E-book readers like the Amazon Kindle may be all the rage this holiday season. But five years from now, they’ll seem as laughably primitive as the Commodore 64.
“Oh, man, remember those Cro-Magnon e-book readers?” we’ll say. “They used E Ink screens — black text on gray. No color. No touch screens. And every time you turned a page, you got this weird black-white-black flash. Can you believe anyone bought those?”
Well, it’s time for some progress. Barnes & Noble’s new Nook Color ($250) is the first big-name e-book reader with a color touch screen. It has confusing aspects, but it’s light-years better than last year’s slow, kludgy black-and-white Nook. (The company says the new Nook was designed by a new team, based in Silicon Valley and composed largely of former Palm employees.)
The hardware is handsome. It’s an 8-by-5-inch slab, half an inch thick, with an aluminum border and rubberized back. You can poke your finger through the triangular cut-out in the lower left corner. It’s just a design quirk, although maybe you could attach your key ring to it.
This Nook weighs a pound, somewhere between the Kindle (8.5 ounces) and the iPad (1.5 pounds). The color screen means you’ll have to recharge the battery every few days, rather than every few weeks. The animations are a little jerky, and the screen often doesn’t “hear” your tap the first time. But otherwise, the Color Nook is fast enough.
As for the touch screen — well, you know what? All e-readers should have touch screens. Once you tap to open a book, swipe the page to turn it and drag your finger on the Brightness slider, using a joystick to move the cursor on an E Ink screen seems indirect and antique.
The color screen is bright and beautiful. Magazines, for example, look spectacular. You can subscribe to any of 70 magazines (the first two weeks are free) or buy individual issues. You get the whole layout, including ads; it’s great.
Of course, you can’t read a full-size magazine page when it’s shrunk onto a 7-inch screen. So you navigate as if on an iPhone: you spread two fingers to zoom in, and drag a finger to pan around.
You can also summon a scrolling row of colorful page miniatures at the bottom of the screen, for ease of navigation. Some magazines even have an Article View: a scrolling, vertical, uncluttered column of black-on-white text that’s easy to read. The original magazine layout lies behind it for context.
Children’s books also benefit enormously from color, and they get special treatment on the Color Nook. You can tap the text on any page to enlarge it. Some titles — 300 by year’s end, the company says — offer a Read to Me button, so that your young reader can follow along with a recorded voice. My 6-year-old loved the effect and begged for more.
As on other e-readers, you can subscribe to newspapers; if you’re in a Wi-Fi hot spot, the paper arrives on your reader automatically in the middle of the night, ready for your commute. The photos look great in color. But the rest of the newspaper is bizarrely spartan and unimaginative, especially compared to the elaborate magazine mode. There’s no sense of layout; the whole thing looks like a beginner’s blog.
Color doesn’t add much to regular books. (Barnes & Noble says that its attractively redesigned online store offers two million books. About 1.5 million of those, however, are free, very old, often obscure books scanned by Google.)
But all books benefit from the Nook’s self-illuminating, laptop-style screen. The bedtime routine of many a Kindle owner — wedging a flashlight behind one ear — is a thing of the past.
In sunshine, you can still read the Color Nook, though not as easily as an E Ink screen. (Glare is sometimes a problem, too.) The question is, where do you do more reading: in sunlight, or at night? Only you can answer that question.
That’s not the only decision I can’t make for you. Another one is, Where do you stand on the features-versus-complexity issue?
The Nook Color is absolutely bristling with features. Notes, highlighting, bookmarks, instant dictionary definitions, quick Wikipedia or Google lookups of a chosen word. You can select passages of text and post them to your Twitter or Facebook accounts. (The Nook Color gets online only in Wi-Fi hot spots.)
There’s a basic, built-in Web browser. A music player. An image and video viewer. There’s a MicroSD memory-card slot, so you can expand the Nook’s storage from 8 gigabytes (6,000 books) to 40 gigabytes (35,000 books, just enough to hold the complete James Patterson collection.)
The “Lend Me” feature from the first Nook is still here, but it’s still laughably restrictive. You can lend a book only once, to one person, for two weeks, during which time you can’t read it. (You can’t read it while your loan offer is pending, either — another week.) You can lend only books whose publishers have agreed to it, and precious few have. Of this week’s 15 New York Times fiction best sellers, only two are lendable.
And as with all commercial e-books, you still can’t sell or even give away a book when you’re finished with it.
This Nook is customizable to a dizzying degree. You have three “home screens,” where you can drag icons for books and magazines, and also a Library bookshelf, where you can install, name and fill new shelves. You can change the font (of books), and also the type size, the margin width, the line spacing and even the background color. Some of the color schemes are surprisingly soothing.
There are even apps, for heaven’s sake. Yes, the Color Nook runs on Google’s free Android operating system; but no, it doesn’t run apps designed for Android phones. It comes with some starter apps, like Sudoku, a crossword and a Pandora radio app; the company says programmers will soon be able to write additional Nook programs.
The price you pay is complexity. The Color Nook offers far too many pop-up control racks. There’s the Quick Nav bar, the Status Bar, the Media Bar, the Library, the Daily Shelf and the Recent Items menu. It will take you quite awhile to master what’s where.
The bigger problem, actually, is the wild inconsistency of features. It’s as if Barnes & Noble assigned the magazine-reading app to one team, books to another and newspapers to a third.
For example, the screen image rotates when you turn the Nook 90 degrees — but only in magazines and Web pages, not newspapers or books. Children’s books appear only the wide way; adult books, only the tall way.
You can hold your finger on a word to add a note or look up a definition — but only in books and newspapers, not magazines. A single tap brings up the row of page thumbnails across the bottom — but only in magazines, not books or newspapers. You can spread two fingers apart to zoom into a magazine page — but not a Web page, book or newspaper. You swipe your finger horizontally to turn pages in books — but vertically to turn pages in PDF documents.
In short, the Nook Color doesn’t have anything close to the refinement and consistency of, say, an iPad or even a Kindle. At the same time, the Nook Color feels more modern and powerful than the Kindle. It also feels more like a computer than the Kindle, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Yes, five years from now, we’ll laugh at this reader, too — but not derisively. As we unwrap our all-color, all-touch screen e-book readers under the 2015 tree, we’ll remember this machine as the one that showed the way.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.