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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

June 20, 2011 at 9:45 AM

Review: B&N’s simplified new Nook

Newer, faster phones and tablets are appearing every month, even every week, it seems.

But if you spend too much time grazing through this multicore, high-def smorgasbord, everything blurs together on your plate. The phones look like tablets, the tablets look like each other, and they all have the same basic set of apps.

Maybe that’s why I like the new Nook reader from Barnes & Noble, a squarish puck of an e-reader that went on sale earlier this month for $139.

For starters, it doesn’t look like yet another touch-screen Web tablet.

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It’s a single-purpose reading device with a stripped down interface, which is kind of refreshing. It also helps stratify the jumble of tablets available nowadays.

The Nook is among a batch of high-quality, $100 to $130 reading devices with 6-inch screens and Wi-Fi connections. Others include Amazon.com’s latest Kindle and the Kobo eReader Touch that’s allied with Borders.

From $180 to $380 are readers with larger screens and 3G wireless service. Then from $499 to $900 are color Web tablets like the Apple iPad and Android-based devices. By fall there should be more glimpses of tabletlike Windows 8 PCs that will probably cost $700 to $1,500 when they go on sale.

As these categories and device capabilities become clearer, people won’t wonder as much about whether they need a Kindle or an iPad. They may decide they need both — an e-reader for books on the go, and a color tablet for magazines, the Web and other digital media.

That’s what Barnes & Noble is counting on, at least. Its lineup now includes the $139 Nook and a $249 color version that runs Web apps.

“We think people are going to have a Nook Color and a Nook,” said Michelle Warvel, creative director at Barnes & Noble.

That influenced the design of the new Nook, which has fewer features than the original, which tried to do everything at once. Released in 2009, it was a hybrid with an e-Ink display above a narrow color touch-screen.

Now, “our goal is to have a portfolio of products,” Warvel explained. She said the simpler Nook was designed for the “pure reader.”

Amazon probably is going in the same direction. It’s expected to release color Web tablets based on Google’s Android software later this year. They’ll tap its Kindle bookstore and online music and video services, and complement its black and white Kindles, which will continue to have superior battery life and readability.

This must be what it felt like to be car shopping 100 years ago. At first there were all sorts of crazy horseless carriages, but soon it settled into sedans, coupes, trucks and motorcycles.

The new Nook is a cycle in this lineup. It’s about the size of an outstretched hand, weighs 7.5 ounces and has a ridged, rubberized back.

You turn pages by tapping a side of the screen, by using a swipe gesture or by pressing hard buttons on either side of its rubbery frame.

The Nook is easy to hold and feels tough enough to toss into a bag or a backseat. I found that it didn’t suffer after I carried it in a back pocket and sat upon it repeatedly.

The trade-off for this portability is that the screen is pretty small. It displays only a few paragraphs at a time, which is OK for books but awful if you’re trying to get through a newspaper or magazine.

For reading books, it’s on par with the latest Kindle, which has the same e-Ink “Pearl” display technology and screen size. Both claim battery life of up to two months on a single charge.

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A key difference is the Nook’s touch-screen. Amazon executives have said in the past that they haven’t used touch-screens because they require extra layers of material, which obscures the text a bit. I bet, though, Amazon will eventually add it.

The Nook’s text quality was fine, but sometimes letters seemed a bit raggedy, creating a pulp-fiction effect that I kind of liked.

Warvel said B&N extended the number of pages displayed before the screen refreshes itself, a process that creates a flashing effect.

Users of the first Nook were distracted by flashes between pages so the new model, with standard text, flashes every five or six pages.

Having a touch-screen means the Nook doesn’t need a physical keypad like the Kindle — it just displays one on the screen when needed — and can have a smaller case.

But it takes a little getting used to the Nook’s mix of controls. It’s also not obvious that you can do things like tap the center of the screen to call up controls for font size.

It’s also easy to hold or tap too long and zoom past multiple pages. A few times I also had trouble unlocking the device, which you do by sliding a finger across the bottom of the screen. During a week of testing the device froze once; I had to reboot by holding the power button on the back.

There’s no browser, but the Nook has social-networking features so you can share quotes from books with friends on Twitter and Facebook. There’s no camera, so it’s probably safe for randy politicians. You can also “lend” certain books to friends with Nooks.

The device is compatible with digital books loaned by some libraries, including Seattle’s. But it’s a multistep process — you connect the Nook to a PC and transfer books via a USB cable. I tried this with several books and never found them on the Nook.

Another concern with e-readers in general is how they lock you into a particular service. If you’ve bought digital books for the Kindle, you can’t read them on the Nook and vice versa.

Frankly, I still prefer actual books. It’s easier to flip back and forth through real pages, which are also more relaxing after working with a screen all day.

But the avid female readers in my house took to the Nook like none of the other tablets I’ve brought home. And pretty soon I was able to lose myself in a novel on the little gadget — so I stopped wondering where the library books went.

Comments | More in Reviews | Topics: Amazon.com, barnes & noble, digital books

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