Editors' note (May 24, 2011): Barnes & Noble has announced that the second-generation e-ink Nook will be available as of June 10, 2011. It features a touch-screen, and retails for $139. The first-generation model reviewed here will be discontinued immediately. Remaining inventory will be sold off at closeout prices of $119 (Wi-Fi-only) and $169 (3G+Wi-Fi). The Nook Color remains in the line at a price of $249.
Editors' note: This review has been updated extensively to account for changes in the Nook's features and performance resulting from firmware upgrades on April 23, 2010, and November 22, 2010, as well as the availability of the third-generation Kindle and the Nook Color. Note that user reviews prior to April 23 and November 22 reflect the earlier respective versions of the firmware.
The Barnes & Noble Nook, the first Android-powered e-book reader, has had an interesting, if somewhat tumultuous, history. When it was first unveiled in the fall of 2009, a lot of people were excited because it appeared to offer some key competitive advantages over the version of the Amazon Kindle e-reader that was available at the time.
Unfortunately, like a lot of first-generation devices, the Nook had its share of technical and usability issues. Thankfully, Barnes & Noble stuck with the device--and the early adopters--and delivered a series of free software upgrades that has improved the device considerably.
Anyone buying a Nook now will find a product that's significantly improved from the one that was first released a year earlier. Perhaps the most welcome software improvement is significantly speedier page turns. The screen refresh when moving from page to page is much quicker, nearly matching the refresh rates of the latest Kindle. The Nook also added a laundry list of interface and usability improvements, such as the ability to organize your book collection by category, or "shelves," as it's called on the device.
Does the updated Nook beat the latest Kindle? From a design standpoint, no. The third-generation Amazon Kindle is lighter, thinner, and simply feels a little better to hold in your hand. It also offers double the battery life, more internal memory (4GB versus 2GB), and a slightly better, next-generation "Pearl" e-ink screen. That's why the Kindle is currently our Editors' Choice for e-ink e-readers. But that said, the latest software updates make the e-ink Nook a better device than it's ever been before. Moreover, the Nook offers some features not found on the Kindle. And for some people those features may tip the scales in favor of the Nook. In other words, the Nook should definitely remain under consideration when you're shopping for e-ink e-book readers. The decision may come down to a personal preference, such as how you feel about the color navigation screen versus the hard keyboard found on the Kindle.
As of November 2010, there are three Nook models:
Nook (3G/Wi-Fi) ($199): This is the original version of the Nook, which offers a 6-inch e-ink screen and built-in 3G cellular and Wi-Fi wireless.
Nook (Wi-Fi) ($149): This version (reviewed here) drops the 3G wireless found in the original Nook, and it weighs a tad less. It's the most affordable Nook model available, costing 25 percent less than the 3G version.
Nook Color (Wi-Fi) ($249): Unlike the e-ink Nook models, the Nook Color offers a 7-inch color LCD touch screen. It's really a completely different product than the earlier Nooks, and it earned a CNET Editors' Choice as the best LCD e-book reader under $250.
Like many e-ink e-book readers, the Barnes & Noble Nook offers a 6-inch screen (600x800 pixels, 16 shades of gray). However, unlike the Kindle, it includes a separate color capacitive touch screen (144x480 pixels) that lets you navigate content and use a virtual keyboard for typing searches and annotations.
Put the Nook on top of the Kindle and you'll notice that the Nook is slightly bigger in terms of surface dimensions. It's also thicker. The Nook is 7.7 inches long by 4.9 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick, whereas the Kindle is 7.5 inches long by 4.8 inches wide by 0.34 inch thick. The Nook also weighs more at 11.2 ounces than the Kindle does at 8.7 ounces. Unlike the Kindle, the device's plastic back plate is removable and the lithium ion battery is replaceable (the microSD slot can also be accessed by removing the cover). On the Wi-Fi-only Nook, the back cover is white; on the Wi-Fi/3G version it's a putty color. Smartly, Barnes & Noble is offering back covers in different colors as optional accessories, along with various third-party protective cases (alas, no cover--not even a cheap neoprene one--ships with the device).
It's also worth noting that the Nook's off-white border is closer to gray than to white, and the finish is shiny (we prefer the Kindle's matte finish, but that's a small nitpick). The e-ink screen on the Nook looks very similar to that of the Kindle, though the Kindle's contrast is slightly better (the letters are a tad darker due to the Pearl e-ink screen). However, the lettering on the Nook comes across with sufficient contrast--no complaints there.
The color touch screen at the bottom of the device creates an interesting dynamic. For better or worse, since it's bright and vibrant when turned on, it makes the upper e-ink screen appear bland and dull. (E-ink screens are designed to appear paperlike and are purposely not backlit to reduce eyestrain when reading.) But the LCD is eye-catching and offers an extra bit of wow factor that's currently not present in the Kindle, or in any other competing e-book reader in this price range (the Alex eReader also features a second, color LCD, and is Android-powered, but it retails for $399).
Interface and usability
Using the touch-screen navigation pad does take some getting used to, particularly if you're accustomed to using a touch-screen phone like the iPhone. Your initial urge is to touch the e-ink part of the screen. (If touch-screen navigation is a must-have, opt instead for the Nook Color or a Sony Reader model.) Gradually, you'll get used to the concept of confining your touches to the screen at the bottom and the Nook logo that sits just above the screen. That Nook "button" serves as a home button that turns the color screen on when it's asleep; for energy-saving purposes, you can set the screen to turn off after 10, 30, or 60 seconds when not in use.
At first, you may find yourself muddling through the interface, stopping to figure out what button to push next to get to where you want to go. But with some practice, it starts to grow on you; we ended up liking it. (The interface has improved further with subsequent firmware updates, though it still has its share of quirks that can lead to moments of frustration.) Also, the ability to browse through color thumbnail images of books with a flick of your finger is appealing.
Even in its improved state, however, the navigation touch screen just won't measure up to the speed expectations you may have from an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android phone, or even the Nook Color.
Yes, the touch screen is more responsive than the comparatively laggy e-ink screen, and, yes, you can flip through your reading collection Cover Flow-style, but you're just not going to get that buttery smoothness you encounter on full touch-screen devices. There will be moments you'll wish the device was zippier.
True, the speed gripe is par for the course with e-ink-based e-book readers; all of them still stutter and flash when moving from page to page and generally have slow start-up times after a full shutdown (as the Nook does). However, the firmware upgrades have managed to fix earlier gripes about sluggish load times when opening books, and the Nook's latest 1.5 firmware upgrade (November 2010) speeds up page turns noticeably--our tests confirm the company's claims of a 50 percent speed boost.
Like the Kindle, the Nook has a built-in dictionary. The device lets you adjust font size while you're reading (extra-small, small, medium, large, and extra-large are the settings). Additionally, you have a few fonts to choose from (Amasis, Helvetica Neue, and Light Classic), which is nice.
We also like that you can import images to be your screensaver. Alas, you can't send images to the device wirelessly; you need to connect the Nook to your Windows or Mac PC via the included Micro-USB connector and then "sideload" them manually. The same is true for MP3 music files that you can load onto the device and listen to while you read.