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Jud Roberts: Nook vs. Kindle

eBooks and Publishing

Here’s a guest post from Judson Roberts, author of the Strongbow Saga trilogy of Viking novels. Jud had given his assessments of these two eReaders in an e-mail discussion, and on my request kindly agreed to put his observations into a blog post.

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Two years ago, digital books, or e-books, were something that relatively few people had any personal experience with. Although e-books had actually been around for a number of years, they’d never really caught on. But in mid-2010, that changed. In the months leading up to Christmas, Amazon significantly reduced the price of its Kindle e-book reader. Sales of the device took off, and in January, when millions of new Kindles became activated, the rate of e-book sales exploded. It has been growing ever since.

E-books can be read on a wide variety of devices, including personal computers, tablet computers, smartphones, and dedicated e-book readers. But the tremendous growth in e-book sales that has occurred in the United States (the rate of e-book sales in overseas markets has not yet seen the same level of dramatic growth) has been, to a large extent, driven by repeated price reductions over the past year of the two most popular and widely used dedicated e-book readers: the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook, particularly the top of the line Color Nook. In this column, I will offer my personal opinion and experiences with both devices (Why, you might wonder, would I own both devices? I’m an author and have published some of my books as e-books, so I use both devices in part to review my e-book editions prior to releasing them.).

First, their similarities. Neither device is intended by its parent company to be an open source e-reader. By that, I mean that each device is tied to its parent company’s store, and designed to most easily access e-books sold through that store. Unless the user is willing to undertake some work-around steps (which admittedly are not that difficult to do, and which I’ll address in more detail below), a Kindle can easily load and read only Kindle e-books purchased from Amazon; a Nook only Nook books purchased from Barnes & Noble. The actual process of purchasing an e-book is fairly similar for both devices: either on a computer, or directly from the device, you access the parent company’s website, select a book, purchase it (for the devices to be activated when purchased, both require an active account with the parent company), and the book will be sent to your device.

In addition to the parent company’s e-books, it is possible to load documents in various formats, including Microsoft Word and Adobe PDF, onto both devices. The Nook also accepts EPUB files, the mostly widely used e-book format (which Nook e-books are in), and the newer Kindles accept Mobi format files, another e-book format. Thus, if a user acquires or already possesses e-books in the PDF format, they can be manually loaded on either the Kindle or the Nook. Additionally, non-B&N EPUB e-books can be manually loaded onto the Nook, and non-Amazon Mobi format e-books can be manually loaded onto the Kindle. For the present, at least, Kindle readers do not accept EPUB files or books, and Nook Color readers do not accept Mobi files or e-books, or Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format (which is derived from the Mobi format).

Documents and non-Nook e-books are loaded onto the Nook by connecting it via a USB cable (supplied with the device) to a personal computer, and transferring or copying them from the computer to the Nook. Documents and non-Kindle e-books may be loaded onto a Kindle using the same procedure, but Amazon also offers a far easier procedure: each Kindle is assigned an email address, and some formats of documents can simply be attached to an email sent to that address, after which they will appear on the device within minutes. [Luc adds: there's a free way to do this if you're willing to receive your documents or eBooks through WiFi only and not through Amazon's cellular Whispernet by sending it to a @free.kindle.com address: see your Kindle documentation for details. Also note that purchases from Amazon for the Kindle are automatically downloaded to the device.]

The Nook is WiFi only, which means that it cannot connect to the B&N website and acquire and load new books unless it is connected to a WiFi network. The Kindle is available in two different connectivity options: WiFi only, or an always-available connection via 3G cell phone networks. The latter does not require any additional charge or plan for network access and use, but the 3G versions of the Kindle device are more expensive than the WiFi only versions. Both devices, when connected, offer some degree of web browsing capability.

The two devices differ most markedly in how they operate. The Color Nook is a touchscreen device that looks much like a tablet-style computer, and runs on a version of Google’s popular Android operating system, which is widely used in non-Apple smartphones and tablet computers. Indeed, Barnes & Noble has even advertised the Color Nook as the least expensive Android tablet available. That is a dangerous claim to make, although not because of the price. Compared to other Android devices, the Color Nook is either extremely underpowered or its capabilities have been grossly limited by Barnes & Noble’s restrictive control over the device.

Barnes & Noble’s Color Nook

As a touchscreen-controlled device, the Color Nook has almost no manual controls: just an on/off power button on one side, manual plus/minus volume control buttons on the opposite side—all of which are very discreetly built into the side edges of the Nook–and a “home” button at the bottom of the front screen. Other than these functions, all other navigation and use of the device is controlled via the touchscreen.

Touchscreen devices can be extremely easy and intuitive to use. Unfortunately, the Color Nook is not. In fact, I’ll be blunt: it is the worst touchscreen device I have ever seen. When reading e-books on the device, for example, you can, in theory, advance to the next page by either tapping the right side of the screen or by making a swiping motion across the screen from left to right. Similarly, to go back to a previous page you either tap the left side of the screen or swipe from right to left. In my experience, however, only the swiping motions are consistently reliable. A significant percentage of the time the Nook’s screen is so unresponsive that the tapping technique produces no result.

Many functions on the Nook must be performed through one of two onscreen menus. Neither of the menus are always visible. One menu appears at the bottom of the screen when a U-shaped on-screen symbol at the screen’s base is tapped. The other, which controls functions within a book or document, such as word look-up or highlighting, appears only if you touch and hold the exact center of the screen. Why, one wonders, could the menus not be consolidated, and who thought it was a good idea to require completely different methods and locations for accessing them? And even the few mechanical controls leave much to be desired. For example, to completely power off the Nook, one must press and hold the on/off switch for several seconds, then tap an onscreen confirmation button that appears, asking if you really, truly mean to turn the device off. More than once, I’ve thought I had powered the device off, when it actually was still running (to save power, the screen goes black after a very brief span of inactivity). That’s a problem, because the Nook has a relatively short period of battery life between chargings to begin with. Having it go dead when you erroneously think it is turned off is exasperating.

My personal dissatisfaction with the Nook stems in no small part from the fact that I have seen how delightfully easy to use an Android e-book reader, when well designed and executed, can be. I own an Android smartphone (a Galaxy S phone made by Samsung). In addition to the actual Kindle ebook reading device, Amazon offers free Kindle reader apps for a wide variety of devices, including smartphones, tablet computers, and personal computers. The Kindle app came preloaded on my phone, and I love it. Now, when I’m out and find myself in a situation where I have time to fill on my hands (waiting at the doctor or vet’s office, etc.), I can just pull out my phone, fire up the Kindle app, and read a bit on a book—it even automatically synchronizes to the last page I read on my actual Kindle. But most importantly, it is—unlike the Nook—SO effortless to use. The screen may be smaller than the Nook’s, but the font size, background color, and brightness are all easily adjustable, so I find the reading experience to be at least as comfortable as on the Nook’s larger screen. Both the smartphone and the Nook are backlit screens, though, so reading on them for an extended time can be more tiring to the eyes than reading a printed page.

The B&N Color Nook versus the free Amazon Kindle app on a smartphone

The Nook versus smartphone comparison raises another flaw with the Nook. One of the great things about smartphones is the numerous apps you can load and use on them. Their variety and functions are almost endless, and there are countless Android based apps available. As an Android device, the Nook should be able to use them, too. But no—Barnes & Noble does allow a few apps, sold through their store, to be installed and used on the Nook, but the selection is limited and is strictly controlled by B&N, in their own inimitable style. For example, Epicurious is an excellent cooking website with numerous recipes that are well organized, easy to search, and are even rated by users. There is a free Epicurious app available for Android smartphones—my wife loves it, and uses it all the time. Barnes & Noble now offers the Epicurious app through their store for the Color Nook, too—but they charge $5.99 for an app that is available free for other Android devices.

The actual Kindle e-book reader is a completely different kind of device than a touchscreen Nook or smartphone. It is controlled entirely by a manual keyboard below the screen and by various manual buttons, all of which are clearly labeled as to what function they perform. While the result may not present as sleek and elegant an appearance as the Color Nook, it works well and is easy to use. If I want to access the menu, I simply press the button labeled “Menu,” then navigate the options than appear onscreen using the multi-directional navigation and select button. If I want to go to the home page, where all books currently loaded on the device are listed and accessible (and from where I can access other Kindle books I’ve purchased, but which are not currently loaded on the device), I press the “Home” button.  If I wish to advance to the next page, or go back to the previous one, I press the forward or back buttons located on both sides of the device. The Kindle is like a good tool whose design is based on considerations of function first, and appearance second. I liken it to a hammer that so perfectly fits your hand and is so well balanced that you strike true with it every time. It’s a personal preference, but give me function over flash.

The Amazon Kindle, shown here mounted in the optional leather cover which includes a pull-out reading light for nighttime reading.

The Kindle uses e-ink technology, which offers several advantages and one disadvantage. The advantages are that the technology uses very little power, so the Kindle can be used for very long periods without needing to recharge the battery. And because the screen is not backlit, it is as easy on the eyes as a printed page—or in some ways, even easier, because you can increase the font size if you wish. Plus it can be read outside, in bright sunlight, something most backlit touchscreen devices manage poorly or not at all. And the Kindle is mch lighter in weight to the Color Nook, too.

The Color Nook does have one area of clear advantage: color. At the current time, e-ink readers such as the Kindle (Barnes & Noble also offer less expensive e-ink Nooks) are only black and white—or more accurately, multiple shades of grayscale. This means that a book’s cover, and color illustrations inside if the book has any, appear in black and white tones. If I intended to purchase an e-book with color illustrations, I would probably choose to buy it in Nook format from Barnes & Noble, since I do have a Color Nook. But for any other kind of e-book, the Kindle is my hands-down favorite and go-to e-book reader choice.

And it’s not just the devices themselves, although I do prefer the Kindle device over the Nook. I also think Amazon is a better store, and I much prefer dealing with it than with Barnes & Noble. Their search engines do a much better job of recommending new books to you, based on your past purchases and search efforts in their store, and Amazon has a well-established policy of trying to encourage, attract, and satisfy its customers. Barnes & Noble, in my opinion, does not. For example, they flood my e-mail inbox every week with new book recommendations and coupons (remember that you have to set up an account with the parent store to activate the device? This is what B&N does with your e-mail address that you must provide them). But the recommendations aren’t personalized to my reading history, they’re just whatever book(s) B&N is pushing that week (and pushing probably due to “placement” payments from the publishers, just as they do for prominent shelf placement of print books within their actual bricks and mortar stores). And what’s worse, the small print on all of the special “sale” coupons included with these emails specifies that Nook e-books are specifically excluded –they’re always full price. Talk about a turn-off!

In conclusion, if you want a good, easy to use e-book reader, backed by the best e-book supplier in the business, m advice is to get an Amazon Kindle. If you really have to have a flashier, state of the art color touchscreen device, I‘d suggest paying extra and getting a fully functional tablet device such as an iPad, and installing the free Kindle app on it. Or better yet, just wait a bit. Rumor has it that Amazon may be coming out with its own color e-reader by the end of this year. Based on their past record, they’re likely to get it right.

Judson Roberts is the author of the historical fiction series The Strongbow Saga (which is available in both Kindle and Nook e-book versions, as well as in print editions).

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