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First-look review: B&N's Simple Touch Reader Nook is a worthy Kindle challenger

Consumer Reports News: May 24, 2011 02:58 PM

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In the year and a half since its launch, the Barnes & Noble Nook e-book reader has, in most respects, struggled to catch up in performance and design with the Amazon Kindle. The second-generation Nook, the Simple Touch Reader, was unveiled today, and the upstart seems finally to have equaled—and in some respects, even moved ahead of—its better-selling rival.

Here are our first impressions of the new Nook, based on seeing a hands-on demo of the Wi-Fi device at its launch event with Rich Fisco, Consumer Reports’ lead test engineer for e-book readers:

Navigation is very easy, thanks mostly to touch. The addition of touch navigation is biggest difference—and potential advantage—of the new Nook compared with the Kindle, which requires buttons to navigate. (By the way, the new Nook, like its predecessor and the Kindle, is a monochrome or non-color 6-inch-screen device. Barnes & Noble also sells the Nook Color e-book reader, which uses a backlit color LCD screen.)

As when reading e-books on other touch-screen devices, you can turn to the next page with either a right-to-left swipe across the screen or a gentle tap in the right margin. You can also turn pages, both forward and back, by pressing raised ridges that lie to the right and left of the screen.

A tap of the screen pulls up the main menu, with icons similar to those that appear in the small touchscreen that lies below the reading screen on the original Nook. And as with that sibling, the Simple Touch Reader has a virtual keyboard, with keys that are larger than those of the Kindle’s physical keyboard. (When we get a new Nook in our labs, we’ll see what all the screen-touching does to your reading experience--finger smudging is a major hassle with touchscreen tablets.)

Performance is fleet. Page turns appear to be very fast indeed. They also seemed to show noticeably less flashing, from the brief but jarring switch to a black screen between old and new pages of type, than the older Nook or the Kindle. That supports B&N’s claim to groundbreaking improvement in this area.

Also, the device’s new FastPage zoom feature allows you to appears to rival the speed of the Kindle’s gives you fast-forward functionality for accessing content within a book. [corrected] As with the Kindle, You can use it by holding down one of the Nook’s page-turn bars. And unlike the Kindle, you also have the option, with a couple of screen taps, to call up a virtual slider than allows you to whir to a particular page or section by moving your finger along the bottom of the screen.

Response is also swift when you select content or return to home screens and the like is also swift.

The type seems very readable. The clarity of type on this Nook looks like a further signal that you no longer need to sacrifice readability to acquire touch capability on an E Ink screen. Also, a B&N spokesman told us that the new Nook will have a similar selection of fonts and font sizes to those of the Nook Color, slightly more than that of the older Nook.

The Simple Touch Reader is slightly lighter and a bit thicker than the Kindle. B&N bills the new Nook as weighing in at “less than 7.5 ounces,” which makes it a fraction of an ounce lighter than the Kindle—and a good 3 ounces lighter than its predecessor.

That lightness comes as a surprise when you first see the device, which is somewhat thicker than the Kindle. That bulkiness is due mostly to its soft, contoured back, which has a slight recess in the middle and rounded ridges around its edges.

The extra width may be due to its battery. My testing colleague Rich suspects that the contoured back may accommodate lithium polymer, a light battery material that can be shaped to fit into spaces like, well, the ridges of a case. If correct, his theory would explain why the device is lighter than it looks, and why it might achieve its unprecedented full 2 months of battery life, compared with 10 days claimed for its predecessor (and the 10 to 30 days claimed for the Kindle).

Bottom line. In addition to its lightness, the new Nook is one of the most compact 6-inch-screen e-book readers. It has shed the second screen that lengthened the profile of its predecessor, for example, and it lacks the physical keyboard that extends the footprint of the Kindle.

Based on our first look at the device, the new Nook also appears to be one of the best e-book readers on the market. We’re eager to put our impressions to the test by getting the device into our labs on or before its June 10 shipping date.

Image: Barnes & Noble

Paul Reynolds

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