Tech & You

The Nook Can't Catch the Kindle


The Nook is finally here. It turns out to be much less Kindle-killer than Kindle-clone, and a slow one at that.

Barnes & Noble's (BKS) new electronic book reader, which just went on sale, bears a striking resemblance to the Amazon.com (AMZN) device that ignited the e-reader market. It adds some useful features the Kindle doesn't have, and many of those it lacks won't be missed. But the Nook falls short in one critical area: speed. In just about every important function—opening a book, turning pages, and especially starting up—it lags behind its competitor.

How slow is it on start-up? Achingly slow. Might-as-well-go-pour-yourself-a-cup-of-coffee slow. Amazon's current model, Kindle 2, takes about three seconds from the moment you release the power button until you can start reading. On the Nook, it takes a minute and 50 seconds.

Luckily, most users let an e-reader go to sleep rather than power it down, making the Nook's pokiness less evident. Still, speed is a glaring issue—one that Barnes & Noble says it's aware of and promises to address in a software update early next year.

Nook/Kindle Comparison Once it's up and running, the Nook looks and acts like the Kindle. The key component—a 6-inch black-and-white display—is the same on both units. And for each, the $259 price includes use of AT&T's (T) 3G wireless network for browsing and downloading books, newspapers, and magazines.

The Nook, which adds a Wi-Fi connection, is a bit shorter, narrower, and thicker than the Kindle, and about 1 ounce heavier. You turn pages by pressing arrows alongside the display; there are two pairs, so left-handers and right-handers are treated equally.

The most noticeable physical difference comes below the book display. In place of the Kindle's rows of tiny keys and joystick, the Nook substitutes a color touchscreen that's used for navigating the contents of your library and the online Barnes & Noble bookstore, and for adjusting the device's settings.

I shed no tears at the lack of a keyboard; I've always found the Kindle's of limited use and prefer the Nook's virtual one for making a note or searching the online store. Also unmourned are a rudimentary Web browser and a text-to-speech feature. The Kindle has both—and the latter set off alarms among publishers as a potential threat to their audiobook revenue.

The Nook's touchscreen provides a little eye candy, particularly in the mode—similar to Apple's (AAPL) Cover Flow interface—that lets you flip through the contents of your library or the online store. That's offset, though, by the adverse impact on battery life. Barnes & Noble says the Nook can go 10 days between charges with wireless off, compared with 14 days for the Kindle. I haven't had the Nook long enough to test its claim, but with the Wi-Fi on and using the Nook often but not continuously, the battery indicator dropped from 100% to 40% in less than 36 hours.

Given that books bought over the 3G network usually arrive in less than five minutes, you may want to turn Wi-Fi off unless you're in one of Barnes & Noble's brick-and-mortar stores. There, the Nook will recognize its mother ship and use the Wi-Fi link to pop up welcoming messages and in-store offers. And you can access the full contents of any e-book in the store, just as if you'd pulled a book off the shelf.

Lending Feature Another potentially nifty feature is the ability to lend digital books to a friend who's using a Nook or an iPhone or a computer running Barnes & Noble's e-reader software. If your offer to lend is accepted, the book appears on the borrower's device for 14 days, while it's locked on yours for the same period. The two-week loan can't be extended, nor can the book be lent a second time. While that's a bit of a drag, at least you're guaranteed to get your book back. Not all publishers will let their books be lent, but Barnes & Noble says more than half of the commercial e-books in its million-title store will be available.

The Nook may also benefit from being a more open platform than the Kindle. Unlike Amazon, which uses a proprietary book format, the Nook supports the ePub standard, which may allow it to access books from a wider variety of sources, including Google's (GOOG) book project. The Nook also uses Google's Android mobile operating system, which means someday it could run additional applications.

That's important if, like me, you're skeptical of the long-range prospects for dedicated e-readers. I believe there's a good chance smartphones or tablets of the sort Apple is rumored to be developing will be the preferred means for accessing print content.

Before Barnes & Noble spends much time on the Nook's future, though, it needs to deal with the present. Early adopters can only hope the company moves more quickly than the Nook currently does.

Business Exchange: Read, save, and add content on BW's new Web 2.0 topic networkBeyond the FamiliarThere's more to e-readers than the familiar Amazon and Sony gadgets. In a Dec. 2 New York Times story entitled "Something to Read" reviewer Danielle Belopotosky provides a thorough exploration of the whole e-reader landscape.To read this and related stories, go to http://bx.businessweek.com/e-book-readers/reference/.
Jaroslovsky is a technology columnist and reviewer for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek.

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