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Hands-on with new Nook: Better than the Kindle?

Barnes & Noble has officially unveiled the second-generation Nook, a touch-screen e-ink e-reader that the company is branding as the "Simple Touch eReader." CNET's David Carnoy gets up close and personal with it.

The new touch-screen Nook ships on June 10 and costs $139. Sarah Tew/CNET

Note: CNET's full review of the new Nook is up now.

The day after Kobo served up a new $129.99 touch-screen e-reader, Barnes & Noble, as expected, unveiled its own touch-screen e-ink Nook, which it's branding as "The Simple eReader."

We had a very good idea what the new device would be prior to the launch, but before we get to the initial impressions, here's a quick rundown of the new Nook's key specs:

  • Touch screen with Neonode "responsive" zForce infrared touch technology
  • 6-inch Pearl e-ink screen (same screen as Kindle's e-ink screen)
  • Wi-Fi wireless connectivity (802.11 b/g/n)
  • 2GB of onboard storage
  • 800MHz Texas Instruments OMAP 3 processor
  • MicroSD card expansion slot (add up to 32GB card)
  • Battery charge lasts up to two months (battery is not user replaceable)
  • Runs on modified version of Android 2.1 (no Android apps available, however)
  • Supports EPUB, PDF, Adobe DRM (supports e-book borrowing from your local library)
  • Reads JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP graphic files
  • Dimensions: 6.5 x 5 x 0.47 inches
  • Weight: 7.48 ounces (212 grams)
  • Comes in black only
  • Price: $139
  • Ships on June 10 (available for preorder now)

The first thing you notice about the new Nook is that it's nice and compact, and it looks shorter and squatter than the Kindle. The designers also coated the device with something called soft-touch paint, which gives it a nice, smooth rubberized feel, but this type of finish does show finger smudges.

Now the reps at Barnes & Noble didn't let me poke around the screen with my finger (I could hold the device but I wasn't supposed to touch the screen; that act was reserved for Barnes & Noble reps), though I did inadvertently touch the screen a few times.

All in all, it seems responsive and really pretty zippy for an e-ink device. Barnes & Noble has made a big effort to reduce the ghosting effect of e-ink when a page is refreshed. It says it's reduced "flashing" (when you turn a page) by 80 percent, and from the demos I saw, the engineers appear to have made some significant strides in that department (you can see what I'm talking about in the video below).

The device isn't as zippy as an iPad 2, but it was noticeably more responsive than the new Kobo WiFi Touch Edition. To be fair, Kobo reps did say they were continuing to tweak the device as the company gears up to ship the product in June, so we'll wait and see before passing final judgment, but for now, the new Nook has the speed advantage.

The two e-readers use different processors--the new Nook uses a Texas Instruments 800MHz OMAP 3 processor, and the Kobo is the first to use the Freescale i.MX508 processor. Barnes & Noble President Jamie Iannone told me that the company had already built the Nook and Nook Color on the TI chips, so it had decided to stick with TI as it developed the new Nook e-ink model.

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. In the limited time I saw the new Nook in action, I got the feeling the designers had married the look and feel of the company's redesigned Web site with the Nook Color's interface.

Overall, the UI seemed pretty elegant, and the touch-screen interface really lends itself to e-reading. You can simply tap on words to get a definition in the built-in dictionary and navigate through menus without using a little directional button to scroll through and press the button to make a selection.

In case you don't know about Neonode's "zForce" infrared touch technology, it's the same technology that first appeared in Sony's latest generation e-readers, and works really well (you can read about it more detail here). 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.

The new Nook is a shade heavier than the Kobo Touch Edition and a tad wider (they're both the same height). 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. That's double the Kindle 3's battery life.

Barnes & Noble is also highlighting some of the social elements built-in to the device via the Nook Friends feature. It allows you to share what you're reading between a set list of friends 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, has the requisite Twitter and Facebook hooks that allow you to share what you're reading and even quickly post highlighted passages.

The back of the new Nook (click to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

What's missing? Well, we didn't notice a Web browser and this Nook doesn't do apps like the Nook Color does. It can read PDF files but not Word files. MP3 (music) isn't part of this Nook's feature set either. It's a dedicated e-reader, plain and simple, that's designed for reading e-books, periodicals (magazines and newspapers), and PDF documents.

The big question, of course, 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 (the text looks essentially the same on the page, though you do get some additional font choices with the Nook), the actual reading experience isn't all that different. However, the Nook has a clearly smaller 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 (despite having larger dimensions, the Kindle, at 8.5 ounces, only weighs an ounce more than the new Nook).

I asked Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch about whether the company would consider doing a Nook with Special Offers, and his answer was no--or more specifically, there will be "No ads on the Nook"--so don't count on a new, cheaper version of this device arriving this year.

Kindle comparisons aside, the new Nook is a major advancement over the original Nook, which Barnes & Noble is closing out at $119 (Wi-Fi-only) and $169 (3G+Wi-Fi). 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 appears to be that device. Now we're just waiting for Amazon to do its touch-screen e-ink Kindle, which we suspect will arrive early this fall.

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