nook initial impressions

My birthday present to myself arrived yesterday: the new Barnes & Noble “nook” ebook reader.

As you probably know, ebooks and ebook readers have been a hobby of mine for a while now. I’m rather passionate about ebooks. So of course I had to get a nook to see how it stacks up.



The look of the nook is great. The front is smooth slightly glossy plastic, with a matte finish on the buttons on either side of the screen. The back is a slightly rubberized plastic that feels comfortable in my hand. The weight feels good, and it feels sturdy overall (though I wouldn’t want to drop it). The buttons don’t have seams, and have a nice click to them. The buttons are on both the left and right edges, so it’s good for left or right handed use.

The side buttons do have one major flaw in my mind – they are reversed. When I hold the nook, my hand is comfortable gripping it by the side, with my fingers on the back and my thumb resting on the edge. But my thumb rests on the upper button, which is the “previous page” button. To go to the next page, I have to bend my thumb down every time, which is uncomfortable, or hold the nook by the bottom edge, which is also less comfortable. Lying on my side in bed, I found myself holding the nook with one hand and tapping the “next page” button with my other hand, obviously not ideal.

This button issue isn’t a dealbreaker, but it’s such a basic error it makes me wonder what sort of person tested it – after holding it for one minute, my conclusion was that the “next” and “previous” buttons should be switched.

The screens

The e-ink screen looks great, same e-ink technology as in the Sony and Amazon devices. It has a gray tone to it, nowhere near as white as paper, but is very easy to read. No built-in light source, so you’ll need a reading lamp or some sunlight, same as a paper book.

As with other e-ink screens, the screen takes about a half-second to refresh, and does it with a sort of a blink, which some people find offputting. I’ve never had an issue with it, I find e-ink very easy to read from.

The nook’s particular hook is the second screen, a small LCD touchscreen. I found the initial brightness of this screen way too high, especially next to the non-light-emitting e-ink screen, so I turned the LCD way down, to 7% brightness.

This screen is an interesting workaround to the slow refresh rate of the e-ink, and not cluttering up the device with lots of buttons, like the Kindle. In fact, all three major ebook makers have their own solution for interactivity: Sony has a touchscreen surface overlayed on the e-ink screen, which some say makes the screen harder to read; Amazon has a physical keyboard; Barnes&Noble has the small LCD touchscreen.

The LCD looks good, but is somewhat unresponsive. Using it as an on-screen keyboard works fine, but scrolling vertically through the iPod-style menus is clunky. As an iPhone user I am used to the buttery-smooth scrolling of the Apple device, in comparison the nook’s touchscreen is barely working. It seems more like a software issue than a hardware one, so I’m hoping they can make it respond more smoothly with an update at some point. Right now though, it’s very clunky.

The store

The B&N store on the nook is obviously a first attempt. It’s not terribly well-designed, and in a lot of ways seems broken.

First and foremost, navigation is bad. Just going to “ebooks” gives a result something like “Page 1 (items 1-20 of 30,000)”. While I’m sure B&N wants to show off how many books they have available, putting them all in one long list (with no apparent order to it) is absurd, who is going to page through thousands of screens of random books?

Going to a category isn’t much better, I went to “reference” and the books there seemed to be random as well, there were things like “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” in there. In fact, most of them seemed to be fiction, not reference. So whoever categorized these (or wrote the category code) did a terrible job.

I think right now browsing the store is pretty unusable, I didn’t try searching for a specific book, but that’d probably be the best bet for locating content.


The nook is a nice little device. I really like the feel of it and the design, aside from the flaws mentioned above. It seems like most of the issues are software ones, so it remains to be seen how aggressive B&N will be in doing updates. If they step up and work hard, they could rival Amazon. If they sit back, I think they’re going to lose out.