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

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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