December 09, 2010

Nook Color Points Way to E-Book’s Future -

“Oh, man, remember those Cro-Magnon e-book readers?” we’ll say. “They used E Ink screens — black text on gray. No color. No touch screens. And every time you turned a page, you got this weird black-white-black flash. Can you believe anyone bought those?”

Well, it’s time for some progress. Barnes & Noble’s new Nook Color ($250) is the first big-name e-book reader with a color touch screen. It has confusing aspects, but it’s light-years better than last year’s slow, kludgy black-and-white Nook. (The company says the new Nook was designed by a new team, based in Silicon Valley and composed largely of former Palm employees.)

The hardware is handsome. It’s an 8-by-5-inch slab, half an inch thick, with an aluminum border and rubberized back. You can poke your finger through the triangular cut-out in the lower left corner. It’s just a design quirk, although maybe you could attach your key ring to it.

This Nook weighs a pound, somewhere between the Kindle (8.5 ounces) and the iPad (1.5 pounds). The color screen means you’ll have to recharge the battery every few days, rather than every few weeks. The animations are a little jerky, and the screen often doesn’t “hear” your tap the first time. But otherwise, the Color Nook is fast enough.

As for the touch screen — well, you know what? All e-readers should have touch screens. Once you tap to open a book, swipe the page to turn it and drag your finger on the Brightness slider, using a joystick to move the cursor on an E Ink screen seems indirect and antique.

The color screen is bright and beautiful. Magazines, for example, look spectacular. You can subscribe to any of 70 magazines (the first two weeks are free) or buy individual issues. You get the whole layout, including ads; it’s great.

Of course, you can’t read a full-size magazine page when it’s shrunk onto a 7-inch screen. So you navigate as if on an iPhone: you spread two fingers to zoom in, and drag a finger to pan around.

You can also summon a scrolling row of colorful page miniatures at the bottom of the screen, for ease of navigation. Some magazines even have an Article View: a scrolling, vertical, uncluttered column of black-on-white text that’s easy to read. The original magazine layout lies behind it for context.

Children’s books also benefit enormously from color, and they get special treatment on the Color Nook. You can tap the text on any page to enlarge it. Some titles — 300 by year’s end, the company says — offer a Read to Me button, so that your young reader can follow along with a recorded voice. My 6-year-old loved the effect and begged for more.

As on other e-readers, you can subscribe to newspapers; if you’re in a Wi-Fi hot spot, the paper arrives on your reader automatically in the middle of the night, ready for your commute. The photos look great in color. But the rest of the newspaper is bizarrely spartan and unimaginative, especially compared to the elaborate magazine mode. There’s no sense of layout; the whole thing looks like a beginner’s blog.

Color doesn’t add much to regular books. (Barnes & Noble says that its attractively redesigned online store offers two million books. About 1.5 million of those, however, are free, very old, often obscure books scanned by Google.)

But all books benefit from the Nook’s self-illuminating, laptop-style screen. The bedtime routine of many a Kindle owner — wedging a flashlight behind one ear — is a thing of the past.

In sunshine, you can still read the Color Nook, though not as easily as an E Ink screen. (Glare is sometimes a problem, too.) The question is, where do you do more reading: in sunlight, or at night? Only you can answer that question.

That’s not the only decision I can’t make for you. Another one is, Where do you stand on the features-versus-complexity issue?

The Nook Color is absolutely bristling with features. Notes, highlighting, bookmarks, instant dictionary definitions, quick Wikipedia or Google lookups of a chosen word. You can select passages of text and post them to your Twitter or Facebook accounts. (The Nook Color gets online only in Wi-Fi hot spots.)

There’s a basic, built-in Web browser. A music player. An image and video viewer. There’s a MicroSD memory-card slot, so you can expand the Nook’s storage from 8 gigabytes (6,000 books) to 40 gigabytes (35,000 books, just enough to hold the complete James Patterson collection.)



A version of this review appeared in print on December 9, 2010, on page B1 of the New York edition.

Nook Color Points Way to E-Book’s Future -

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