The Unique Nook E-reader

The evolution of e-readers is far from over and the Barnes and Noble Nook gives us a peek into that near future. In my last blog, I compared the Kindle and the iPad on the merits of e-reading and chose the iPadafter a tough race. In this blog I look at the Nook and it offers a few things the Kindle doesn’t, which make it a device to consider.

Introduction

According to In-Stat, worldwide e-reader shipments are expected to reach 28.6 million units in 2013, up from 924,000 in 2008. Why?  One reason is lower price points and the other is utility. The Kobo e-readerlists now for $149, which gets you a basic e-reader without wireless at an incredible price. On utility, E-ink display technology combined with multi-day battery life with a ton of content finally makes e-readers a contender to replace printed books, magazines, and newspapers. Other features above and beyond e-reading are starting to be integrated into devices, and the Nook has a lot of them. The Nook, in addition to books and magazines, offers a beta-stage web browser, games, music player, WiFi and a document reader.

Here are some of the Nook’s unique features:

Color Touch-Screen “Bar”:

The Nook has the same 6 inch E-ink display as the Kindle and the Kobo but it adds a very unique feature, a color touch screen bar. The touch screen serves two purposes, a display for cover art and a navigational control.

Instead of looking at a black and white line listing in your library, the Nook displays the cover art for your books. The color touch bar also serves as the point of navigation, with exception of page turns. At the top level navigation, the bar is used to access the Library, Shop, Games, Web Browser, WiFi, Audio, Reading Now and Settings. Also the bar is used to navigate to different places in the books, like specific pages, table of contents, chapters, etc.

The bar really becomes helpful in games, audio and the web browser.  Browsing on the Kindle without touch is difficult as it uses a 5 position joystick. It is much easier on the Nook with the touchpad. I could move up and down, left and right with ease. The bar also truly enables games. I cannot imagine a decent Kindle experience on a game requiring navigation.

Dual Side Page Buttons:

The Nook sports next page and previous page buttons on the left and right side. This isn’t just a benefit to left handed users. I notice my natural reading style I used both sides of the device to turn pages. I liked this feature and it’s not superfluous. When I went back to the Kindle it annoyed me that I didn’t have left hand buttons. It’s obvious a lot of contextual research was done on the Nook.

Web Browser (Beta):

Web browsing is where the Nook starts to show its Android heritage.  I was very impressed with the speed and web site compatibility. At times on simple sites, I felt like I was browsing on my Google Nexus One smartphone. It was that good. Bookmarks show up as cover art like the books but unfortunately so small that it’s mostly illegible, defeating the purpose. The browsing is good for what is supposed to be an e-reader, but there is a learning curve, however, in the bi-modality of the touch bar and the main display.  It took me about thirty minutes to get the hang of but after that it was smooth.

 Memory upgradability:

The Nook, unlike the Kindle, offers memory upgradability. While I question the need for e-reading given that users can load 1000s of books with the base memory, I see the benefit with other features. Nook users can load as many songs, documents or games as their extra memory will hold. This feature is certainly a “feel good” feature for tech newbies looking for assurance of longevity. It’s easy to upgrade and in many cases, easier to add than a cellphone. Just pop off the back and stick your microSD or micro SDHC card into the memory slot.

WiFi:

Like memory upgradability, I questioned why this was needed until I looked beyond the e-reader capability. Books didn’t feel like they downloaded faster over WiFi versus the 3G. BUT, web browsing requires WiFi and without it, the Kindle was very painfully slow. I successfully ran web Outlook and read and responded to corporate emails, which was very shocking.

 

Industrial Design:

I like the design of the Nook as I feel like they understand better how consumers will use the device. The back cover is one of the most important design features they got right. It’s a concave rubbery back case and it feels great to the touch and provides a certain leverage as to not drop it. Comparatively, the Kindle has a metallic back cover, and while it looks hip, it sacrifices usability. It’s also slippery and easy to drop.

The concave non-slip back plate makes the Nook easy to hold on to.

The speakers are nicely situated at the bottom of the Nook, positioned in a manner to reflect the music off of a surface, making it sound louder. I’m not sure if this was unintended or designed but it doesn’t really matter. The Kindle six inch reader has speakers on the back of the unit which I simply don’t understand. At all.

As any decent designer knows, there are design sacrifices you must make to add upgradability. Somehow the Nook designers managed to pull upgradability without any noticeable design sacrifice. Just make sure you read the directions on how to open the back.

Music/Audio Player:

The Nook’s music and audio player interface is well done and I attribute it to the good integration of the color touch screen. I would like to see a little more work done on it to at least sort by Artist or Album. It supports MP3 and Ogg formats. It currently presents the music into alphabetical order by song title. Thanks to the touch screen though, it is relatively easy to find the song you are looking for. Music can be found in the My Music and My Audiobooks folder, respectively.

Games:

While Sudoku and Chess don’t excite me too much, they are two of the more popular games. The fact users can even play a single game on an e-reader is amazing. I would expect to see more games because games are popular and developers can leverage Android game code. The touch screen is a nice addition for games.

Document reader:

The Nook will read epub, pdb and unsecured pdf-formatted document files. While I struggle to find a use case for this without any document download or email capability, it’s there if you want it. As a fellow geek, I do like this capability just because it shows what it can do in the future. Just connect the Nook to your PC and dump your files in the My Documents folder.

Responsiveness:

The new software load (1.3.0) for the Nook  sped everything up and I commend the developers. Everything that uses the touch screen is impressively fast, even the cover art. I still think book page turning and opening is too slow. It is annoying to have to wait for the next page to show up.

Content:

While they claim over 1 million titles exist for the Nook, the number of magazines and newspapers are disappointing.  Only 12 magazines and 20 newspapers are available and I don’t think that number has improved a lot since I got the nook in December.

Conclusion:

The Nook gives me the best commercially available view into tomorrow’s capabilities of an e-reader. Aside from e-reading, the Nook can surf the web, play music, play very basic games, and view documents. Just add a simple email client and 3G web surfing and this simple e-reader becomes a tablet.

Confused?  You should be. While I personally like crossover capabilities between smartphone, e-reader, personal media player, tablets and a personal computer, this situation is ripe for consumer confusion with mainstream consumers.  I like the Nook, but I still prefer the Kindle because of its snappier page turning and book opening performance and Whispersync, which allows me to read and synchronize my books on my iPad, iPod, PC, Blackberry, and Android based PMP. I already have an iPod, iPad, and a PC to surf the web, listen to music and play games so those features aren’t a must have.