The nook is the new electronic reading device from Barnes & Noble. It has a 6-inch e-ink screen, as well as a smaller, separate color touchscreen below, which is used for navigation, to view book covers, and as a virtual keyboard when necessary.
It sells for $260, but any new orders won’t ship until January 15 at the earliest; there will not be any nooks available at retail until after the beginning of the year. Orders placed now will receive a “holiday certificate” you can give to the recipient if you are ordering it as a gift.
I was fortunate enough to be able to spend some time with this e-book reader this morning. There has been a lot of mis-information floating around about the nook, so I’ll do my best to hit some of the high points, answer a few burning questions, and clear up some confusion.
BUILD & DESIGN
The nook is very similar to the Amazon.com Kindle 2 (its closest competitor) in many ways. At 7.7 by 4.9 by 0.5 inches it is slightly shorter and narrower than the Kindle, though slightly thicker and one ounce heavier.
Aesthetically speaking, the nook is a nice-looking device. The entire look is very clean and understated; since there’s a touchscreen for navigation there aren’t any buttons or controls beyond the power button on the top of the device and the page forward and back buttons on each side of the device. The page keys aren’t actually buttons, but specific areas of the case that you press to move through the text. There’s also a home button between the e-ink display and the color LCD; it’s flush-mounted so I’d describe it more as a touch-sensitive area than a regular button.
The casing is made of plastic, and the front is very shiny and slick. The back is covered with a rubberized material that feels really good in the hand — soft to the touch and not slippery at all, so you won’t have to hold it in a death-grip to prevent the device from falling to the floor. That back cover can be replaced with a colored cover if you choose, in order to personalize your device.
Underneath the cover you’ll find the user-replaceable battery and the microSD card slot. The micro-USB charge/sync port and headphone jack are on the bottom edge of the unit.
The screen is crystal clear, and very impressive. It’s the same screen as the one on the Kindle 2, since it’s manufactured by the same company. You will still see the “flash” of black when the display is updated, but that’s the nature of e-ink displays. There are three fonts to choose from (the Helvetica was my favorite), as well as five font sizes from very small to extra-large. No matter whether you want to cram it all on one page or spread it all out, you should be able to find a font and font size combination that works for you.
A few other reviews have already surfaced on the Web, and they describe the nook as “sluggish” with a confusing user interface. I did not find that to be the case during my brief hands-on this morning. I may have a slightly different perspective, since I have used the Kindle and Kindle 2 and also spent some time with the Sony Reader. By definition, all e-ink reading devices will suffer from some sort of delay… it’s just the nature of the beast. e-Ink screens simply don’t refresh very quickly.
I find that I tend to use a relatively small font in order to minimize the number of page turns, which in turn also improves battery life just a tiny bit, since the device only draws power when updating the e-ink display. Obviously there’s a bit more of a concern with the nook having a color LCD as well, but that lower screen automatically turns off when it isn’t used for a few seconds and will not come back on unless you press the home button.
One of the main selling points for the nook is that color touchscreen, and I found it to be a joy to use. I jumped right in and was able to use the nook instantly, without any coaching from the Barnes & Noble employee guarding the demo unit. Perhaps that is due to my previous e-reader device experience, but it seems to me that anyone could pick up the nook and start using it immediately.
The color screen clearly presents options such as The Daily, where you’ll get updates from B&N as well as new issues of newspapers and magazines to which you’ve subscribed, as well as My Library, where you’ll find all of your books. If you have lots of electronic books, you’ll be glad to know that you can filter, sort by author, title, or date added, and search e-book titles to find exactly what you want to read.
I didn’t experience any unexplained sluggishness or lag while navigating the device, and didn’t have any trouble figuring out the interface. The menus are clear and easy to understand, with big arrows that show you when further options are available. If you want to go back, just tap the circle on the right side of the screen. The only slight concern I could come up with after thirty minutes of use is that scrolling up and down through the menus sometimes requires careful attention, because the color LCD isn’t very tall. I found it best to use a firm (not hard!) and deliberate touch, and after a couple of minutes I was navigating like a pro.
Of course this requires more testing, but there weren’t any glaring red flags that suggested major problems. It is also important to note that the nook can be updated over-the-air, so it is likely that users will see some bug fixes and new features as time goes on.
The easiest way to get books is to purchase them from B&N.com, either on the device itself or on your computer; purchased books will automatically download to your device. I was not able to test the on-device purchase option because there was no account set up for the demo device. You can also load books acquired from other sources, though content not purchased directly from Barnes & Noble must either be transferred via USB or “side-loaded” onto a microSD card.
I was not able to test the promised eReader/Fictionwise support, but it is mentioned in the official nook user manual that was preloaded on the device. All personal documents, including PDFs and legacy eReader/Fictionwise content, as well as ePub books must be loaded onto a microSD card. (Strangely the nook does not support plain text documents, though I’m sure enterprising users will be able to get around that limitation in the future.)
Hierarchy on the memory card is not important — the files can be placed in any directory you desire, though that hierarchy will NOT show up in the document listing on the device. If you transfer anything via USB, the files must be placed in the My Documents folder on the nook. It is also important to note that you must manually update the content listing on the nook; it’s a simple process that will add all files on the microSD card to the content listing on the device.
It is also important to note that however much folks might hate it, DRM is part of the story. Those who have read eReader books before know what I’m talking about here; when you first access an eReader book you have to “unlock” it by entering your full name and credit card number, as used when the book was purchased. This will also be necessary on the nook, though the user guide states that this should be a one-time process that you complete when you first set up the device, and should not be necessary every single time you open a book. This is good news for folks who have a lot of legacy eReader/Fictionwise content, as early speculation about whether or not those titles would be supported seemed to revolve around the DRM issue.
The ability to lend ebooks to your family and friends is another one of the nook’s unique features, and there has been some confusion about this aspect of the device. LendMe allows you to lend books to anyone you desire for up to 14 days; you are not able to read the title yourself during that period of time, and after that the book automatically comes back to your library. The receiver is not required to have an actual nook device; they can also download the free B&N eReader software for a variety of platforms, including iPhone/iPod Touch, BlackBerry, and PC/Mac computers.
Contrary to initial reports, you can lend a single ebook to multiple people in sequence; this is not a “once and done” feature as has been previously reported. That said, however, some publishers are opting out of the LendMe feature in much the same way that some of them have opted out of the Text-to-Speech feature on the Kindle 2. At this time there is no way to know whether or not you can lend a particular e-book title, at least from looking at the B&N web site. I assume that lendable and non-lendable books may be identified as such on the nook, or perhaps the individual e-book pages will be updated with that information on either the on-device store or at B&N.com.
Another one of the advantages of the nook is the ability to browse the full text of e-books when you use your nook inside a Barnes & Noble store, as well as receive special offers and free e-books. Unfortunately I was not able to test this feature, because it will not be implemented in the stores until sometime later this month.
This is a smart move on the company’s part, because it will tend to drive additional traffic to the stores, but it isn’t a free-for-all either: B&N recently announced that the feature would be limited to one hour per title in a 24-hour period. Only time will tell if that means you can read one e-book for an hour and then switch to another for an hour when your time with the first book is up, or whether it will actually be limited to one hour total per day.
There are still several questions that cannot be answered after such a brief hands-on experience. I was not able to test any of the highlighting and annotation features, though from the way they are described on B&N.com it sounds like they will be largely similar to what is offered by the Amazon Kindle.
It is also not possible to draw any conclusions about battery life at this point; Barnes & Noble says that the nook should last for ten days on a single charge.
The same is true of the music player function, as there weren’t any MP3 files preloaded on the demo device I was using.
The nook also supports JPG, GIF, PNG, and BMP image files, which you can use to personalize the screen saver function on the device, but I was unable to test that feature, too.
In a word, I really like the Barnes & Noble nook, both as a standalone device and in comparison to the Amazon Kindle 2.
Some of the highlights for me personally are eReader and ePub support, and the color LCD touchscreen that doubles as a navigation system and virtual keyboard when necessary. In many other respects it is very similar to the Kindle 2, and it’s the same price, so much of the purchase decision is based on personal preference.
My pre-ordered unit should arrive within the next couple of days, so stay tuned for a full review. In the mean time, there are nook demo units in many Barnes & Noble stores as of today, if you want to look at one in person.