The Barnes and Noble Nook evokes images of curling up in a corner with a good book near a cozy fire, perhaps with a mug of hot cocoa close at hand. And the Nook ($259, as of December 17, 2009) will indeed let you read electronic books; but unfortunately, not everything about this e-book reader makes for a comfortable reading experience.
The Nook (due for wider availability in January 2010) joins a growing array of e-readers, led to date by Amazon and Sony. The Nook's most directly competes with the Amazon Kindle 2. Both models are of similar size, have similar prices, and are the only models that provide direct-from-device wireless access to each bookseller's e-book store (Sony's Reader Daily Edition will add wireless connectivity, as will other readers to be announced at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show.
Assessing the Nook necessarily involves evaluating storefront access, title selection, and title presentation as much as it does appraising the device itself. And ultimately, despite its progressive design choices and clever navigation tools, the Nook feels like a first-generation product in need of a fair amount of future refinement.
The Nook's greatest design is its innovative use of a touchscreen strip below the 6.5-inch E-Ink electronic paper display that dominates the device. The touchscreen obviates the need for a keyboard or for multipurpose buttons or other navigational aids--such as the Sony Reader Touch Edition's buttons and the Amazon Kindle 2's physical keyboard and five-way joystick navigation. Where the Touch Edition's touchscreen overlay might irk some readers (because text lacks crispness), and the Kindle's buttons might feel retro in the iPhone era, the Nook's touchscreen offers a highly adaptable, context-sensitive means of navigating the device.
The touchscreen also adds a splash to color to a device that remains locked in a world consisting of shades of gray. Beyond being a navigation tool for the E-Ink screen, the touchscreen has an on-screen keyboard for data input (such as for searching or for adding notes) and colorful cover thumbnails that you can scroll through; if you flip past the list on the E-Ink screen above the touchscreen, the E-Ink screen moves to the next page to catch up with where you are in the LCD.
With its launch software, the Nook stumbles in a couple of ways. I call out the launch software in particular because Barnes and Noble says that it plans to fix some of the performance issues through a firmware update. But the anticipated update has yet to arrive (it was initially slated to arrive in the week following the Nook's launch; now the due date has slipped to late December). Until it comes, I won't be able to say whether the sluggish performance is strictly a software shortcoming or whether it implicates one or more of the hardware components along with the software.
Waiting for a page screen to redraw itself on the Nook's E-Ink screen can be a serious test of your patience. In a side-by-side comparison of similarly formatted content, the Nook took noticeably longer the Kindle 2 to change the page. More annoyingly, the screen would blink in and out as it tried to perform this operation. Granted, Amazon's Kindle DX and Kindle 2 (to a lesser extent) do this too, but the Nook is especially slow: It took 14 seconds to open and format the book Up in the Air, for example. That time lag might not sound like a lot, but it feels like an eternity when you're holding the device in your hands.
Furthermore, I thought that having the Nook's navigation controls for the E-Ink display on the LCD screen produced an odd disconnect. If the response time hadn't been so sluggish, I might not have felt that way. But when browsing my book library, I was often stymied by having to put my finger just so on the touchscreen strip of up/down arrows and then having to look up above as my selection moved. When I found something to choose, I would press the nondescript radio dial button on the right of the LCD, look above to see what the E-Ink screen now had on it, and then look below to see what additional navigation choices were available. And all of these recalibrations would occur with a lag (I'd navigate below, but the E-Ink screen would take an unexpected moment or three to catch up).
For those reasons, in the end, having two screens in play simultaneously was a jarring experience: It meant that my eyes had to dart continually from the too-bright lower screen to the more muted, easy-on-the-eyes E-Ink screen. The auto-brightness feature lowers the brightness, but not enough; I had to dial the brightness down manually to as low as 4 to 10 percent to get to passable contrast with the E-Ink screen above.
The Nook's LCD screen makes it easy to jump into the type of content you want, including your daily content, your library, shopping options, what you last read, and settings. You get the sense that no important features are buried in a hidden menu item (in contrast, Amazon has its store link as a menu item, not as something visible on the screen). I also appreciate the page-forward and page-backward navigation buttons (which work in books, as well as in multipage screens) on the right and left: They are easy to push, and you can switch the hand you use for each operation.
Another design nicety is the black bezel that separates the off-white plastic Nook chassis from the E-Ink screen. The bezel makes the text pop more, for more-pleasurable reading. And the Nook's fonts (you can choose from a set of two to three fonts, depending on the book) are easier on the eyes than the Kindle 2's, with more clarity and definition (as with the Kindle, you get a good selection of font sizes--perfect for anyone whose eyesight requires large print).
On the other hand, the power button up top is too flat, and the battery--though removable--requires you to remove a screw to get it out. The microSD card slot is buried inside, behind the easy-to-remove back panel, so it's protected but awkward to take out. The device charges via a micro-USB port on the bottom. You get a headphone jack for listening to MP3s, but no support for audiobooks.
I found the LCD activation inconsistent, too (due to buggy software, perhaps?). To activate the screen, you press the capacitive touch 'n' between the touchscreen and the E-Ink screen. That method worked fine, but I also managed to activate the screen without touching the 'n'--just by holding the device in a certain way.
One more complaint: The Nook has separate section for daily content (dubbed "The Daily"), and yet content delivered daily--like blogs or newspapers--also ends up in My Library, where the content clutters and overwhelms the screen, burying any actual book content I may have purchased. In the past week-and-change, I accumulated five pages of My Library content, the vast majority of which consisted of daily items that I couldn't figure out how to delete.
Barnes and Noble has taken several steps to encourage potential customers to buy into its e-reader universe. For one thing, you can buy books using the Barnes and Noble eReader on multiple device platforms--PC, Mac, iPhone, and BlackBerry (an Android version is due early next year). For another, you can lend friends the books you buy, simply by sending the book to a user's e-mail address. The recipient can read it for a specified period of time, during which time you lose access to the book via your devices--just as you would if you lent a paper book to someone. The difference: You can lend a book only once, and for two weeks, so lend wisely.
Amazon's Kindle 2 and Barnes and Noble's Nook are neck-in-neck in many ways. Each has unique capabilities: Amazon supports international shopping ( if you have a model with AT&T Wireless inside) and has text-to-speech; Nook has Wi-Fi, supports ePub, and runs the Google Android mobile operating system, which throws opens the door for customization and future enhancement.
At least for now, though, I can't confidently the recommend Nook. If the promised software update dramatically improves performance, the Nook could emerge as a worthy competitor to the Kindle 2. But it's current sluggish performance, along with the caveats about the LCD's interaction with the E-Ink screen, can't be ignored. I'll revisit this review after Barnes and Noble pushes out its firmware update.
This story, "Nook: Tantalizing but Unfinished" was originally published by PCWorld.
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