The 'nook' is nice, but not quite there yet

One of this season's hottest gadgets is the new electronic book reader from Barnes & Noble. It was supposed to hit local stores in November, but there were so many preorders, that if you order it today, it won't ship until February.

I tested out a "nook" (the company doesn't capitalize the product's name) for a few hours this week at the Barnes & Noble on East Colonial Drive in Orlando and found that while it worked fine for reading a book, it was overly complex and many of its key features don't work as advertised.

In short, it was probably released before it was ready. But that's not uncommon. The first Amazon Kindle had some shortcomings, many of which were fixed in the second model.

Having so many e-readers available is forcing companies to innovate and driving down prices. Both the nook and the Kindle cost $259 and the Sony Reader Touch Edition costs $300.

The big differences between the nook and other readers are that it has a color touch screen, both Wi-Fi and 3G connections, the ability to "lend" an e-book to a friend and the capability to browse an entire book for free in an Barnes & Noble store.

Not having a physical keyboard gives the nook a sleek design, and it feels good in your hands. There are two page-turning buttons on each side to make it easy for both righties and lefties, and the "Reading Now" option makes it easy to jump back into your book without having to move through menus.

The nook actually has two screens, the main screen where you read your books, newspapers and magazines, and a smaller, color touch screen at the bottom that you use for bringing up menus and navigating. Having the extra screen at the bottom lets you swipe your finger to browse through color covers of books and to tweak settings such as the font and type size without having it clutter up the reading screen. But I frequently would forget that the main screen wasn't a touch screen and would tap on it with my finger, frustrating myself.

You can turn the page by using the physical buttons on the sides, or you can swipe your finger on the touch screen. But it's very sensitive. After getting it to work once, I could was not able to swipe to turn the page, even after mimicking the exact gesture of the Barnes & Noble employee demonstrating it for me. The touch screen has a virtual keyboard, and though it's a little small, I was able to type on it comfortably.

Although the nook has both 3G and Wi-Fi connections for downloading books, there's no Web browser, no way to read blogs or RSS feeds and if you are overseas, you can't download books via the Wi-Fi connection. Downloading a book with Wi-Fi was only a few seconds faster than doing it over 3G, and the main purpose of the Wi-Fi connection seems to be for use in a Barnes & Noble store.

When you bring your nook to a store, you see special promotions and offers, and, in the future, you will be able to browse through any book for up to an hour within a 24-hour period.

Barnes & Noble says there are more than a million books available for the nook, but published reports say that more than half of them are free out of copyright titles published before 1923. The Kindle store has more than 390,000 books in its store. Most bestsellers and hardcovers cost $10, which is becoming standard pricing. You can play MP3 music files like you can on the Kindle, but the nook does not have the ability to read text aloud for free (you can purchase audiobooks).

The nook has a paltry selection of only four newspapers, and reading them on the device is a horrible experience. For instance, nook treats the Washington Post as a book, giving you options to jump to a chapter (which doesn't exist), but no way to jump from section to section of the paper, forcing you to move through every article in one section to get to the next one.

You can "lend" a digital book to a friend, but they better be a fast reader, because they only have 14 days to finish it. After that, it disappears from their device and returns to yours, but you can only loan each book once.

While the nook's color touch screen and lending features are nice, I think the Amazon Kindle is a better choice. It's more polished, easier to use, and its web browser gives you more flexibility.

But I'm sure the nook will get better and I wouldn't be surprised if Amazon came out with a touch-screen reader of its own soon. So it's a good time for fans of the electronic books.

Etan Horowitz can be reached at 407-420-5447 or ehorowitz@orlandosentinel.com. To read his tech blog, visit OrlandoSentinel.com/techblog.
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