All three of the e-readers we just compared have 6″ 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 .5″ 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″ 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 bacl 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.