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

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Amazon’s most recent major revision to the Kindle dumped Sprint’s network for AT&T, and added the ability to buy books outside the U.S. (with a surcharge and a reduced selection of titles). The Nook’s 3G is also provided by AT&T, but lacks the the world-traveler angle: B&N is only selling the Nook in the U.S., and the gizmo won’t roam onto international wireless networks. Yanks who take their Nooks out of the U.S. will be able to download items they’ve already paid for (such as magazines and newspapers via subscription) over Wi-Fi, but won’t be able to purchase new titles until the return stateside.

Did I just mention Wi-Fi? Unlike its rivals from Amazon and Sony, the Nook has it. It’s faster than 3G, and enables some inventive integration between the Nook and Barnes & Noble’s 700+ retail stores. When you take the e-reader into a B&N branch, it notices you’re there, connects you to the store’s hotspot for free, and greets you–and may offer you fringe benefits such as free content or a complimentary cookie at the store’s coffee counter. Barnes & Noble also plans to let Nook owners hanging out at the company’s stores peruse books in their entirety, not just the brief samples that can otherwise be downloaded for free. (This feature isn’t quite ready yet, so I wasn’t able to test it.)

The Nook’s Wi-Fi should also work with open and password-protected Wi-Fi networks elsewhere, as long as they don’t have a sign-in page. (The device lacks the browser you’d need to enter credentials or agree to terms of service.) That means it should operate on your home network, but not at many public hotspots, such as those at Starbucks and hotels.

Over both 3G and Wi-Fi, the Nook’s wireless bookstore worked well in my tests, although here again, it was less spritely than the Kindle. The Nook shuts off its 3G connection to conserve power, and there’s a pause each time it restarts it. And unlike Amazon’s on-device store, the Nook also makes you click a second time to confirm your intent to buy something. It’s possible that that’s an understandable acknowledgement of Amazon’s One-Click patent, but it does make the shopping experience slightly less magical.

Listen In, Lend Out

Like the Kindle, the Nook has an extremely basic audio player, meant mostly for listening to MP3s as you read, which you can do over headphones or the device’s tinny monophonic speaker. However, it lacks the Kindle’s support for Audible audiobooks–and given that Amazon owns Audible, I wouldn’t bet on the Nook adding that capability anytime soon.

Two other Kindle features remain unreplicated in the Nook: Its Web browser and text-to-speech feature that can read books out loud. The lack of a browser isn’t really a downside–the Kindle’s is so rudimentary that it’s not an argument for buying a Kindle–and the absence of the book-reading feature isn’t a dealbreaker given that the Kindle’s version remains robotic-sounding and isn’t available for all books.

Besides, the Nook makes up for the omissions with a feature that Kindle owners have been pining for for two years now: book lending. Barnes & Noble calls this option LendMe, and it’s not without limitations. Like Amazon’s read-aloud feature, LendMe can be turned off by publishers, and even when it’s available, it is, bizarrely and presumably at the behest of book publishers, a one-time option: Lend a book once, and you can never do so again. The loan period is fixed at two weeks, during which the purchaser can’t read the book; once the loan’s over, it automatically returns. (That’s certainly an advance over dead-tree book lending–printed books that friends borrow have a nasty habit of never returning home.)

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.


    • Easy-to-turn pages
    • Wireless connectivity


    • Sluggish performance
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