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Barnes & Noble wins one over Amazon with Nook

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Columnist / June 23, 2011

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Amazon.com is one of the most successful retailers on Earth. Old-school bookseller Barnes & Noble Inc. is bleeding cash.

In most respects, it’s hardly a fair fight.

But when it comes to electronic books, B&N has begun to level the playing field. The company’s newest Nook reader is a delight — compact, responsive, and blessed with a really good touchscreen.

I didn’t have much use for the original Nook, with its gimmicky combination of a black-and-white E Ink screen for reading and a little color screen for displaying book titles. But since then, B&N has delivered the Nook Color, a sharp little $249 e-reader that’s also the best low-priced tablet computer you can buy. Now comes the new entry-level Nook for $139, a worthy rival for the low-cost Amazon Kindle, which can cost as little as $114. After a head-to-head comparison, I could be happy with either, but it was the Nook that usually found its way into my hands.

It’s the feel of it, for one thing. While slightly thicker than the Kindle, the Nook is about an inch shorter because there’s no physical keyboard. As with the Apple Inc. iPad, virtually everything is controlled by touching the screen. Sony Corp. introduced a touchscreen E Ink reader in 2008, but it was mediocre. B&N got it right.

There is a set of rubber-coated buttons on either side of the device that can be used for turning pages. Press and hold them, and you can fast- forward or rewind your book. But I found the buttons stiff and uncomfortable; luckily, you don’t need them. Swipe the screen from side to side to turn pages. Press and hold any spot on the screen for other features, such as a dictionary or the ability to add notes by pecking them into the Nook’s very responsive virtual keyboard. Touch a book-shaped icon atop the screen to go directly to the last page you were reading.

The Nook’s screen is less flashy than that of the Kindle, but that’s a good thing. The E Ink technology, which creates an easy-to-read display that works in sunlight, has an annoying quirk that makes the screen blink to black when you turn pages. It’s very distracting. The newest Nook hasn’t eliminated the problem, but it’s gotten pretty close. Flashing only happens every four or five page turns.

The Nook’s home screen is more welcoming and practical than the Kindle’s. Instead of bland and unattractive menus, you get well-designed visual cues that guide you to your current reading choice, as well as the rest of your library, and suggestions on what to buy next.

Still, the new Nook has its limitations. It doesn’t offer a 3G option to let you buy books anywhere via a cellular data connection.

The Nook connects to the Internet only through Wi-Fi, but owners get free access to all Wi-Fi hots pots operated by AT&T Inc. That’s a lot of hot spots: AT&T service is available at most Starbucks coffee shops, McDonald’s restaurants, and of course, B&N’s chain of brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Also missing: The clever text-to-speech feature of the Kindle, which can read books aloud, or the Kindle’s ability to play back MP3 music.

Not only does the Kindle offer more features, but you can also get the newest model at a sizeable discount if you don’t mind looking at a few ads.

A “special offers’’ version displays advertising on the bottom of the Kindle’s menu page or as screensaver images, but not inside books.

In exchange, you save some money on the device. Amazon’s Wi-Fi-only version, normally priced at $139, costs $114 with advertising. The 3G Kindle, usually $189, drops to $164.

For now, Amazon is number one in e-readers with about 40 percent of the market. And with the Kindle’s extra features, its ad-supported discounts, and its excellent reputation, Amazon will stay on top.

But Barnes & Noble must be desperate to compensate for its fading bookstore business with a high-tech hit. Thanks to the superb new Nook, they just might pull it off.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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