B&N delivers meaty Nook update, teases iPad app

Barnes & Noble's third firmware upgrade for its Nook e-book reader offers new features including wireless streaming of e-books in stores, two basic Android games, and a Web browser.

Nook e-reader
Barnes & Noble's new Read in Store feature is part of the Nook's firmware 1.3 update. David Carnoy/CNET

When Barnes & Noble launched the Nook e-book reader late last year, the company said it would offer unique features such as e-book lending, free in-store streaming of many titles, and Android apps that would run on the color touch screen at the bottom of the device. Well, after releasing two smaller firmware updates that mainly focused on fixing bugs, improving performance, and tweaking the user interface, Barnes & Noble has finally rolled out a more substantial update that includes the extra features it originally promised would set the Nook apart from Amazon's Kindle.

While the lending feature has been available for several months, one of the key additions is the Read in Store wireless streaming feature. Once the new firmware is installed (version 1.3 should be automatically pushed to your device once you connect to a Wi-Fi network and check for new content in your library), you'll be able to read certain books from the company's e-book catalog free of charge on your Nook when you're in a Barnes & Noble store (free Wi-Fi is offered in stores). As previously reported, you can only access a title for up to an hour per day, but you could return on subsequent days to continue reading. Alternatively, you could also just sit in a store and read a hard copy of the book at your leisure, but that's so old-school.

Barnes & Noble didn't specify just how many books would be available for free streaming, but company reps said that at launch content would be available from all the major publishers and that some bestsellers would be on the list. (We'll be checking just how much content is actually available in the next few days).

Sudoku on the Nook. Barnes & Noble

Additionally, Barnes & Noble has added two Android games to the Nook--chess and sudoku--along with a Web browser that's labeled with the "beta" tag.

It's also important to note that because the device can now access the Web, you can log in to Wi-Fi networks that require authentication via a Web page. Nook owners have been asking for the ability to access more public Wi-Fi hot spots since the e-reader's launch. The firmware is also supposed to fix some outstanding bugs, including a freezing problem that affected certain units, and to speed up page turns (yes, they do seem faster).

Here's the quick rundown of what's new in v1.3:

  • Read in Store wireless streaming of certain e-book titles
  • Web browser
  • Two Android games (chess, sudoku)
  • Bug fixes (allegedly addresses freezing problem with certain units)
  • User interface and performance tweaks (faster page turns)

In advance of the update, we got a demo of the Read in Store feature at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan, and the streaming appeared to work just fine. While only e-books will be available for launch, company reps said the ability to stream periodicals would be added in the near future.

The demo was conducted in an in-store Barnes & Noble Cafe, and a couple of tables away from us, a patron was flipping through a few magazines he'd borrowed from the nearby magazine rack as he sipped coffee. At another table, a customer was using B&N's free Wi-Fi to surf the Web on his iPad, which begged the question, when would we see a new B&N eReader iPad app?

The answer is May, though no specific date was given. Barnes & Noble reps said the new iPad app is completely redesigned from the ground up. Interestingly, the company is also working on a totally new iPhone app, but it will come out after the iPad app and be offered as a separate download for iPhone and iPod Touch users. Unlike Amazon's Kindle iPhone/iPad app, the B&N eReader will not be a universal app (you'll have to download the specific version for the specific device).

All in all, this is good news for Nook owners, as the device they bought starts to fulfill more of its potential and works out the kinks that were highlighted in many early reviews. We're still waiting for a weather app, but at least the games, as basic as they are, show some of the possibilities. If you're wondering exactly how the whole gaming thing works, you use the touch screen to move your pieces in chess, and those moves are reflected on the larger playing board on the e-ink display. It's a little awkward at first playing in this manner--especially if you're used to using a large touch screen device like the iPad--but you get used to it after a bit.

As for surfing the Internet on the Nook, like the Kindle's basic browser, the Nook's new browser also has serious limitations but it manages to deliver a better overall experience and is more usable, largely because you're on a faster Wi-Fi network instead of 3G (the Nook offers both 3G and WiFi, but browsing obviously works better over WiFi). You navigate a page using the small touch screen and tap links to branch off to other pages. The larger E Ink screen takes a moment to refresh and often doesn't display content quite correctly, but like the Kindle's browser, this one isn't meant to compete with the browsers on notebook computers or the iPad.

In conjunction with the update, Barnes & Noble announced a "major" ad campaign for the Nook that reps said would include the company's first television spot in a decade (you can watch the spot here).

Like Amazon, Barnes & Noble doesn't report how many e-readers it's sold, but reps said the number continues to exceed projections. At $259, the Nook carries the same price tag as the Kindle. However, the big, looming question is whether Amazon will lower the price of the Kindle to counter the arrival of the iPad, which certainly has had an impact on the e-reader market. For now anyway, Barnes & Noble is sticking to $259 and hoping the new features and the ability for customers to have hands-on contact with the device in stores will translate into a competitive advantage.

Note to Nook owners: Barnes & Noble says that going to My Library and checking for new content when connected to WiFi should trigger the update. If it doesn't, you can try again later or download the update manually (there's a tutorial on B&N's support page). We'll be updating our review after we evaluate the update more fully. Please let us know if you're having any issues with the new firmware, as well as what you do and don't like about it.

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