers such as Alice Sebold's "The Almost Moon" for $16.99, and other sites. It weighs 14 1/2 ounces and has a dove-gray screen that measures 8 inches on the diagonal.
Likes and yikes: The iLiad, made by iRex Technologies of the Netherlands, carries the heftiest price tag of the four tested, but it is Mac-compatible and versatile. The writing was easy on the eyes and could be enlarged. I started reading "Dracula," stopped, bookmarked the spot and then picked up where I'd left off. I liked the long bar on the left to flip pages back and forth and the large screen. But paging through to the good parts wasn't as easy as flipping through a book. And it took 46 seconds to power up. It came without a jacket covering (that's extra, starting at $34.95).
The 411: $699 at (925) 600-0920, www.ereaderoutfitters.com.
YOU GOTTA BE FAST
First look: Sony's Reader looks more like a slim volume or a notebook than the electronic tablet it is. That's because the device is stylishly minimalist, tucked inside a leather jacket. It's smaller (7 1/8 by 5 3/8 inches) and lighter (12 ounces with the cover) than the iLiad. The soft-gray screen is 6 inches on the diagonal. Buttons on the side operate the menu and turn pages.
Likes and yikes: If the iLiad is for the geriatric set, the Reader is for those with nimbler fingers and keener eyes. The device is smaller and swift (powering up took less than six seconds). It's Windows compatible only and comes with 20MB of memory. The serif type on book pages isn't large enough for the sight impaired among us. And the buttons to turn pages backward or forward are small and placed next to each other, easy to mix up if you aren't careful. A big bonus: It's half the price of the iLiad. Books are a snap to download to the computer and to the Reader from www.Ebooks.connect.com, a site and interface modeled on Apple's iTunes store.
The 411: $299.99; (877) 865-7669, www.sonystyle.com, and SonyStyle stores in Canoga Park, Costa Mesa, Camarillo and at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles.
FOR DICTIONARY FANS
First look: Franklin's electronic Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary can be used as an e-reader with book cards you can buy at www.franklin.com. The device is about the size of a palm-sized Moleskine notebook, has a protective flap over the screen and was the lightest of the bunch at 6 ounces. A keyboard and function keys take most of the room on the device.
Likes and yikes: It's primarily a reference tool, and its small, green-tinted screen, 3 inches on the diagonal, reflects that. Fonts are harder to read than on the other readers. The book selections are fewer than with the other devices. If you want a device to read books, you're best off buying one of the others.
The 411: $99.95 at Franklin Electronic Publishing; (800) 266-5626, www.franklin.com.
First look: The newly launched Kindle has the behemoth bookseller Amazon behind it, and that means thousands more titles in your e-library than you'll get with the iLiad or the Reader. The device, about the size of a slim paperback, weighs about 10 ounces (without a cover) and has a 6-inch screen. Manipulation is intuitive, with a keypad at its base and a wheel that controls the menu. A search function lets you look up words in the New Oxford American Dictionary. You also can listen to audiobooks.
Likes and yikes: The beauty of the Kindle is that it's not tied to an operating system or computer. Because it's wireless through a system called Whispernet, you can download a book anywhere you have a cellphone connection. Talk about instant gratification. Less than a minute had passed after I placed an order before a book appeared in the menu. Like the other e-readers, pages flickered annoyingly when they were turned, but the display was clear and the serif type could be enlarged six times. Page bars are on the right and left of the device. The keypad makes it awkward to hold the Kindle in two hands without turning pages or hitting keys inadvertently.
The 411: $399 from Amazon.com.