With the Nook e-book reader, Barnes & Noble challenges Amazon's Kindle

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, January 17, 2010

Amazon.com's Kindle is no longer the only e-book story out there. The Seattle retailer's devices still dominate the market, but other companies are responding with their own wireless e-readers.

At last week's Consumer Electronics Show, for example, Sony showed off its new Sony Reader Daily Edition while name-brand vendors such as Samsung and newcomers such as Plastic Logic introduced a variety of e-reader devices. And another veteran book retailer -- Barnes & Noble -- now sells a tablet called the Nook.

Like the Kindle, the $259 Nook (http://bn.com/nook) combines an "e-ink" screen and free wireless access to download books on the go -- then adds a second, touch-sensitive color display and a WiFi receiver to cover for gaps in its AT&T-provided service.

Like Amazon's reader at its debut, the Nook has limited availability; yesterday, Barnes & Noble's site listed an "expected ship date" no earlier than Feb. 12.

Is the Nook worth that wait? After a week of testing a borrowed one, I'd say not quite. The Nook includes an important feature that Amazon misses, but it doesn't match the Kindle's elegance and ease of use.

The Nook's problems start with that dual-screen setup. First, having only one screen accept touch input invites confusion (though going to the next or previous page requires only tapping large buttons on the Nook's sides). Second, because the touch screen turns off automatically, doing anything on the main screen often requires waking up the other display with a tap of its home button.

The color display, with the WiFi receiver, seems to limit the Nook's battery life. A solid day of browsing and reading left only a quarter of a charge.

The Nook's primary display shares the issues of other e-ink screens. Although this grayscale display needs little power and is readable in sunlight, its contrast and sharpness is little better than a trade paperback's. And turning the page involves waiting a second while it flashes a photo-negative image of the prior page.

The Nook's AT&T wireless service never dropped, which is a good thing in light of its inept WiFi interface. Instead of showing available signals, the Nook makes you type a network's "SSID" (that is, name), select its encryption method (quick, do you use WPA or WPA2?) and enter a password on an on-screen keyboard.

In Barnes & Noble's own shops, the Nook connects automatically to the in-store WiFi. But at the Clarendon store two weeks ago, the Nook did not display the promised in-store coupons.

The Nook logs on to the same e-book store as the e-reader software Barnes & Noble introduced in July. Most new titles sell for $9.99; older titles can come at a slight discount (William Gibson's 2003 science-fiction novel "Pattern Recognition" cost $6.39, only 80 cents less than B&N's Web price for a paperback) or may not be available at all.

With your account registered on the Nook, buying a book requires only a few seconds' wait to download it. You can also read the book on any other gadget with Barnes & Noble's reader software -- Mac and Windows computers and BlackBerry, iPhone and iPod touch devices, with support for Android and Windows Mobile phones coming late this winter.

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