Hands-On Review of Barnes & Noble's Nook E-Reader

In retrospect, it was probably inevitable. Bookselling behemoth Barnes & Noble has spent much of the past decade and a half duking it out with online archrival Amazon.com. So when Amazon unveiled its Kindle e-reader two years ago, it pretty much demanded some sort of response from the 136-year-old merchant.

That response is the Barnes & Noble Nook, and its arrival this week signals the start of a digital transition for the bookselling wars. The Nook has much in common with the Kindle, from its playful name to the paper-esque E-Ink display to built-in 3G wireless that lets you start reading a book seconds after you’ve decided to buy it. Even the prices–$259 for the device itself, and $9.99 for most bestsellers–are identical.

(Like Amazon and Apple, B&N likes to refer to its creation without a modifying article, and also dispenses with capitals–”nook lets you loan eBooks” rather than “The Nook lets you loan eBooks.” I’ve honored the lack of a “the” in the title of this article, but will blithely ignore it from here on out.)

For all their similarities, the Nook packs more pizzazz than Amazon’s e-reader, in the form of the color touchscreen it uses for much of its navigation. It aims to be more open, letting you read tomes you buy on PCs, Macs, iPhones, and BlackBerries–and even on e-readers from companies other than Barnes & Noble. And it brings back a virtue of dead-tree books that people have taken for granted for centuries: the ability to loan them to pals.

For this review, I got to spend some quality time with a Nook, running the software version which will be installed on the first Nooks to reach customers. As I was finishing up my review, B&N was racing to ready itself for the Nook’s debut this week–a few features weren’t yet up and running, or had rough edges that may be eliminated by the time the first consumers turn on their Nooks for the first time.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: The Nook isn’t a Kindle killer–not in this initial form, at least. For all its pleasing touches, intriguing innovations, and clear advantages over the Kindle, it feels like a less-than-perfectly-polished 1.0 product, just like Amazon’s first e-reader did a couple of years ago. The user interface is surprisingly sluggish, there are some usability gaffes, and I encountered a major bug with the device’s most-touted feature. Even the much-hyped lending feature has a major gotcha: You can lend a book once. Period.

The good news is that these issues all relate to software, not the physical design. Barnes & Noble plans to quickly use the Nook’s auto-updating capability to push out fixes and refinements; given that the device is sold out until early 2010, it’s possible that the Nook that most purchasers get their hands on will be a meaningful improvement on the one I tried. And a slightly more zippy, less quirky Nook could indeed leave the Kindle in a clear second place.

Even an imperfect Nook is easily the Kindle’s most serious rival, and by far the most important e-reader to arrive since the first Kindle. Amazon’s e-reader may be a fixture at the top of Amazon’s home page–making its current status as the merchant’s best-selling item pretty much a self-fulfilling prophecy–but it has no brick-and-mortar presence whatsoever. Sony’s Readers are widely available at retail, but in a relatively subdued fashion; Barnes & Nobles’s other bookmongering nemesis, Borders, sells Sony’s e-readers, but sticks them in unmanned, easy-to-ignore kiosks. All of which gives B&N the opportunity to introduce millions of American book lovers to the still-nascent notion of digital books.

Judging from my visit this weekend to the chain’s Emeryville, California, outlet, however, the Nook will be impossible to avoid. Here’s the first thing shoppers encounter when they enter the store–and this was before it had a working Nook to demo, let alone ones on hand to sell. (The Nook is currently sold out until mid-January, and B&N won’t stock them in stores until all the earliest online buyers’ orders have been fulfilled.)

A Barnes & Noble representative told that the company intends to turn its thousands of store employees into passionate Nook advocates. If I sold books for a living, I’m not sure if I’d see the Nook as an opportunity for evangelism or as a threat to my livelihood. But in an era that’s seen so many venerable retailers of content go belly-up, it’s impressive to see Barnes & Noble embrace technological change with such gusto.

Before we go any further, here’s a T-Grid comparing the Nook with Amazon’s current Kindle and another big-name competitor, Sony’s Reader Touch Edition.

[Click chart to enlarge.]

(Note: the original version of the chart at left had some incorrect counts for Nook and Kindle in the New York Times bestsellers row; I’ve corrected them.)

I promise we’ll dig into the Nook at the moment, but for the sake of physical comparison, here it is with some rivals. Counter-clockwise from the lower left-hand corner: The Nook, the current Kindle, the original Kindle (just for the sake of nostalgia, okay?), and the Sony Reader Touch Edition.

Ready to move on? Good.

Hardware Wars

All three of the e-readers we just compared have 6-inch E-Ink displays, but they build those screens into cases that are substantially different. The Nook is a bit taller and wider than the Sony Touch Edition, but less so than the Kindle; it’s 0.5-inch thick, which counts as chunky in this comparison. It’s also the least posh-feeling e-reader, being unapologetically made of plastic while both the Kindle and the Sony are partially clad in metal.

Overall, though, the Nook’s intermediate size feels better in the hands than the Kindle or Sony, and it’s more (coat) pocket-friendly than the Kindle. The slight curvature of its backside makes for comfy grasping, and reminds me of a well-loved paperback (see the first image to the right). And the extra thickness is at least partially explained by its removable back, which reveals a MicroSD slot for memory expansion and a swappable battery (see right image). The skinnier Kindle has neither a path for memory upgrades nor a battery you can remove.

Oddly enough, Barnes & Noble’s e-reader is the only one of the three to have nailed the most basic input action of all: turning pages. The Kindle’s left- and right-side buttons vary in a confusing manner, and the Sony has sliver-like page turning buttons on the left side of the case. But the Nook has easy-to-press, identical forward and backward buttons on both sides of the screen, making it as inviting to southpaws as it is for righties. (Technically speaking, they’re not buttons but rather pressure-sensitive areas of the case that click when you press them.)

Of course, the Nook’s page-turning buttons aren’t its most notable interface feature. It’s that 3.5-inch color touchscreen that sits below the E-Ink display. You can flip pages with it as well, and you use for just about every other aspect of your interaction with the Nook, from buying books to taking notes.

If you’re expecting the touchscreen to boast all the transcendent, fluid slickness of an iPhone, you’ll be disappointed. It’s not that gorgeous, and the Nook would have been nearly as pleasing if the screen was monochrome. The big advantage isn’t aesthetics–it’s efficient use of the Nook’s limited real estate. Unlike the Kindle’s all-too-physical keyboard, the Nook can use the same space for a keyboard or menus depending on what’s more appropriate at the time. It also beats Sony’s E-Ink touchscreen, which makes you peck at an on-screen keyboard with a stylus.

The touchscreen’s showstopping feature is supposed to be a view that lets you choose books in your library or the B&N store via tiny cover thumbnails, in a rough approximation of Apples’ iconic Cover Flow feature. It’s the one aspect of the interface that really benefits from color. But it’s not the default, so it takes an extra tap on the screen to access it–and some of the covers of public-domain books I’d downloaded had type so tiny it was impossible to identify them. Worse, on my test Nook, the cover view was crippled by a bug that sometimes left the reader selecting a book other than the one I’d tapped. (A Barnes & Noble representative said the bug stems from a cacheing problem and that it’ll fix it soon.)

Mostly, I stuck with the less flashy plain-text list of books. It works fine, although I found it odd that selecting a book doesn’t immediately plunk you into its text. Instead, you get an intermediary screen, and must then choose the Read option. (I didn’t figure out that pressing and holding on the book’s title in the first place would also let you start reading until one of the Nook’s inventors pointed it out to me.)

Except in cover mode, the touchscreen gets used for navigational devices for which color is either less than essential or entirely irrelevant, including the keyboard you use for searching and note-taking.

How’s that keyboard? Adequate–which, in the land of the e-reader, counts as a compliment. I found it about as usable as the Kindle’s pill-like keys, and more tolerable than Sony’s touchscreen keyboard, which expects you to peck with a stylus. There’s no iPhone-like autocorrection of typos, but I was able to type relatively accurately. And unless you’re a copious note-taker, you just won’t do that much typing on this device, period.

My biggest complaint about the keyboard: The Submit key is dangerously close to the Clear one, which wipes out all the text you’ve just entered. That’s one of a number of quirky usability decisions I found, including the fact that you back out of a Nook screen to the previous display in at least three different ways, depending on where you are in the interface.

The Nook’s primary E-Ink screen is…well, it’s an E-Ink screen, with all the advantages and disadvantages that brings. It doesn’t flicker and is easy on the eyes in decent lighting–outdoors, it’s spectacular–but has a dark-gray-on-light-gray look that’s unsuited to dim environments. (B&N sells a clip-on light and will offer a case with built-in illumination.) E-Ink’s low power consumption lets e-reader makers quote battery life in days, not hours, although the more power-hungry color LCD does have an impact on the Nook: Barnes & Noble says the gadget will go for ten days on a charge, versus two weeks for the Kindle. (I didn’t attempt to benchmark this claim; the color screen shuts off automatically to conserve power after a period of inactivity which you can adjust.)

Even in the best of circumstances, E-Ink is an inherently slow technology: When a page refreshes you can see the microparticles that make up the “ink” resassemble themselves before your eyes. And the Nook’s most serious drawback is that it’s slow even for an E-Ink reader. It flips its virtual pages noticeably more sluggishly than the Kindle or the Sony–not a crippling flaw given that you need a moment to move your eyes back to the top of the page anyway, but still a flaw. When you open a book, the Nook pauses for several seconds to format it, a step the Kindle and the Sony somehow avoid. Even the speed of the touchscreen feels less than satisfyingly snappy.

Barnes & Noble representatives told me that the speed of the device is limited by its use of Google’s Android 1.5 operating system, but the company is working to optimize the experience in a software update which it plans to push out to Nooks in January. I’ll try the update when it’s available and report back here.

Speaking of Android, the Nook is the first e-reader to run Google’s operating system, albeit in a form heavily modified to power an E-Ink-equipped device. (Spring Design’s vaguely Nooklike Alex may be the second.) The use of an existing OS let Barnes & Noble take the Nook from concept to shipping product in an unusually short amount of time.

You can’t install existing Android apps like Twitdroid on a Nook–there’s no installation mechanism, and they wouldn’t work with the e-ink screen even if there was–but could the use of the open-source OS let Barnes & Noble open a Nook App Store, stocked with optional software customized for its e-reader? The bookseller isn’t talking, except to say that it’s excited by the potential of Android to let it do cool things in the future.

Look, Up in the Air! Books!

It’s no shocker that the Nook matches the Kindle’s most groundbreaking feature: built-in wireless broadband that makes buying books infinitely more irresistible than if you had to do your shopping at computer, then transfer tomes to the e-reader via USB. (Sony’s Reader Touch Edition remains dependent on your Windows machine or Mac for content, but the company’s new Reader Daily Edition–due to ship any moment now–will add wireless, albeit at a pricey $399.99.)

Amazon’s most recent major revision to the Kindle dumped Sprint’s network for AT&T, and added the ability to buy books outside the U.S. (with a surcharge and a reduced selection of titles). The Nook’s 3G is also provided by AT&T, but lacks the the world-traveler angle: B&N is only selling the Nook in the U.S., and the gizmo won’t roam onto international wireless networks. Yanks who take their Nooks out of the U.S. will be able to download items they’ve already paid for (such as magazines and newspapers via subscription) over Wi-Fi, but won’t be able to purchase new titles until the return stateside.

Did I just mention Wi-Fi? Unlike its rivals from Amazon and Sony, the Nook has it. It’s faster than 3G, and enables some inventive integration between the Nook and Barnes & Noble’s 700+ retail stores. When you take the e-reader into a B&N branch, it notices you’re there, connects you to the store’s hotspot for free, and greets you–and may offer you fringe benefits such as free content or a complimentary cookie at the store’s coffee counter. Barnes & Noble also plans to let Nook owners hanging out at the company’s stores peruse books in their entirety, not just the brief samples that can otherwise be downloaded for free. (This feature isn’t quite ready yet, so I wasn’t able to test it.)

The Nook’s Wi-Fi should also work with open and password-protected Wi-Fi networks elsewhere, as long as they don’t have a sign-in page. (The device lacks the browser you’d need to enter credentials or agree to terms of service.) That means it should operate on your home network, but not at many public hotspots, such as those at Starbucks and hotels.

Over both 3G and Wi-Fi, the Nook’s wireless bookstore worked well in my tests, although here again, it was less spritely than the Kindle. The Nook shuts off its 3G connection to conserve power, and there’s a pause each time it restarts it. And unlike Amazon’s on-device store, the Nook also makes you click a second time to confirm your intent to buy something. It’s possible that that’s an understandable acknowledgement of Amazon’s One-Click patent, but it does make the shopping experience slightly less magical.

Listen In, Lend Out

Like the Kindle, the Nook has an extremely basic audio player, meant mostly for listening to MP3s as you read, which you can do over headphones or the device’s tinny monophonic speaker. However, it lacks the Kindle’s support for Audible audiobooks–and given that Amazon owns Audible, I wouldn’t bet on the Nook adding that capability anytime soon.

Two other Kindle features remain unreplicated in the Nook: Its Web browser and text-to-speech feature that can read books out loud. The lack of a browser isn’t really a downside–the Kindle’s is so rudimentary that it’s not an argument for buying a Kindle–and the absence of the book-reading feature isn’t a dealbreaker given that the Kindle’s version remains robotic-sounding and isn’t available for all books.

Besides, the Nook makes up for the omissions with a feature that Kindle owners have been pining for for two years now: book lending. Barnes & Noble calls this option LendMe, and it’s not without limitations. Like Amazon’s read-aloud feature, LendMe can be turned off by publishers, and even when it’s available, it is, bizarrely and presumably at the behest of book publishers, a one-time option: Lend a book once, and you can never do so again. The loan period is fixed at two weeks, during which the purchaser can’t read the book; once the loan’s over, it automatically returns. (That’s certainly an advance over dead-tree book lending–printed books that friends borrow have a nasty habit of never returning home.)

Even if none of your friends spring for a Nook, LendMe may come in handy: Barnes & Noble says you can lend books to users of its reader apps for Windows, Mac, and iPhone/iPod Touch, and that it’s extending lending to readers for BlackBerry, Android, and Windows Mobile.

When you leave a Kindle or a Nook unused for an extended period, both go into a screensaver mode–and the Nook’s default screensaver shoes illustrations of noted authors that are strikingly similar to the ones on the Kindle. (I believe Barnes & Noble has been using these images in its stores since before there was an Amazon.com, so it’s entitled.) But the Nook gives you a bit of customization capability lacking in the Kindle: You can replace the default screensaver (and wallpaper) with your own photos, transferred from a computer via USB.

We’re talking E-Ink’s sixteen shades of murky gray, so you won’t whip out your e-reader to show off snapshots of your kids. But it’s a fun touch that makes the Nook feel more personal.

Books by the Boatload?

Ultimately, e-readers are still all about the books–both the sheer quantity that are available for download, and the odds that any given title you’re looking for is one of them. Barnes & Noble says that its e-book store stocks more than a million titles, which at first blush sounds like a major advance on Amazon’s quoted total of 360,000 Kindle books. But B&N’s figure includes free public-domain e-books that have been scanned by Google and which aren’t in the Kindle store. The company is a tad cagey about how its million-book claim breaks down, saying that there are over 500,000 Google tomes, but not disclosing just how many over. Even the most conservative math indicates that the public-domain offerings make up more than half of the Nook’s content stockpile of reading material.

As long as you understand that the Nook’s million titles include lots of public-domain freebies–both classics and forgotten curiosities–the fact that the e-reader offers Google books in such vast quantity is a pro, not a con. As for modern books you’ll pay for, the B&N, Amazon, and Sony stores’ total counts may differ, but the basic situation doesn’t: There’s lots that’s available, and lots that’s missing. All three stores had most but not all of the New York Times’ fiction and nonfiction bestsellers when I checked, for instance.

I didn’t attempt to audit the stores for significant titles that don’t happen to be current bestsellers, but it’s possible that Amazon’s lengthy head start on Barnes & Noble gives it an edge. When I reviewed the original Kindle back in 2007, I noted that Vladimir Nabokov and Ian Fleming were both missing; today, Lolita’s author is still unrepresented on the device, but James Bond is in plentiful supply. The Sony e-book store also has Bond but not Nabokov; the Nook, on the other hand, has neither. Here’s hoping that B&N will be as busy licensing additional titles in the coming months as it will be marketing its device.

(Update: Amazon contacted me with additional information on its bestseller offerings: It says that 99 of 113 bestsellers on the New York Times’ 12/06 list are available on the Kindle, and that 86 of them are on Nook.)

Like the Kindle–but unlike Sony’s Readers–the Nook’s menu of content includes digital newspapers and magazines as well as books. Once you’ve subscribed, both the Kindle and the Nook snag each new issue automatically and notify you that it’s arrived. Which is pretty cool, although the Nook versions of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal I sampled share the disappointingly passive, plain-text feel of Kindle newspapers. (I’m still waiting for someone to really reimagine periodicals to take advantage of e-readers.)

Barnes & Noble is launching with 25 papers and magazines and plans to get to 50 quickly, with more to come in 2010. That count is less than half of Amazon’s, but the quality is good: The NYT, The WSJ, USA Today, Time, The Economist, The New Yorker, and Men’s Health are all on deck. And your subscriptions will be viewable on all of Barnes & Noble’s readers–the Nook itself, plus software for PCs, Macs, iPhones, and BlackBerries. Kindle subscriptions only work on Kindles. (The Nook has no equivalent to the Kindle’s 7500+ blogs and newsfeeds, however.)

Buy Once, Read Anywhere?

To date, one of the least appealing things about e-readers has been the use of proprietary formats and digital-rights management (DRM) technologies that limit your use of digital books you’ve paid for. Many of us treasure real books that have been passed down from generation to generation, but a Kindle book–right now, anyhow–is a fundamentally temporary thing. It’s readable only on the Kindle itself and in Amazon’s reader software; any Kindle owner who decides to switch to a Nook is faced with the prospect of buying a library of e-books all over again.

At the moment, much of the Barnes & Noble e-book store’s offerings are still in the proprietary PDB format. But Barnes & Noble, like Sony, has pledged its commitment to ePub, an industry-standard format for digital books embraced by practically everyone except Amazon. ePub isn’t quite an MP3 of e-books–for one thing, it enables DRM that can leave a book in ePub format unreadable on an device that supports ePub. But the whole idea of ePub is to support the kind of cross-platform compatibility that Amazon’s Kindle format inherently prevents. Any company that wants to build ePub support into a gadget or application can do so without anyone’s permission.

Already, Nook books can be read on more devices than their Kindle counterparts: Barnes & Noble offers free reader software for Windows, Macs, iPhones, and BlackBerries. (Amazon supports only Windows and the iPhone, with readers for the Mac and BlackBerry in the works.) Books from the Nook e-book store will also work on the iRex and upcoming Plastic Logic QUE, both of which have content deals with B&N. And the ePub support sets the stage for a scenario in which Nook books work on other devices, too. (A Sony representative told me that ePub books from Barnes & Noble should work on Sony Readers; all the Nook books I bought were in PDB form, so I couldn’t test that theory for myself.)

For now, Barnes & Noble has a real lead on Amazon when it comes to helping you read the books you buy on a variety of devices. I still look forward to the day, however, when the entire publishing industry settles on technology that makes questions of compatibility utterly irrelevant–or, ideally, that it screws up its courage and does away with DRM, period.

The Bottom Line

For book lovers who have decided to go digital–and the people who love them and want to give them gifts–the question remains: Should you buy a Nook, a Kindle, a Sony Reader, or something else? Unless you absolutely must put an e-reader under the Christmas Tree, my advice is to postpone the decision. But only a little. The Nook has the potential to decisively trump the Kindle, but I want to see if Barnes & Noble’s upcoming software update fixes the issues I encountered before I declare any winners. (Besides, you can’t buy a Nook today and receive it in time for the holidays; if the device appeals to you, patience will be required no matter what.)

There are other reasons to bide your time a bit longer before you snap up any e-reader. At least two known major e-reader players aren’t quite here yet: Sony’s Reader Daily Edition (which will ship before Christmas) and Plastic Logic’s QUE (which will be unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and may ship soon thereafter–whereupon it’ll be sold in Barnes & Noble stores alongside the Nook). Then there’s the 800-pound gorilla that hasn’t yet entered the room: the alleged Apple tablet that could be an exceptional e-reader…if it ever turns out to actually exist, that is.

E-reader buyers, in other words, are confronted by the same happy dilemma that almost always confronts tech shoppers: a choice between buying now, or waiting for upcoming products that are inevitably cooler (and, most likely, cheaper). No matter how Barnes & Noble’s ambitious plans for the Nook pan out, one thing seems clear: 2010 will be the most exciting year for digital books so far.

If you have an e-reader, let us know what you think if it–and if you’ve been waiting for the Nook or another new gadget, or are still an e-reading skeptic, tell us why.

Product mentioned in this article

(1 items)

  • Barnes & Noble Nook

    Poky performance that may or may not be owing simply to an as-yet-unresolved software issue makes an unqualified recommendation of this attractive, innovative device impossible.

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