Taking a look at Nook

Nook, the new Barnes & Noble e-book reader, is a direct attack on Amazon's Kindle. What are its advantages and disadvantages, and how well will it do in the market?

I'm very impressed by the Nook, Barnes & Noble's new e-book reader. It's clear B&N has studied Sony's Reader and Amazon's Kindle very carefully.

The Nook has almost all of the major features of both product lines, plus a few more, with few competitive disadvantages. B&N has also followed Amazon's lead on support services. The Nook has a very good online e-book store as well as applications to support e-book reading on Macs, Windows machines, and smartphones.

Barnes & Noble

The Nook doesn't ship until the end of November, but here's what I found most significant from the announcement and the pages at nook.com:

Industrial design
I think the Nook is attractive and well-designed. It looks better than the Kindle 2, but not as good as Sony's Reader Touch Edition, which offers a larger screen in a smaller form factor. Also, Sony's forthcoming Reader Daily Edition is only slightly larger than the Nook, but offers a much larger screen.

Secondary color display
This feature surprised me. It seems expensive and insufficiently functional for what must be a significant added cost. The low resolution of this display (480 x 144, according to a CNET blog post ) means it won't be useful for much beyond the basic user-interface features B&N has already described: book covers, menus, and a keyboard for note-taking. (Although I should note for the record that while B&N says "Its full-color touchscreen encourages you to bookmark, add notes, and highlight passages," I haven't found a photo on the company Web site depicting the virtual keyboard shown in some of the pre-release images. Perhaps that's one of the features still under development.)

By comparison, the secondary color screen built into the Alex e-book reader from Spring Design, shown in another recent CNET story , is large enough to be useful. Unfortunately, it's also large enough to be very much in the way, leading to an awkward device. Spring Design and B&N need to make up their minds-- are they making e-book readers or something else?

Wi-Fi and book lending
These features seem to have attracted a lot of attention, but in my opinion they don't add much value to the user. Wi-Fi sounds good, but 3G networking is more widely available and plenty fast enough for the kind of content the Nook supports. Like the color display, however, it adds cost and consumes power.

B&N says that "when you use your nook in a Barnes & Noble Bookstore, you can access exclusive content and special offers." That sounds more like a value for B&N: another way to sell things to Nook users.

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One thing I'm curious about here, though: did the Wi-Fi feature make it easier for B&N to negotiate the 3G deal with AT&T by shifting some of the bandwidth demand to home and office networks?

The ability to lend Nook books to friends sounds like a well-meant attempt to emulate a key advantage of paper books, but the 14-day term turns a friendly offer into a kind of burden. Again, as a sales tool, this feature is more of a value to Barnes & Noble than to the users. What the e-book market really needs is an implementation of the First-Sale Doctrine, the ability to permanently transfer e-books to friends. I'm willing to accept significant limitations on this ability so that free second-hand e-books won't destroy the commercial e-book market, and I can think of several ways to solve that problem--but lending is not the answer.

Price
The $259 price is a very good deal for what you get. Many experts have speculated that Amazon subsidizes the price of the Kindle. If that's so, then B&N must be looking at a much larger subsidy for the Nook.

The extra color display, though small, must add at least $20 to the price of the machine. The Wi-Fi feature probably accounts for another $10. All of that comes out of B&N's bottom line.

Larger e-book store
Barnes & Noble says it offers over a million e-books, newspapers, and magazines. Amazon claims over 350,000. About half of the B&N total represents free books, mostly old public-domain works from Google Books, but that still leaves more books than Amazon's whole collection, which itself includes a lot of free and public-domain works.

Expandable memory
I have no idea why the Kindle 2 doesn't support any kind of memory expansion. To my way of thinking, this is a bizarre oversight on Amazon's part.

The Nook has a few missing features, but nothing crucial:

No Web browsing
B&N's deal with AT&T for 3G wireless service at no additional cost may not be as good as the deal Amazon made with Sprint. Amazon got permission to offer "experimental" Web browsing and Wikipedia access. Even though these features don't work very well because of the E-Ink display technology, their absence gives the Nook a disadvantage.

No text to speech
But since the Nook has everything needed to implement this feature--audio output, general-purpose audio support in the Android operating system, etc.--I expect this feature will show up before long.

No international access
Same situation here--and the Nook has the advantage of using the GSM-based AT&T network which is inherently compatible with most cell phone networks around the world.

No large-screen version
I expect it's just a matter of time before B&N introduces a full-page device to compete with the Kindle DX. (In the meantime, however, I wish they'd skipped the color display and used the space to support the 7" display found on the Sony Reader Daily Edition.)

Bottom line, I think the Nook is a fine product and should be very successful. It's an impressively mature offering from a company just entering the market. Aside from the few missing features, I think Amazon would have been proud to offer the Nook itself as the Kindle 3. Also, Barnes & Noble is in a position to compete more directly with Amazon than Sony has been able to do, which will help accelerate the growth of the e-book market.

I don't think I'll get a Nook myself unless some business-related reason pops up, such as competitive-analysis consulting. I have pretty much stopped using my Sony Reader, but I use my Kindle all the time. It accounts for about half of all the books I read, and I read a lot. Adding another device to my collection would probably result in two of them sitting idle.

Anyone considering the purchase of an e-book reader, however, would be well-advised to take a close look at the Nook, the Kindle 2, and Sony's Readers. They're all pretty good, and the choice among them will boil down to minor differences and personal preferences.

Correction 12:20 p.m. PDT Thursday: This story initially misstated where the Nook's Wi-Fi feature will work at launch. It will work anywhere, not just at Barnes & Noble stores as incorrectly stated by B&N representatives at the launch event.

About the author

    Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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