By now, most everyone in your circle of friends has played with a Kindle and an iPad. Fewer have picked up a Nook. But I’d urge you to give this dark horse a shot.
I’ve been testing the newest black and white version of Barnes & Noble’s e-reader, and, well, you can color me impressed.
The freshly-updated Nook is smaller and lighter than Amazon’s Kindle, and on those qualities alone it stands a excellent chance of capturing some more market share in the e-ink device game. But the new Nook also embraces social media sharing (and does it well enough), eliminates all buttons save a “Home” key (where’d they get that idea?) and ambidextrous page-turners, and introduces a responsive e-ink touchscreen that controls an intuitive interface.
The Wi-Fi versions of both Amazon’s and Barnes & Noble’s similar-sized black and white e-readers are priced at $140, though Amazon does sell a cheaper, ad-supported Kindle for $114.
As much as the new Nook implores you to choose it over the Kindle, Amazon’s device isn’t its real adversary. Both devices share a common enemy: the tablet. iPads and Honeycombs and other touchscreen devices that can be used not only to read books, but watch videos, browse the web, mow your lawn and whatever else.
As my get-gadget colleague Brian X. Chen writes in his new book, Always On, “Soon, manufacturers will no longer be able to sell single-function gadgets lacking an internet connection because those gadgets will be obsolete.” (For fans of meta, I read this passage on the Nook).
So the killer app (pun intended) for any e-reader has to be that it makes you forget there are other ways to read digital books that don’t make you to lug around yet another device that only does one thing. As a lover of e-reading who’s never considered owning an e-reader, I was going to be a tough sell. And while I have some issues with the Nook, it is the first e-reader I would consider owning.
Why? The Nook is the first mechanism that has called me to read books for fun in ages. Software apps for e-reading are convenient, but they run on devices which are either too small (a smartphone) or too cumbersome and heavy (a tablet). This particular reader just feels better in the hand than others I have tried.
It’s not perfect. The touchscreen keyboard is merely adequate, but it’s fine for the little amount of typing you’ll do. And the Nook’s social layer seems like a work in progress, but it’s positioned only as a natural extension of the reading experience and does not feel at all forced.
But you spend the vast majority of your time using an e-reader for one thing alone: reading. It doesn’t need to be fancy, it needs to be comfortable, convenient, and accessible. At all those things, the Nook excels.
The newest Nook is so thin and light — about seven ounces, four less than its predecessor — that it’s really like carrying nothing at all. It’s not that much smaller than the Kindle, but at this scale, the difference is very noticeable. Most of the saving comes from using a pop-up touchscreen keyboard instead of a hardware keyboard. It fits comfortably in the back pocket of a pair of pants (not that you’d carry it that way) and I actually “lost” it in my very compact Booq laptop bag.
It’s easy to hold in any position, especially the all-important standing-on-the-moving-train and lying-in-bed varieties. The page-turning buttons are low-profile strips on either side of the face of the device, rather than the edge, as is the case with the Kindle. That seems to make it more natural to hold in one hand, since the entire edge of device can be cradled without any accidental clicks.
The touchscreen introduces some quirks. It’s easier to lose your place — I clicked on a footnote, and then something else accidentally, and landed on a random page, completely lost and with no idea what page I came from. It needs a way to retrace your steps. The touch keyboard is good enough to tap type, but the cancel button is too big. Clumsy fingers will lead to a lot of re-dos.
One other hardware quibble: The Nook is an e-ink reader, and like other e-ink readers, it is almost useless in low light. As one who has vowed to never again buy an Itty-Bitty Book Light, I’d happily give up some of the device’s two-month power surplus for a bit of on-demand LED glow. Tablets may be difficult to read in sunlight, but in low light, they still win.
In addition to the software for buying books and managing purchases, the Nook offers the three biggest sharing platforms: e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. You can link your Facebook, Twitter and Gmail accounts, and from there, recommend books to your friends and boast about your progress. If you’d like, you can also build a network of Nook friends by leveraging your Google contacts.
It’s refreshing that everything connects flawlessly on the backend, but the software clients flounder.
You can’t search your contacts when you want to e-mail — you have to scroll through them, which is ridiculous if you have a bulging address book.
When posting a tweet or a Facebook status message about a book, the Nook also throws in a link to the book’s selling page on Barnes & Noble’s website no matter what you write — fair enough, though if you want to trash what you’re reading, that hardly seems like a prime selling opportunity. Also, it is impossible to edit what the Nook “writes” when you’re broadcasting your progress. The full title of the Always On is 89 characters when you include the subtitle, and the “authors” are listed as Brian Chen and Brian X. Chen (spoiler alert: it’s one guy). And there’s nothing you can do about it. At least let me work in the author’s Twitter @handle.
Overall, the social component is half-baked. It aspires to do the quick hit things you might spontaneously want to do — “I’m halfway through!” — in the context of your reading experience, but it can’t compete with the social capabilities of your other mobile devices.
But hey, the Nook is for reading, not for tweeting. This is a pricey gadget that’s competing with a free app — like the Kindle, there are free Nook apps for phones and tablets — and as such, it has to offer a kickass reading experience. And it does.
It seems likely to win many new converts who’ve found themselves lured into Barnes & Noble’s brick-and-mortar retail stores to play with the device. The Kindle may have the first-mover advantage and a better-known name. But with this new version, the Nook is poised to break away — at least until the tablet makers build an e-reading experience good enough to render e-ink devices like these obsolete.
Photo by Jon Snyder/get-gadget
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