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

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 back 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.

Look, Up in the Air! Books!

It’s no shocker that the Nook matches the Kindle’s most groundbreaking feature: built-in wireless broadband that makes buying books infinitely more irresistible than if you had to do your shopping at computer, then transfer tomes to the e-reader via USB. (Sony’s Reader Touch Edition remains dependent on your Windows machine or Mac for content, but the company’s new Reader Daily Edition–due to ship any moment now–will add wireless, albeit at a pricey $399.99.)

At a Glance
  • 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. Read the full review


    • Wireless connectivity
    • Easy-to-turn pages


    • Sluggish performance

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