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E-book readers: Nook Simple Touch tops Kindle Touch

Consumer Reports News: November 22, 2011 08:08 AM

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Amazon and Barnes & Noble aren’t battling only over their tablet computers, the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet. The titans are also in a tussle over which $99 touch-screen e-book reader is better: the new Kindle Touch or a version of the Nook Simple Touch that’s been updated with new software.

Based on testing the two, Amazon’s first touch Kindle is a worthy performer that’s on a par with most other dedicated readers with a touch screen. But the refresh to the Nook Simple Touch has made the top-ranked e-book reader in our Ratings a little better.

The full details are in our e-book reader Ratings, available to subscribers, along with details on another capable new reader, the Kobo VOX e-reader, which I’ll blog about soon. Meantime, here are some highlights of the head-to-head comparison of the Touch and Simple Touch:

Type readability. Like most of the better e-readers on the market, the Touch and Simple Touch have 6-inch screens that use the latest Pearl version of E Ink, the energy-frugal, black-and-white screen technology. B&N says it’s re-engineered the type rendering for its Nook line, and the improvements are debuting in the software for the Simple Touch.

In our tests, type on the updated Simple Touch indeed looked a little better than on its predecessor, and slightly better than on the Kindle Touch. But the differences were not major, and both devices scored excellent for readability.

Page turns. Both are very good in this attribute, though with some differences. The Simple Touch is faster. B&N claims page turns on the Nook have been further accelerated with the update. Tests of the Simple Touch with new and old software supported the claim. But we couldn’t easily validate the specific claim to a 25 percent improvement in page-turn speed, since the Simple Touch was already so fast.

Page turns were slightly slower on the Kindle Touch, too. Also, unlike the Simple Touch, it lacks any physical controls as an alternative to turning via the touch screen (we prefer that readers have both). But some other page-turn pluses helped boost the Kindle Touch. Those include its so-called EasyReach touch zoning that, as promised, allows you to touch anywhere between the left-middle and far right of the screen to advance a page; the Simple Touch and most other reader screens require you to touch within a narrower band along the right side of the screen. Amazon bills EasyReach as a special boon for lefties, which it may indeed be.

The Touch, though, like all other Kindles, persists in using not page numbers, like the Nooks and most other readers, but “location “ numbers; each page turn appears to advance the location number by anywhere between 8 to 15, and it isn’t consistent. [UPDATE: In fact, there are page numbers on some Kindle Books; tap the top of the screen and they appear along the bottom, next to the location number. Apologies for this omission.]

A cool, if as yet limited, Amazon feature. The Kindle Touch has a feature called X-Ray that allows you to view references to characters and phrases throughout the book or link to Wikipedia entries on them, or to content posted to Shelfari, Amazon’s “community-powered encyclopedia for book lovers.”
So far, in my limited use, the feature indeed seems to successfully locate and show in a scrolling screen to every reference to key characters (all 376 refs to Sherlock Holmes in “Sherlock Holmes,” for example). It also links out to those outside sources for more in-depth information than is provided by the dictionary entries you can link to from names or terms on Nooks.

But X-Ray is on only select titles for now, though Amazon says the feature is being steadily expanded. I didn’t find X-Ray, for example, on “Charles Dickens: A Life,” a biography where I might actually have used it fairly frequently. And while it was on “Sherlock Holmes,” for example, it wasn’t present on “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” And you can’t find out if a book has been “X-Rayed” before you buy it, which is a bit frustrating if you think you might want or need the feature for that title.

Bottom line. Both of these readers are recommended models, and very comparable in most respects; either is a worthy choice. The Kindle Touch is the better bet, obviously, if you or your recipient already use a Kindle—especially since libraries of Kindle Books aren’t convertible into Nook Books, and vice versa. It might also be the better choice for ardent public-library users, given the semi-wirelessness of library loans on the Kindle (books are sent to the device wirelessly after you rent them from a computer). [UPDATE: The Kindle is also a better choice if you want to use your device for audio playback, including listening to audiobooks and music; it has a headphone jack, text-to-speech functionality, and a built-in MP3 player and speaker, all of which the Nook lacks.]

But unless you opt for the low-priced Kindle Touch with ads and special offers, the Amazon device is pricier; $139 for an ad-free Wi-Fi version. And the Nook Simple Touch scored higher overall than its Kindle competitor.

Paul Reynolds

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