First look: Nook's slow responses hurt its appeal

The e-reader's two-screen approach takes some getting used to

After trying out a Nook e-reader at a Barnes & Noble store today, I'm willing to wait and see what Apple Inc. is likely to produce with its long-rumored tablet device, or other upcoming e-readers.

That's not an indictment of the Nook. But as a potential buyer, the device, at a pricey $259, and with each e-book release at $9.99, I want to see what else is coming on the market in the next few months. I've held off buying an e-reader, but have borrowed several, including the Kindle 2 from Amazon.

Some analysts are saying as many as 40 e-readers will hit the market in 2010. I'm looking forward to the bigger screens that might be coming from Apple or especially a device called the Que from Plastic Logic Ltd. which is due to be unveiled in January. The Que will focus on business professionals and will also be sold by Barnes & Noble.

Barnes & Noble's Nook
Barnes & Noble's Nook.

Meanwhile, my few minutes of playing with the Nook demo unit were revealing.

Are two screens better than one?

While I'm not a big fan of having two screens on the Nook, it seemed like a brilliant move when the device was first unveiled. At that time, I was hoping the lower color screen would be a full browser, so a user could open a page from a book on the upper screen, such as a page with diagrams or drawings (like an anatomy drawing from a textbook), then browse wirelessly to a Web site below where the author could post a short video explaining the diagram.

That browser-and-e-reader combination could be where some larger textbook e-readers are headed. But I'm hoping that the combo will be made available on a smaller device that offers more general reading material. Barnes & Noble said when it announced the Nook that it may someday make the lower screen a full browser. I'm optimistic.

In the current iteration, the Nook's lower color screen opens to five small areas that you touch to activate content or functions. For example, the first area on the left is entitled "The Daily" which brings up, for now, three newspapers on the upper screen: The Financial Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.

Then, if you want to choose, say, The Financial Times from the list of newspapers on the upper screen, you must move the cursor with touch controls on the lower screen. This awkward moving from screen to screen annoyed me. After several tries, I managed to open an article in one newspaper -- although I was aiming for its home screen or front page. After a few tries, I decided I'd prefer to browse for the home page of the same newspaper on my BlackBerry Curve, trading speed in browsing for a smaller font on a much smaller screen.

The other touch buttons on the lower screen offered choices for fixing Nook settings or for reading a book for free in-store via Wi-Fi for an hour. At the store where I had the demo, there were several free-reading choices, including a popular new book on wines.

Adjusting the font size took a surprisingly long time. Twice, moving from large to very large font size took at least 10 seconds, but that may be because the Nook was adjusting the entire book all at once. By comparison, this font-adjusting function takes much less time on an iPod Touch, where I bumped up the font size to read a play by Shakespeare, which I've done several times.

Waiting for a response

In fact, response times generally seemed slow, including responses to button pushes for page turns when using the arrow buttons outside the upper 6-inch diameter gray-scale screen. Touches on the lower 3.5-inch color touchscreen were very responsive in bringing up a page on that screen, but were slower when I used it to get a response on the upper screen. For example, if I highlighted on the upper screen that I wanted to open The Financial Times by navigating via the lower screen, waiting for the refresh on the upper screen could take a moment, which was off-putting.

Several early reviewers have also noted such delays. Specifically, Engadget's reviewer complained that "you have to get used to all kinds of little pauses and punctuations in the experience," and maybe that's the crux of the problem. In essence, you have to train yourself to get used to the pauses -- and to use two screens to get one result. This might be similar to using two monitors on your desktop run by a single computer.

If Apple really does produce a tablet that includes a multi-touch interface as well as clean, clear e-reader text, I hope it can carry forward the responsiveness of the touch found in its smaller devices.

The Nook also provides a single 14-day lending period per book, which will interest many people. However, it might be more important that the Nook is working with the relatively open epub format for getting access to books. (It is not totally DRM-free, however, depending on the publisher or writer.)

Conclusions

While shipments of the Nook have been delayed, I will resist the urge to become an early adopter and instead assess the market more fully for upcoming devices. I'm excited by the e-reader concept generally, but will need to ask myself what I plan to read most often in digital format on a portable device: Will I want to read newspapers more than novels? Or perhaps the occasional IT textbook or technical journal? I fear a single e-reader won't do it all, and that could get expensive.

In general, the market for e-readers is still young. I'm a careful buyer; I'm waiting for an e-reader that is better designed to read many kinds of materials easily and efficiently.

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