Barnes & Noble's simple, new NookJune 15, 2011: 10:31 AM ET
It's not an iPad, or even a Nook Color. But that's the whole point of Barnes & Noble's newest e-reader: it's not supposed to be.
FORTUNE -- Just six months after launching its well-received Android-based Nook Color tablet, Barnes and Noble (BKS) unveiled a major hardware update to the original e-ink-based Nook e-reader that cuts down on bulk, weight, and physical buttons.
Here's the important thing to note right off the bat about this new Nook: it doesn't have a color display like the iPad or the even the Nook Color. There isn't a full-fledged Web browser, email app, or really any third-party apps to speak of.
"Boring!" one Fortune reader complained about the Nook's launch last month. "An iPad does all this and about 1 zillion things more."
I initially agreed. I wouldn't say my iPad 2 3G does a zillion things in comparison, but it's much more versatile. So when I met with the B&N folks to pick up a review device, I was skeptical of its value and timing, particularly its arrival after Nook Color, a device I came to enjoy after the software update last March ironed out the major software kinks and added support for apps like email or one my favorite news curation readers, Pulse.
Some readers -- myself included -- don't want to give up the best features in their current e-readers for the tablet's shortcomings like comparatively shorter battery life and a display that can be tough to view outside. For us, there's the Nook: an unapologetic, laser-beam focused e-reader that does little else and doesn't bother to placate tablet proponents with so much as a full-fledged browser. But what it does do, it does exceptionally well, better than its nearest rival, the Kindle.
At $139, the WiFi-only Nook sports a 6-inch touchscreen that marries infrared technology with a Pearl e-ink display to let users navigate with taps and swipes. It's backed up behind the scenes by an 800 MHZ Texas Instruments processor which the company says enables a much smoother reading experience, including quicker page transitions. All of that is housed in a soft, black, rubbererized plastic chassis measuring 5 inches by 6.5 inches by .47 inches and weighs just under 7.5 ounces -- 35% lighter than the Nook first edition. There are six buttons, including recessed physical page flip buttons users can use if they prefer, and a home button. All that makes for an understated, sophisticated look that trumps the Yves Behar-designed Nook Color.
The Nook's biggest feature is one Barnes & Noble is particularly proud of, so much so they've dubbed the Nook the "Simple Touch Reader." By coupling infrared sensors with the e-ink screen, they've created one of the first dedicated e-readers that doesn't need a slew of physical buttons to get around. Many e-book readers will welcome the change because the tech actually works pretty well: there's little lag between the time you tap, swipe to flip a page, or type a letter, and when things happen onscreen. It's not as responsive as using as a color tablet, but the difference is negligible enough that users won't get frustrated. And as a result, it's easy to use the software-based keyboard.
So what you get here is the benefit that Amazon has been plugging all along with its Kindle -- reading in sunlight or on the beach -- with a responsive touchscreen, making it more intuitive to use than the first Nook or the Kindle.
Another benefit is the reduction of that film negative-like flashing effect we've come to associate with e-ink displays. Here, the company has come up with a neat little trick that it says reduces the effect by up to 80%: instead of having that happen every page, it happens every six pages. When you're reading an ebook, that claim proves true, but when you're navigating through the Home screen or looking for books in Barnes & Noble's online book store, it's not -- there's still a lot of flashing action. Luckily, screen transitions are quick enough it's not a major issue.
On the software side, the Nook runs off a heavily modified version of Android 2.1. The only vestige of Android you'll likely recognize is the occasional Web browser window that pops up if you click on book embedded links.
The user interface (UI) is really all about the newly simplified proprietary software, which simplifies the Nook Color's UI even further. According to Jonathan Shar, the company's general manager for digital newsstand and emerging content, it's supposed to be so simple that users should only have to tap up to three times to get anywhere they want to go. And unless you're banging out the name of a title in a book search, that's pretty much true. There's a homescreen with three panels: a "Reading Now" area that displays what book users are currently reading and the number pages of left, "New Reads," or other ebooks in your library you haven't touched, and "What to Read Next," a social-focused section that displays what say, Facebook friends are reading. Alternatively, pressing the physical Nook button at the bottom, brings up a strip of icons that access the Home screen, your full library, the B&N shop, a search feature, and settings.
The last word
Releasing a black-and-white e-ink-based e-reader after a color screen e-reader tablet sounds counterintuitive, but the new Nook may do well anyway, particularly with e-book readers who want a device that really excels at its purpose: reading. It's lighter and smaller than the iPad, so I don't have to prop it on my lap; it's got a display that doesn't strain my eyes during long periods, and battery life is pretty stellar. (I couldn't test that two month claim, but after reading more than three hours a day on it since I received it last week, the Nook still has plenty of juice left.) And because of that touch screen and user interface, scooting through menus and even just flipping pages makes makes navigating a pleasure.
All that adds up to a win for Barnes & Noble, which has struggled recently with the closure of stores as reading has shifted towards digital faster than many analysts originally anticipated. The Nook won't make you forget about that iPad, but it will remind some that Apple's tablet has a ways before it can be everything to every user. Until then, or at least until Amazon answers B&N's rallying cry with a new Kindle of its own later this year, this new Nook will be the e-reader to beat.