Barnes & Noble's Nook: The Hands-On Review

Barnes and Noble - Nook Barnes & Noble

CNET's David Carnoy wrote this story.

Editors' note: This review is based on a very limited amount of time spent with the Nook. We'll be updating the review later this week with additional thoughts and full ratings after we've had more time with it. Also, note that the Nook is now backordered until at least January 15, 2010.

When Barnes & Noble unveiled the Nook, the first Android-powered e-book reader, a lot of people were excited, because it appeared to offer some key competitive advantages over Amazon's Kindle e-reader.

First and foremost, while the Nook features the same 6-inch E-ink screen (600x800 pixels; 16 shades of gray) as the Kindle, it includes a separate color capacitive touch screen (144 x 480 pixels) that allows you to navigate content and use a virtual keyboard for typing searches and annotations. Furthermore, on top of its free AT&T 3G wireless connection, the Nook packs in Wi-Fi connectivity and a memory expansion slot; you get 2GB of internal memory, but can add up to an additional 16GB via the microSD card slot. And finally, Barnes & Noble offers an e-book-lending option (for participating titles) and the capability to browse the full text of e-books on your Nook if you're in a Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar store (the latter feature is due to launch in early 2010). Unfortunately, both the lending and in-store browsing features come with some significant restrictions, which we'll detail below.

Caveats notwithstanding, those features are nice extras, but the big questions are: how much of a difference do they really make in the overall user experience, and are they enough to push the Nook to the top of the e-book reader heap? Alas, the answer, you'll soon find out, isn't as clear cut as it might seem.

Design

Let's start with the basic design. Put the Nook on top of the Kindle and you'll notice that the Nook is about 10 percent smaller in terms of surface dimensions. Then again, the Nook's a bit thicker. The Nook is 7.7 inches long by 4.9 inches wide by 0.50 inch thick, whereas the Kindle is 8 inches long by 5.3 inches wide by 0.36 inch thick. The Nook also weighs slightly more at 11.2 ounces than the Kindle does at 10.2 ounces. Unlike the Kindle, the device's plastic back plate is removable and the lithium ion battery is user replaceable (the microSD slot is also accessible by removing the cover). The back cover ships with the device, but, smartly, Barnes & Noble is offering it in different colors as an optional accessory, along with various third-party protective cases (alas, no cover--not even a cheap neoprene one--ships with the device, which is disappointing).


It's also worth noting that the Nook's off-white border is closer to gray than to white, and the finish is shiny (we prefer the Kindle's matte finish, but that's a small nitpick). The E-ink screen on the Nook looks very similar to that of the Kindle. The lettering on the Nook comes across with sufficient contrast--no complaints there.

The color touch screen at the bottom of the device creates an interesting dynamic. For better or worse, because it's bright and vibrant when turned on, it makes the upper E-ink screen appear bland and dull. (E-ink screens are designed to appear paperlike and are purposely not backlit to reduce eyestrain when reading.) But the LCD is eye-catching and offers an extra bit of wow factor that's currently not present in the Kindle, or in any other competing e-book reader.

Interface and usability

Using the touch-screen navigation pad does take some getting used to, particularly if you're accustomed to using a touch-screen phone like the iPhone. Your initial urge is to touch the E-ink part of the screen, but then you gradually get used to the concept of confining your touches to the screen at the bottom and the Nook logo that sits just above the screen. That Nook "button" serves as a home button that turns the color screen on when it's asleep; for energy-saving purposes, you can set the screen to turn off after 10, 30, or 60 seconds when not in use.

At first, you may find yourself muddling through the interface, stopping to figure out what button to push next to get to where you want to go. But with some practice, it starts to grow on you, and we ended up liking it. Also, the capability to browse through color thumbnail images of books with a flick of your finger is appealing. (For the record, the thumbnails don't appear to be quite as sharp as they looked in some early pictures we saw of the Nook, but they offer sufficient detail).

That said, one of the noticeable drawbacks of the device is that it just can't measure up to the iPhone or iPod Touch (particularly the most recent generation) in terms of speed and performance. Yes, the touch screen is more responsive than the laggy E-ink screen, and yes, you can flip through your reading collection Coverflow-style, but you're just not going to get that buttery smoothness you encounter with the iPhone. Combine that minor sluggishness with a cellular wireless connection (sometimes AT&T's 3G service is quite fast, but sometimes it's not, depending on the quality of the signal and your location) and there will be moments you'll wish the device was zippier.

True, the speed gripe is par for the course with E-ink based e-book readers; all of them still stutter and flash when moving from page to page and generally have slow start-up times after a full shutdown (the Nook does, too). However, we did notice that every time you load a book--even if you've already opened it before--you get a message that says "Formatting..." and have to wait a few seconds for the book to load. That's slightly irritating.

Extra features

Like the Kindle, the Nook has a built-in dictionary. The device allows you to adjust font size while you're reading (extra small, small, medium, large, and extra large are the settings). Additionally, you have a few fonts to choose from (Amasis, Helvetica Neue, and Light Classic), which is nice.

We also like that you can import images to be your screensaver. Alas, you can't send images to the device wirelessly; you need to connect the Nook to your Windows or Mac PC via the included Micro-USB connector and then "sideload" them manually. The same is true for MP3 music files, which you can load onto the device and listen to while you read.

Speaking of listening: the Nook has tiny built-in speakers, but you should use headphones to listen to music (a standard 3.5mm jack is on the bottom of the device), because the speakers are intended for playing system sounds and little else. There's no text-to-speech feature, as there is on the Kindle.

Barnes & Noble has steered away from Web browsing or any sort of e-mailing capabilities, though one of the key extras is the capability to lend out e-books to friends' Nooks, iPhones, iPod Touches, select BlackBerry, and Motorola smartphones, as well as Windows and Mac PCs that have the Barnes & Noble eReader software installed on them. (Note: the lending feature will be rolled out in stages to various devices, with Blackberry and Android being supported in 2010).

As we mentioned above, the lending feature has some notable restrictions. First off, not all e-books in the Barnes & Noble store will be lendable; the company says around half its titles will offer this feature and it hopes to convince publishers to add even more titles to the list. And like a print book, you won't have access to it during the loan period. But it's the other two caveats that book swappers will balk at: individual titles can only be lent once, and the loan period has a time limit of 14 days.

Starting in 2010, the B&N will roll out some in-store enhancements for Nook owners. When you enter a Barnes & Noble store with your Nook, it will automatically connect to the store's free in-house Wi-Fi hot spot. You'll then get messages about special in-store offers (tap "The Daily" icon on the color LCD to get the latest notifications from Barnes & Noble, including special articles and alerts telling you a new newspaper or magazine subscription has been delivered).

When connected to the store's Wi-Fi network, you'll someday be able to browse full e-books on your Nook while in the store. However, this feature, too, has its limitations: it only works for up to an hour per title during any given 24-hour period. The Kindle, by comparison, allows you to download the first chapter of most books for free, but with no time or geographic restrictions.

As you might expect from Barnes & Noble, content selection is quite good, and the company is doing everything it can to compete with Amazon (and, to a lesser extent, with Sony) both in terms of pricing (most bestsellers are $9.99) and number of titles. Barnes & Noble is also selling subscriptions to various magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, in addition to its e-book selection. Currently, it doesn't offer as many periodicals as Amazon, but the list is expected to grow with time.

If you're wondering if the Nook, which runs on Android 1.5, comes with any extra Android apps onboard, the answer is no--not now anyway. At launch, no separate Android apps will run on the device, but Barnes & Noble says that one of the reasons it chose Android to power the Nook was because it's an open platform with a large developer community and that future apps are a possibility. We think a weather app, for instance, is a no-brainer, but we'll have to wait and see if any apps become available.

Formats supported

Like Sony's e-book Readers, the Nook is considered a more open device than the Kindle, because it supports the EPUB format, which, outside of Amazon, has become the de facto standard for e-books. The Nook also supports the PDB format and has native support for PDF files in both normal and "reflowed" modes. However, it currently can't read Word or text files, which is a bit of a bummer.

You can load PDF files onto the device from your PC via the USB connector and reflow the text using different fonts and font sizes. This works fairly well, but there's no zoom function, so viewing PDFs on the Nook has significant limitations, particularly because the screen is only 6 inches big. (We recommend stepping up to a larger format e-reader, such as the Kindle DX, if you want a more PDF-friendly device).

The Nook displays JPEG images, as well as BMP, GIF, and PNG image files, though there's no slideshow functionality built-in at this time. You can sideload your images onto the device and have them appear as screensavers or wallpapers. (To make screensavers out of your photos, you have to create a separate folder or folders within the screensaver folder on the Nook, and then drop your photos in them. The folders become selectable from the screensaver settings menu). Like the Kindle, the Nook's monochrome E-ink screen makes images look a little like Etch-a-Sketch renderings.

As for audio, the Nook supports playback of MP3 files only. That means that if you have an audiobook in MP3 format, you can listen to it. Note: currently, the Nook is not compatible with Audible, which is owned by Amazon.

Battery life

The Nook charges exactly the same way the Kindle does: you connect the USB cable to your computer or to the included compact AC adapter. The adapter is virtually the same size as the power adapter that ships with the Kindle. Like the Kindle, the Nook has a Micro-USB port on the bottom of the device, which means that if you leave your charging cable at home, you'll have to find a Micro-USB cable, and not the standard USB cable, in order to charge.

Though we are still in the process of testing the Nook's battery life, Barnes & Noble acknowledges that it's not as good as the Kindle's. This is mostly due to the inclusion of the color LCD touch screen, which negatively impacts battery life significantly. As noted, we did appreciate that you can set the screen to automatically turn off after 10, 30, or 60 seconds of non-use, and we also liked how the AT&T wireless connection automatically turns off when not in use to save battery life. (Obviously, using the Wi-Fi connection--at home or in a Barnes & Noble store--has a big impact on battery life.)

Using the wireless sparingly, Barnes & Noble says you can get 7 to 10 days of battery life without having to recharge, which falls a few days short of the Kindle's best-case-scenario battery life estimates of approximately 14 days. (Editors' note: in our limited time with the device, battery life appeared to be considerably shorter than that, but we'll wait to pass final judgment until we've used the Nook more.)

Conclusion

Is the Nook better than the Kindle? That's the question everybody wants answered, and the short response is yes--and no. In terms of core features, the Nook isn't any better. Both devices wirelessly deliver similar content to almost identical 6-inch E-ink screens. You can argue over which one is easier to use and which interface you like better (we give a slight nod to the Nook's touch screen), but both are fairly intuitive and are reasonably priced for what they offer.

In its favor, the Kindle--or, at least, Amazon's service--is more battle-tested, its battery life is better, and it does offer text-to-speech audio and basic Web browsing. You also don't have to deal with some of the slow load times for books.

However, we do like the Nook's extra features, such as Wi-Fi, free lending capabilities, and in-store browsing, and we think that they--more than the color LCD--give the Nook a competitive advantage. As with any new platform, the Nook still has some kinks to work out and will require its fair share of tweaks and firmware upgrades to really shine. But we have no problem recommending it as a worthy alternative to the current-generation Kindle.



By David Carnoy
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