From a user-interface standpoint, Barnes & Noble doesn't appear to have emulated the exact look of the Nook Color's interface, though the two interfaces certainly share some design traits. We get the feeling the designers married the look and feel of the company's redesigned Web site with the Nook Color's interface, and it largely lives up to its billing as the "Simple Touch Reader."
Overall, the UI seemed quite straightforward, and the touch-screen interface really lends itself to e-reading and performing such functions as highlighting text and adding notes via the responsive virtual keyboard. You can simply tap-and-hold on a word to bring up the built-in dictionary and navigate through menus without using the little directional button to scroll through and press the button to make a selection. (Note: We had to consult the onboard user manual to figure out how to highlight a sentence, but had no problem finding the particular section in the manual after we keyed "highlight" into the search bar.)
In case you don't know about Neonode's "zForce", it's the same technology that first appeared in Sony's latest generation e-readers, and it works really well. The basic idea behind it is that small infrared sensors are built into the inside of the border around the screen and can sense where you finger is touching on the screen. In fact, you don't really have to touch the screen and can let you finger hover just a hair over the screen to get a response.
Overall, the touch screen is a pleasure to use, but we did experience one period where we noticed significant ghosting--the previous screen's image still visible after it refreshed a new page. The problem persisted for a couple of minutes, but once we cycled the power, we were unable to repeat the issue. If it's common, we assume that B&N will fix it with upcoming software updates.
One of the big features that Barnes & Noble is touting is the new Nook's battery life, which is rated at up to two months with the Wi-Fi always turned off. The Kindle is also now rated at two months battery life, but Barnes & Noble still maintains that the Nook offers double the battery life of the Kindle, based on the number of page turns between charges. We'll have more on battery life as we spend more time with the device, but for now it's safe to say the Nook's battery life is very good, especially if you keep the wireless off (the Wi-Fi connectivity is the biggest power drain).
Barnes & Noble is also highlighting some of the social elements built in to the device via the Nook Friends feature, which provides you with the framework for creating or joining a digital book club that can be as large as you like.
If you do have some Nook Friends, their book recommendations appear at the bottom of your Home screen in the "What to read next section." Along with sharing exactly what you're reading between a set list of friends, you can make available and request to read lendable titles from members of your group (alas, publishers determine which e-books are lendable, and lendable e-books can only be lent out once for 14 days). The new Nook, like the Nook Color and Kindle, also has the requisite Twitter and Facebook hooks that allow you to share what you're reading and even quickly post highlighted passages.
What's missing? Well, as we said, there's officially no Web browser (though an easy hack provides access to an) and this Nook doesn't do apps like the Nook Color does (we wish there was an e-mail app, which would certainly be possible to add). It can read PDF files but not Word files. There's also no audio playback available--that means no MP3 music, and no audiobooks. Furthermore, this model is a Wi-Fi-only affair; there's no 3G wireless option available.
No, this is a dedicated e-reader, plain and simple, that's designed for reading e-books, periodicals (magazines and newspapers), and PDF documents. If you desire something more functional, well, Barnes & Noble will certainly be happy to steer you to the Nook Color, which has a Web browser and is a much better PDF reader with the help of a downloadable Nook app. (Note: As a PDF reader, the new Nook allows you to bump the font sizes up and down but not move a page around and zoom in on sections like you can with something like the iPad 2 or Nook Color. The Kobo Touch Reader has more PDF-viewing capabilities, including zoom, if that's what you're looking for in a smaller e-ink e-reader).
As we said at the start, the big question is whether this e-reader is better than the Kindle. Better is a relative term, and since both e-readers have the same Pearl e-ink screen and display text in very similar fashion, and while you get less page flashing with the Nook, the actual reading experience isn't all that different. That said, the Nook has a more compact design, and the touch-screen navigation just feels more natural and smooth after you deal with a touch-screen smartphone all day.
So, yes, as an actual piece of hardware, the new Nook appears to be the superior device, and if given the choice between the new Nook at $139 and the Kindle Wi-Fi at $139, the Nook looks to be the better buy.
However, things get a little trickier when you talk about the Kindle with Special Offers at $114 and the new Nook at $139. It's only $25, but $25 makes a difference for some folks, and the Kindle still is an excellent e-reader and easy to use, no touch screen and all (as noted, despite having larger dimensions, the Kindle, at 8.5 ounces, only weighs an ounce more than the new Nook).
Kindle comparisons aside, the new Nook is a major advancement over the original Nook. In many ways, it's exactly the e-reader we've been waiting for and was hinted at when Sony licensed Neonode's infrared touch technology to finally solve the problem of trying to craft a touch-screen layer on top of an e-ink screen (the extra layer reduced contrast, and the touch screen on early Sony Readers wasn't as responsive as it should have been).
After reviewing the latest-generation Sony Readers, we'd muse how great it would be if the same reader had a Barnes & Noble or Amazon interface and shopping experience and cost about $50 less. Well, the new Nook is that device, and for the moment, it can lay claim to some real advantages over the Kindle and perhaps even the title of best e-ink reader on the market.
Of course, how long those advantages last will depend upon when Amazon releases its own touch-screen e-ink Kindle, which we suspect will arrive as soon as September.