After a rocky start with the launch of the first Nook, Barnes & Noble has propelled their ereader line and ecosystem to the number two position in the US. At least from anecdotal info and reverse engineering of sales numbers: ebook reader companies are shy with actual numbers. The original Nook went from buggy to full featured and stable. The Nook Color was the hit of the holiday 2010 shopping season in the US, and B&N’s online store of ebooks swelled to offer a huge selection of popular titles. The “New Nook” (we abhor that silly name and prefer to refer to it by its tag line, "Simple Touch Reader" or simply “Nook Touch”), hits the trendy sweet spot with a responsive touch screen and reasonable price tag. Yes, Sony released not one, but a trio of touch screen E-Ink readers using the same IR technology last year, but their prices were too high and their ebookstore was less appealing. The New Nook’s touch interface is attractive, appealing and a joy to use (watch our video review below to see it in action). It’s quickly become my favorite ereader from a usability standpoint.
The Nook Simple Touch has IR sensors at the edges of the display, so no murky touch screen layer interferes with reading. It doesn’t amass fingerprints like the iPad 2 and touch screen phones, and after a week, I can’t see any on the matte, non-glare display. The Pearl E-Ink display offers improved contrast over older readers and retains that uncanny paper-like look. The 6” screen looks sharper and is easier to read than the last generation Nook. For those of you who are new to ebook readers, E-Ink displays are very easy on the eyes because there’s almost no glare and no backlight refresh. Text is rendered very crisply in black and white, rather than the fuzzy-edged RGB of an LCD. That also means there’s no backlight and you’ll need ambient light to read, just as you would with a paper book. The page background is a very, very light gray when reading in bright light, and mid-gray when reading in poor lighting. With Pearl E-Ink, text is quite black, regardless of ambient light. E-Ink readers are great for long form reading such as novels, short story collections and non-fiction works presented in novel format. The page refresh is slow vs. LCDs and there’s no color, making them less ideal for perusing magazines and coffee table books.
Since the main display supports touch, there’s no need for the secondary color touch screen that graced the first Nook. Thus the New Nook is much smaller and lighter than the old Nook, and it’s a half ounce lighter (according to our digital scale) than the Kindle 3 WiFi model. It’s definitely much more portable and I found I was more apt to throw it in my bag than my original Nook or Nook Color. In fact, my Nook Color is a beast compared to the Nook Touch. The New Nook has a rubbery finish that feels durable and reduces the chance of slippery-fingered mishaps. It’s not as slim and tech-sexy as the wafer-thin Kindle 3, but it gains points for losing that atavistic appendage, the keyboard. Since the New Nook has a touch screen with a surprisingly responsive on-screen keyboard, it doesn’t need a keyboard.
Deals and Shopping:
New Nook Simple Touch Reader Video Review
In our 25 minute video review we cover the touch user interface, libary organization, shopping on the device, page layout options, PDF handling and more.
The Nook is more open in terms of file formats and shopping options than the Kindle 3 since it’s an ePub reader. Public library ebooks, Sony Reader Store ebooks, Kobo Books and more will work on the New Nook. The Nook supports the older Adobe Adept DRM scheme used by those services as well as the newer Adobe DRM that’s based on your name and credit card number. We hear that the new Kobo Touch may support this newer version of DRM, and perhaps Sony’s next generation ereaders will as well. But for now, books purchased from B&N’s online ebookstore can be read on any Nook ereader and in their Windows, Mac, Android, iPhone, iPad and BlackBerry apps. No, it can’t handle Kindle books: only Amazon Kindle products and apps support Kindle books (unless you’re into removing DRM and converting file formats).
The Nook Simple Touch has a microSD card slot so you can carry hundreds of titles with you (we found the reader bogged down when we exceeded a thousand titles on a card). It has 2 gigs of internal storage with 236 megs available for your side-loaded files (via USB cable, it mounts as a removable drive on PCs and Macs). That might not sound like a lot, but novels average 180-600k, so it will hold more than a hundred books. The Kindle 3 has 4 gigs of internal storage with approximately 3.2 gigs free, and no card slot. Since the Kindle has no card slot and can play Audible books and MP3s, which are larger, it needs more internal storage. Still, flash memory is cheap and is a big marketing point, so we're suprised B&N didn't include more.
The New Nook launched at $139 in the US—the same price as the Kindle 3 and $10 more than the Kobo Touch. The current trend reflects a combo of user feedback and recessionary reaction: size and weight are going down as are prices, screen technology is paramount for a better reading experience, and non-reading features have been cut. That means the Nook Simple Touch has no speakers, no headphone jack, no MP3 support, no 3G option and the web browser is gone. OK, it’s not really gone, but B&N states that it has no web browser. If you use the search function (press the “N” button and select search), then enter a URL, it will launch the “not there” web browser. However, since B&N doesn’t intend that customers use this feature, it’s not exactly a finished product. It renders web pages decently using Android’s webkit browser engine, but there are no scroll bars, no easy way to move around a page and it doesn’t download books from online book repositories. We don’t fault Barnes & Noble in the least for these shortcomings, since they don’t claim it’s an available feature.
The user replaceable battery is a casualty of size reduction. Thus B&N doesn’t advertise it as being something you can do yourself, and in fact the back cover doesn’t pry or pop off easily (that means no alternate color backs for sale at B&N). Happily, unlike the Kobo Touch, the hardware page turn buttons didn’t get axed. There are page forward and back buttons on each side of the reader’s screen, and you can specify whether the top or bottom button handles page forward or page back. These recalcitrant buttons resist operation because they’re quite stiff: you have to hold the Nook with one finger on the button and another finger behind the Nook and then pinch or squeeze. I much prefer the Kindle 3’s soft touch, slightly wrapped around buttons, even though I do tend to press them accidentally when carrying the Kindle. That said, I rarely use the New Nook’s page turn buttons because I much prefer swiping across the screen, as if I were turning a physical book’s page.
The Nook Simple Touch looks almost square, and it’s a good deal shorter than the K3, Nook and Nook Color. It’s a bit wide but in my reasonably large hand, it feels good. The added thickness makes it a bit easier to hold than the K3, and the wide bezel and rubbery finish feel absolutely great. As usual with Nooks, the “N” button is your beacon to all functions: it brings up touch options to go home, go to library, shop, search and go to settings. If you want to visit settings relevant to the current book, tap the display and you’ll see options for fonts and layout, table of contents, go to, find and book info. The power button lives on the top facing the back, though you’ll rarely need it. E-Ink readers have profound battery life, so you generally won’t power it off completely. Instead, you’ll let it go to sleep and wake it by pressing the “N” button, then swiping across the screen. The Nook runs a screensaver when it sleeps and it comes with authors and nature screen savers. You can add your own if you wish. You can also specify when it goes to sleep: 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 15 minutes or 1 hour (why doesn’t the Kindle have this timeout setting?!). Since E-Ink only uses power when you turn a page, there’s no need to go with conservative sleep settings unless you leave WiFi on. The WiFi radio will go into low power mode when the device sleeps, and WiFi is power hungry.
We’ve had the Nook Simple Touch for more than a week, and battery life has been excellent with WiFi off. We noted that it took a few charges before we got maximum battery life, and after that the reader hasn’t needed a charge in 5 days of reading 2-3 hours per day. WiFi is another story: if we leave WiFi on, battery life is easily halved. The New Nook seems much less aggressive with WiFi power management during sleep than the Kindle 3 and Sony Reader Daily Edition PRS-950. We estimate that the reader will go 2 weeks on a charge with WiFi off if you read 1-2 hours/day. Barnes & Noble and Amazon both claim an overly optimistic two months of use on a charge, but we can’t imagine it lasting that long. The New Nook, like the Kobo Touch, conserves battery by fully refreshing the page every 6 page turns. That’s both wonderful and terrible. You don’t have to see that annoying page flashing to black at every page turn and it saves power: great. Text has a five O’ clock shadow until you hit that sixth page turn: not wonderful. There’s some ghosting (remnants of old characters remain as very faint gray tiny spots and light spots are a hair less than uniform), and we know that some of you hate ghosting. It’s not very pronounced—you can’t read the last page’s words or make out anything beyond the hint of a prior line of text, but it does make the page look less bright, clear and contrasty than the Kindle 3 or recent Sony Reader PRS-350 and PRS-950 models (the PRS-650 is nearly impossible to find). It still looks much better than the first generation Nook which lacked the Pearl E-Ink display and it looks better than the Kindle 2’s display.
The reading and navigation are excellent on the ereader thanks to the intuitive touch interface. Simply tap on a book cover to read that book (double-tap to manage the book and get details). Your library is laid out in virtual shelves with book covers and you can create your own shelves (aka collections). If you side load books from a card and put them in the “Books” folder, they’ll appear mingled with your B&N-purchased books, with covers intact (ePub only, PDFs don’t display covers). You can now archive downloaded B&N items but you can’t delete items using the ereader itself (you’ll have to do that over USB or card reader).
When in a book, tap on the screen to bring up reading controls. B&N offers 6 fonts: Caecilia, Amasis, Malabar, Gill Sans, Helvetica Neue and Trebuchet. That’s a wider font selection than the Kindle, Kobo and Sony Reader offer. You can select single, 1.5 and double line spacing and small, medium or large margins. There are 7 font sizes and these are used both for ePub and PDFs. There’s no PDF zooming. Your only option is to enlarge or reduce the font, and that actually works well for novel-reading, but isn’t an ideal solution for technical PDFs, manuals with illustrations or text books that rely on columns and heavy use of illustrations because the layout is destroyed. Sony still does the best job of handling PDFs since they offer excellent zooming with re-flow as well as a font resize option.
Want to highlight passages of a book or make annotations? Tap and hold on a word to bring up a word selection tool you can use to highlight a passage, add a note or look up the word in the dictionary. We much prefer this to the endless pressing of the Kindle’s d-pad, though we prefer the Kindle’s instant definition at the bottom of the screen vs. the super-sized, multi-page text in the Nook’s pop-up dictionary. You can’t open the dictionary to look up a word when not in a book, unlike the Kindle 3 and Sony Reader. Boo. Unfortunately, unlike the Kindle and Sony Reader, you can’t export your notes to the desktop.
Shopping in the B&N store on device is a pleasant experience, and we find it equally enjoyable and easy as using the Amazon ebookstore on the Kindle. You can also buy books using your computer's web browser and have them sent wirelessly to your ereader. Social networking is here and you can connect with your reading buddies via Google contacts sync, B&N lending, Facebook and Twitter. You’ll need to be in WiFi range to use the store and social features since there’s no 3G. Though Amazon still has the largest selection of ebooks, B&N has a very large selection. They claim 2 million books, though more than a million of those are likely free public domain Google books (literary classics and more). Amazon has a wider selection of periodicals, technical books and reference works in my experience, while both stores offer a similar selection of mainstream fiction and non-fiction at near equal pricing (Amazon is sometimes a little cheaper). Still, it’s hard to argue with the Amazon ecosystem: front the largest selection of ebooks and eperiodicals to superb customer service to wireless (with the 3G model) book downloads in 100+ countries, the Kindle wins. The Nook is a more US-centric device, and you can’t buy and download ebooks from B&N when traveling overseas while Amazon allows you to do so. Amazon customer service has been stellar when we’ve contacted them. My staff and I have had 4 interactions with B&N’s Nookdevice support and sales support folks, and mildly put, they weren’t satisfying. In fact, each interaction was an adventure down the rabbit hole to hell. To soften that, nearly every interaction we’ve had with bricks and mortar B&N employees has been wonderful.
We have both ereaders in house, and put them through their paces for this 30 minute video comparison. We look at several key features in depth on each: search, dictionary, annotation, page layout options, shopping and more. The video isn’t a “this one is better” sort of thing, because honestly, it’s a very close race. I vastly prefer the touch experience, durable and grippable rubber casing and more open ePub format support of the Nook Touch. But I find text clarity and page layout are better on the Kindle 3 (that’s the most important feature to me in an ebook reader), as is Amazon’s selection and customer service. If only the two could mate and have the perfect child! A touch screen E-Ink Kindle will surely put the pressure on the New Nook, but Amazon’s lack of ePub support is still a big hurt.
The Barnes & Noble New Nook is one of our top picks among ereaders. It has a Pearl E Ink screen with a very well done touch user interface, it’s fast, it supports all manner of ePub with and without DRM, and it’s small and lightweight. The every sixth page turn refresh will please those who hate the flash to black during page turns (you’ll see it only every sixth page), but the drawback is a slightly less white background due to ghosting. You can bring your New Nook to any B&N store for help, and while you're there you'll get free WiFi, special offers and free reading of B&N ebooks. If you’ve got an original Nook, the New Nook is a no-brainer: it’s much more portable, easier to use and has a better display. That is, unless you use the audio playback feature on the first gen Nook—the new Nook lacks this. If you’re an Amazon customer with a large library of Kindle books, you’re probably better off waiting for a touch screen E-Ink Kindle unless you can break your books’ DRM and convert them to ePub format. If you’re coming from a Sony Reader, the New Nook is a very attractive and affordable option, and you’ll be able to bring your Sony Reader Store books with you.
Price: $139 $99 (B&N dropped the price Nov. 7, 2011)