Using a dedicated portable reading device is one of the best ways I know to read digital content without distraction. But selecting an appropriate device can be confusing. My guess is you won’t get the most suitable device for your needs if you ask, “Which is the best e-reader?” Try instead asking the following set of questions:
Hardware questions (less important)
- Do you prefer black and white E Ink or high resolution color LCDs?
- Do you prefer touch or keyboard?
- What size do you prefer—pocket, novel, or large tablet?
- How are page turns? How will your hands feel after hours of use?
- Are any other hardware features important to you such as speed, battery life, connectivity, or expandable storage?
Platform questions (more important):
- How good is the user interface on this device and other devices for this platform?
- How well does the software on the device support what you want to do with it?
- What kinds of lending, borrowing, and in-store reading are available and how well do they work?
- What is the e-book store like?
- Will you be able to read the kinds of material you want to read on this device?
- How is customer service?
- Do you want to maximize flexibility or minimize interruption?
- Summing it up—Which platform do you want?
The last question may be the most important: Which platform do you want? With the printed books lining your bookshelf, you or anyone you lend them to can read them any time, anywhere. With books you buy for your Kindle, Nook, or iOS device, it’s not anywhere near so simple. Who, where, and how your e-books can be accessed is complicated and limited.
The rest of this post describes the choices you have for each of these questions, focusing especially on the device I’ve been using heavily for the past 3 months: The Nook Simple Touch. Think of this post as a reference, a thorough Nook Simple Touch review, and most importantly a thought process for sorting out what you most want in a portable reading device and platform.
UPDATE: Barnes and Noble released firmware update 1.1.0 on November 7, 2011. Read about the incremental changes to this review, here.
I bought a Nook Simple Touch about 3 months ago for $139 (+ tax). For something costing this amount, you might think a few minutes is enough time to decide whether to buy it or a competing device like a Kindle 3 (now called Kindle Keyboard) or iPod touch. But consider that e-books cost money too. At a typical cost of $9.99 per e-book, you could spend $200 purchasing 20 e-books each year.
When you buy an e-reader, you’re also buying into a platform which limits choices for accessing various formats and e-book stores, including e-books you’ve already purchased. If you own a lot of Kindle books you’ll want to keep buying Kindles or other devices that can read Kindle’s proprietary format so that you don’t lose access to your already purchased books. Same is true for the Nook.
So, before you commit to buying hundreds of dollars worth of books for the Nook, Kindle, or some other reading platform, you’ll want to know if it’s the right long-term platform for you (Either that, or stick to free reading materials so that you’re not committed to the platform).
Looked at in this light, hardware is not as important as the platform. Most reviews of the Nook Simple Touch and competing devices focus primarily on the hardware, with little regard to the overall platform question. This made sense in years prior when there were many hardware limitations. But most new reading devices released after the middle of 2010 have been plenty good for reading text. The bigger differences are in the platform behind the device.
I’m going to take a different approach and guide you through a series of questions that will help you think about both hardware and platform choices. I’ll focus on the Nook Simple Touch since that is what I’ve been using for the past 3 months, but to properly frame the discussion I will frequently refer to competing devices from Amazon and Apple.
Given the length of this piece, you may want to focus on the sections that most matter to you. If there is one section you shouldn’t skip, it is the last section: “Which platform do you want?”
Question 1: Do you prefer black and white E Ink or high resolution color LCDs?
Many people think E Ink is easier on your eyes than LCD screens. I used to think that too. Having used and written about the iPod touch as e-book reader, I now have a different view. E Ink is far easier on the eyes than commonly available low resolution LCD screens. But the very best LCD screens with 170 PPI or higher such as Apple’s Retina display or Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays are excellent for reading and just as easy on the eyes for many people.
E Ink is generally easier to read in sunny or bright lighting conditions. In dim lighting conditions an E Ink display requires a lamp or clip-on light. An advantage of having no internal backlight is that battery life is measured in weeks.
Conversely, LCD screens are backlit and work well in dark to moderate light conditions. Outdoor use is problematic due to glare. Battery life will be measured in hours.
There is plenty of debate about E Ink vs. LCD. I suspect neither will prove superior, but just a matter of choice and preference. Very helpful is to borrow both an iPod touch 4g and a current generation e-reader such as the Nook Simple Touch or Kindle 3. Try using both in bright and dim conditions. You’ll find out soon enough which you prefer. For some people the answer is both: use E Ink in bright conditions and backlit LCD in dim conditions.
How does the Nook Simple Touch stack up against the E Ink competition?
The Nook Simple Touch has the same 6 inch, 167 PPI Pearl E Ink display found in the latest Kindle and Kobo E Ink readers. Displays using the new Pearl E Ink technology have much better contrast than E Ink displays from prior generations and are therefore easier to read in a wider variety of lighting conditions.
Despite using the same panel, text on the Nook looks different from text on the Kindle. Both have crisp text and good contrast, but Kindle seems a bit crisper to some eyes, and much crisper to others. Part of this is because full refreshes happen only once every sixth page turn on the Nook, causing ghosting (faint images from prior pages). This ghosting can be quite noticeable by the fourth or fifth page. But some people believe that a more important text crispness issue is different font designs and rendering techniques. I have not used a Kindle 3 so all I can say personally is that the Nook Simple Touch is both crisper and easier to read with a greater variety of lighting conditions than older displays such as the Kindle 2 or the original Nook. Most importantly—it’s plenty good enough for me.
Some people are annoyed by the way E Ink flashes with each page turn (full refresh). This happens only once every 6 pages with the Nook Simple Touch. Though it’s nice that this is absent for 5 of 6 pages, some people find this occasional page flash jarring.
Reading with the Nook’s default Caecilia font feels like reading a paperback book—I don’t even think about the font. Not so with the other 5 included fonts. All 6 fonts look good at large sizes. However, at the second or third smallest size (similar to a paperback novel), I find Caecilia far easier to read. My second favorite, Malabar, is readable but thick, squished and wide. Amasis is a fairly narrow font that looks cramped for my eyes at my normal size setting but looks very nice at the fourth and higher font size. The other 3 fonts, Gill Sans, Helvetica Neue, and Trebuchet remind me of what print looked like on 300 DPI laser printers when they first came out 15 years ago—so thin and plain as to be distracting.
As with any touch screen, smudging can be an issue. If I look at my Nook from just the right angle and catch the light just right, I can notice smudges. However, with typical lighting and clean hands, I just notice the text I’m reading. I suspect it’s not a good idea to read a Nook with very dirty or greasy hands—but you wouldn’t want to do that with other e-readers or regular books either.
Some people wonder if the Nook’s touch screen reduces reading quality. I suspect it does, but only slightly. There are rumors that Amazon has been slow to introduce a touch-based Kindle because it reduces crispness and/or clarity of text. The biggest issue I’ve noticed with the Nook’s touch screen is that it catches more glare outdoors than E Ink readers that don’t have a touch screen. It’s not a lot of glare, and glare can be reduced by changing the angle of the Nook. But for those who read outdoors frequently, the (non-touch) Kindle display is at least mildly preferable.
Bottom line: The Nook Simple Touch E Ink display stacks up well versus the E Ink competition (using the default Caecilia font). If you use the smallest font size, you read outdoors a lot, or have very discerning eyes, you’ll likely prefer the Kindle 3 display. But the bigger question will be whether you prefer E Ink or high resolution color LCD. Or both.
Question 2: Do you prefer touch or keyboard?
In the past, getting a touch screen device for reading required an LCD screen. Several E Ink devices are now available with a touch display, so you don’t have to give up touch to go with E Ink.
The success of the iPhone has made it clear that most consumers prefer touch over keyboards in handheld devices. There will always be exceptions, of course. Some people find they can type much faster with physical keyboards and find that useful for taking notes. Some people may be accustomed to Kindle keyboards and don’t want to change to something new. But touch screen keyboards work well enough for most people and help keep devices smaller, lighter, and simpler to use.
Touch works quite well on the new Nook. The infrared touchscreen technology used cannot match the responsiveness of capacitive touch displays found in devices like the iPod touch. However, it doesn’t feel sluggish when turning pages or navigating, and that’s all that really matters for a reading device.
A few quirks:
- Light touches work best.
- The left most edge of the display is less sensitive.
- When used in a hot room, the touch display is less responsive.
- The touchscreen is normally so responsive that it’s easy to accidentally double turn a page.
After a few weeks of use I got used to these quirks and learned to work around them. I now find touch to be responsive, intuitive, and automatic.
Like all touch-based devices, an adult finger is not all that precise. Barnes and Noble designed the interface with buttons in some places that are too small to easily touch. For example, if you want to edit a “shelf” to have more or less books, you need to touch a circle (with a triangle in the middle) that is literally 2 mm wide. I can only hit it in maybe 1 out of every 5 tries, and missing lands me on a different screen. If the button were 4mm wide I wouldn’t have a problem.
There is clearly room for minor improvement, some of which may be accomplished with software updates. But this first version of the touch display already works quite well for reading and navigating. Given that this 1.0 version of touch already competes well with keyboard-based e-readers that have years of refinement behind them, I suspect e-readers are headed in the same direction as phones. Devices with keyboards will be a niche part of the market a few years from now.
Question 3: What size do you prefer—pocket, novel, or large tablet?
For many people, the answer to this will depend on the situation. When out and about, you may want something you can carry in your pocket. When reading around the home or office, most people prefer larger sizes, perhaps a novel size for books, and a large tablet for reading magazines, PDFs, or newspapers.
Keyboard-based Kindles are too large to fit in a pocket. The Nook Simple Touch has the same display size yet fits nicely in a large vest or jacket pocket. I’ve carried it around and used it in a large vest pocket. I find it to be less cumbersome than a paperback book, which is thicker and heavier.
You can carry an iPod touch or smartphone in any sized pocket, but you lose screen size. I find that 3 screens of iPod touch text equal about 2 screens of Nook text. The only way I get this good a ratio is by using a smaller font size on the iPod touch while holding it a few inches closer to my eyes.
Another issue with pocket sized devices is that most of them are general purpose pocket computers. As I discussed in this interruption technology essay, reading on a pocket computer can be more difficult due to interruptions and tempting distractions.
Some things will never work well on a 6” screen. Most notably, PDF documents are usually formatted for 8.5” x 11” paper. PDFs with lots of graphics can be difficult to read on a small screen, even with lots of helpful panning and zooming controls as found on Kindles (but not this Nook). Magazines, picture books for kids, and other large format content will also benefit from larger screens.
The iPad and its large tablet competitors will be preferred for such large format content, all other things being equal. However, as of 2011, large tablets have low resolution displays and are much more expensive. I personally plan to avoid the large tablet category until display resolution increases, price declines, and the software platforms mature.
Given that device costs continue to drop, I suspect that the size issue won’t be an either/or choice much longer. Most people will choose to have multiple devices, each used at different times and places, and for different content. However, the size of the Nook is particularly attractive given that it has a novel-sized screen but can fit into a large pocket or purse.
Question 4: How are page turns? How will your hands feel after hours of use?
I happen to have hands that tire easily when gripping something for hours at a time. I avoid reading large hardback books for that reason. Paperback books are much better, especially slim ones.
How will your hands feel after several days in a row of e-reading many hours/day? It will depend a lot on the size of your hands and how you hold the device. An iPod touch is something you clutch in one hand. If you grip it hard, your hand may get tired like mine does after a few hours. You may find yourself looking for ways to read without holding it.
The Kindle 2 and Kindle 3 are light. But you have to keep your hands in the same place at all times in order to have access to the page turning buttons. Some people are able to use this device one handed while resting the other—but we’re still talking about keeping your hands in the same position, which for some people gets tiring after hours of use.
I think this is the one aspect of the Nook Simple Touch hardware that has leapfrogged the competition. The combination of wide bezel (area surrounding the screen), small size, light weight, rubberized surface, and three page turning methods means there are numerous ways to hold the device.
The most obvious way to hold the new Nook is with the bottom corners digging into palms, with thumbs resting on the bezel, so that you can turn pages by pressing the upper page turn buttons built into the bezel. This would be the most comfortable position for me if not for the hard plastic edge digging into my palm. Wearing bicycle gloves helps a little and using a skin or cover might help even more.
But instead of trying to make my favorite hand position work, I just shift my hands around in a variety of positions, and can hold it in any of the following ways:
- any combination of corners
- like a phone (one handed)
- pinching it with 2 fingers (one handed)
- with one hand in back and thumb across one top corner (one handed)
- with one hand in back and other hand’s thumb on opposite top corner
- lean it against something
Part of what makes this work is having three different ways to turn a page. I often use the slim buttons built into both sides of the bezel. These buttons require a strong press which some people find uncomfortable. But it does mean far fewer accidental page turns compared with button presses on the Kindle or screen touches on the Nook. I also turn pages by touching the screen’s right or left screen edges, when holding the Nook one handed. Others prefer swiping for its reliability (touching the side of the screen sometimes results in double page turns). Having 3 choices means that most people will find some way of holding the Nook and turning pages that pleases them, or may prefer as I do to rotate through many positions to avoid hand fatigue.
If hand fatigue issues have soured you on e-readers, you’ll want to try this device. None of the competition to date offers anywhere near the variety of potential hand positions as the Nook Simple Touch.
Question 5: Are any other hardware features important to you such as speed, battery life, connectivity, or expandable storage?
In talking to people about e-readers, I’ve noticed that a minor feature or two sometimes makes a big deal of difference. Let’s take a look at some of these features, one by one:
Speed: E-reading devices based on E Ink have been plagued with speed issues for years. Older models of the Nook and Kindle had noticeably slow page turns and sluggish behavior for anything but reading a novel. However, the recent crop of devices released since mid 2010 have all been fast enough to read appropriately formatted books without hindrance, and navigation is faster as well. Speed will only be an issue if you’re buying an older, used device.
The Nook Simple Touch in specific is among the fastest E Ink devices available partly thanks to full refreshes only once every 6 pages. While reading, you may not notice a difference between a Kindle 3 and the Nook Simple Touch. However, the lack of full refresh on 5 out of 6 pages means the Nook is much faster at rapidly skimming though a book. While the touch screen does not respond instantaneously to touch, it is plenty fast enough for the types of navigational activities needed on an e-reader.
Browsing: Speed does matter if you need a browser for reading or other purposes. Browsing on LCD devices such as the iPod touch and the Nook Color is much faster and better than browsing on E Ink devices. The Nook Simple Touch doesn’t even try, as there is no officially supported browser. Some types of reading can only be accessed via the web, so the lack of browser in the Nook Simple Touch restricts what can be read on the device. Note that there is an undocumented browser that can be used, but it is buggy, slow, and primitive. The lack of a supported browser means lack of access to cloud-based reading with Google Reader or the recently released Amazon Cloud Reader. If you want a workable (but not great) browser on an E Ink device, you’ll need to get a Kindle.
Battery Life: LCD-based e-readers have battery life measured in hours. If there are times when you’ll be away from an electrical outlet for days or weeks at a time, then E Ink based readers such as the new Nook are your only option. The latest E Ink based readers all have battery life measured in weeks. Minor differences between them are irrelevant.
Storage: Most portable reading devices include at least 2GB of internal memory, which will easily be enough storage to accommodate hundreds of books. 2GB is the advertised internal memory (RAM) for the new Nook. However, 1GB is for system software, and .75GB for e-Books purchased through the Barnes and Noble store. Only 240MB remains for side-loaded content such as PDFs or books from other stores. On the bright side, you can go far beyond this by purchasing an inexpensive SD card.
Expandable storage: Most portable reading devices do not provide an expandable storage option. The Nook Simple Touch is an exception, accepting inexpensive SD cards of up to 32GB. If all you read are text-only books obtained from the default store for your device and you plan to store fewer than 500 books, this won’t matter. However, if you plan to load many PDFs or books with graphics on your device, you’ll need more than 2GB. Also, as discussed in the prior paragraph, the Nook dedicates only 240MB of the device’s memory for side-loaded content.
Audio: The Nook Simple Touch has no audio. Kindles, iPod touches, and most other reading devices include audio, which can be useful for pronouncing words or reading books out loud.
Connectivity: The new Nook can access content via WiFi or a USB connection to a computer. A 3g cellular connection is not an option. This means that WiFi or a USB computer connection is needed for downloading new reading material. For people who travel a lot or who don’t have WiFi at home, this may be an important reason to get the competing Kindle 3g model instead. For a growing number of people, WiFi is accessible at work, at home, or free WiFi hotspots. Barnes and Noble provides free WiFi at all USA Starbucks and Barnes and Noble stores.
International: The Nook Simple Touch is intended to be a USA-only device. There do exist ways to buy the Nook and books from the Barnes and Noble e-book store outside the USA. But if you don’t live in the USA, why bother? The Kindle is designed to be used internationally (including some models with international 3G access) and so are Apple iOS devices such as the iPod touch. On the other hand, if all of your reading material on the Nook will come from PDFs, public domain sources, or other side-loaded content, then the USA-only restrictions won’t matter.
Question 6: How good is the user interface on this device and other devices for this platform?
Apple’s iOS platform has a user interface that is much easier to use than any dedicated e-reader device. But does this really matter? Is Nook’s user interface and supporting software good enough for reading, navigating, and obtaining new reading materials?
Before answering this question, it should be noted that Barnes and Noble tends to rush e-reader hardware to market before the supporting operating system is polished and free of bugs. This is followed over the next year with automated updates that fix or improve the operating system. The original Nook was difficult to use for anything but reading an already loaded book when it first shipped as the software was slow and buggy with several confusing design flaws. As these flaws were gradually corrected over time, many people came to love the device. Not me. I never liked the split user interface and I thought the original Nook was too heavy.
The new Nook breaks the trend of rushing products with unfinished software to market. The 1.0.0 software version that initially shipped with the new device was fast, intuitive, and had few obvious bugs (1.0.1 is the latest version as of September 2011). The onscreen keyboard is well designed and easy to use for most people, including myself. Navigation, controls, and settings are organized around three separate areas, one for words or phrases on the current page, one for the book you’re currently reading, and a physical button to access everything else. Here are the details:
A tap on the center of the screen while reading brings up the reading controls. These include content, find, go to, Aa text, and more. Here’s what they do:
Content: 3 tabs show Chapters, Notes & Highlights, and Bookmarks. Chapters show an active table of contents, if present. You can’t modify the table of contents. Notes and Hightlights show words you’ve highlighted or typed in notes about. To see an actual note, you need to tap on the entry which takes you to the page with that note. Then you tap on the note icon on the right. Bookmarks show a list of page numbers and first few words. These are pages you bookmarked by touching the upper right hand corner of the display while reading. For books which lack table of contents, you can easily construct your own using bookmarks.
Find: Use the popup keyboard to find every instance of the word or phrase you type within the current book. This works as you’d expect.
Goto: Move the slider to any part of the book to see what that part of the book looks like. You can then choose to “go to page” that the slider is on or “go back” to where you were reading. Readers of physical books who miss being able to flip around a book may like this feature.
Aa text: You can change font, size, line spacing, and margins to suit your tastes here. As discussed in section 1 (E Ink vs. LCD), I believe the default font is by far the best but you can judge for yourself. There is also a “publisher defaults” button. I have found that these formatting controls do not always work. For example, books you borrow from a library using Overdrive cannot have margins, line spacing, or font adjusted. PDFs appear in true (and usually too small) PDF form on the two smallest font sizes, but reflow into the appropriate size when one of the largest 5 font sizes are chosen. For Nook-formatted epub books you purchase in the Barnes and Noble store, you can change any of these settings.
More: Brings up information about the book—title, author, size, file location, and date modified.
A tap on the Nook’s one physical button brings up the following choices related to navigating and controlling the device: home, library, shop, search, and settings.
The “home” screen is essentially advertising for Barnes and Noble. It is useless for my needs, and lacks customization options. The home screen is divided into 3 sections:
- It shows what I’m reading now (redundant because there is a “go back to reading” icon in the upper left corner of most screens).
- It shows “New reads” from my library. Except it’s not really from my library, but the last 3 books downloaded from the Barnes and Noble store, which is almost never what I actually want to read soon.
- It shows “What To Read Next” on the bottom half of the screen, which pictures 4 different books from the B&N top 100. Never have I seen a book here I’m interested in reading. If I had a number of Nook lending friends with similar tastes, then their recommendations would show up in this section—but when will that ever happen?
The Home screen would be more useful for a person whose primary reading material is popular books purchased from Barnes and Noble’s e-book store. Few people fit this profile, so it would be great if this screen could be customized to better fit each person’s reading habits. For example, to fit my reading habits, I’d like to see the three most recently read books. I’d also like to see suggested new books that are similar to books I’ve fully read on the Nook from any source.
The “library” screen is far more useful and is my de facto home screen. I am usually reading at least 2 books at a time—one for myself and one to my 6 year old son. So I can conveniently switch back and forth between books from the library screen when “All” and “Most Recent” are selected (which shows my entire library, ordered by most recently opened).
You can use the library’s dropdown menu to view all, books, shelves, my files, archives, and everything else. Shelves are categories that you arrange. You start with no shelves but you can create as many as you want, and then each book can be placed in 0 or more categories. With fewer than 100 books this is a fine way to organize books but I wonder how well this would work if you had hundreds of books.
The search function might prove more useful for those with large libraries. Type in one or two keywords and it will bring up everything on the Nook with these keywords in the title or author name. It’s easy to use but you can’t search the content of your books this way—just titles and authors.
The shop screen gives you many different ways to browse books, including categories, popular lists, and your own wish list. You can also search for titles in the ways you’d expect. Assuming you have a Barnes and Noble account setup with an active credit card on file, purchasing is very easy. The bottom half of the screen rotates through advertisements, including a “Free Fridays” screen on Fridays which highlights a expensive book that you can download for free.
Settings allows you to configure the device to your liking with options around Device Info, Wireless, Screen, Time, Reader, Shop, Social, and Search. Clicking on Device Info gives you remaining battery and available storage information. The most commonly used setting for many people will be Wireless, as turning off wireless extends the battery life.
So now that I’ve run through each part of the interface, how does it work as a whole? Overall, quite well. I like how the controls are logically grouped between device (the physical button), book (tap center of page), and phrase/word (touch word for 2 seconds). But there are some quirks:
- By far the most important deficiency is a lack of “back” button on most screens. I’m used to it from using browsers and other touch-based gadgets. This lack of “back” button means it often takes 2-4 actions to return to the prior screen.
- The Nook is designed to funnel you into their store at every turn. I understand that’s how they make money, but some onscreen distractions are over the edge. For example, 1-2 book samples per month are automatically downloaded onto your device which will show up at the top of your library until you archive or buy them (I don’t think you can delete them but at least archiving gets them out of your sight). None of these books have been remotely related to the kinds of books I like to read. As I already discussed, the Home screen is essentially advertising space for books to buy. And, overall, it is very easy to download books from the Nook e-book store but much less convenient to obtain reading materials in other ways.
- My large fingers are unable to reliably touch the 2mm button (required to edit a shelf). I get it right on about 1 out of every 5 tries. There’s no reason for the button to be this small and I hope that future software versions have a minimum button size of 4mm.
- I need to see informative error messages. I was not able to take advantage of reading books at Barnes and Noble stores at first because my credit card at Barnes and Noble was out of date. I wasted 30 minutes figuring that out because the Nook did not provide an informative error message. I’ve had other uninformative messages related to the one-hour limit of in-store reading.
- Selecting a single word for highlighting, sharing, or note taking is simple enough. Just touch the word for about 2 seconds. But selecting more than a single word is more complicated. First select the first or last word in the phrase you want to highlight. Then click on the back bar of this highlight and stretch it over the phrase. Did you let it go by accident or miss by 1 character? Oops. Start all over. On the bright side, looking up old notes or highlights is simple and intuitive.
- Unlocking the screen is somewhat cumbersome. It’s a two step process requiring first a button press and then a swipe. It may take several tries before your swipe is registered.
- You need to remember to lock your screen before transporting the Nook by pressing the on/off button on the back side. If you don’t, all sorts of things will happen as the sensitive touch screen gets pressed. I nearly purchased a book I had never heard of and didn’t want because I forgot to lock the screen before putting it into my bag.
All these quirks aside, the touch screen makes many actions very easy. Some screens have a small icon of a book in the upper left corner. Touch that icon to return to reading the current book. To switch books, just press the bottom button, then library, then one of the recent books you’ve been reading. Bookmarking is a simple matter of touching the upper right corner. If you only use bookmarks at the beginnings of chapters, then you’ll end up with a list of bookmarks that is effectively table of contents. This comes in very handy for books lacking table of contents, as the bookmarks can be easily accessed by a tap on the center of the screen, followed by a tap on the bookmarks.
The other Barnes and Noble reading device is the Nook Color, which also has a touch-based interface. I have only tested the Nook Color for a few minutes but there are many positive reports about its ease of use. It includes many additional functions beyond the Nook Simple Touch, including an app store, a web browser, email, and access to colorful magazine content. So if you end up liking your Nook Simple Touch but sometimes want more features and flexibility, you have a solid option. Furthermore, the original Nook “First Edition” model is still for sale, and more Nook devices are expected by year end.
So how does the Nook interface compare to devices from other platforms?
Overall, the Nook seems slightly easier to use than the Kindle, due primarily to a touch-based user interface. This is in spite of the Kindle having a several-year head start. As the Nook Simple Touch operating system gets refined (Back button on every screen? Better home screen?), I suspect it will become even easier to use when compared with the keyboard-based Kindle.
Those who want an interface that is even easier to use and far more flexible should consider an iOS device such as the iPod touch. Reading, browsing, and pretty much everything else is faster, more intuitive, and more flexible.
On the other hand, for many people the point of getting a Nook is to focus on reading text-heavy books and/or PDFs. For that purpose, the Nook Simple Touch interface is “good enough,” and for some people the lack of flexibility (when compared to an iOS device) will help them stay focused on reading. It also costs less.
Question 7: How well does the software on the device support what you want to do with it?
I am amazed by the number of different ways people use e-readers or more general purpose pocket computers like the iPod touch. While researching this post, I met an amateur actress who wanted an e-reader primarily for being able to review scripts without having to carry around large bundles of papers. For her, that automatic PDF reflow feature of the Nook was a huge plus but would only work if the scans of the play scripts were done with OCR that would insure the PDF was actually text (not just a graphic).
There are many ways people use e-readers. Here are a few typical ones, with my brief comments on which e-readers work well for this purpose:
- You spend a lot of time at Barnes and Noble stores and will buy lots of e-books: The new Nook is ideal.
- You want to use the Nook primarily for free reading materials such as old classics, public domain works, library borrowing, and text-heavy PDFs. The Nook works well for this, but so does the Kindle and iPod touch. Your decision will be driven by minor differences between the three platforms.
- You frequently purchase new books as they come out. The Nook is pretty good for this but the Kindle is better, as Amazon strikes many exclusive deals for new e-book releases.
- You want a device for a very wide range of reading material, including works with extensive graphics or that originate from the internet. Avoid this Nook. While the Nook Color might work, you’re likely to be more satisfied with an iPod touch or iPad.
- You read on many different devices. You sometimes find yourself starting to read a book on your e-reader, then picking up where you left off on your phone a few hours later, and then switching again later. You’ll be much happier with a Kindle than either a Nook or an iOS device, thanks to superior sync.
- You’re an extensive highlighter and note-taker. You’ll be happier with a keyboard-based Kindle than a Nook.
I’m sure people use their e-readers in many other ways and some people will not fall neatly into a single category. But perhaps you’ll get a better idea of what you want and which device is best for you as you read through the rest of this post.
Question 8: What kinds of lending, borrowing, and in-store reading are available and how well do they work?
The Nook excels at lending among friends, library borrowing, and in-store reading compared with the iOS and Kindle platforms. iOS offers none of this. At this point in time, Kindle offers lending, and just rolled out library borrowing. Amazon is also attempting to develop a Netflix-like book subscription service which would have access to older titles.
The question is, how well do Nook’s lending, borrowing, and in-store reading work in practice?
The in-store reading works very well. Once you’ve set up a Barnes and Noble account with a current credit card, you can walk into any Barnes and Noble store, click on shop, then search for any e-book in Barnes and Noble’s system. A book without graphics takes seconds to download onto your Nook, while those with graphics take 20-40 seconds. Once on your Nook, you may read the book for up to an hour at the store. After this hour is up, you may not read the book again until 24 hours have elapsed (though there are reports of some books that are limited to one hour—ever). If you frequently hang out at a local Barnes and Noble anyway, this is a great, easy-to-use benefit. It is also a way to thoroughly check out books for potential purchase. If you have kids, you can read entire kids books this way. You can also read full stories in short story collections. Part of why this system works so well is that the Nook is set up to make shopping the e-book store very easy.
Do note that you can also download book samples, any time you have a WiFi connection. But once that short sample is on your Nook, you won’t be able to view the entire book in the store. The only way to regain that privilege is by logging into your Barnes and Noble account on a computer and deleting the book.
The Nook has a lending mechanism as well which I have not tested. The Nook and Kindle both have essentially the same system in place—you can lend each purchased book once ever for up to 14 days to a friend with a compatible device (Nook owners to other Nook owners). A number of web sites have sprung up to facilitate lending between strangers; a virtual library of sorts. However, given that each book can only be lent once, you’ll only be able to read a certain number of books this way.
I really like the concept of being able to check books out of a library without leaving my home. Unfortunately, the actual implementation of this widely touted Nook feature is clumsy. It uses the Overdrive system, which seems designed first and foremost to protect copyright holders using the ADE DRM (Adobe Digital Edition Digital Rights Management) scheme. As described below, setting up library lending and then using it is way too complicated.
First off, it is not obvious how to get started. Thanks to this excellent Nook Overdrive guide, I was able to get through the process of setting up ADE and download my first book in about 30 minutes.
When I browsed the e-book selections at my library, I was surprised to learn that there were a grand total of 1249 books available. Even more surprising was that nearly all of these books were checked out. Not a single ePub formatted book was available for checkout. I placed three ePub books on hold.
I noticed there were some PDF formatted books available. So I decided to check out a juvenile fiction PDF called Bog Child for testing purposes. After several clicks it was on my computer but not Adobe Digital Editions (ADE). I had to double click on the small download which in turn downloaded into ADE. To get it on the Nook, I had to attach my Nook to the computer with a USB cable and drag the icon of the book from one ADE folder to another. It takes 12-15 actions to get into the library, find a book, put it in the cart, check out, enter my library number, download it, double click the download, go into ADE, hook up the nook, drag it onto the Nook, and then disconnect the nook.
As I already mentioned, Bog Child was available only in PDF, not epub. I did get it onto my Nook, and I could read it. But it was not well formatted. It preserved page numbering for a large page PDF which caused blank space to appear at the bottom of each third Nook-sized page. What a distraction.
A few weeks later, I was notified by email that one of my ePub formatted books was on hold (for 3 days) and was available for download. After a dozen or so actions on my part, Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time was on my Nook. This time, the formatting was beautiful, though the font size was tiny. That was simple enough to correct with the Nook’s font size controls. But given that I read more than one book at a time, I needed to switch font sizes each time I switched back and forth from this book to other books.
For my third book I read SuperFreakonomics in epub format. This had wider margins than I prefer, but the font size was normal and was otherwise fine to read. I also discovered that I could keep reading it past the return date. How? Just keep the book open. As soon as you switch away from the book or sync with ADE, you won’t be able to reopen it.
Were it not for writing a comprehensive review of the Nook, I never would have persevered as long as I did to borrow an e-book. The real library has access to hundreds of thousands of physical books throughout the county and is far simpler to use. For now, unless your library has many e-books in its collection, or your eyes require very large print, my advice is to stay away from Overdrive e-book borrowing for the Nook—it’s not worth the hassle until the interface is improved. The system Amazon just rolled out for library borrowing is much easier to use, so hopefully Barnes and Noble follows suit.
In summary, Nook’s in-store reading is great if you have a Barnes and Noble store near you. Nook to Nook lending is limited to 14 days and only once per book but works. The Overdrive-based library borrowing is currently far too limited and very cumbersome to use—but if your local library has e-books available it is possible to make this system work for you. No competitors to the Nook currently offer this breadth of lending, borrowing, and in-store reading so for those who would use these features, this has to be considered a significant advantage of the Nook platform, especially the in-store features which may never be replicated by a competitor.
Question 9: What is the e-book store like?
When I go into a Barnes and Noble store and pull a random book off the shelf, 999 times out of 1000 the quality of editing, organization, and layout is excellent. There are very few (if any) spelling/grammar/typo issues, graphics are sensibly placed and captioned, font size and line spacing are fine, table of contents are always present and well done when needed, etc. It never occurs to me that I might want to check on any of these things before buying a book. Content, writing quality, and author reputation is all that really factors into my decision.
E-book stores like Barnes and Noble and Kindle are a totally different experience. The majority of books I consider for possible downloading have many types of editing, organization, and layout issues. So in addition to assessing whether the book content and writing quality is of interest to me, I must also assess the quality of editing, organization, layout, whether there’s a table of contents, etc. Examining a small excerpt (free for both Amazon and Barnes and Noble) is therefore a highly advisable step when making a purchase decision. This can be time consuming if there are many competing copies of the same book. To help make the process simpler for yourself, you might want to learn the names of the better publishers and stick with them—something you won’t need to do when buying physical books.
My greatest disappointment with Barnes and Noble’s e-book store is free books from Google. I enjoy reading many classics so I tried downloading a few of the free classics from Barnes and Noble, all sourced from Google. Most of them were of such poor quality as to be unreadable—random spaces, missing paragraphs, misspellings, funny characters appearing in the middle of words, and sometimes even strings of 50 or more random characters. Some books have “Digitized by Google” plastered all over the book, often between two words in the middle of a sentence. I tried examining a sample book on Google Books and on my iPod touch and very few of the errors were present. In other words, the books are fairly clean and readable on Google’s end, but somewhere between Google’s servers and my Nook Simple Touch, Google books get corrupted so badly as to be, in most cases, unreadable.
So let’s say I decide to archive one of these poorly formatted books. When I try to unarchive it, it refuses to download it back onto my Nook. After a little searching, I came to realize that Nook’s system for dealing with content on its servers is full of bugs with regards to syncing, archiving, and unarchiving, so these kinds of issues are common.
Bad as all this sounds, the situation is in some ways worse with the Kindle store. You can only examine a small excerpt from the book, which won’t always get you to the parts of the book you need to assess quality. For example, some books have dozens of pages at the beginning in preface which uses up the entire preview so you won’t have much sense of how the main part of the book is formatted and organized. At least with the Nook, you can examine any part of the book when you’re at a Barnes and Noble store (though you lose that privilege for any book for which you download a sample). Furthermore, if you avoid the Google books, the quality on average seems to be a little higher at Barnes and Noble, at least in my (not scientifically tested) experience.
Yet another issue with e-book stores is book spam of various sorts, which often takes the form of public domain or stolen content that is sloppily formatted and sold for low cost. This has been a bigger problem for Amazon than Barnes and Noble, at least in 2011.
Given that Barnes and Noble has a several decade reputation as a quality bookseller, I’m frankly shocked at the variable quality found in the e-book store. For free books, I have already given up on the Barnes and Noble store. I use online services such as Feedbooks or Manybooks to side load content onto the Nook. The books I’ve obtained from these services have usually been free of error.
One big point in Amazon’s favor is that Kindle Store content, including e-books, is eligible for a full refund if returned within 7 days. E-books can be returned for any reason. Amazon has also been know to issue refunds for books that contain formatting issues or missing text outside the 7 day window.
For people who stick to popular, recent releases, the quality is high at both Barnes and Noble and Amazon. This is particularly true for novels which require no graphics or table of contents. For these sorts of books, Amazon is widely considered to have a better selection, thanks to many exclusive deals. There are many physical books present at Barnes and Noble stores that are not available as e-books for the Nook.
It’s hard for me to recommend either Barnes and Noble or Amazon given all the issues I’ve run into. Hopefully these e-book stores improve over time and I can update this section with a more positive outlook. However, it is possible to have a positive experience with either e-book store if you stick to buying books from more reputable publishers. Given the quality issues I experienced in both stores, the ability to fully examine e-books at Barnes and Noble stores is a distinct advantage for those who live near a Barnes and Noble store. For those who don’t live near a Barnes and Noble store, Amazon has the advantage with its 7 day return policy.
Question 10: Will you be able to read the kinds of material you want to read on this device?
The two prior articles I wrote about the iPod touch and the Kindle focused primarily on this question. They were quite lengthy so I’ll avoid discussing the Kindle and iPod touch other than to say that both can be used to read a wider range or reading materials than the Nook, especially the iPod touch. For more detail, here are the posts:
Because it has no browser, the Nook Simple Touch is limited to a smaller set of reading materials—novels, chapter books (and short story collections), mixed text and graphics, and PDFs, as follows:
For novels, reading is a breeze. I’ve already discussed touch, page turns, user interface issues, and customizability of fonts, size, and margins earlier in this post. All work very well. Particularly impressive is having so many options for holding the device and turning pages, which results in less hand fatigue when reading many hours at a time. The new Nook is clearly optimized for reading novels.
Books with chapters and short story collections are also done well on the Nook—better than Kindle and in some ways even better than a physical book. Those of you who read all books straight through won’t care. Personally, I like to look at the table of contents. I sometimes jump around to different sections. I sometimes flip through books, and I sometimes do that section by section. I like to see stories and/or chapters start at the top of a page. I can do all these things on the Nook Simple Touch.
A very high percentage of chapter books and short story collections from the Nook store have a table of contents. Tap the center of the screen, tap the leftmost icon, and then tap a chapter name and you’ll be swiftly taken to the chapter, with the chapter title at the top of the page.
For books lacking a table of contents, it’s easy to create them on the fly. Just touch the upper right hand corner of a page to bookmark it and then your collection of bookmarks will effectively be a table of contents. Page turning is so fast that even without using the table of contents it’s quick to flip to the next or prior chapter. To top it all off, there’s a slider feature (choose “Go To”) which allows you to very quickly go to any part of the book, indicating the name of the chapter each time you stop sliding. The Kindle “way points” feature is not implemented on the Nook, but it’s not implemented on most Kindle books either. With all the options for moving around, I find reading short story collections on the Nook to be easy and already second nature.
Mixed text and graphics are problematic for all E Ink readers, whether displaying picture books for kids or the occasional chart or diagram. My experience with this type of reading on the Kindle was very poor. The Nook was a bit better as some publishers have taken the time to format their books to fit the Nook screen. Of the dozen or so books I examined, I found a few kids’ books that were a mess and some that worked pretty well such as Rapunzel’s Tale (Disney Tangled). Nonfiction e-books with the occasional graphic tended to be pretty good. Though less well formatted than physical books, it was nice to see there were at least some books that were passably good on the Nook. In contrast, I found poorly formatted graphics in every sample I examined in 2010 from the Kindle e-book store.
The Nook is good for text-heavy, reflowable PDFs, but bad for graphics-intensive PDFs. The text in many PDFs is searchable and therefore reflowable. If you open up such a PDF on your Nook with the third font size or larger, the text automatically reflows the text to fit on the screen, with any graphics removed. I’ve tried this on nearly a dozen PDFs and it usually works well, though the font size is sometimes too large, and cannot be made suitably small. When you choose one of the two smallest sizes, it shows the original PDF shrunk to fit the Nook, so text is too small to read. On the other hand, if text is not reflowable and/or there are graphics you want to view, you’re out of luck. There’s no zooming and panning controls so both text and graphics are too small. If viewing PDF graphics and being able to pan or zoom around a PDF on a small device is important to you, you should avoid the Nook Simple Touch.
E-readers smaller than a piece of paper are generally not going to be easy to use for reading graphics-heavy 8.5 x 11 PDFs, even with far more advanced controls as are present on the Kindle. So perhaps Barnes and Noble has the right idea to not even try. If all you read are text-heavy, reflowable PDFs, then you’ll be very happy with how simply and well this works on the Nook, but for anything more you’ll be disappointed.
All things considered, the Nook Simple Touch works very well for reading anything that is text heavy. Graphics are generally not done so well, though my experience has been that it’s a little better than the Kindle. But do understand that the Nook is restricted in what you can read. Lacking a browser, email, or RSS reader of any sort means that you’re restricted to reading novels, chapter books, mixed text/graphics, and text heavy PDFs that you get from the Nook store or side load from a computer. With the exception of graphics-intensive books and graphics-intensive PDFs, it works quite well for reading these types of content.
Question 11: How is customer service?
Customer service can only be fairly evaluated from hundreds of experiences, so it’s hard for one person like myself to give a balanced view. However, based on many forum comments and some common sense, I think there are a few observations worth sharing.
If you live near a Barnes and Noble store, you can take advantage of the friendly, enthusiastic, and sometimes knowledgeable staff. There’s a dedicated Nook desk at every store. There’s never a big line. Sometimes the people behind the desk are very knowledgeable and tech savvy. Sometimes not. My own experience has been positive (3 out of 5 of the Nook staff I encountered were sharp and helpful). Some things are much easier to explain and show on a Nook in person rather than on the phone.
If you want to talk to someone but don’t live near a Barnes and Noble store, you’ll need to use phone tech support. There are many forum reports that Barnes and Noble’s phone tech support is inferior to the support available for Kindle and Apple owners.
Barnes and Noble also has an online forum where customers help each other, here:
My experience walking into an Apple store suggests that in-store customer service is far better at Barnes and Noble than Apple if you are primarily interested in a reading device. This makes sense given that Nooks are reading devices while iPads, iPhones, and Ipod touches are general-purpose devices. While Apple staff can show you how to use the device, they know nothing about the best ways to use these devices for reading—even how to use Apple’s bundled iBooks app. This is all based on my personal experiences with several staff members at a single Apple store.
Another aspect of customer service which I already discussed in the E-book store is how e-books with missing text or formatting errors are handled. Barnes and Noble lets you examine a book for up to an hour per day in their store but once you buy it you’re stuck with it. Amazon doesn’t let you examine more than a small excerpt in advance but allows you to return an E-book for any reason within 7 days. This comes in particularly handy if you purchase a book by accident.
Overall conclusion: If you don’t live near a Barnes and Noble store, you’ll be much happier with the customer service you’ll usually get from Amazon as a Kindle owner or from Apple as an iPod touch owner. But if you live near a Barnes and Noble store, you can get hands-on technical help and customer service. Hands-on can be faster and easier if you manage to talk to particularly tech savvy staff.
Question 12: Do you want to maximize flexibility or minimize interruption?
Earlier this year, I wrote an essay about the trade-offs between flexibility and interruption—The more general purpose and connected a device, the more you can do with it, but the easier it is to get distracted and interrupted. For example, the iPhone 4 has a terrific reading display but it gets used for so much more that many people can’t focus long enough to read a novel on it, or even a short story. Conversely, less connectivity and flexibility means less interruption. The printed book is on the other end of the spectrum from the iPhone 4.
Roughly speaking, here is how I rank device categories on the flexibility/interruption spectrum, from flexible and most interruptions to least flexible and least interruptions:
- Notebook Computers
- Pocket Computers such as the iPod touch or Galaxy Player
- E-book Readers (LCD)
- E-book Readers (E Ink)
- Printed Books
The Nook Simple Touch is clearly in the e-book readers (E Ink) category. Within that category, it is one of the least flexible devices, given that it has no web browser, has rudimentary sync, and lacks one-touch methods to download anything that doesn’t come from the Barnes and Noble e-book store. In other words, it is about as close as you can get to being a book without being a book.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Only you can decide for yourself. If you’re the type of person that gets easily distracted, then you may find it easier to read with the Nook Simple Touch than more flexible devices. On the other hand, if you want to read more than just text-heavy epub books and PDFs, you’ll find the Nook Simple Touch much too limiting.
If you’re the kind of person that gets easily distracted by technology, then I advise the following—think carefully about what you primarily want to read. Buy the device that is as close to printed books as possible and still allows you to read what you want. It’s hard enough to find hours at a time for reading, so may as well keep additional distractions and interruptions to a minimum.
Question 13: Summing it up—Which platform do you want?
With some product categories (such as AA batteries), what to buy is obvious after just a little research. Not so with portable reading devices.
A few weeks ago I started writing a review of the Nook Simple Touch. The hardware of this marvelous device is designed to make you fall in love at first touch. It happened to most reviewers and it happened to me. If you want a novel-sized, black and white E Ink touch e-reader with varied options for holding and page turning, then you will be very happy with Nook Simple Touch hardware. And you may be less happy with hardware from the competition.
But the longer I spent with this device, the more problems I noticed with the platform behind this excellent hardware until I realized something quite simple—hardware has reached a point where it’s easy to read a book on any of the latest portable gadgets. And even if a particular e-reader’s hardware is best at one point in time, you can be sure that the major competition will come out with similar or better devices within a year. The more important choice is which of the three major reading platforms would you like to tie yourself to—Nook, Kindle, or iOS?
It is much harder to sum up conclusions about the platform than the hardware. Here’s my best try:
The way the software works for the Nook Simple Touch is not perfect. But for a first release, it’s pretty good, and is not likely to be a limiting factor for most people. My guess is that most of the minor quirks I described in this review will be gone within a year after a few software updates. The most obvious missing software feature is a back button. This doesn’t cripple the device, but it does make navigation more cumbersome than it needs to be. For some people the lack of browser will be a deal killer, but that too may be added in the future.
A more serious annoyance is the borderline-obnoxious tendency of Nook software to emphasize privileged content and penalize side-loaded content usability, whether it’s home screen advertising, awkward library lending, limiting sharing to B&N content, etc. Though Apple and Amazon both hinder usability in their own ways on iOS and Kindle devices, it is not to this extreme. iOS is the best of the three as far as maintaining user-friendliness no matter how you use the device.
But the most important question is whether you can easily read any free or legally paid-for electronic content, no matter how it was obtained. LCD tablets and pocket computers based on Android or iOS systems will let you install apps to access content you purchased on other platforms. Unfortunately, no E Ink device currently lets you do that out of the box, and that most certainly includes the Nook. If you own books purchased from Amazon’s Kindle store or even epub books purchased from Sony, it is not a simple matter to read them from your Nook. Various complicated solutions for the technically inclined are required, such as using conversion software from Calibre or “rooting your Nook” to make it into an Android tablet so you can install Kindle or other e-reader apps.
Competing formats and walled gardens of the sort erected by Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, and Apple are terrible for consumers. But at this point in time, you’ll need to choose one of these walled gardens if you want to read using E Ink.
So which walled garden is better?
Amazon and Barnes and Noble are clearly the two market share leaders with the most content for devices that emphasize reading. Content from both platforms can be accessed by apps on Android, iOS, and Windows. Both platforms offer multiple models, including color tablets able to access video and audio content in addition to books and magazines.
At this point in time, Amazon has a greater selection of popular, recently published books, better phone and online customer service, and a seamless system for automatically syncing content among multiple devices, which makes Amazon-purchased content easily available on almost any device. Amazon also makes their devices easy to use with content beyond Amazon’s e-book store. Barnes and Noble’s store base means you can get in-store tech help (which is sometimes quite good), examine devices before you buy them, get free in-store WiFi, and read any book free in-store for up to an hour. Nooks can read books from most popular formats (except for Amazon’s proprietary format). Kindles read fewer formats, though cumbersome workarounds exists (i.e. Calibre). Both e-book stores have quality issues, though sticking with reputable publishers (including Barnes and Noble publishing) is a way to filter out most lower quality books. Barnes and Noble’s in-store reading means you can examine any part of the book before purchase.
Given these competing strengths and weaknesses, the majority of people who carefully think through this choice tend to choose Amazon over Barnes and Noble due to greater flexibility, accessibility, and ease of use. But if you already have ePub books from a previous Nook or some other epub-based device, or if you tend to spend time at Barnes and Noble stores, or if you plan to root your Nook, then the Nook platform may be a better choice for you. Frequently visiting a Barnes and Noble store (or not) could be what tips the decision one way or the other.
And what about the iPod touch and other iOS devices? Apple has only begun to emphasize books, so has far less content and reading platform features than the other two major platforms. Furthermore, any content purchased through Apple’s iTunes book store can only be accessed on Apple’s devices. So I can’t recommend purchasing permanently walled-off content from Apple. However, iPod touch and other iOS devices are great devices for reading a wide variety of content, including content purchased for the Nook or Kindle platforms. Just be aware that you won’t be able to purchase Nook or Kindle content directly within an app. You’ll have to make such purchases from a browser or on a different device.
Returning to the Nook, you may love the Nook Simple Touch hardware but fear being tied to an inferior platform. However, you can take comfort in the Nook software available for iOS and Android devices. You’ll have access to your Nook books on these LCD devices for the foreseeable future. You’ll also have access to your Nook books from the many future Nook devices sure to come. You may not be able to access your Nook books from all of your hardware, but you’ll definitely have some choices.
I want to emphasize that I love reading on the Nook Simple Touch. In some ways, it’s even easier to use than a paperback book. If you’re not bothered by any of the platform or software issues I mentioned in this post, you’ll likely enjoy using this device for many years. In fact, The Nook Simple Touch is the first e-reader hardware and reading experience that is so good that I don’t hope for improved hardware to come out a year or two from now. If only I could say the same about the Nook’s platform.
New e-reader hardware features such as those found in the Nook Simple Touch can and will be copied. Platform features can not be so easily copied. Hardware is therefore less important than the platform behind it. The three leading platforms have enough differing strengths and weaknesses that it can be tough to choose among them. I hope this post will prove helpful in making that choice.