Nook Chases Kindle at Snail's Pace

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 Inc.'s (BKS) new electronic book reader, which goes on sale today, bears a striking resemblance to the Inc. (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. Maybe two cups.

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.

Remarkably SimilarOnce you actually get the Nook up and running, it's remarkably similar to its Amazon competitor. The most important component—a six-inch, grayscale digital-ink display—is the same on both units. The $259 price of each includes usage of AT&T Inc.'s (T) 3G wireless network for shopping and delivery of books, newspapers and magazines. The Nook adds a Wi-Fi connection.

The Nook is a bit shorter and narrower than the Kindle. It's also thicker and about an ounce heavier. You turn pages by pressing arrows alongside the display; there are two pair, so lefthanders and righthanders 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 touch screen 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.

UnmournedAlso unmourned—by me, at least—are the lack of the Kindle's rudimentary Web browser and the text-to-speech feature that set off alarm bells among publishers as a potential threat to their audiobook revenue.

The Nook's touch screen provides a little eye-candy, particularly in the mode—similar to Apple Inc.'s Cover Flow interface—that lets you flip through the contents of your library or the online store.

That's offset, though, by the 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 percent to 40 percent in less than a day and a half.

The MothershipGiven that even books purchased 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 mothership, and use the Wi-Fi link to pop up welcoming messages, in-store offers and the ability to browse the full contents of books.

Another potentially nifty feature is the ability to lend digital books to a friend who's using a Nook or an iPhone or 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 duration. The two-week period can't be extended, nor can the same person borrow the book again. While that lack of flexibility might be 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 feature hasn't yet launched; in testing over the weekend, I was able to borrow books, but not lend them.

More OpenThe 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 will allow it to access books from a wider variety of sources, including Google Inc.'s book project. The Nook also runs Google's Android mobile operating system, raising the possibility it might someday be able to run additional applications.

That may be important if, like me, you're a bit skeptical of the long-range prospects for dedicated e-readers. I think it's more likely that multiple-purpose devices—such as smart phones and the tablet Apple is rumored to be working on—will become 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 it moves more quickly than the Nook currently does.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.