Which e-reader will come out on top?
In December 2009, brick-and-mortar book-selling powerhouse Barnes & Noble got into the e-reader game, two years after Amazon.com’s Kindle jump-started the category. Its Nook had some distinguishing characteristics: you navigated the interface using a tiny color touchscreen that sat under its black-and-white E Ink display, for instance, and could loan out e-books to Nook-owning pals. Mostly, though, the gizmo felt like a twist on the Kindle formula, not a departure from it — and while it may have been fancier, it was also pokier and glitchier.
That was last year’s Nook. This year’s model is called the Nook Color, and its very name indicates that it’s moved in a decisively un-Kindleish direction. The ungainly dual-screen E Ink/LCD interface has given way to a full-blown 7-in. color LCD touchscreen, making the Nook Color the first true color e-reader from a major company. The device is still mostly about consuming words — Barnes & Noble calls it a “reader’s tablet” — but it resembles a shrunken iPad more than it resembles the Kindle, and has even more in common with Samsung’s Galaxy Tab.
Unlike the Kindle and first-generation Nook, the Nook Color is available in a single model, which sports a wi-fi connection but no 3G broadband (you’ll need to do your shopping and downloading within reach of a wi-fi network). It goes for $249 — more than the $139 wi-fi–only Kindle and $189 3G/wi-fi version, but dramatically less than the iPad (which starts at $499) and Galaxy Tab ($599 and up, unless you commit to a two-year wireless contract). Barnes & Noble will continue to sell the original Nook as well, at $149 for wi-fi and $199 for 3G/wi-fi.
Kindle admirers may consider Barnes & Noble’s decision to ditch E Ink as technological blasphemy. It helps Amazon.com build an e-reader that’s thin and light, with a glare-free screen and crazy battery life — it runs for a month on a charge, and you don’t even need to worry about shutting off the screen. It’s what makes the Kindle, in Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos’s oft-repeated words, “disappear in your hands.”
Even in the advanced version seen on the newest Kindle, though, E Ink isn’t without sizable downsides. Amazon.com is fond of saying that it “reads like real paper,” but that’s true only if you’re talking about light gray paper that’s been printed on with dark gray ink. It isn’t backlighted, so it’s hard to read in murky lighting. It doesn’t do color. And it refreshes so sluggishly that animation and video are impossibilities.
Compared with E Ink, the new Nook’s backlight color display has one major flaw: it reduces battery life to eight hours or so, and that’s with the wi-fi turned off. Me, I’ll take the trade-off. Kindle partisans like to point out that E Ink is wonderfully legible at the beach in direct sunlight that would bleach out any LCD screen; Amazon.com even based a commercial on the idea. It’s a reasonable point, but it has a flip side. In a darkened movie theater this weekend, bored by the endless trailers, I did something with the Nook that would have been simply impossible on the Kindle: I read.
Of course, the key advantage of a color screen is … color. The Nook Color’s on-board bookstore is launching with more than 60 magazines — not including TIME — available via single-copy purchases and subscriptions, retaining all the art, layouts and ads of their dead-tree counterparts. (The Kindle offers even more titles, but in cruder, reformatted versions; both tablets have newspapers in fairly Spartan form.) Barnes & Noble is also selling children’s picture books in all their polychromatic glory, some with built-in “Read to Me” voice-overs. And its e-reader has a full-color Web browser that can play some online videos — although not ones that use Adobe’s Flash Player — as well as ones you transfer from a computer via USB cable.
On both the Nook and the Kindle, most of the available reading material consists of hundreds of thousands of books with few, if any, illustrations. Precise comparisons of the selection are tricky — Barnes & Noble appears to lump scanned public-domain works into its claim of more than 2 million books, while Amazon.com doesn’t include them in its count of 725,000 volumes — but both merchants offer 14 of the New York Times‘ 15 hardcover best sellers in both the fiction and nonfiction categories, often at $9.99. I preferred the Nook Color experience to the Kindle one for plain text, simply because the “paper” is so much whiter and the “ink” so much blacker.
Even before you switch it on, the Nook Color — styled by industrial-design guru Yves Béhar — looks and feels good. (I had to thoughtfully run my finger along its case to confirm that it’s made of some luxe grade of plastic rather than metal.) It’s larger and thicker than the Kindle, but the most striking physical disparity is its weight: at 15.8 oz., it’s almost 90% heavier than Amazon.com’s featherweight e-reader. Holding it as you read requires a bit more effort than you might prefer, but it’s not unbearable.
The e-reader runs Barnes & Noble’s own custom variant of Google’s Android operating system, the same software seen on the Galaxy Tab and a bevy of smart phones. You tap your way through books, zoom in and out of magazines and kids’ books by pinching, and you can drag your favorite titles onto a desktop and organize your entire library on virtual shelves. You can also share passages from books via Facebook and Twitter. And if you’ve got friends who use Nooks or Barnes & Noble’s e-reader software for iPhones, iPads and Android phones, an improved version of Barnes & Noble’s LendMe feature lets you peruse their collections — with their permission — and request to borrow a book for two weeks. (Only certain tomes can be loaned out, however, and even those can be transferred a grand total of one time apiece.)
It’s all a dramatic advance on the first Nook, and fun to use — but in terms of aesthetics, consistency and avoidance of quirks, the Nook Color falls short of the iPad’s high standard and doesn’t yet match the Kindle’s drabber but more refined feel. The animation as you zip around the interface can be a bit jittery, for instance. ArticleView — which lets you breeze through magazine articles in scrolling strips of nice, large type — is a clever idea, but I sometimes found that it jumbled paragraphs up or dumped me in the middle of an article. (Barnes & Noble says it’s aware of these issues and will fix them in a software update before the holidays.) The interface also varies oddly from area to area: you can pinch to zoom in magazines and kids’ books, for instance, but not in the Web browser.
In fact, the browser is this Nook’s most disappointing feature. It does the job for text-heavy content like blogs and magazine sites, which tend to look almost exactly like they would in a PC browser. I had hoped that it would also handle Web-based services well enough to let me use the e-reader as a general-purpose tablet, but Gmail kept spawning odd error-message dialog boxes that didn’t actually display an error, YouTube videos were grainy eyesores when they played at all, and the Meebo instant messenger wouldn’t load.
Of course, Barnes & Noble keeps emphasizing that this is a reader’s tablet, not a well-rounded computing device. That didn’t stop it from tossing in a few bonus apps: chess, crossword, Sudoku games, audio and video players, and a nicely done rendition of the Pandora music-streaming service. And while the e-reader doesn’t offer the standard Android Market app store, Barnes & Noble says it’s going to launch a software store of its own early next year. If enough third-party developers hop on the Nook Color bandwagon, it might evolve into a bargain-priced, junior-sized iPad alternative.
For now, it’s an e-reader — and though it’s not perfect, it’s easily the most appealing Kindle competitor to date. (I don’t mean to ignore Sony’s Readers, but their high price tags for what you get hurt them in any comparison.)