By William E. Ketchum III

Name: Barnes & Noble Nook

Price: $139

Specs: 7.48 ounces, 6.5 inches tall, 5.0 inches wide, 0.47 inches thick. E Ink Pearl Display screen. Comes with USB cable and power adapter.

The Back Story: When the first Nook hit Barnes & Noble stores in November 2009, its primary purpose was to do battle against the best-selling Amazon Kindle 2. Less than three years later, the e-reader market has ballooned and then slightly retracted, the Kindle is still killing the game, and tablets with e-reader apps have emerged as strong contenders for consumer's dollars. To bridge the gap Barnes & Noble released the Nook Color in 2010. Dubbed "The Reader's Tablet", the Nook Color combined all the features of B&N's original e-reader with a color screen and the Android 2.2 operating system. However, with Amazon constantly improving the functionality and lowering the price of its Kindle, B&N needed to revamp its entry-level offerings, and it did. The Nook Simple Touch Reader is an improved version of the original with the same focus: reading. How does it measure up?

DOPE

Compact, durable hardware: As seen by the specs above, the Nook Simple Touch measures in at a small and manageable size—it could actually fit into this writer's jean pocket without a problem. Despite its compactness, it still feels sturdy in the hand due to a rubberized back. The solid hardware makes it easy to carry around: I used it while sitting on a bus and walking down the street, and it didn't feel like I was lugging around a large device. It also takes up minimal bag and desk real estate as well.

Simple, effective UI: The Nook doesn't have the extensive features of other tablets, but its simple and effective UI does exactly what it's designed to: keep the user reading. Four page-scroll buttons, a “quick nav” button, and a responsive touch screen are all the Nook needs for users to find their way around. The home screen shows the current and new reads, and Barnes & Noble recommendations. A press of the quick nav button allows access to the B&N shop and your device library, while the touchscreen allows page turning (by swipe or tap) and a menu screen that lets the user visit a book's table of contents, find specific words and pages, or change text size and font for easier reading. A book icon in the upper left-hand side appears any time you're not reading, making it easy to instantly switch back to your latest read. (Read further for other useful touchscreen features)

Incredible battery life: Nook advertising says that the device will keep owners “unplugged for weeks,” and they weren't lying. Aside from a quick charge when I first obtained the device, the battery barely even showed a dent after days of use. Habitual battery chargers can plug in their Nook every night if they'd like, but they'd be fine without it: The Nook boasts up to two months of life without the Wi-Fi turned on, and around two weeks of life otherwise.

Seamless B&N store integration...: It was easy to buy the books via the Nook Barnes & Noble store. Access the shop (either from the home screen or the icon on the quick nav button), type in a title on the surprisingly responsive on-screen keyboard, and buy with one click—seconds later, the book is available. While visiting physical Barnes & Noble stores with the Nook, the in-store Wi-Fi smartly allows users to read for from the store's book selection for free for up to an hour each day—simulating what other loyal B&N visitors do with physical books daily (although the book loading in the free hour takes exponentially longer than buying a book). As a side note, the in-store benefits also include Nook-only coupons that can be used for food and drink discounts.

...but not limited to it: Fortunately, readers aren't limited to the B&N shop for their reading. The Nook also reads PDF, ePub, and graphic (JPG, GIF, PNG, BMP) files just as easily, and when you transfer them over from your computer via USB cord, the selections come up right alongside your B&N purchases in the Nook library—no need to dig and find specific folders for your other material. Adding a microSD card expands the storage to include over 1,000 books.

Real book feel/look: Many naysayers of e-readers say that there's no substitution for the feeling of curling up with a book, but the Nook comes close. Like the Kindle, its E-Ink Pearl display actually makes the screen look like real book pages, as opposed to the bright, high-res glory of a computer screen. It makes reading for long periods of time much easier on the eyes. Unfortunately, this also results in the screen not having a backlight to read in the dark.

Mini touchscreen features: There are several small touchscreen features that appear just from holding your finger on a word. The “Look Up” button allows users to find the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition, and the “Highlight” button helps underscore important passages. Perhaps the coolest feature is the “Add Note” feature which lets users type entire notes to accompany the passage. The highlights and notes are easily retrievable in the “Contents” option, which appears by simply tapping the screen once while reading.

Sharing: The Nook Simple Touch also integrates the ability to share quotes and titles with your social networks via Twitter and Facebook. The selection simply appears with the quote, where it's from, and a link to purchase the Nook book/publication. What stinks for your followers/friends is they can only see the quote—they can't see the rest of the entry unless they purchase the item on their own. But at least your social networking sites look cool when you add them. Google integration lets you add contacts to help NOOK Friends, from whom you can borrow Nook books for 14 days from their device libraries via the LendMe tool. The caveat here is that only certain Nook selections are lendable (publisher's discretion), and as far as we can see, you can't tell if a book is lendable until you purchase it, unless you click the “Check out top LendMe books in Shop” in settings.

 

NOPE

Limited magazine selection: While the book selection was superb, the magazine selection was notably thin. Each category—Men's, Entertainment, etc.—had fewer than a dozen choices, which was disappointing considering the vast amount of books and newspapers to sift through. The Nook Color has much better selection.

Lack of support for non-BN books: Even though the Nook reads PDF files relatively well, it's not compatible with PDB files, which is a very common eBook file type. Also, if you're so impressed with the Nook specs that you're prompted to leave behind your Kindle, slow your roll: the Nook won't accept Kindle filetypes, so you'd have to repurchase everything from the BN shop. Maybe Barnes & Noble could offer some sort of Kindle conversion credit—the same way that mobile phone carriers offer port-in credits for leaving another company—to soften the blow.

Wi-Fi ball and chain: Even though it seems like everyone who's anyone is connected these days, it was a tough reality check to realize that the shop, the social network capabilities, and more were unavailable after leaving a dedicated Wi-Fi area. This hurts more considering that the first edition of the Nook, which dropped in 2009, had 3G connectivity and is still available.

Somewhat clunky animation: In a tech world where we're used to seeing silky animations on Apple and Android-powered products, the animations on the Nook while going from screen to screen occasionally get a bit clunky-looking. Not a big deal, though: the animation between pages goes without a hitch, and that's what's important.

Final say: As a dedicated eReader, the Nook Simple Touch handles business. It has solid book and newspaper selections, its physical build and battery life are set up to hold you down long-term, and it's easy to use both at home and in transit thanks to the responsive touchscreen and readable screen. The Nook experience is even better at Barnes & Noble stores, with the ability to read books for free and get discounts on food and drinks. Users won't find the bells and whistles from a other tablets or the Nook Color here, and that's clear with magazine selection and animation snappiness. Still, the Nook Simple Touch is an effective, addictive option for avid readers.