Review: The Barnes & Noble Nook

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Short Version: After a few days with the new Nook I was hooked. It is a pure reading experience condensed into a device the size of a paperback and with a super-crisp e-ink touchscreen. The Nook is, in short, the best e-reader from a major player I’ve used thus far and is well ahead of its competitors in terms of usability and form factor.

Features:

  • 6-inch Touchscreen
  • 2 month battery life
  • 2 GB memory
  • MicroSD card slot
  • $139

Pros:

  • Thin and light
  • Responsive touchscreen
  • Allows you to focus on reading

Cons:

  • No browser/apps/MP3 player
  • Sometimes turns on accidentally
  • Buttons not intuitive

 

I’m an absolute proponent of the ebook. The standard, paper book will soon be extinct, a pricey relic for collectors who cling to outdated media as a way to preserve a past that, in the end, died far too late and still shambles on at increasingly unprofitable book “stores” where the final exemplars of a dead creed gather dust and cower at the might of the digital offspring that their creators wrought.

So that’s how I feel about ebooks. Now, on to how I feel about the Nook. As we all know, the media is the message. Long form writing is best consumed on a portable device – they still haven’t cracked extreme reading on desktops or laptops and I doubt they ever will. For all the web pages I scroll through to consume bite-sized content, I still revert to ereading devices to crack open Farewell, My Lovely.

So the three pillars of a good ereader are portability, readability, and battery life. The new Nook covers all three of those points with aplomb.

The new device has a six-inch screen and consists mostly of bezel. There are four navigational buttons, two on each side, and a main “Nook” button at the bottom. There is a power button on the back of the device. I could not find a reset button (more on that later) and the device has an IR touchscreen that requires no pressure to activate.

The screen is “pearl” white and the e-ink that supports 800×600 pixel resolution and 16-level grayscale. It weighs a mere 7.5 ounces and seems as light and comfortable as an old paperback book. There is a small flap that reveals a MicroSD slot. It has 2GB of onboard memory.

The battery lasts for two months although, for some reason, my device turned on in my bag, the battery ran down and then it fell into a deep sleep. I thought it had crashed – there was no indication that the battery was dead – and so I tried and tried to restart it with various key combinations, including pressing in on what turned out to be a small LED at the bottom that, in fact, looked like a tiny reset hole. This provided a bit of frustration.

However, I did notice that the battery held a good charge for more than a week, far longer than any of my other ereading devices.

Wi-Fi works well and you get free access at AT&T hotspots and at B&N stores. There is no browser (or MP3 player) but the Nook does allow you to enter login data for protected hotspots like those found in hotels and airports.

UPDATE – There is a browser – you type a URL into the search field. Mea culpa.

The best thing about the Nook is that it is a nearly seamless reading experience. If you log into your various social networks and B&N account (it supports Twitter and Facebook along with Gmail contacts) you can share your reading habits with friends, recommending books to others and lending them right on the “start” page. You can also share clips with friends on Twitter and Facebook by selecting a short phrase by swiping your finger over the screen.

If you just want to buy books, you can do that too. Just enter your credit card number and start buying hundreds of books – as I have – or upload your own epub titles from your computer. The Nook appears as a hard drive when connected to a Mac or PC and you can simply drag book files to it. It supports PDFs, epubs, and some images that you can set as “wallpaper” for your Nook.


The actual ereading experience is clean and nearly seamless. You can swipe across the screen (or tap) to move forward and back or you can press the side buttons. The top buttons on either side go forward and the bottom buttons go back. You can swap these buttons, but the buttons are not intuitive. I would have put one button on either side and called it a day. Changing the font and page style is also unintuitive. Instead of tapping the “Nook” button (which brings up the store, your library, and settings) you have to tap the page numbers. This brings up a mini window that allows you to choose font size and style as well as line spacing and tabs. You can even set it to an extra large size for older eyes.

The new Nook does not support B&N’s animated story books for kids but you can read thousands of young adult titles in the Nook store.

Bottom Line
So why do I like the Nook so much? It removes all the cruft from the reading experience. The device is extremely easy to use and could easily replace my iPad as my primary e-reader, especially for reading outdoors. The Nook lets books shine – there is nothing to distract the reader from his or her appointed task. You just read.

Many complained about the lack of an MP3 player on the new Nook but I think the Nook is fine without them (and presumably B&N can add them later). Everything the Nook does have it needs and there isn’t much more I’d like to do on the device, especially distract myself with games like Sudoku or, heaven forefend, Angry Birds.

Who is this for? This is for folks who want to read. This device is great for kids, adults, and the aged. It is a great all-around reader and, because it is affordable, it makes for an excellent impulse buy for those still on the ereader fence. It is a great e-reader.

The Nook and devices like it will save – and change the publishing industry and, more important, will affect the way we read for centuries to come. This is a moment of absolute shift, with old paradigms dropping out from under us. I see devices like the Nook as tools that will encourage book discovery and, if priced properly, reduce book piracy in the way the iTunes made it “cool” to pay for music. I’m not naive enough to believe that Nook users won’t pirate books and I think the built-in store system is useful and invisible enough to make the purchasing process quite comfortable.

In the end I think each new iteration of the Nook and the Kindle (and, to a lesser degree, the Kobo) will be the “best” of breed at launch. As each new device surfaces, manufacturers will perfect these devices as we move inexorably towards a paperless future. Rather than say this is a war between Kindle and Barnes & Noble, we must term this a battle between the old guard and the new, paper books and ebooks. And, clearly, ebooks are winning.

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