Review: Barnes & Noble reader is dual-screen mess

Review: Barnes & Noble reader is dual-screen mess (AP)
A customer tries out a Nook electronic book reader at Barnes and Noble in New York, Monday, Dec. 7, 2009. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

(AP) -- The e-book reading device is the gadget gift of the season. Both Sony and Barnes & Noble have sold out of their new models, and new buyers will have to wait until January for delivery. So why are e-book readers still such clumsy, annoying devices?

I've been trying Barnes & Noble Inc.'s $259 Nook for a few days, and I'm not eager to prolong the acquaintance. Some of its problems are specific to the Nook, but most of them have to do with the screen technology the industry has settled on.

It's known as electronic ink, and it looks more like a printed page than any other technology. It also doesn't consume a lot of power. But the disadvantages make these screens seem out of place today. They don't show color. They have no backlight. Most importantly, they're very slow to change from image to image. A regular LCD monitor updates its screen 60 times per second, while a fast e-ink screen might do so once per second.

That means e-ink screens are very cumbersome to navigate. If you have a list of 10 books in your library, and your selection is marked by a highlight, it takes a second for that highlight to travel to a new selection. To users accustomed to the instant responses of computers and phones, this is what hell feels like.

The Nook tries to get around the slowness of e-ink by including a small, fast, touch-sensitive color screen below the main, 6-inch e-ink screen. While the main screen shows the text of a book, the small screen offers navigation options such as switching to another book.

This would have been a good idea if all the navigation took place on the color screen, but it doesn't. That screen is too small, so the Nook uses the e-ink screen to display lists of books, clickable links and so forth. Not only does your eye constantly have to travel between the screens to figure out your options, you also have to wait for the e-ink to update. The setup effectively shackles the color screen to the millstone of e-ink, and our voices rise from the depths of gadget hell.

As if this wasn't enough, everyone I showed the Nook to tried to touch the e-ink screen. It's the natural thing to try because the color screen is touch sensitive, but it's a waste of time. Making the e-ink screen touch-sensitive as well would degrade its precious readability, apparently.

There are numerous other problems with the interface, but Barnes & Noble says it's fixing a lot of them with a software update next week, so I won't dwell on the subject.

Like Inc.'s groundbreaking Kindle, the Nook connects to a wireless data network, in this case AT&T Inc.'s. It backs that up with the ability to connect to Wi-Fi hot spots, something the Kindle doesn't do.

The wireless connection lets users buy books directly on the Nook and read them right away. You can also subscribe to newspapers and have them show up every day, except that navigating a newspaper on the Nook will have you longing for a real paper.

Barnes & Noble says the Nook's battery will last for eight to 10 days of regular reading. I had to recharge mine after four days, but that might have been because I used the color screen and the wireless connection quite a bit.

Barnes & Noble claims to have 1 million publications in its library, and I didn't have any real problems finding reading materials at prices similar to Amazon's. Out of 32 fiction and nonfiction best sellers in The New York Times Book Review, Amazon has all but three, Barnes & Noble all but five. Most cost $9.99.

As a book distribution system, Barnes & Noble has some things going for it. For instance, about half of its e-books can be "lent" to other people. That means can now emulate the social exchange of printed books, while avoiding the big pitfall of book-lending: the risk that you won't get your book back. After two weeks, the book disappears from your friend's library and reappears in yours.

Your friend doesn't need a Nook to read a book you're lending, because Barnes & Noble provides reader software for a variety of devices: BlackBerry phones, iPhones, iPod Touches and Windows and Mac PCs. Support for more smart phones is coming soon. Amazon has lagged in supporting other devices for its Kindle books, clearly preferring that people buy its $259 reader, though it has recently released PC and iPhone/iPod Touch software.

The Barnes & Noble application for the iPhone is excellent, and I far prefer it to the Nook. It's free, too. A lot of people say they don't like reading books on an LCD screen, but many of them might change their minds if they turned down the brightness of the backlight.

There are also "tablet" style computers and media players with screens larger than the iPhone. So far, none of them have been great e-book reading devices, but I think we'll see some next year. They might be more expensive than the current crop of e-book readers, but they also will be far more capable and user-friendly. In any case, the e-ink madness needs to stop.

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User comments

Dec 10, 2009
I've got an ebook reader and I've got some advice...

Try READING BOOKS on the thing. It took me all of two days to discover that there's no use in putting more than 2 or 3 books on the device, since it's best for me to focus on reading one at a time before getting on to the next. It works perfectly fine for the purpose and the eink screen (for me anyway) drastically reduces eyestrain so that I can read all day. The reviewer likes an iPhone app for reading... For reading a novel? Well, I'd have to say my eyes are quite different indeed.. but to each his own.

I will agree though that it is not a web browser and it's not your word processor. It is for reading books.

I apologize for being somewhat uncivil here.. but the imbalance in this review is asinine. Surely the reviewer is aware that some people love reading on an eink screen and are not bothered by the apparent deficiencies of ebook reader. Perhaps some readers of the review would be better served by understanding why.

Dec 10, 2009
I have to agree with ontheinternets here. I've been using a Sony Reader since a few months after they did their initial release. I absolutely love eInk and can't imagine not having it.

I was spending >50% of my time on the road for work, so I loaded my reader up with 60+ books and never looked back. Batteries on eInk devices can last forever, especially if you have color screen and/or wireless connectivity turned off.

This reviewer seems to be missing the entire point of eInk technology! It's not supposed to refresh at 60 Hz, that causes eyestrain for most people! It's not easy to backlight a normal book's pages, either. This review fails to view the Nook as an actual reader, instead looking for a speedy electronic "gadget".

If you want to actually read novels on the thing, don't hesitate to go with eInk, just shop around between the readers, then think of them as real books. If you like open formats, though, you should look at Sony Reader or anything that uses EPUB.

Dec 10, 2009
I am a heavy user of eInk displays. I have read over 20 books on my Kindle DX since I got it last June. I prefer paper over CRT and LCD displays, but I prefer eInk over paper. The sharp edge of the characters against the display background eases eye-strain. I also prefer the muted background of the eInk display over the white background of paper.

eInk is optimal for reading. If you mainly want to do browser sorts of things, don't waste your money on an eInk display and don't waste any more of your time or my time by reviewing eInk-display products. Get a netbook or a tablet instead.

Dec 10, 2009
I am in complete agreement with ontheinternets, bhiestand, and BaldNerd; the author of this review treats the nook as if it should be a laptop or an ipod, and therefore have the speed and versatility of such. If one is looking at the Nook or Kindle along these lines they will be severely disappointed due to their misplaced expectations. E-ink display based readers are designed to be read and viewed like a book (ie ambient light reflects off the page and is read by the viewer). LCD's and CRT type displays shine manipulated light directly into the eye to produce an image (and therefore causes accelerated strain compared to e-ink and printed pages). E-ink readers are designed to combine the compactness and versatility of digital technology with the ease of reading a traditional book. The author of this review entirely misses the point of what e-ink books are trying to accomplish. In the future there will be color e-ink that will have the capability of displaying video.

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