Editor's note, June 2010: Barnes & Noble dropped the price of the nook 3G to $199 and now also offers the nook Wi-Fi which is identical but has only Wi-Fi, no 3G for $149.
Reviewed February 14, 2010 by Lisa Gade, Editor
in Chief (updated April 23, 2010 for the nook 1.3 update)
Let's face it, the nook launch in early December 2009 was a fiasco. Barnes & Noble sent out very few review units (perhaps that was foresight) and it was nearly universally panned. You couldn't buy the darned thing. It was supposed to ship by Christmas but a good number of pre-orders didn't, so Barnes & Noble sent would-be gift givers sad little cardboard nooks to put under the tree. And they weren't ready to ship en masse just after the holidays either. It took until mid-February 2010 to get them to stores and have them in stock for shipping online. We can only imagine the head honchos at Sony (makers of the competing Sony Reader Pocket Edition and Sony Reader Daily Edition) toasting each other with saki glasses held high while Amazon's Jeff Bezos cackled in his infamous way. And it was hard to feel sorry for B&N, who got bad press for ditching the device's designer, Spring Design, while keeping the design Spring had developed for B&N (Spring Design will sell their version as the Alex eBook reader and they've reached an agreement in principle with B&N).
Were Barnes & Noble not one of America's largest booksellers with plenty of market clout and reputation to shore them up, they'd have packed up their bits and bytes and gone home. B&N is first and foremost a bricks and mortar book seller and not a technology company, which might have been the problem. An experienced tech company would have paced the release differently. Had Barnes & Noble waited until mid-February 2010 when the device was actually available in quantity and it had undergone two significant firmware updates that transformed the reader from trash to beloved trinket, life would have been much better.
We weren't among the small group selected to receive and review the nook in early December. But, perhaps like you, we did head to our local Barnes and Noble and spend lots of quality time with their demo nook. Our verdict at the time? The same as nearly every review you've read: it stunk. It was slow, buggy and the touch screen UI was clumsy. So we didn't bother ordering one and writing a me-too review. But here's what made the nook's second coming possible: the hardware was top notch, the problems (slow page turns, sideloaded books with garbled titles, crashes and UI missteps) were all in the software. And we give credit to B&N for fixing these problems while improving the touch screen UI in just a few months. We rarely get to write complete turn around reviews, but this is one. Two months ago you couldn't pay me to use a nook, I would have clung desperately to my Sony Reader Daily Edition and Kindle DX. Today, the nook could replace them both.
We aren't going to bore you with every little detail, you've seen photos, read the early reviews and maybe seen a demo unit at your local store (that may have been abused and never updated, but it was enough to give you an idea of the product and features). But we'll cover the basics now: the nook is an eInk ebook reader that uses the same display technology as the Kindle and Sony Reader PRS-505 among others. The 6" display does not have a touch layer, instead the nook has a 3.5" capacitive color touchscreen below the eInk display. You simply read from the eInk display and turn pages with the hardware buttons (on both the left and right sides so everyone's happy). Every other form of control and interaction is done via the touchscreen. The nook runs the Google Android OS (the same OS used in Android smartphones and upcoming tablets and netbooks). Android is a form of Linux, and most other eBook readers run on some form of Linux too.
The nook has a removable back cover where you'll access the replaceable Lithium Ion battery and microSD card slot. It's compatible with ePUB and PDF books and documents, including those protected by Adobe ADEPT DRM. That means you can use books purchased from the Sony eBookstore, Kobo Books and other sites that sell ePUB books with Adobe DRM. You can also read your old Peanut Press eReader books since B&N bought them and the nook supports that format. Lastly, you can check out and read digital library eBooks and Google's public domain classics in ePUB format. Take that, Amazon. No, you can't read Amazon Kindle books because Amazon uses a proprietary format and that means only Kindles can read Kindle books.
The nook ships in an iPod Touch-inspired clear plastic case that's beautiful but despairingly difficult to open. In fact, B&N includes a two page 8.5" x 11" printed guide on how to get into the darned box and free the nook. Steve Jobs would have fired the packaging designer. But we also bet you won't want to replace your nook with an iPad since the iPad lasts a fraction of the time the nook does on a charge (if you turn off the nook's WiFi) and LCD screens can tire the eyes while eInk doesn't (assuming good ambient light). The nook is also a lot smaller and lighter, and is about the size of a trade paperback.
What's in the package? The nook with battery pre-installed, a USB cable and a tiny charger that looks like the Kindle charger which looks like the iPhone charger. There are also two tiny printed guides inside the box, and the aforementioned 'how to break your nook out of the pretty plastic box' pamphlet outside (duh) the plastic box.
Design and Displays
The nook looks much like a Kindle 2 minus the keyboard: white plastic, fairly slim and pleasingly modern minimalist. We like that there are large page turn buttons on both sides, and we also like that you can turn pages by swiping your finger briskly across the touch screen when the touch screen is off. The front bezel is gloss white but the page turn buttons are matte so your fingers won't slip off (and it looks cool too). The matte plastic back feels good in hand and doesn't get cold like the metal-backed Kindle models and Sony Readers (the PRS-900 Daily Edition back is not metal).
The 6", 600 x 800 pixel grayscale Vizplex eInk display is where you'll read and peruse the bookstore. This screen technology is easy on the eyes and very easy on battery life, so eBook readers can potentially last a week or two (with wireless off) on a charge.
The lower capacitive touchscreen is there to control the ereader and navigate between books, store selections and the like. Android lies underneath but you'll never see it unless you hack the nook. Instead you'll see arrows to navigate up and down (thankfully enlarged in recent firmware updates), icons for various activities (watch our video to see this in action) and an on-screen keyboard when appropriate. When the nook came out in early December, page turns were oddly slow. I don't mean the delay that's inherent to eInk page refresh; it just thought about page turns a good long time (longer than Kindle, the Sony Readers and the Astak EZ Reader eInk readers). That problem is gone. The lower display control and upper display reaction are much more in sync now-- it's not an easy thing to do since eInk has a refresh delay while LCDs are instantaneous. The nook could be even faster and we hope Barnes & Noble continues to improve on their recent good work. It's by no means slow, but there are occasions when the lower display takes a hair longer than it should to respond to an action (which is really the result of the reader thinking behind the scenes).
Does the dual screen design make sense? In the short term it definitely does. It allows B&N to not mess with the extreme clarity of eInk while incorporating touch control. The color book covers? To me, that's mostly a gimmick and it's just about the only place color is used in an obvious way. There is a brain disconnect when touching one screen to control another, not unlike using a mouse to make things change on your computer screen. You get used to it, you get good at it but it's not completely natural. The disconnect on the reader is more pronounced since the two displays are side-by-side (and heck, they're both displays rather than a mouse and monitor). Our first reaction was to touch the eInk display-- after several minutes we got over that and remembered to only touch the lower screen. In the end, this kind of design will fade away, though it will take several years. Sony is making clearer eInk touch screens with each new model and sooner or later they or another company will find a way to make a touch eInk display that looks as good as a non-touch screen.
Pull off the back cover and you see the microSD card slot,
removable battery and the SIM card slot (yellow bit partly under the battery).
How do you Use this Thing?
Easy answer: watch our video! We'll also show you what happens when you take your
nook to a Barnes & Noble store and turn the reader's WiFi on.
Big New Features in 1.3 Firmware Update!
Barnes & Noble released a significant update to the nook on April 23, 2010. Version 1.3 not only adds
promised features like unlimited reading while in a Barnes & Noble store; it also speeds up the nook,
adds a webkit web browser and games. Here's our video that covers the new nook features:
Shop til you Drop
The Kindle is king of getting you to spend more money than you'd intended. Amazon makes it incredibly easy to buy eBooks using the reader and buy using your computer (then having the book wirelessly dispatched to your reader). That's the whole reason the Kindle has Whispernet 3G, so you can shop without booting up your PC. Until the Sony Reader Daily Edition came out in late December 2009, you could only load books purchased from the Sony eBookstore or elsewhere via USB cable or load them on storage cards (the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX have no storage card slots). Ouch, that hurt because we Americans do like to shop. And computer novices need not worry about installing drivers and software just to read books on their new reader. Now Sony lets you shop from the Daily Edition too, and get daily newspaper and magazine deliveries. The big three are on nearly equal footing. The nook ups the ante by also giving you WiFi just in case you're not in range of an AT&T signal (AT&T 3G powers the wide area wireless in the nook, Sony Daily Edition and in the revised versions of the Kindle 2 and DX).
The nook also does one better than the Kindle with their "The Daily" feature. The Daily is a tab on your reader home screen that provides free, fresh content every day. These are short pieces written by established writers on two fronts: Grin & Tonic (a humor piece) and Daybook (a "this day in history" piece"). Both good reads and just the kind of thing avid readers appreciate-- good going B&N. You'll also get info on upcoming nook software updates in The Daily section. While we're at it, we'll also praise B&N for their Lending feature that allows you to lend a book to anyone else with a B&N account for 14 days.
What won't you get? A web browser. Only the Kindle family has that, though it's not a compelling experience (it is handy for downloading non-copyrighted ebooks from free book sites though). The 1.3 nook update adds a full HTML web browser, using the power of Android. It's a more sophisticated browsing experience than the Kindle's. Note that the web browser works only over WiFi.
Shopping for books on device is equally as good as on Amazon's Kindle. Both are obviously in the book business and have established online storefronts, and they know what they're doing. The Sony Reader Daily Edition has a pleasant and intuitive on-device shopping experience but it falls short in one place: if you buy the book using the desktop software, you can't have it automatically pushed to the reader. You'll need to tell your reader to download that particular book from your account. Periodicals do automatically push to the Sony, just as they do with the Kindle and nook.
DRM: Dirty Rotten Muckity-mucks
We all hate DRM, or digital copy protection. We've had our little tea party and largely overturned copy protection on music (it only took a decade). Now we've got to deal with it again in books. DRM done well might not anger us so much were it not for all the competing formats that can prevent you from reading your legally purchased eBook on another brand of reader. Things have improved a bit with the industry's growing standardization on the Adobe ePUB format (with a little PDF thrown in). If your reader supports non-DRM and DRM ePUB, you're looking good. Even better if it handles DRM-protected PDFs. That means the eBook you purchased from the Sony bookstore, Kobo Books and Fictionwise (Fictionwise offers many formats, including ePUB) will work with your device. The nook is such a device, as are the Sony Readers. Awesome.
Not so awesome, but understandable, is that Barnes & Noble's own eBooks use a different flavor of Adobe ADEPT DRM than all other current readers on the market. That means the book you buy at B&N only works on the nook as of this writing. Will other readers get updates to support the B&N version? Maybe. Did Barnes and Noble do this just to be as obnoxious and proprietary as Amazon? Nope. Standard Adobe DRM (the same as that used with Adobe Digital Editions on the desktop and by public libraries that lend eBooks), was designed as if Adobe thought it would never take off. You can authorize up to 6 computers and 4 readers to an Adobe account. That's fine for the first few years, but after that when you've upgraded to your 5th reader or had to return one that was defective and wasted an authorization, you're in trouble. Unlike iTunes or the Sony Reader software, there's no obvious way to de-authorize a reader or computer. Adobe is now starting to work on support channels to help folks whose authorization limits have been hit. Barnes & Noble ePUB books use the other form of Adobe DRM that has no computer or device limitation-- put that book on as many devices as you like. Instead of tying the book to a user ID/password combo, it ties the book to your name and credit card number (encrypted) just as did the older eReader format. This allows the nook's lending feature to work. You and your bookish friend wouldn't want to mutually authorize each others nooks (and there are already online nook book lending clubs).
Though Barnes and Noble states that they intend to go with ePUB, quite a few titles are still in PDB (eReader) format.
On the color touch screen: the 5 main icons or tabs that take you to various functions like reading and shopping.
The 3.5mm headphone jack, speaker grilles and micro USB port on the bottom.
Short and not so sweet DRM and format compatibility table:
Works with Kindle AZW format books and non-DRM PDF.
Does not support ePUB and thus isn't compatible with much beyond Amazon's own bookstore. Works with MOBI books (Amazon owns them).
No public library eBook support.
No Google public domain ePUB books support.
Works with B&N eBooks (using ePUB variant DRM). Works with standard ePUB DRM and PDF DRM. Can read ePUB books from Sony bookstore and others.
Has public library eBook support (must download Adobe Digital Editions to your PC or Mac to authorize reader and transfer DRM ePUB and PDF books). Works with eReader and old Peanut Press .PDB eBooks (B&N owns them).
Supports Google public domain ePUB books.
Works with Sony bookstore books and other eBooks as long as they're in standard Adobe ePUB or PDF format. Can't read B&N eBooks. Also works with TXT, RTF and Word docs (must use desktop software to convert Word docs).
Has public library eBook support. You can use the Sony desktop software to transfer books to the reader.
Supports Google public domain ePUB books.
Reading B&N Books Anywhere but the Nook
The B&N Reader is available for Mac, Windows, the iPhone and iPod Touch and BlackBerry smartphones. Strangely enough, there's no Android app yet, though the nook itself runs Android. Like the Kindle, the readers can all sync to the last read page.
Book Management, PDFs and More
Sideloaded books work just fine (early firmwares garbled book titles). You can sort sideloaded books by author and title. What's a sideloaded book? It's one that you loaded from your own collection (e.g.: public domain Google books, eReader books and Sony Reader bookstore books). You can put these in the "my documents" folder on the nook's internal memory or on a microSD card (you must use that folder name, whether in internal memory or on a card). These books show up under the My Documents menu under the "My Library" tab. Barnes and Noble content can be sorted by title, author and most recent.
The nook comes with 3 sets of screen savers (authors, nature and cityscapes). You can add your own: just create a folder with images in the "my screensavers" folder on internal memory. You can also create your own wallpaper. The nook supports JPG, GIF, PNG and BMP files and the grayscale screen looks quite sharp when showing photos.
You can listen to music while you read, or when you're not reading for that matter. The nook supports MP3 format only, and you can put these anywhere on a microSD card. There's a stereo 3.5mm jack for headphones and an internal speaker that's better than nothing. Stick with headphones.
Yes, there's a dictionary, but for those with serious vocabularies it's a disappointment: it's the Merriam Webster Pocket Edition. No, you can't change your default dictionary, at least not as of this writing. You'll use the touchscreen menus and virtual d-pad to select the word to look up, and the screen will display the definition while temporarily blanking the current book's page. Once you hit OK on the touchscreen, the nook returns you to your book and page.
This isn't the ideal standard 8.5 x 11 PDF reader since there's no zoom and no landscape mode. The Kindle DX and Sony Reader Touch and Daily Edition are better choices if you need to view PDFs.
Here's a big plus for the nook: while other readers come with one font only, the nook comes with three (two serif and one sans serif). As with the Sony and Kindle, you can choose from several different text sizes-- tiny to super-sized. If a document has an embedded font, the nook will display the book in that font. For some reason, the nook can't change fonts in PDB books-- bummer.
Here's a mind-boggling minus: the nook has no go to page number feature, and there's no way to quickly move through pages (like fast forward). With the mid-February 1.2 firmware update where most wrongs were righted, we were sure that B&N would add a go to page function, but no such luck. Update, June 2010: the nook 1.4 update finally added the go to page feature. You can also go to the chapter of your choice or search for a term in the book (assuming you memorized a clever phrase in that book) to move around without hitting the next page button until your thumb turns blue. And yes, you can bookmark pages too.
Comparing the Nook to Sony Reader Daily Edition and Sony Reader Touch Edition
This is the hardest section to write. Forgive the pun, but the gray area is huge here because much of it depends on what you want to do with your reader. The Sony Reader Daily Edition is the only one in the bunch with an eInk touch screen: that means you touch the screen and not a secondary display as with the nook. Clearly, this is the most natural form of interaction, and it's been popularized on touch screen smartphones, point of sale systems, recent tablet PCs and more. It's heavenly to use the Sony thanks to the touch screen and very good user interface-- even grandma could figure out how to use it. The Daily Edition's display is larger (7.1" vs. the nook's 6"), and that means fewer page turns and better PDF viewing. The Sony supports landscape mode which is useful for PDF viewing and it has a zoom function-- likewise good for PDFs. That zoom is per-page which is a bit annoying as you must re-zoom every time you turn a page, but at least it's there. You wouldn't want to use zoom for reading non-PDF books because changing the font size is much more effective. The Sony Reader has several font sizes to choose from, but only one font. It's a beautiful piece of consumer electronics yet it's built like a tank. All the goodies are in the box including a leather flip cover and a semi-rigid zipper case.
Sounds perfect? Not quite: the Sony Reader Daily Edition is $399 vs. $259 and the touch screen introduces glare and an apparent contrast reduction. It's not the disaster that was the short-lived Sony Reader PRS-700, but you can see the difference between the Sony Daily PRS-900 and the non-wireless touch screen Sony Reader Touch Edition PRS-600 vs. non-touch readers like the Kindle and nook. Just one more thing to add: if note-taking is important to you, it's hard to beat the touch screen Sony Readers with their hilighter and handwritten notes features via the stylus. It's currently the closest thing to marking up a print book.
Comparing the Nook to the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX
We've had the Kindle 2 in house and currently have the Kindle DX, so our comparison photos use the DX, but our discussion will cover the Kindle 2 features since it's the nook's direct competitor. The two readers have the same eInk display, and both are equally good. The nook wins for giving you three fonts to choose from. The shopping experience on both is equally good as are the price and selection of books. The nook gets a big win for supporting ePUB: that means you can download public library eBooks and you can read books you bought from the several online stores that sell ePUB. We get the unfriendly feeling that Amazon doesn't want you to virtually visit the library nor do they want you buying books from anyone but them nor do they want you to use anything but a Kindle. Yuck. Amazon's strategy really looks like a case of bad business: if they stuck to selling books (what they're good at and what makes them plenty of dough), say in standard ePUB format rather than trying to lock you into a piece of hardware (Kindle readers), life would be better for them and their customers.
The nook and Kindle both have 3G access to their respective bookstores online, but the nook adds WiFi too. The Kindle wins for having a go to page number feature (doh! Barnes & Noble) and a (sometimes) text-to-speech feature. The nook wins for having a microSD card slot. The Kindle has a better dictionary, for you large vocabulary types.
Barnes & Noble has an obvious bricks and mortar advantage: you can go into one of their 800 stores and play with a nook before buying it, you can take it there if you have questions (though we're not sure how capable the staff are of answering challenging questions), you can read books via the free B&N WiFi connection and you can get free content, discounts and coupons via WiFi on the nook too. The nook wins in a big way with their lending feature: you can lend a book to anyone you want (they must have a B&N account) for 14 days. That keyboard vs. touch screen thing? We won't even go there. Just as with smartphones, folks' preference for one or the other verges on religious war: you know which you prefer, and we won't try to change your mind. That said, if you're not a serious note-taker, the dangling appendage of a keyboard on the Kindle is a waste of space.
Above: the nook and Sony Reader Daily Edition.
Below: close up of the nook and Sony Daily Edition for text comparison purposes.
The Kindle DX and the nook. The nook is slightly smaller than the Kindle 2 and slightly thicker.
Close up for text comparison: the Kindle DX and the nook.
What a difference a few months makes! The nook has moved from "no thank you" to "yes, I'll take one" in our book. There are a few things we'd like to see addressed: most important being a go to page number feature, but there are certainly no other glaring issues. The Barnes & Noble nook is the perfect companion to those who like to read books and periodicals for pleasure: it's fun and easy to use and the display is eInk at its best. The nook is less suited to those who need an eBook reader for business or academic purposes since it doesn't do justice to 8.5 x 11 PDF files and the note-taking facilities aren't really there. What do we love about the nook? It works with ePUB format books: hello library books, Google free books, Sony Reader Books and more. The shopping experience is as good as Kindle's and you're less hobbled by DRM since you can loan books. And we like the newly added web browser too, even if it doesn't challenge your smartphone or iPad for speed.
The nook marries the excellent online book buying experience, price and selection of the Amazon Kindle with the Sony Reader's support for ePub and a hint of touch-- a combination that wins in my book.
Price: $199 for the nook 3G, $149 for the nook Wi-Fi