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Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch review: Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch

Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
9 min read

Editors' note: The rating on this product has been lowered from 8.3 to 8.0 in response to competitive changes to market. Potential buyers should also check out the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight. It adds an illuminated screen, but is otherwise nearly identical to the Simple Touch e-reader reviewed here. Readers should also note that the "Kindle" this product is compared to in the text is the 2010 version of that product, not the newer 2012 version. See Kindle vs. Nook vs. iPad: Which e-book reader should you buy? for more information.


Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch

The Good

The <b>2011 Nook</b> is a compact and lightweight e-book reader with a responsive high-contrast Pearl e-ink touch screen that offers quick page turns. It's got built-in Wi-Fi for direct access to the online Barnes & Noble store, an expansion slot for additional memory, and long battery life (up to two months). The Nook supports e-book lending and EPUB loans from libraries, and it offers some enhanced social networking features.

The Bad

The 2011 Nook has no support for audio, no 3G option, and no Web browser. The rubberized finish on the back of device attracts fingerprints.

The Bottom Line

The new touch-screen Nook is a major advancement over its predecessor and offers some real advantages over the 2010 Kindle.

Is the new Nook better than the Kindle? That's what a lot of people are asking and the short answer--at least at this moment--is arguably yes.

No, it doesn't have an audio jack for MP3 music playback or a built-in basic Web browser, but it does have one thing the Kindle doesn't: a touch-screen interface--and it's a good one.

Aside from changing the way you navigate the device (more on that in a minute), the touch screen has design implications because it allows for a minimal number of buttons and a nice clean look. The first thing you notice about the new Nook is that it's compact and it looks significantly shorter than the Kindle, though a bit squatter (the Kindle is slightly narrower). Ideally, it would be a tad narrower, so people with smaller hands could more easily hold the whole device in their hands like they would a smartphone.

At 7.48 ounces, the new Nook is an ounce lighter than the Kindle (Kindles weigh between 8.5 and 8.7 ounces, for the Wi-Fi or 3G models, respectively).

The designers also coated the device with something called soft-touch paint, which gives it a smooth rubberized feel. That's nice, but the downside to this type of finish is that it does show finger smudges, so you'll regularly have to wipe down the back of the device unless you buy a cover (plenty are available).

As it stands, chances are you'll end up holding it more from one side of the device or the other (depending on whether you're a righty or lefty) and position your index finger around the back of the device in the middle. With the middle of the back indented slightly, you get a little ridge to grip the Nook from the back. Of course, if you want to see how it feels in your hand, all you have to do is walk into a Barnes & Noble store.

Here's a quick rundown of the tech 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 (for custom screensavers)
  •    • Dimensions: 6.5 x 5 x 0.47 inches
  •    • Weight: 7.48 ounces (212 grams)
  •    • Comes in black only
  •    • Price: $139
  •    • Availability: Demo units will be in Barnes & Noble stores on June 2; device is now shipping for online orders; product will be in-stock in stores beginning June 6

All in all, the touch screen is responsive and the second-generation Nook is zippy for an e-ink device. Barnes & Noble has made a big effort to reduce the flashing effect of e-ink when a page is refreshed. Instead of the screen flashing every page turn as it does with the Kindle, the screen flashes about every fifth page turn. However, it should be noted that in our side-by-side comparison with the Kindle, the two e-readers turned pages at essentially the same speed.

The device isn't as zippy as an iPad 2, but books open quickly and pages turn in a fraction of a second with a swipe of the screen (or just touch the right margin to page forward and the left margin to page back). There are also four very slim "hard" buttons along the side of the screen that you can use to turn pages (in the settings menu, you can change whether to page forward with the top or bottom buttons). Holding those buttons down allows you to fast forward--or rewind--through a book's pages, which is a nice feature. In short, Barnes & Noble has come a long way from its first-edition Nook, which was buggy and felt sluggish at launch, though firmware upgrades helped improve its performance.

If you're looking to compare this with the Kobo Wi-Fi Touch Edition, Kobo's new touch-screen e-reader that retails for $10 less ($129.99), they offer some distinct similarities. Both use the same Neonode infrared touch technology for their touch screens along with E Ink's latest Pearl display that's also found in the Kindle and Sony readers.

The two e-readers use different processors: the new Nook uses a Texas Instruments 800MHz OMAP 3 processor, and the Kobo, which is a shade lighter and narrower, is the first to use the Freescale i.MX508 processor. Right now the Nook just feels a little zippier, especially when it comes to doing things like accessing the e-readers' respective online e-book stores.

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" infrared touch technology, 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 undocumented one) 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.


Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 7Performance 8