Barnes & Noble's new Nook is so different from the eReader that debuted a year and a half ago that it almost deserves a new name. Smaller, lighter, and simpler, the second-generation Nook eliminates some of the features of the previous model, such as the secondary LCD, web browser, and 3G connectivity, but it adds a touchscreen and social-networking capabilities. Can this streamlined Nook--and its lower price of $139--finally beat Amazon at the eReader game?
The second-generation Nook sports a radically different design than the original. Gone is the secondary LCD and much of the device's bulk. Now measuring just 6.5 x 5.0 x 0.47 inches and weighing just under 7.5 ounces, the new Nook is super slim and light, perfect for long reading sessions and for whipping out while standing in line or in a crowded commuter train. It's much smaller than the original Nook (7.7 x 4.9 x 0.5 inches, 12.1 ounces) and even more pocketable than the Kindle 3G (7.5 x 4.8 x 0.34 inches, 8.7 ounces). The E Ink display remains the same size--6 inches--and now supports touch capabilities, thus eliminating the need for many buttons. The Nook comes in only one color: graphite
Barnes & Noble has paid greater attention to ergonomics and tactile comfort in this generation. The back of the Nook now has a soft-touch coating that makes it feel rubberized. In addition, the back has a contour design to make holding the device easier and more comfortable. We didn't feel in danger of dropping it even when jostled around while on a subway.
Barnes & Noble set out to make the new Nook as simple to use as possible with as few buttons as possible. The Power button sits on the back at the top and a stylized N-shaped Menu button sits underneath the display in front. Flanking the screen are two page-turn buttons on each side. The buttons on our review unit felt slightly stiff--enough that we had to push more deliberately than we wanted, but we assume they'll break in over time.
We appreciate that users have the ability to customize which functions these buttons perform. In Settings, you can decide if the top or bottom buttons will turn the page forward or back. This means that, large hands or small, users can assign Page Forward to the button that falls naturally under their thumb--a big improvement over the original. Whichever button acts as Page Forward will also, when held down, activate Fast Page, which is akin to quickly flipping the pages of a paper book.
Display and Reading Experience
The Nook's 6-inch display utilizes Pearl E Ink technology--the same as on the Amazon Kindle 3G--offering 16 levels of grayscale. With the two eReaders sitting side by side, the Kindle has slightly more contrast, but overall the two are fairly evenly matched. Text stands out nicely against the background on the Nook, but it isn't as crisp as on the Kindle using the smallest font settings, making tiny text harder to read. This isn't an issue once you move up to medium sizes.
Graphics, such as book covers and magazine art, look as good in grayscale as we'd expect. You won't get the graphical experience of the Nook Color, but for consumers who focus on the text as opposed to aesthetics, this won't be a problem.
The Nook's display is touch-enabled and uses an infrared touch technology similar to that on Sony's latest Readers. The display itself is sunken instead of flush with the bezel, but it doesn't have any glare or extra layer above the E Ink. Both outdoor and indoor reading remain exceptional.
Performance-wise, we found the second-generation Nook to be fast and responsive; we never had trouble getting the device to recognize taps and swipes. Though E Ink displays refresh slower than LCD panels, there was little lag when moving from screen to screen, even in the Shopping area.
Barnes & Noble worked hard to make page turns speedy and to eliminate the flash that usually comes when turning pages on E Ink devices. Now with most page turns, the words dissolve in a much less jarring way, though there will be a short flash about every six pages. But since the page turn happens very quickly, even that isn't as distracting as it once was.
We're particularly glad that users have three choices when turning pages, the most important aspect of the eReading experience. Users can either swipe across the display, tap the left or right edges, or use the physical buttons. We found ourselves using the physical buttons more because they provided satisfying tactile feedback, but tapping the display was just as comfortable and easy.
Page turns are fast, but not as fast as on the Kindle 3G. The Nook lagged behind by a fraction of a second when turning pages of the same book. We found the same speedy rate of page turns for both using the physical buttons and swiping or tapping the screen.
Inside books there are six font face options (half serif and half sans-serif) and seven text sizes from which to choose. Users can also adjust line spacing and margins (though margins don't get as small as those found on the Kindle) or choose to use the publisher's defaults for the book.
Notes, Bookmarks, Sharing, and Nook Friends
The on-screen keyboard on the second-gen Nook is both comfortable and fast, so adding notes to passages isn't as tedious as we've found it to be on other eReaders. We found it similar to typing on an Android tablet with a capacitive screen, though the letters appeared a fraction of a second slower than they would on an LCD. Even the Kindle's physical keyboard isn't as nice to use, because of its stiff keys and lack of dedicated number row. On the Nook, numbers are on a secondary board, as we're used to seeing on Android devices.
Tiny icons indicate notes within text, and users can find them again under the Contents menu; same thing goes for Bookmarks. Not only will the Nook keep track of your last page read, but users can also bookmark any page using an icon on the top right.
Just as with the Nook Color, owners can share information about the books they're reading to Facebook and Twitter as well as the new Nook Friends service. Sharing features include posting excerpts and quotes from a book, sharing how far along you are in the title, or simply liking it on Facebook. Quotes to Facebook can be fairly long, but on Twitter you're limited to 114 characters to make room for the link to the book and a #Nook hashtag. We like that this links to the book's product page, but we wish that it also showed the longer quote as Amazon does.
Nook Friends connects users with Barnes & Noble accounts to Nook-based social reading. Limited to Nook and Nook Color users (not those with just the mobile apps), this social network is fairly basic and is meant to mirror the ways people share books and recommendations offline. On the Nook you can see a news feed of updates from your Nook Friends, including how far they are in books and the ones they've reviewed. You can also see which of their books are lendable and request a book from a friend. Users can choose what information they want to share with friends.
We're fans of the Nook's new interface, which looks like a pared-down version of that found on the Nook Color. Like its color sibling, the Nook runs Android 2.1, though users will see little evidence of that thanks to Barnes & Noble's custom GUI. When you first turn on the Nook you're presented with the Home screen, which gives an overview of your current status, the eBook you're reading, other recently opened or acquired books, and activity from people in your Nook Friends network. Under the Menu button, users can access the Home screen, Library, the Store, a Search function, and the Settings. All this makes the Home screen a bit crowded, though we get that the idea was to present important information up front. Otherwise, we found the interface's aesthetics elegant and clear.
Since this is a touchscreen device, many functions reside in menus, privileging content on most screens. We like that there's always a clear way to back out of or close a screen. Plus, with the Menu button, the top level is just a click and a tap away.
This generation of the Nook only comes with Wi-Fi, so users will need to be in range of a hotspot in order to buy content on the device and download already purchased books. More mobile users may regret the loss of ubiquitous connectivity. Barnes & Noble makes up for this somewhat by offering free in-store Wi-Fi to all Nook users, plus free Wi-Fi at AT&T hotspots across the U.S. (more than 20,000 so far).
Other casualties to Barnes & Noble's desire to make this Nook much simpler are the web browser, games, and music. There's no longer a stand-alone web browser, though users can access the B&N online storefront; just not the wider web. Browsing on an E Ink device isn't the best experience, but it can work in a pinch.
We would have liked to see Music as a feature, particularly in regards to audio books, though it's ultimately unnecessary.
Content and Shopping Experience
Currently, the Barnes & Noble eBook catalog has more than 2 million titles, but more than a million of those are public-domain books from Google Books. Still, there is an impressive number of new titles, plus 95 percent of the current New York Times best sellers, such as Bossypants by Tina Fey and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente. The Nook Newsstand has more than 80 magazines and newspapers available for digital subscription. Customers can buy single issues or subscribe (with a 14-day free trial).
The shopping interface is simple and easy to navigate, thanks to the touchscreen. The only major complaint we have is the search function. No matter what section you're browsing, searching for a phrase brings up results from the entire catalog, which can't be sorted in many useful ways. If you search for Women's Health in the magazine section, you'll get more than 2,000 results from books, magazines, and newspapers, many that don't have "women's health" in the title, but somewhere in the description or metadata. We hope Barnes & Noble improves search.
As the Nook reads eBooks in the EPUB file format, owners won't be limited to Barnes & Noble's store or selection, as with the Kindle. The device can read EPUB books with Adobe's DRM or those without any DRM. This means that books from Borders, Google, Kobo, and Sony will work. However, users won't be able to read books bought on Amazon or from Apple's iBooks store.
The Nook only supports one type of document format: PDF. Though Barnes & Noble told us that the Nook doesn't support PDF reflow, we found that with most documents we were able to change font sizes and the text fit to the screen well. Whether this works with other PDFs may depend on how they were made.
We're disappointed that the Nook still doesn't support RTF, DOC, or text files like the Kindle 3G does.
Barnes & Noble claims that the Nook will last for three weeks on a charge with the Wi-Fi on and up to two months with the Wi-Fi off. The Kindle Wi-Fi is rated to last just one month with the radio off and the original Nook would only last up to 10 days with it off and 4 days on.
Barnes & Noble's second-generation Nook is a big improvement over the original, which we liked quite a bit. It matches Amazon's Kindle in style and design, but is even easier to use because of its touchscreen. While the Kindle was faster at page turns and has wider document support, the Nook's intuitive user interface, more ergonomic design, and EPUB support make it the best E Ink eReader on the market right now. And with a relatively low price--$139--it has even more mainstream appeal.