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E-readers hit their stride while tablet growth more modest

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Spurred on by lower prices and by growing acceptance among college graduates and Hispanic consumers, e-reader usage is taking off, with 12 percent of adults using an e-reader in May, double the rate from November. According to new figures from the Pew Internet Project, e-readers have outpaced tablets, which shot up quickly but have seen slower growth in recent months. Tablets went from 5 percent use among adults in November to 7 percent in January, but inched up only one percent between then and May.

Both e-readers and tablets lag behind other devices such as cell phones, computers, DVRs and MP3 players in adoption, but they represent a new form of mobile computing and media consumption that is catching on with consumers. The latest Pew results, which came from a survey of 2,277 adults surveyed between April 26 and May 22, suggest that both devices are finding growing acceptance among users. E-readers, which have been on the market longer, are seeing especially big gains.

As well as having been available longer, e-readers are also going down in price. E-reader usage started to take off after the introduction of the Kindle 3 (s AMZN) last summer, which came in well under $200. The dropping price points, including the introduction of an ad-supported Kindle for just $114, have helped make e-readers a lot more affordable. Tablets, on the other hand, are selling for $500 and more. Pew noted, however, that there is some overlap between the two markets. Three percent of all adults own both an e-reader and a tablet. As we’ve pointed out, cheaper e-readers also show the potential of becoming affordable tablets, which may also help in driving both e-reader and tablet adoption.

Sales of e-readers are being pushed by college graduates making more than $75,000. But e-reader sales also saw the biggest growth among people making $30,000-$49,999, jumping from 3 percent in November to 13 percent in May. Adoption was also prompted by Hispanics (15 percent), who are outpacing whites (11 percent) and blacks (8 percent) in e-reader usage.

Tablet buyers, meanwhile, are skewing even more male, and younger compared to buyers of e-readers. While e-reader use is almost equal among men and women, 10 percent of men own tablets while just 6 percent of women do. The largest group of tablet users is 18-29 year-olds (12 percent) while 30-49-year-olds (14 percent) were the leading group of e-reader users.

It will be a long time before e-readers and tablets catch up to even MP3 players. But as these devices grow in power and drop in price, they’re becoming more attractive to a wider audience. E-readers have now become easy graduation and birthday gifts, and even impulse buys, and many book lovers of all ages are also warming to the idea of reading on a portable machine. Tablet interest seems to have waned in recent months, and while that could be due to constrained iPad 2 supply (s AAPL), it also suggests the devices will need to get cheaper before they become mainstream.