The e-book reader market is evolving at light speed, but--in the pre-iPad era, at least--the current focus is on the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook.
Now in its second generation, Amazon's Kindle has a leg up on the competition, if only because of its growing install base and Amazon's marketing muscle. The Nook, meanwhile, adds quite a few features not available on the Amazon: a color touch-screen navigation pad, an Android-powered operating system, and the ability to freely browse books while inside Barnes & Noble's brick-and-mortar stores.
With a closely matched feature set--and an identical price tag--we put these two e-book readers head to head, with a trio of CNET editors judging the five-round contest. Let's head to the ring to see which product comes out on top.
Round 1: Design: Hot or not?
In Round 1, we examine the physical design and ergonomics of each product. How does the Kindle's hard keyboard compare with the Nook's touch-screen navigation pad? (We'll focus on the interface for each product in the next round.)
4The Nook's a tad heavier than the Kindle, though its dimensions are smaller. The built-in mini color LCD gives it a bit of flash, and I like the whole touch-screen virtual keyboard concept. Overall, however, as far as cosmetics go, I think it's a toss-up between the two e-readers.
4The Nook looks hot. The color touch screen lends a splash that gives it panache.
4Cosmetically, the Nook looks clean. The backside is one piece, and you won't see a physical button on the front.
Round 2: Navigation and interface
Unlike the iPad, the e-ink screens on the Kindle and Nook are black and white--and they aren't touch screens. However, the Nook adds a color touch-screen navigation bar, whereas the Kindle relies on good old-fashioned buttons. How do they stack up?
3I got used to using the capacitive touch-screen LCD at the bottom of the device for navigation, but some people don't like it. I think it's definitely a plus for looking at cover art and I like flipping through the covers like you would on an iPhone. It's also worth pointing out that Barnes & Noble has fixed some early bugs and improved the overall performance of the device. I hope it continues to get better.
2The navigation being split between buttons on the plastic and buttons that show up in the touch screen makes for a steeper learning curve. Not very intuitive, but still useful once you figure it out.
2I though I'd really like the touch-screen navigation, but when I actually started using it, I wasn't a fan. It's cramped, with a scroll bar directly next to two selection arrows, and then the selection button is on the side of that. Plus, the touch screen's brightness makes e-ink look so bland. The contrast is distracting.
Round 3: Features and technology
Both the Kindle and the Nook are narrowly focused as e-book readers: their primary purpose is to view books, magazines, newspapers, and other documents electronically. But scratch the surface, and the two devices do have some notable differences in the features department.
3Aside from its capacitive color touch screen, the real unique feature of the Nook is the inclusion of Wi-Fi, along with 3G wireless connectivity. That Wi-Fi connection allows you to access special content in Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar stores. The Nook also has expandable memory, supports more file formats, and offers a "lending" function not found on the Kindle.
4Not much else to offer than audio and book reading, though I expect that will change. Overall, a solid but not special offering of features.
4Wi-Fi and 3G combination is killer, and is enticing if you hang out at Barnes & Noble stores. The sharing feature is innovative, but it's also really limited. You won't be able to purchase books if you're in other countries unless you're on Wi-Fi. Expansion slot for memory for additional content is nice. More than 1 million books available, but larger library is because of the EPUB format.
Round 4: Performance
There are no "performance" worries with a paper book or magazine. But with e-book readers, battery life and screen response time are just two of the primary concerns.
3The color LCD does require some extra energy, so the Nook battery life numbers aren't quite as good as the Kindle's. Performance-wise, the Kindle initially had the clear edge, but Barnes & Noble's latest firmware upgrades have made performance zippier.
1Fail. I shouldn't have to wait forever for the navigation options to come up on the touch screen before I can even make selections. Not as big of a problem once you're into a book, but still terribly frustrating when you just want to start reading. The speed makes the Nook almost unusable.
2I'm tempted to give it a 1, because I was so frustrated, and this is after the firmware update. This thing is slow; the touch-screen responsiveness is buggy; it will disappear and then take a few seconds to reappear when you want to use it. The "page back" on the left side of our Nook is loose and makes too much noise.
Round 5: Value
Last, but definitely not least, we consider the price of these e-book readers measured against their respective features, design, and performance. This task is made somewhat easier given that both are (at the time of this writing) priced identically at $259.
4When Barnes & Noble finally allows you to stream and sample e-books in its stores via Wi-Fi, that will give it some extra value. To me, they're both priced fairly well, though the arrival of the iPad may force both to go down to $199.
3The price is right in line with the Kindle, and the books, if anything, seem to be a tad cheaper overall. But if I'm going to pay the same for either, I'd rather have the Kindle.
3There are a lot of features packed in here, but I was constantly distracted by its poor performance.
The winner is...
Barnes & Noble Nook (3G/Wi-Fi) (3.1 pts)
Oh, Nook--close, but no cigar. Even though the Nook edges Amazon's reader on features, the Kindle ekes out a win thanks to a more polished experience. Of course, with these products, you're always just a theoretical firmware update away from turning the tables. Still, we'd expect future versions of both of these products to benefit from a combination of improved features and performance with lower prices to combat the oncoming Apple iPad juggernaut.
A panel of judges from CNET.com put the second-generation Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook through their paces, pitting the players head-to-head in five rounds. See who comes out on top in this subjective battle.