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Serviceman seeks worthy e-reader

Q: I am on a Navy ship called the USS Laboon. I am looking at getting an e-reader. I have seen many on the Internet and not sure which is the best. I would be using the reader while out to sea. I also wanted to be able to download books on audio, so I can plug my earphones in and listen while I lay in my rack (bed). I also I am not so sure about the new color screens. One other thing: if I am out of the U.S., which is often when the ships pulls into ports — for example, the UAE or Africa — would I be able to download books with a wireless connection?

I know I am asking a lot of questions. Thanks for the help.

—Ernie, USS Laboon

A: Because you're overseas, your best bet is the Amazon Kindle ($139-$189, amazon.com. It will let you download books wirelessly – even when you're not at a Wi-Fi hot spot – in more than 100 countries for free (as in gratis, at no charge, yeah, free), Amazon tells me. The Barnes and Noble Nook ($149-$199 for the black-and-white version, $249 for color, barnesandnoble.com) restricts its free 3G to the U.S., including D.C., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, according to a Barnes and Noble spokeswoman.

When you sign up at amazon.com to browse and buy books and magazines, use a U.S. credit card that has a U.S. billing address. You'll be able to download from the big American catalog of books and other material no matter where you are.

But maybe you don't need an e-reader at all. If you have a smart phone, you can download free e-reader apps that work with e-books from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and many other stores. Phone displays are smaller than readers, and their displays aren't as crisp and clear as the eInk on a reader. But they are lighter, and their backlights make them easier to read at night in bed, if that matters to you.

If your ship has full-time Wi-Fi, then maybe 3G isn't as big of a deal. In that case, the Nook looks attractive because it recognizes the ePub e-book format, which gives you access to more than 1 million more books –- many of them free – that won't work on the Kindle. Still, the Kindle is lighter, cheaper and has better battery life.

The Nook comes in a color version, but it's more expensive, and that color display is a drain on the battery, without giving you markedly better readability. The Nook and Kindle are a joy to read even in bright sunlight. Using a Nook overseas, you would need a U.S. credit card with a U.S. billing address, and you'd need a dot-mil account.

Most people I've talked to have Kindles, but I've never met a disappointed Nook owner. You can't go wrong with either.

The Nook and the Kindle can play audio books, but you'll need to download the audio books to your computer first, then drag them to your reader by USB. Downloading directly to the e-reader would literally take days.

Beyond e-books and audio books, the Kindle and Nook each displays newspapers, plays games, your music and can display photos your family might send you (but download your music and photos to your computer first then transfer them to your e-reader – straight downloading is too slow otherwise).

Though they connect to the Internet, they're not built for browsing. A text-only Wikipedia page can take 45 seconds to load on either machine. On the other hand, books download in a snap from Amazon or Barnes and Noble's bookstore. The Nook and Kindle are e-readers that can access the Web for free in a pinch, not an all-rounder like the more expensive iPad.

As for using Wi-Fi in your ports of call, check jiwire.com for a roundup of more than 400,000 free and pay hot spots around the world.

Let us know what you decide and how you like it. And thanks for your service to our country.

Do you have a tech question? Send a note to Eric Gwinn at egwinn@tribune.com. Be sure to include your name, location and a way to reach you if we need more information -- and your question, of course.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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