Smart Spending: Winning the e-book war

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NEW YORK — Just a year ago, there were very few electronic book readers available, and Amazon.com’s Kindle dominated the field.

Now, there are Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Sony’s Readers and Borders Group’s Kobo e-reader — not to mention Apple Inc.’s iPad, which costs more but offers the functionality of a computer and is roughly the size of an e-reader.

All the competition has e-reader makers quaking in their boots. Battling for ground, they are slashing prices and offering free books, gift cards and coffee with their devices.

Here are four key paths to consumer victory in the e-book wars.

— KNOW YOUR PRICES AND FEATURES: Many device makers already offer more than one model.

Barnes & Noble’s Wi-Fi-only Nook sells for $149, while the Nook with 3G wireless and Wi-Fi sells for $199. Similarly, at Amazon.com, the standard Kindle is $189, while the Kindle DX with a larger, high-contrast screen that’s easier to read in bright light costs $379. Sony’s Readers also have varying features and sizes and range from $149.99 to $299.99.

If extra features don’t matter — say you just want to read in bed — go for the cheapest option. But if fast access, a large screen or the ability to read somewhere especially bright — say the beach — is crucial, think about more expensive options.

Remember: An e-book reader — like most anything you buy — is only a good value if you use it.

— HOLD OFF IF YOU CAN: Because both Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble cut the prices on their e-readers last month, it could seem like a good idea to shell out for one now. But another round of cuts is nearly inevitable before the end of the year.

“It’s as likely as a sunrise the prices will be cut again by the holidays,” said Michael Norris, a senior analyst at the trade books group for Simba Information.

Retailers and manufacturers are expected to compete ardently again this year for gift-givers’ scant dollars.

— SEEK FREEBIES: In June, Barnes & Noble gave out $50 gift cards with each Nook. This week, Borders was offering 5 free books to readers who downloaded their free e-reader application. Norris expects many more sweeteners in time for the holidays.

Here are some available now: Through Thursday, Barnes & Noble is offering free coffee to anyone using the company’s e-reader software (just show a cafe worker what e-book you’re reading). At Borders for a limited time, a $20 gift card comes with each Kobo eReader.

— TEST THE SOFTWARE FOR FREE: If you’re unsure which e-reader you want, test the software free on your desktop or laptop computer. All e-book readers have software and sample e-books you can download for free to a Mac or PC. Most are available for smartphones as well.

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