Every Nook and Cranny: Barnes & Noble Introduces Kindle Competitor

by PocketGoddess on October 21, 2009

The Basics

In case you haven’t heard the details, I’ll summarize them briefly. The nook (lowercase intentional) is Barnes & Noble’s dedicated ebook reading device, priced at $259. It has two screens, a 6″ e-ink screen and a smaller color touchscreen below which is used for book browsing and navigation. WiFi and 3G wireless on AT&T’s network are included, as well as 2GB of onboard memory and a microSD slot that supports cards up to 16GB.
The nook is slightly shorter and narrower than the Kindle, though slightly thicker and one ounce heavier. It includes eReader and EPUB support, can read PDF files natively, and has both speakers and a headphone jack for MP3 playback. You can listen to your music whether you’re reading a book or shopping for them.
The nook comes with an AC adapter and a USB cable. The device comes with a one year warranty and can be returned within 14 days, though a 10% restocking fee will be charged on non-defective devices. A two year extended warranty plan with accidental damage coverage and rapid replacement is available for an additional $69.

Pros

Design

The nook looks great, with a modern, sleek design. I like it much better than the Kindle, which has a physical keyboard I don’t particularly like (the keys are too small to really type, and they always seem to be right under my thumb when I’m trying to read). The nook has no obvious controls other than the page forward and back buttons, and they are smoothly integrated into the device instead of “sore thumbs” that stick out more than necessary.
The color touchscreen on the bottom looks like it offers better/faster navigation than the Kindle, and I particularly like the “cover flow” display of book covers–it’s just more vibrant than a dull list of books.

The Reading Experience

The focus is squarely on the reading experience–there is no web browser, no RSS client, no email, etc.–just the books, ma’am. William J Lynch, the President of BN.com, said this morning that the nook’s “minimalist design puts the focus on the content, not the technology.” When asked why there was no text-to-speech feature as there is on the Kindle, he said that the technology wasn’t quite “there” yet and doesn’t create a great experience at this point in time.

I really appreciate that approach, because I don’t want my ebook device to be a “jack of all trades and a master of none.” If I want a general entertainment device, I’ll use my iPod Touch, but if I want a great reading experience I’d rather have a dedicated device that gets things right.

In Store Test Drive, Help, and Exclusives

This part of the strategy is absolute genius: by offering the nook in store, regular folks (as opposed to techies) will be able to explore the device, take it for a test drive, and decide if it’s right for them. Technical help will also be available, as well as personal recommendations from booksellers who are trained to help their customers find just the right book–be it printed or electronic.
There will also be exclusive content and free ebooks that will be available only while using the free WiFi available inside every Barnes & Noble store. In these trying times, with online sales continuing to erode actual store traffic, this is a great plan to drive traffic back into the stores–where folks are likely to buy something extra, be it a cup of coffee or a magazine or a box of notecards.

Native PDF Support

If this feature works well, it will be a definite advantage for the nook. While the Amazon Kindle does offer PDF support, it is rudimentary at best, requiring documents to be converted before they are readable on the device. The nook has native PDF support, so no conversion will be required. Only time will tell how well this feature will work, but I’m extremely hopeful.

Book Lending

This is a major coup for the nook, and I’m anxious to start lending out my electronic books. It works by temporarily transferring a single license for the content to another person, who then has two weeks to read the book before it automatically returns to the lender. There will be certain exclusions (perhaps based on a single author or publisher) but the vast majority of nook books will be eligible for lending.
The process as outlined sounds easy enough, though the receiver will be required to have a Barnes & Noble account and download the special eReader software. Obviously it’s a little more complicated than simply handing a physical copy of a book to someone, but at least this way you’re guaranteed to get your books back in a timely manner.

Portable Annotation

Like the Kindle, the nook allows users to bookmark and highlight their content, and also saves your spot where you left off, so it’s easy to pick up and start reading again when you have the time. Even better, those annotations and bookmarks sync across platforms, so you’ll have the same experience on every platform for which the B&N eReader software is available, which includes the iPhone/iPod Touch, select Blackberry and Motorola smartphones, PCs, and Macs.
An even bigger plus? As of this morning, the same functionality is now available for the Kindle client on the iPhone/iPod Touch. The timing is coincidental to be sure, but also convenient.

Replaceable Battery

The replaceable battery is nice. I’m not so concerned about running out of juice in the middle of a book, since it will last a week between charges with the wireless option turned off, but I do like the fact that it can be easily switched out once its charge capacity drops.

User Customization

The nook has a nice advantage here, since you can easily personalize the screensaver with your own photos (JPG, GIF, PNG, BMP). The back cover of the device is also replaceable (the way mobile phone covers used to be) and there will be several different options available soon. This may not be an “important” feature, but it is nice to see the level of thought and attention to detail that went into the overall design of the device.

Cons

Legacy Books from Peanut Press/eReader and Fictionwise

One thing I can appreciate about the Amazon Kindle store is consistency. Bestsellers are $9.99 or less, there’s a good selection of books, and everything you need is right there in the Amazon Kindle store whether you’re shopping on your Kindle or on Amazon.com. The same isn’t necessarily true for Barnes & Noble ebooks; while they use the eReader format, you can get the same books from multiple vendors. What’s unclear at this point is whether or not other eReader format books will be usable with the nook.
While the official tech specs state that eReader and EPUB books are supported, there are still conflicting reports from Barnes & Noble employees on the company’s own eBooks Help Board. During this morning’s press call Mr. Lynch said that all eReader books are compatible with the nook, no matter where they were purchased. That is not currently the case (there are actually two different versions of the eReader software on the iTunes App Store, for example) so this question cannot be resolved until the nook is actually released.
If eReader/EPUB books are not fully supported, this could be a dealbreaker for many long-term ebook readers who have accumulated as many as 500 titles over the last few years. It would be simply inexcusable for them not to work on the nook. It might be necessary to download them from eReader.com and use a microSD card to load them onto a nook, which would be unfortunate but bearable. But wouldn’t it be better to gather all of the legacy users of eReader and Fictionwise back into the Barnes & Noble fold, simplifying everything and ending the confusion?

Variable Pricing and Promotion

For the moment, let’s assume that all eReader books will work with the nook, regardless of the source. I conducted my own experiment, choosing Stephen Covey (of Seven Habits fame) and searching for his books on all three sites: B&N offered four titles, eReader had seven, and Fictionwise had eight (one, Adversity Advantage, is in the incompatible Secure Mobipocket format, though it is available in eReader format directly from BN.com). And they are all offered at different prices, with different promotional programs.
Want to read The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown? If you buy it directly from B&N it will cost you $9.99, but at eReader it’s $20 with 100% eReader Rewards credit, offering a better overall value but a higher cost. Want to purchase the same book at Fictionwise? It will be $20 with a 100% micropay rebate or $17 with a 100% micropay rebate if you happen to be a member of their Buywise club.
Are you confused yet? I certainly am, and that’s just the beginning. According to Mr. Lynch, eReader.com and Fictionwise.com, while owned by Barnes & Noble, are standalone operations that are free to set their own pricing and promotions, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.
Should consumers of electronic books really be expected to shop around for the best prices and values, and be left to wonder if their books will or won’t work on the nook? For a device focused solely on providing a great reading experience, this fractured strategy doesn’t seem to be the best choice.

Pricing and Selection

This is one of the highest barriers to ebook adoption, aside from the the DRM issue, and it applies to both the Kindle and the nook. In many cases ebooks are actually more than their printed counterparts, since books are so often discounted. The Amazon Kindle partially solved this problem, with $9.99 New York Times bestsellers, but there is still a lot of work to do in this area. While I am not one of the radical few who believes that ebooks (along with music, games, and other media) should be free, I do believe that electronic books should be reasonably priced–below their printed counterparts would be nice, but certainly not more, which is too often the case.

Missing Features

While I won’t miss the text-to-speech feature (it may be convenient, but it’s too slow and strange sounding) one thing that hasn’t been mentioned so far is any sort of indexing/searching capability. The Kindle indexes your content and can search your entirely library for a word or phrase, and there is no mention of any soft of search capability on the nook at this point. It could be an oversight since the information available at this time is somewhat limited, or it could be an actual shortcoming of the device.
One other feature that seems to be missing at this time is the ability to efficiently organize my content. At the moment it seems that sorting options are by title, author, and purchase date, with no option to use sub-folders to denote books in a series, for example. The eReader software I already have for the iPod Touch does designate books that are read, unread, or in various in-between states, which would be an improvement over the Kindle if that feature is retained on the nook.

Final Thoughts

Am I excited? Definitely–I preordered the nook as soon as I could, and I’m impatiently waiting for it to arrive at the end of November. I’m captivated by the “cover flow” view of book covers and the promise of easier/quicker touchscreen navigation. My only real concern at this point is whether my vast collection of legacy eReader and Fictionwise books will be compatible with the nook, but in the absence of a definitive answer I’ll find out when the nook is finally released and my order is shipped around the end of November.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: