You can imagine that Barnes & Noble, with 774 stores scattered across suburban strip-mall America, finally got fed up with the way Amazon’s Kindle dominates the e-book market.
“I know,” some B&N exec must have said. “Let’s pull an Apple move on their sorry asses!” The result: a nearly buttonless e-book reader that has a color LCD touchscreen where the Kindle has a broad, ugly QWERTY.
The Barnes & Noble Nook is, in fact, a handsome device, close to the Kindle in size but with far cleaner lines and a less cluttered look.
But that’s where the Nook’s radical innovation ends. For the most part, the rest of the device is a Kindle clone with a few minor, but thoughtful, improvements.
The Nook is slightly shorter and narrower than the Amazon Kindle 2, although it’s thicker. Both e-book readers use the same E Ink technology for their main screen: a pale gray, matte surface that looks a bit like an Etch A Sketch but displays text (and monochrome images, with 16 levels of gray) in far more readable fashion than an LCD, thanks to its paperlike opacity. Instead of staring into the glowing eye of a LCD screen, you’re reading light reflected off the surface of the screen, just as you do with paper, and that’s much more comfortable. E Ink also uses less power, so battery life is long (about a week of ordinary use, B&N claims). Both the Kindle and the Nook have small, 6-inch, 600 x 800-pixel screens — only a little bigger than a 3×5 index card — but they seem bigger, thanks to the crispness of the text.
Unfortunately, the Nook is marred by a frustrating interface and persistent slowness. Switching between the lower and upper screens is sometimes confusing, and the lower screen’s “back” button sometimes takes you all the way back to the top menu, clearing out whatever was on the upper screen. Occasionally the lower screen takes a few seconds to respond to a tap, so you impatiently tap again, accidentally triggering something you didn’t expect. The upper, E Ink screen is slightly slower to refresh than the Kindle’s — it takes about a second, instead of about half a second — which means these kinds of interface glitches quickly get very frustrating.
It seems reasonabl
e to expect that the Nook’s software engineers will iron out these glitches in the next few months, and they’ve promised to deliver software updates wirelessly, with the first, minor update rolling out next week. When they finally get the kinks worked out, the Nook will be an elegant, customizable, competitive alternative to Amazon’s Kindle. Until then, it’s a slightly awkward runner-up.