The Nook (B&N insists on a lowercase capital letter, but to me "nook" looks wrong as a proper noun) is the company's answer to Amazon's Kindle. It costs the same as the Kindle ($259) and incorporates the same black & white reading screen, a 6-diagonal-inch E Ink Vizplex display with 600x800-pixel resolution using 16 shades of gray. At 7.7 x 4.9 x 0.5 inches, the Nook is a tad smaller than the Kindle, except that it's a bit thicker (Kindle's thickness: 0.36 inches) and a smidgen heavier (11.2 ounces, to Kindle's 10.2 ounces)).
My Nook, in its attractive and functional $30 (faux?) leather cover from B&N — it comes with no protective gear included in the package, so I picked up the cover at my local B&N store — weighs almost exactly the same as my copy of the iPhone: The Missing Manual, a trade paperback which is quite a bit larger than the Nook. In heft, balance, and ease of manipulation the Nook is actually as agreeable, in my estimation, as all but the lightest, smallest print editions. Your mileage may vary.
The main fly in the Nook's ease-of-use ointment is that flipping through multiple pages is clumsy, owing to the slow-as-molasses E Ink reading screen — see below for more. The iPhone, with its LCD touchscreen doubling as a reading screen, flips through pages almost as easily as a printed book.
In the picture above, you can see the Nook's distinguishing characteristic, the colored swatch beneath its black & white reading screen. It's a color touchscreen not unlike the iPhone's, in the spot where the latest Kindle (seen at right) puts a tiny physical QWERTY keyboard. Most of the things you do to operate the Nook are done on the color touchscreen — including, when necessary, a tiny virtual QWERTY keyboard for typing in text.
In the Nook pictured above, the touchscreen is showing thumbnail covers of books in its library. This is the so-called "Gallery View":
In Gallery View, you can browse through the book covers by swiping your finger left or right on the touch strip, or you can tap a cover to center it and tap it once again to open the book.
When opened for the first time, a book's title page appears in the reading window. Subsequent opens of the book show you the page on which you left off reading, as in the image at left.
To turn pages, you press > to go forward, < to go back — these are physical, clickable buttons that are duplicated on either side of the reading screen.
The Nook takes around 1.5 seconds to bring each individual new page up on its reading screen. You watch the page form with a certain fascination, almost like seeing a photo dissolve into another photo, then turn from a negative to a positive.
If you want to advance, say, twenty pages in one fell swoop, you can push the > button twenty times in rapid succession ... and then wait as the intervening pages form briefly on the screen and then disappear. In responding to multiple > clicks, the Nook speeds things up somewhat: you can turn twenty pages in fifteen seconds. This seemingly reflects the 740 ms "typical image update time" cited here for a 4-bit, 16-gray-level E Ink display. It also suggests that the usual page-turn lag of roughly twice 740 ms includes something like an extra 740 ms for the Nook software to initiate a page-turn operation. Apparently, rapid re-clicks of the > button avoid the need to re-initiate the software operation for each successive page. One might conclude that the software designers did that on purpose, to speed things up ... because they realized that the way the software ordinarily works imposes a lot of overhead on the responsiveness of the Nook.
In and of itself, E Ink technology has two advantages over the LCD screen on the iPhone. One, E Ink draws very little power after a page has been formed and is still being displayed on the screen. So an E Ink device like a Kindle or a Nook has a far longer battery life: days, not hours. It doesn't have to be charged nearly as often.
Two, E Ink is very easy on the eyes. The background "paper" is a non-backlit light gray, against which the dark "print" stands out distinctly, but not too starkly. The iPhone uses a backlit LCD screen that can provide similar contrast only at the expense of inviting eyestrain.
Also, of course, the Nook's screen is a lot larger than the iPhone's. It's not big enough to hold an entire printed page when using a medium-sized font, but it does hold roughly a third to half as much text as a typical hardcover edition's page. The iPhone screen holds much less when it's displaying text of the same size.
The Nook lets you switch among either two or three fonts, depending on the book, and five type sizes. I use Amasis Medium — except for certain books where I have to choose Amasis Large in order to get print as big as Amasis Medium is in other books. If you choose Small or Very Small type, you get type that is, to my eyes, too hard to read.
I chose the Nook over the Kindle for the wow factor of its color touchscreen, I admit, but mainly because the Nook reads a lot of eBook formats the Kindle can't. First of all, everything in copy-protected EPUB, PDB, and PDF formats from Barnes & Noble, Fictionwise, eReader, and other sources will work. Only books from the first source qualify as natively belonging in the Nook's own "library," though, while books from all other sources need to be "side-loaded" onto the Nook: copied to it from a computer.
Side-loadable eBooks also include "open" EPUBs and PDFs that entirely lack DRM-encryption, as techies call copy protection; one source of open eBooks is Project Gutenberg. Moreover, you can side-load onto the Nook any and all EPUB and PDF eBooks that use the Adobe copy-protection scheme. These include eBooks from Adobe itself, the Sony Reader eBook Store, and many public libraries.
Edit: Adobe-DRM'ed PDF eBooks do seem to be readable on the Nook ... but when I tried borrowing an Adobe PDF version of Tess Gerritsen's The Keepsake from Maryland's Digital eLibrary Consortium, I found that I could not read it on my Nook. But when I bought the same eBook as an Adobe PDF from BooksOnBoard, it worked! I plan to investigate the problem further, but for now it looks as if Adobe-DRM'ed PDF eBooks that are borrowed from an online library may not be compatible with the Nook!
The Kindle, for its part, turns up its nose at B&N's proprietary eBooks and those from its Fictionwise and eReader subsidiaries. Nor can it read Adobe-DRM'ed eBooks, or even open EPUBs. However, the Nook does strike out when it comes to eBooks in Amazon's proprietary AMZ and Mobipocket formats, so the favor is returned.
Side-loading Nook content, by the way, is done by hooking the Nook to a computer, using the micro-USB to USB cable that comes with it.
That same cable is used to charge the Nook's battery. Battery charging can be done while the Nook is computer-connected, but charging goes faster if you plug the USB cable into a regular outlet via the included power adapter. Irritatingly, the Quick Start Guide and User Guide that come with the Nook insist that you fully charge your new Nook right away, prior to beginning to use it. It takes several hours and while, technically, you can begin Nooking as that is going on, the fact that your Nook is tethered to a power source sort of defeats the purpose.
Unfortunately, using the Nook's user interface can be like trying to do the cha-cha on stilts ... while wading in molasses!
Nowhere is this more evident than when you use the Nook to shop for books at the B&N online store. You bring up the Nook's "home" screen, seen in color in the above photo, by tapping the inverted "u" atop the touchscreen ... actually, a lowercase "n" for "nook." "Shop" is the middle button, which you tap to go to the Nook store. So far so good. But now you see a list of choices on the main screen — not the touchscreen — and your temptation is to want to tap whichever one you intend to select. No! You navigate among various options on the main screen by tapping up and down arrows on the touchscreen — each choice in turn becomes highlighted on the main screen — and you select any item you want by tapping a circle symbol next to the virtual arrows on the touchscreen.
However, if you want to page forward or back to the next or previous set of main-screen options, you use the physical < and > arrows on the Nook proper. Got that? Up and down are virtual buttons, left and right are physical buttons.
It gets worse. Each time you tap/press a virtual/physical button, you wait a second or two (actually, about 1.5 seconds) until a revised image forms on the main screen. Your cha-cha'ing stilts feel mired in molasses.
Add to that complaint the beef that the Nook's touchscreen does not respond smoothly to a swipe gesture. You need to swipe side to side to bring more book covers into view in Gallery View. You need to swipe vertically when there is a menu on the touchscreen that has more items than can fit on the screen. The latter sort of swipe is especially prone not to work smoothly.
You get used to these various beefs after a day or so, but the Nook's user interface is nowhere near as fast, smooth, or intuitive as the iPhone's. This is going to be one area in which the forthcoming Apple Tablet, which will be an iPhone on steroids, will eat Nooks (and presumably Kindles) for breakfast.
Full details of how to navigate the Nook user interface, by the way, are in the 159-page (!) Nook User Guide. You can glean the basic points from the 12-pp. Nook Tour.
Once you manage to zero in on a book you want to buy in the Shop, the rest of the buying process is easy enough to carry out, owing to the fact that you duly registered your out-of-the-box Nook the first time you fired it up, right?
Registering amounts to telling the Nook what e-mail address/password combo you've established your B&N online account under, so that when you buy a book via the Nook, your credit card can be charged automatically. (If you've never set up an account, the Nook will not lead you through doing so, step by step. To do that, you have to visit the B&N website online, using a computer.)
But you can obtain B&N content for the Nook — books, magazines, newspapers, etc. — without running to your computer. It all happens thanks to the Nook's built-in "radios": its wireless circuits.
One of the wireless "radios" accesses B&N Fast & Free Wireless, a cellphone data network. An iPhone does the same kind of thing using AT&T's 3G and EDGE networks, but you have to purchase a cellular data plan from AT&T separately. With the Nook the data plan is, in effect, free — but it works inside the United States only, not abroad.
The Nook's other wireless "radio" makes for 802.11b/g Wi-Fi connectivity. In bricks-and-mortar Barnes & Noble stores, your Nook will automatically latch onto a B&N hotspot as you walk in, without further ado. You can set the Nook up to connect to the B&N site via your home wireless setup as well.
The latest Kindle from Amazon has wireless cellular connectivity that works abroad, unlike the Nook's. But it lacks the Nook's ability to connect to Wi-Fi wireless networks. (However, it looks as if the Nook's Wi-Fi connectivity does not allow books to be bought and downloaded by those in foreign lands. Go figure!)
Sadly, the Nook's internal software is not quite ready for prime time, as of release 1.1.1. It's a heavily customized version of Google's Android operating system, which means it has a lot of as yet untapped potential, such as harnessing the Nook to browse the Web. As of right now, though, the software flunks a lot of usability tests.
It nominally lets you annotate book pages, but identifying specific passages you want to "highlight" is a balky process at best.
Dictionary lookups are available, but only for words actually on the page being viewed, which you (again) have to highlight using a slow, clunky procedure. I find that the word lookup can't locate inflected forms of words, such as "conferring" for "confer," and there's no way to type in the latter when only the former is present on the page you're reading.
The Gallery View shown in the photo above, though sexy, exists only for books in the B&N library, not for books you side-load onto the Nook. B&N really needs to support Gallery View for side-loaded books.
If you want to exit a particular book and go back to the full list of books in My B&N Library (or in the My Documents folder, if that's where you came from) you have to first go back to the home screen and then return to the library or folder in question. A waste of time ...
Sometimes the Nook loses track of the last page read and/or the furthest page read in a book.
If you navigate, via a text-embedded superscript, to an end note, in a book that has end notes — the ability to do that is itself a cool, but not unique, Nook feature — the Nook mistakenly counts the end note as on the "furthest page read."
There is no "Go To Page Number ___ " function. It's badly needed.
And, as I mentioned earlier, some books insist on a different type size than, say, Amasis Medium normally would be expected to produce.
Other ballyhooed Nook advantages are, as of the moment, overblown.
Early reports of the Nook being able to "lend" eBooks turn out to be much ado about nothing, for now. Only some eBooks in your B&N Library can be loaned out, by no means all. You can load eBooks only to another B&N customer, not to the eBook world at large. You can lend a book that can be lent just one time, for just 14 days. Big whoop!
According to the Nook User Guide, though, the borrower need not have a Nook:
You can lend to and from any device with the Barnes & Noble eReader application, including iPhone and iPod touch, BlackBerry smartphones, and most Windows and Mac laptops and desktop computers. All you need to know is your friend’s email address.
But the borrower does have to be B&N-registered. Also, lending is a complex operation in which you have to generate an e-mail "offer" to the borrower, who must then accept the offer, before being allowed to download the book. During the 14-day lend-out period, you cannot use the book yourself, unless the borrower goes to the extra trouble of "returning" it to you early.
The initial buzz for the Nook set great store (pun intended!) by its "in-store experience," described this way by the User Guide:
When you bring your nook into a Barnes & Noble Bookstore, you can access in-store content and merchandising. This includes the ability to sample any eBook while in the store! (This feature is coming soon.) Merchandising content includes in-store, exclusive editorial content, promotion coupons, and information about in-store events.
There's supposed to be, added to the Shop's so-called "merchandising area," a More in Store option that you can bring up on the Nook's main screen when you're in a bricks-and-mortar B&N store. Yet when I visited my local B&N establishment and fired up my Nook, I saw no such thing. Nor did I see any ability to thoroughly browse "any eBook" while in the store! Plus, I've heard that this in-store browsing feature, where implemented at all, is time-limited to one hour per book, per 24-hour period.
My Nook did automatically connect to the store's Wi-Fi hotspot, but that was the extent of the vaunted "in-store experience." And, true, I was able to download truncated "sample" eBooks and read them while sipping my latte in the store, but those prepackaged free samples are available from my home as well. (Also, whatever happened to all those comfy chairs B&N throughout the store? As of a couple of months ago, they had dwindled to two. Two weeks ago, those two were gone!)
The Nook's battery life is a major sticking point. Touted by B&N as letting you "read for up to ten days without recharging with wireless off," I'm finding a more realistic figure to be two to three days without recharging. The Kindle gets much greater battery life, supposedly: up to two weeks between charges.
Note the "with wireless off" caveat. The two "radios" in the Nook are thought to drain the battery fast. You can disable the Wi-Fi radio via its own settings, but to turn off cellular connectivity you need to turn on Airplane Mode, which is nominally there to let air travelers disable wireless communications during takeoff and landing. (Airplane Mode also disables Wi-Fi.)
I keep Airplane Mode on just about all the time, yet I get nowhere near ten charge-free days. The culprit may be my (very occasional) use of the color touchscreen, which (as with an iPhone) supposedly draws a lot of juice ... but I find it next to impossible to avoid some touchscreen activation as I'm using my Nook. The touchscreen goes dark after a user-configurable number of seconds — I've lowered it from 30 to 10. I've also reduced the touchscreen brightness to a near-minimum value and turned off the "Auto-Adjust Brightness" feature. Still, what little use my touchscreen does get may be responsible for draining my battery.
Or, it may be just plain old page turning that drains the battery so swiftly. (If that's true, is it possible that a software update might cure this?) My reasoning: The Nook may be incurring a lot of processing overhead, due to the fact that its dedicated book-reading application is hosted by a full-fledged operating system (Android). The Kindle, on the other hand, doesn't have its software set up as a applications running under a general-purpose OS. Presumably, the processing overhead of something as simple as a page turn is less on the Kindle. So the Kindle's battery needs recharging much less often.
One thing I've proven to my own satisfaction: when my Nook is put into "sleep" mode, the battery charge doesn't drop much at all, over several hours of non-use. "Sleep" is, as the name suggests, different from powering the Nook down entirely. In sleep mode, a screen saver image remains on the reading screen; hence, E Ink remains in use. Powered off, the Nook has a blank reading screen.
The Nook will automatically enter sleep mode after 2, 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes of inactivity, depending on a user setting. You can manually enter sleep mode by pressing the Power button on the top of the device: once if the color touchscreen is lit up, otherwise twice.
B&N says recharging the Nook from a power outlet takes 3.5 hours, a time estimate I find accurate, and that charging via the USB cable takes 6 hours.
Unlike with the iPhone or the Kindle, you can pop the back off the Nook and replace its lithium polymer
While the back is off you can pop in a microSD or microSDHC memory card of up to 16-GB capacity, to go with the Nook's 2 GB of on-board storage. The former, I find, is reduced to about 1.28 usable GB by (I assume) the storage taken up by the Nook system software. The Nook, at a nominal 2 GB of storage, is said to hold up to 1,500 eBooks, so adding a memory card is not an urgent priority. Amazon's Kindle likewise sports a 2-GB internal memory, said to hold a like figure of 1,500 eBooks. (Also, if you're wondering whether the Nook has a SIM card to enable cellular connectivity, it does; it's hidden by the battery.)
One of the biggest questions in the Kindle-vs.-Nook debate concerns the availability and pricing of eBooks from the two eBook-selling behemoths, Amazon and B&N respectively, standing behind the two readers.
The reviews of the Kindle and of the Nook from CNET cite a "large library of tens of thousands of e-books" as selling points for each of these devices.
Virtually all of the eBooks that work on the Kindle have to be obtained through the Kindle Store at Amazon. The eBooks eligible to become part of "My Library" on the Nook — as opposed to capable of being side-loaded into "My Documents" — all come from the B&N eBook Store.
I happen to have a list of books that I want to read soon. Most are fairly well-known titles. None of them did I select because of their availability (or lack of it) as eBooks. Some are in fact available as eBooks, some not. Here's an availability comparison:
- Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. $5.50 at the Kindle Store. $5.50 at the B&N eBook Store.
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson and Reg Keeland. $5.50 at the Kindle Store. $5.50 at the B&N eBook Store.
- The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. $3.95 at the Kindle Store. $3.95 at the B&N eBook Store.
- The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood. $9.99 at the Kindle Store. Not available at the B&N eBook Store.
- Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. $9.99 at the Kindle Store. $9.99 at the B&N eBook Store.
- The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood. $9.99 at the Kindle Store. $9.99 at the B&N eBook Store.
- The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. $9.99 at the Kindle Store. $9.99 at the B&N eBook Store.
- The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. $9.59 at the Kindle Store. $9.59 at the B&N eBook Store. (Note: I downloaded the free sample of this eBook to my Nook and found that its cover does not show up in Gallery View. Nor does the cover show up in the B&N eBook Store listing for the eBook. However, when the Nook is actually reading the sample eBook, the cover thumbnail does appear! The listing at the Kindle Store likewise shows a cover.)
- The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland, by Jim Defede. Not available at the Kindle Store. Not available at the B&N eBook Store.
- Disgrace: A Novel, by J.M. Coetzee. Not available at the Kindle Store. Not available at the B&N eBook Store.
- The Hours, by Michael Cunningham. $9.99 at the Kindle Store. Not available at the B&N eBook Store.
- After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, by Alasdair MacIntyre. Not available at the Kindle Store. Not available at the B&N eBook Store.
- Skyfall, by Catherine Asaro. $6.39 at the Kindle Store. Not available at the B&N eBook Store.
- Dawn Star, by Catherine Asaro. $9.99 at the Kindle Store. $9.99 at the B&N eBook Store.
- The Apprentice: A Novel, by Tess Gerritsen. $6.39 at the Kindle Store. $6.39 at the B&N eBook Store.
- Whistleblower and Never Say Die, by Tess Gerritsen. $7.88 at the Kindle Store. $7.88 at the B&N eBook Store.
- A Lion Called Christian: The True Story of the Remarkable Bond Between Two Friends and a Lion, by Anthony Bourke and John Rendall. $13.17 at the Kindle Store. Not available at the B&N eBook Store.
What of the books that are shown above as not available at the B&N eBook Store, or unavailable at either store?
- The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood, is available here as an Adobe PDF eBook, side-loadable and readable by the Nook, for a price in British pounds equivalent to $7.43. It's also available for the same price in the Mobipocket format. If not DRM-encrypted, Mobipocket would be usable by the Kindle. But this seems to be in the encrypted Mobipocket format, which the Kindle can't use. But never mind: a Kindle edition is available at Amazon's Kindle Store for a reasonable $9.99.
- The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland, by Jim Defede, is apparently not available anywhere as an eBook. (You can check any book's availability as an eBook, or lack thereof, at AddAll eBooks.)
- Disgrace: A Novel, by J.M. Coetzee, is apparently not available anywhere as an eBook.
- The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, is available here as an Adobe PDF eBook, side-loadable and readable by the Nook, for $8.10.
- After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, by Alasdair MacIntyre, is apparently not available anywhere as an eBook.
- Skyfall, by Catherine Asaro, is available in EPUB format here, for $12.60. This kind of DRM-encrypted EPUB is meant for a Sony Reader (a rival to the Kindle and the Nook). However, it reportedly will work when side-loaded to a Nook.
- A Lion Called Christian: The True Story of the Remarkable Bond Between Two Friends and a Lion, by Anthony Bourke and John Rendall, is available as a DRM-encrypted EPUB for a Sony Reader here, for $9.99.
More on the subject of eBook pricing for the Nook: here, in an early discussion of the Nook that appeared just after the product was announced in mid-October 2009, its author complains (referring to Barnes & Noble), "The bookseller's digital titles are way overpriced — at least compared to Amazon ... ."
Is that still true? Interestingly enough, I find that all of the book-by-book price gaps the author so rues seem to have disappeared! Check for yourself: it's easy to click on each cited eBook link to the Amazon and B&N sites, respectively. Try it.
The list of books I myself compiled above likewise shows that, in every case where both vendors have the eBook, the price is the same. It looks to me as if, in the wake of the Nook announcement, B&N dropped its prices to match Amazon's!
In cases where a Nook-usable version must be side-loaded from another source, however, where the Kindle Store has its own eBook edition the prices sometimes vary. In some cases, the Nook-usable eBook costs more that the Kindle edition; in other cases, less.
On the whole, the results I am seeing indicate that you would typically find the same books available for the Nook as for the Kindle, usually at identical prices, occasionally at different prices. Where there is price variation, sometimes one device is favored, sometimes the other. On average, you would probably spend the same amounts of money feeding the Nook as the Kindle.
True, the Nook would sometimes force you to computer-download and then side-load "non-B&N Library" eBooks to the Nook, where those same eBooks would be effortlessly available from Amazon's Kindle Store and would download direct to the Kindle. With respect to the availability of eBooks in the devices' "native" formats, the Kindle presently has an edge over the Nook.
You can read other comprehensive reviews of the Nook here and here.