Barnes & Noble Nook (first generation) review: Barnes & Noble Nook (first generation)

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.)

Like the Kindle's basic browser, the Nook's Web browser also has serious limitations. The e-ink screen highlights a small horizontal strip of the Web page that's duplicated--in color--on the touch screen. There's no support for Flash, and JavaScript sites--which include many Web mail services--will be touch and go. In other words, opt for an iPad (or at least a Nook Color) if you want a more full-featured Web-browsing experience. On the other hand, the browser now works well enough to navigate through sign-ons and splash screens, such as those needed to access public Wi-Fi hot spots--critical if you can't get a 3G signal.

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.

Formats supported
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.

Battery life
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?