As impressed as I am with Amazon.com Inc. for launching the electronic-book market, there’s one thing about the groundbreaking Kindle that I could do without: its keyboard. Those little round buttons and navigation controls are just too hard to use and take up too much real estate for the value they provide.
Rival Barnes & Noble Inc. apparently agrees. It has just come out with a new version of its Nook e-reader that can best be described as a Kindle-sans-keys. The Kindle with keys is already a very good e-reader. The new Nook, with its easier, more intuitive user interface, is even better.
Techies love arguing the relative merits of gadgets like these, basically only good for one thing, versus multi-function wonders like Apple Inc.’s iPad, or even Barnes & Noble’s own budget-priced Nook Color.
For many people, though, it’s the very lack of bells and whistles that makes the dedicated e-reader attractive (along with its lower price, feather weight and smaller size). Those folks will find the new Nook especially appealing.
As with the previous-generation Nook and Kindle, the similarities in size, screen and price surpass the differences. The Kindle is slightly thinner, the Nook at a mere 7.5 ounces an ounce lighter; both can be comfortably held in one hand for long periods of time and claim battery life of up two months. You probably won’t do that well in the real world, but it’s certainly fair to say you can go weeks between charges.
Both cost $139 for a Wi-Fi-only version, though Amazon gives you more choices, including a higher-priced model with built-in 3G access as well as other versions that knock the price down in return for subjecting you to “special offers” (read: “advertising”). Both have extensive online stores for buying content and allow you to add your own documents.
Both also feature the latest six-inch-diagonal, gray-scale display from E Ink Holdings Inc. While the screen isn’t anywhere near as vivid or book-like as the displays on liquid-crystal-display-based tablets like the iPad, it is, unlike LCD devices, easily read in bright sunlight.
Absent those little keys, the Nook is an inch shorter than the Kindle. That leads to the most significant difference: In place of the keyboard, the Nook has a touch screen that can be used for navigation, and to enter information, for instance, to annotate a passage you’re reading.
The Nook isn’t the first single-purpose e-reader to utilize a touch screen, but the earlier efforts sacrificed sharpness. Like Sony Corp.’s latest Reader line, the Nook uses an infrared system that has no appreciable impact on quality.
Page turns are smooth and crisp, unlike on the original Nook, which I found agonizingly slow. The new one also gives you several methods from which to choose. You can tap or swipe the screen, as on an iPad, or use physical buttons -- they’re more like ridges, really -- on the bezel framing the screen. There are four of them, a pair on each side, to accommodate both righties and lefties. I didn’t much like them: Besides being redundant, they required too much pressure.
Barnes & Noble has also figured out a way to reduce by more than 80 percent the page-turn screen-flashing that for many users is the most disconcerting aspect of using an E Ink device. In five page turns out of six, the text simply morphs from the old content to the new. Only on the sixth turn do you get that momentary black screen.
The touch-sensitive keyboard that materializes on the screen as needed works pretty well for the limited uses to which it is put. And those uses are indeed few. Although the Nook runs a version of Google Inc.’s Android mobile-device software, you wouldn’t know it. Almost all traces of the operating system, including the ability to surf the Web and handle e-mail, have been stripped out of the Nook.
These are things the Kindle does, if begrudgingly. Barnes & Noble seems to have dispensed with them in the interest of simplicity. You might feel differently, but for me they were unmissed and unmourned. Too many other devices around do those things far better than a gray-scale e-reader ever could, not the least of them the Nook Color.
The new Nook isn’t for playing games or music, or for looking things up on Wikipedia. It’s good for one thing -- reading -- which it does simply and well.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)