Editors' note (May 24, 2011): Barnes & Noble has announced that the second-generation e-ink Nook will be available as of June 10, 2011. It features a touch-screen, and retails for $139. The first-generation model reviewed here will be discontinued immediately. Remaining inventory will be sold off at closeout prices of $119 (Wi-Fi-only) and $169 (3G+Wi-Fi). The Nook Color remains in the line at a price of $249.
Editors' note: This review has been updated extensively to account for changes in the Nook's features and performance resulting from firmware upgrades on April 23, 2010, and November 22, 2010, as well as the availability of the third-generation Kindle and the Nook Color. Note that user reviews prior to April 23 and November 22 reflect the earlier respective versions of the firmware.
The Barnes & Noble Nook, the first Android-powered e-book reader, has had an interesting, if somewhat tumultuous, history. When it was first unveiled in the fall of 2009, a lot of people were excited because it appeared to offer some key competitive advantages over the version of the Amazon Kindle e-reader that was available at the time.
Unfortunately, like a lot of first-generation devices, the Nook had its share of technical and usability issues. Thankfully, Barnes & Noble stuck with the device--and the early adopters--and delivered a series of free software upgrades that has improved the device considerably.
Anyone buying a Nook now will find a product that's significantly improved from the one that was first released a year earlier. Perhaps the most welcome software improvement is significantly speedier page turns. The screen refresh when moving from page to page is much quicker, nearly matching the refresh rates of the latest Kindle. The Nook also added a laundry list of interface and usability improvements, such as the ability to organize your book collection by category, or "shelves," as it's called on the device.
Does the updated Nook beat the latest Kindle? From a design standpoint, no. The third-generation Amazon Kindle is lighter, thinner, and simply feels a little better to hold in your hand. It also offers double the battery life, more internal memory (4GB versus 2GB), and a slightly better, next-generation "Pearl" e-ink screen. That's why the Kindle is currently our Editors' Choice for e-ink e-readers. But that said, the latest software updates make the e-ink Nook a better device than it's ever been before. Moreover, the Nook offers some features not found on the Kindle. And for some people those features may tip the scales in favor of the Nook. In other words, the Nook should definitely remain under consideration when you're shopping for e-ink e-book readers. The decision may come down to a personal preference, such as how you feel about the color navigation screen versus the hard keyboard found on the Kindle.
As of November 2010, there are three Nook models:
Nook (3G/Wi-Fi) ($199): This is the original version of the Nook, which offers a 6-inch e-ink screen and built-in 3G cellular and Wi-Fi wireless.
Nook (Wi-Fi) ($149): This version (reviewed here) drops the 3G wireless found in the original Nook, and it weighs a tad less. It's the most affordable Nook model available, costing 25 percent less than the 3G version.
Nook Color (Wi-Fi) ($249): Unlike the e-ink Nook models, the Nook Color offers a 7-inch color LCD touch screen. It's really a completely different product than the earlier Nooks, and it earned a CNET Editors' Choice as the best LCD e-book reader under $250.
Like many e-ink e-book readers, the Barnes & Noble Nook offers a 6-inch screen (600x800 pixels, 16 shades of gray). However, unlike the Kindle, it includes a separate color capacitive touch screen (144x480 pixels) that lets you navigate content and use a virtual keyboard for typing searches and annotations.
Put the Nook on top of the Kindle and you'll notice that the Nook is slightly bigger in terms of surface dimensions. It's also thicker. The Nook is 7.7 inches long by 4.9 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick, whereas the Kindle is 7.5 inches long by 4.8 inches wide by 0.34 inch thick. The Nook also weighs more at 11.2 ounces than the Kindle does at 8.7 ounces. Unlike the Kindle, the device's plastic back plate is removable and the lithium ion battery is replaceable (the microSD slot can also be accessed by removing the cover). On the Wi-Fi-only Nook, the back cover is white; on the Wi-Fi/3G version it's a putty color. Smartly, Barnes & Noble is offering back covers in different colors as optional accessories, along with various third-party protective cases (alas, no cover--not even a cheap neoprene one--ships with the device).
It's also worth noting that the Nook's off-white border is closer to gray than to white, and the finish is shiny (we prefer the Kindle's matte finish, but that's a small nitpick). The e-ink screen on the Nook looks very similar to that of the Kindle, though the Kindle's contrast is slightly better (the letters are a tad darker due to the Pearl e-ink screen). However, the lettering on the Nook comes across with sufficient contrast--no complaints there.
The color touch screen at the bottom of the device creates an interesting dynamic. For better or worse, since it's bright and vibrant when turned on, it makes the upper e-ink screen appear bland and dull. (E-ink screens are designed to appear paperlike and are purposely not backlit to reduce eyestrain when reading.) But the LCD is eye-catching and offers an extra bit of wow factor that's currently not present in the Kindle, or in any other competing e-book reader in this price range (the Alex eReader also features a second, color LCD, and is Android-powered, but it retails for $399).
Interface and usability
Using the touch-screen navigation pad does take some getting used to, particularly if you're accustomed to using a touch-screen phone like the iPhone. Your initial urge is to touch the e-ink part of the screen. (If touch-screen navigation is a must-have, opt instead for the Nook Color or a Sony Reader model.) Gradually, you'll get used to the concept of confining your touches to the screen at the bottom and the Nook logo that sits just above the screen. That Nook "button" serves as a home button that turns the color screen on when it's asleep; for energy-saving purposes, you can set the screen to turn off after 10, 30, or 60 seconds when not in use.
At first, you may find yourself muddling through the interface, stopping to figure out what button to push next to get to where you want to go. But with some practice, it starts to grow on you; we ended up liking it. (The interface has improved further with subsequent firmware updates, though it still has its share of quirks that can lead to moments of frustration.) Also, the ability to browse through color thumbnail images of books with a flick of your finger is appealing.
Even in its improved state, however, the navigation touch screen just won't measure up to the speed expectations you may have from an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android phone, or even the Nook Color.
Yes, the touch screen is more responsive than the comparatively laggy e-ink screen, and, yes, you can flip through your reading collection Cover Flow-style, but you're just not going to get that buttery smoothness you encounter on full touch-screen devices. There will be moments you'll wish the device was zippier.
True, the speed gripe is par for the course with e-ink-based e-book readers; all of them still stutter and flash when moving from page to page and generally have slow start-up times after a full shutdown (as the Nook does). However, the firmware upgrades have managed to fix earlier gripes about sluggish load times when opening books, and the Nook's latest 1.5 firmware upgrade (November 2010) speeds up page turns noticeably--our tests confirm the company's claims of a 50 percent speed boost.
Like the Kindle, the Nook has a built-in dictionary. The device lets you adjust font size while you're reading (extra-small, small, medium, large, and extra-large are the settings). Additionally, you have a few fonts to choose from (Amasis, Helvetica Neue, and Light Classic), which is nice.
We also like that you can import images to be your screensaver. Alas, you can't send images to the device wirelessly; you need to connect the Nook to your Windows or Mac PC via the included Micro-USB connector and then "sideload" them manually. The same is true for MP3 music files that you can load onto the device and listen to while you read.
Speaking of listening: the Nook has tiny built-in speakers, but you should use headphones to listen to music (a standard 3.5-millimeter jack is on the bottom of the device), because the speakers are intended for playing system sounds and little else. There's no text-to-speech feature, as there is on the Kindle, nor does it have the "Read to Me" feature found with children's books on the Nook Color.
One of the big features that Barnes & Noble has touted for the Nook is its ability to lend books to others--either those with other Nook devices, or anyone using one of the free Nook apps available on iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, BlackBerry, and Android devices, as well as on Windows and Mac computers.
It works as advertised, but with some big caveats. First off, not all e-books in the Barnes & Noble store will be lendable; according to the company, about half of its titles support this feature. It's up to the publishers, and B&N hopes to persuade them to add even more titles to the list. As with a print book, you won't have access to it during the loan period. But it's the other two restrictions that book swappers will balk at: individual titles can only be lent once, and the loan period has a time limit of 14 days. (Formerly a Nook exclusive, a nearly identical lending feature has since been added to the Kindle.)
Another Nook feature that may appeal to B&N loyalists is the in-store enhancements: location-based deals and in-store browsing of full titles. When you enter a Barnes & Noble store with your Nook, it will automatically connect to the store's free in-house Wi-Fi hot spot. You'll then get messages about special in-store offers. (Tap the "Daily" icon on the color LCD to get the latest notifications from Barnes & Noble, including special articles and alerts telling you that a new newspaper or magazine subscription has been delivered.)
When connected to the store's Wi-Fi network, you can browse full e-books on your Nook while in the store--and many titles, including many bestsellers, are available for streaming. However, this feature, too, has its limitations: it only works for up to an hour per title during any given 24-hour period. In an early version of our review, we complained that there was a delay when turning pages, especially when we weren't getting the strongest Wi-Fi signal (in the store where we tested the feature, the signal, unsurprisingly, was strongest in the in-store cafe). As part of its 1.5 firmware upgrade, Barnes & Noble says it's gone to a new system for in-store streaming that works much better. We've yet to test it, but when we do, we'll update the review.
As with the Kindle, you can also download free samples of books from anywhere you can get a wireless signal, but it should be noted that currently the Nook does not allow you to shop or download books when you're overseas as the Kindle does (some surcharges apply to international Kindle usage). However, if you subscribe to a periodical, Barnes & Noble says you can get it delivered to your Nook via Wi-Fi when you're overseas; you just can't buy new books or subscriptions while you're abroad.
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. These are the first Android apps to appear on the device, and we expect to see a few more trickle out over time, but don't expect a flood of new ones. (The Nook Color, however, is supposed to get a bevy of new apps in early 2011.)
As you might expect from Barnes & Noble, the Nook's content selection is quite good. Pricing is very similar, but Amazon does have some titles that are so-called Amazon exclusives, and we'd say that though the shopping experience with Barnes & Noble has been significantly improved, Amazon's is still superior.
Like Amazon, Barnes & Noble is also selling subscriptions to various magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, in addition to its e-book selection. Currently, it offers more magazines than the Kindle, but fewer newspapers--but those numbers fluctuate as each service adds periodical partners.
Like Sony's e-book Readers, the Nook is considered a more open device than the Kindle, because it supports the EPUB format, which, outside of Amazon, has become the de facto standard for e-books. The Nook also supports the PDB format and has native support for PDF files in both normal and "reflowed" modes. However, it currently can't read Word or text files, which is a bit of a bummer.
You can load PDF files onto the device from your PC via the USB connector and reflow the text using different fonts and font sizes. This works fairly well, but there's no zoom function, so viewing PDFs on the Nook has significant limitations, particularly because the screen is only 6 inches diagonally. (We recommend stepping up to a larger-format e-reader, such as the iPad or Kindle DX, if you want a more PDF-friendly device).
The Nook displays JPEG images, as well as BMP, GIF, and PNG image files, though there's no slideshow functionality built in at this time. You can sideload your images onto the device and have them appear as screensavers or wallpapers. (To make screensavers out of your photos, you have to create a separate folder or folders within the screensaver folder on the Nook, and then drop your photos into them. The folders become selectable from the screensaver settings menu). Like the Kindle, the Nook's monochrome e-ink screen makes images look a little like Etch A Sketch renderings.
As for audio, the Nook supports playback of MP3 files only. That means that if you have an audiobook in MP3 format, you can listen to it. Currently, the Nook is not compatible with Audible's audiobooks, and--given that Audible is owned by arch-rival Amazon--we wouldn't expect to see it.
The Nook charges exactly the same way the Kindle does: you connect the USB cable to your computer or to the included compact AC adapter. The adapter is virtually the same size as the power adapter that ships with the Kindle. The Nook has a Micro-USB port on the bottom of the device. It's the same charging port found on nearly all current cell phones, though some third-party AC adapters may not have enough juice to recharge the Nook.
Barnes & Noble acknowledges that the Nook's battery life isn't as good as the Kindle's--and it isn't. This is mostly because of the inclusion of the color LCD touch screen, which negatively affects battery life significantly. As noted, we did appreciate that you can set the screen to automatically turn off after 10, 30, or 60 seconds of disuse, and we also liked how the AT&T wireless connection automatically turns off when not in use to save battery life. (Obviously, using the Wi-Fi connection--at home or in a Barnes & Noble store--has an impact on battery life.). With the latest 1.5 firmware upgrade, Barnes & Noble says it continues to make some battery life improvements, but even with those continued tweaks, the Kindle offers at least double the battery life.
To get the best battery life, you can put the device in Airplane mode--which shuts off both 3G and Wi-Fi connections--and set the color LCD to turn off after 10 seconds. According to Barnes & Noble, using the wireless very sparingly can get you 7 to 10 days of battery life without having to recharge, which falls more than two weeks short of the Kindle's best-case-scenario battery life estimates of approximately 30 days (with no wireless use). In our tests, with limited wireless connectivity, we were able to use the Nook for about 9 days without recharging. That's a whole lot better than the 8 hours that the Nook Color offers.
Is the Nook better than the Kindle? That's the question everybody wants answered, and the short answer is no. From a design standpoint, the Kindle is lighter and thinner. As for core features, the two devices wirelessly deliver similar content to 6-inch e-ink screens (the Kindle's is slightly better). You can argue over which one is easier to use and which interface you like better, but overall the reading experience is only subtly different. Both platforms also offer apps that allow you to share your library between various mobile devices and computers. And the Nook's latest 1.5 firmware update finally enables you to read continuously (sync from your last page read) across your Nook and any device enabled with the Nook app. You can now pick up and read where you left off as you switch from one device to another, a feature that's been available for the Kindle for quite some time.
In its favor, the Kindle's battery life is better, and it does offer text-to-speech audio. However, we do like the Nook's extra features, such as free lending capabilities and in-store browsing, and support for the EPUB format and public-library lending are notable pluses. We also appreciate the removable battery and expansion slot for additional memory.
For some people, those features may tip the scales in favor of the Nook. In other words, the Nook should definitely remain in contention when you're shopping for e-ink e-book readers.
Additional reading: Kindle vs. Nook vs. iPad: Which e-book reader should you buy?