Ebook readers: Nails in old school publishing's coffin

A few weeks ago I reviewed the Alex ebook reader and I was quite impressed with this Android-based device.

Now I have another ebook reader that's also built on Google's Android operating system: The Barnes and Noble Nook.

Now retailing for $149 (Wi-Fi only) or $199 (Wi-Fi and 3G, the latter without usage fees) the Nook is slick, has a "quality" feel to it, and was designed by the same company, Spring Design, that sells the very similar Alex for $399 (it is Wi-Fi only; a 3G version is slated for late 2010).

Both the Nook and the Alex offer 6 inch, 600 pixel by 800 pixel, grayscale e-Ink displays which are great even in daylight and the two devices handle pretty much the same content formats (the Alex has the upper hand here with more audio formats and support for video) with 2GB of onboard storage.

When it comes to look and feel, the Nook is, I feel, aesthetically more satisfying. It's slightly shorter and slightly wider which gives it a more book-like feel and it's slightly heavier than the Alex (the Nook weighs 11.6 ounces for the Wi-Fi only version and 12.1 ounces for the 3G and Wi-Fi version while the Alex is just 11 ounces). I also prefer the finish on the Nook and I feel the controls are better laid out.

Another difference is that while the touch-sensitive color LCD below the e-Ink reading pane on both devices has a roughly 3.5 inch diagonal, the Nook's is only a 480 pixel by 144 pixel display (about 1 inch tall) compared to the Alex's 480 pixel by 320 pixel, roughly 2 inches high. While this sounds like a downside, in practice I didn't find the smaller touch-sensitive screen a problem.

The Nook also doesn't have the Alex's "synchronize" button which provides bookmarking and other document interaction on the color LCD.

While the sync button is clever it does make the device more "techie" which is not necessarily a good thing in the consumer market. On the Nook, the place of the sync button is taken by a "home" button that returns you to the top of the menu system.

The menu system of the Nook is also simpler than that of the Alex, again making the Nook user interface easier to use. On the other hand, the Alex is a true Android device so you can load any Android application, with the limitation that some applications won't like the lack of GPS, inertial sensors, and so on and either can't or won't run.

Other than those features, there are few other differences between the two devices: Like the Alex, the Nook can be used as a Web browser, it can read news feeds, it can play music, and it can be used as an emergency ping pong paddle.

If price were not an issue I'd say that the Alex would appeal to the more technically and less aesthetically inclined, while the Nook definitely has the edge for consumers. As price is always an issue, the Nook wins by a good margin.

Thus, considering I awarded the Alex 4 out of 5, I'm giving the Nook 4.5 out of 5. The reason I'm not awarding the Nook 5 out of 5 is simple and is because of the issue that is my problem with most ebook readers and especially these two screen designs: The user interface isn't completely "intuitive".

After using both of these devices extensively I found I'd frequently try to use the e-Ink displays as if they were touch-sensitive.

While this may be something to do with my old-school attitude towards what constitutes a book, I think there's also an issue with devices that are partially touch-sensitive: Their user interfaces are sort of "neither fish nor fowl" – they require a conscious toggling between the things you can achieve by poking a finger directly at the thing you want to do something and poking a finger at something other than the thing you want to do something.

This is why I find the Apple iPad so compelling: There is no thinking about what you're doing when you read a book; you just swipe to "turn" pages and the controls to do other operations with the document are there, on the document. It's all about the immediacy of in-context controls making the process of reading transparent.

All of those user experience considerations not withstanding, I really like the Nook. So, the big question is, can it compete with Amazon's new Kindle?

Like the Nook the new Kindle comes in two version, a Wi-Fi only model that costs $139, and a Wi-Fi and 3G (free 3G service) version for $189 … both $10 cheaper than the similarly connected Nook models. Do you think Amazon might be targeting Nook sales?

The new Kindle's display is said to offer 50% better contrast than the previous model, can turn "pages 20% faster, and comes with 4GB of onboard storage, twice that of the competition. The new Kindle also weighs in at a remarkable 8.7 ounces.

Both Amazon and Barnes and Noble allow Kindle and Nook users to share content between their ebook readers and devices such as the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, Blackberrys, Android smartphones, and PCs. Barnes and Noble is also beta testing a facility that allows Nook users to "loan" their content to other Nook users.

My only problem with the Kindle is its keyboard. Again, perhaps it's my old school ways, but, for me, that expanse of keys changes the aesthetics and the experience of reading.

So, where do all of these ebook readers -- the Alex, the Nook, and the new Kindle -- fit in the market? I'd suggest that the Alex will appeal to hardware-oriented techies with deep pockets, but without a serious price reduction and a 3G version, I can't see the Alex developing much of a market.

On the other hand, the Nook and the new Kindle are definitely fighting in the same territory though the value proposition (both pricing and features) is definitely won by the new Kindle.

But even if Amazon has the product edge, I wouldn't count Barnes and Noble out: We're still in early days in the ebook reader market and the company is obviously serious about its product offering.

In the end, the fight will come down to what you can read (some titles have not been available on the Kindle because some publishers objected to Amazon's forcing them to discount), what you can do with what you've purchased (such as being able to read on multiple types of device and the ability to loan), and the price of books and other publications.

What we're watching is the re-invention of publishing and, while the market for dead trees smeared with ink isn't going away any time soon, it is definitely in decline. You could think of these products as nails in the coffin of traditional publishing and book selling.

Gibbs is sometimes old school in Ventura, Calif. Tell gearhead@gibbs.com if you are au courant or not.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

This story, "Ebook readers: Nails in old school publishing's coffin" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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