Nook Simple Touch: early impressions

I’ve had a Nook Simple Touch in hand for all of 32 hours as I type this, and I have yet to test a Kindle 3, so I can’t make an authoritative, blanket statement about the quality of this e-reader compared to everything else that’s out there. But I want to.

I own a WiFi-only version of the original Nook and I had a NOOKcolor in my possession for several months, and the Simple Touch trounces both of them. And because I rank the original Nook above Kobo, Sony, and a few other readers I have tested, the Nook Simple Touch is my favorite of any e-reader I have used.

The appeal of the first Nook, for me, was the secondary, full color display at the bottom of the unit, which was used for navigating my library, the B&N store, and settings. At first, I loved it. But the novelty wore off quickly. As pretty as the panel was, the software was slow to respond and I didn’t like waking that display up (via the oft non-responsive “n” home button) every time I wanted to select an item from a list or access reading tools. Barnes & Noble had yet to implement cross-device page sync at that point and the reader came out before the Android app, so some of the complaints I can come up with now should should be attributed to the fact that the handsome Nook represents the maiden voyage of the franchise. The e-ink display was nice and I liked the form factor. It was available in Wifi and 3G flavors, with lifetime data for the latter. The custom back panels and cases were fun.

The dual display of the original NOOK.

Then came the NOOKcolor (full review), which was rightly perceived as an economical entry into the Android tablet game. I hacked mine, installed games, browsed the web, and spent my time with it doing pretty much everything but reading e-books. The body is sleek, and the colors are bright. NOOKcolor is one sexy e-reader–there’s no doubt about it. But at $249, it’s not cheap, and I was constantly worried about damaging mine. It’s not the kind of thing you toss in a bag and forget about. Reading a backlit display in the dark was also a sticking point for me, and I found myself going back to the original Nook with a clip-on reading lamp. The NOOKcolor display will not dim enough for my taste. But as a tablet, it rocks.

NOOKcolor: visually stunning

This month, B&N started shipping (early) their latest offering, the Nook Simple Touch: a compact, rubberized slab with an all touch UI, page, and power buttons. It is missing the 3G option of the original Nook, and the audio jack of both earlier incarnations. It is an affordable option at $139, and embodies simplicity. The display uses the same Pearl e-ink technology that the Amazon Kindle 3 does, but forgoes the hardware keyboard of its nearest competitor. The “Kindle 3 vs. Simple Touch” is the real purchase dilemma here.

Finally, it’s just an e-reader!

Kindle loyalists will find a tough match in comparing Kindle 3 with the Nook Simple Touch. Kindle is taller and heavier, but the Touch is thicker and just a tad wider. Kindle 3 boasts one month of reading per charge, while the Simple Touch claims two. Kindle 3 offers free 3G connectivity, whereas Simple Touch is Wifi-only with free access at B&N stores and AT&T hotspots. Kindle maxes out at 4GB of on-board storage. Touch has 2GB on board, but features an SD expansion slot that supports up to 32GB. Kindle has no expansion option. Overall, without having tested a Kindle 3, I find the products fairly evenly matched. Though Kindle users do have access to Audible books, which is a nice bullet point.

Where Simple Touch really stand out is with its all touch UI. I find this method of navigating an e-ink display to be as intuitive as using a tablet, but without all the extra clutter. When I was using my NOOKcolor as a primary e-reader, stories were interrupted by notifications, web browsing, and the temptation to hack (which brought with it games). When I sit down with my Simple Touch, I know I am going to be reading. And the experience is excellent. I use the touch screen to navigate my library and the solid, clicky bumps on the rubberized bezel to turn pages, though I could swipe the screen, if I wanted to.

People have been asking me about smudges on the screen. I read with clean hands, so this won’t apply to those who need spicy hot wings with their Vonnegut, but smudges are a non-issue for me. Same goes for glare. If you try to find the reflection of the sun in the screen of the Simple Touch, you will, but arrange it so brightly lit white clouds are above you, and you won’t see a thing, except text.

Another issue that a Kindle user recently brought up is ghosting: that, because the Simple Touch only refreshes the entire screen after every six page turns (see a demo in my Nook Simple Touch unboxing), there are traces of the last page’s text hanging around on the display. I’m trying to see it, but I can’t. Once I’ve clicked that page turn button, the text fades away and is replaced by new text. Clarity and contrast are the words that come to mind. And it’s important to mention again that the Kindle 3 and Nook Simple Touch both employ 6-inch Pearl e-ink displays with 16 levels of grayscale.

Despite my partiality to the Nook’s Touch interface, I think the choice between it and the Kindle 3 will ultimately come down to a choice between Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Readers who have cultivated a library, not to mention invested in one, might be reluctant to jump ship. And once you’re comfortable with a retailer and their online marketplace, especially when the hardware is as evenly matched as the Simple Touch and Kindle 3 seem to be, why start over?

Because I have not been hot on the trail of Kindle since its inception (it makes more sense for DroidDog to study the Android option), I can’t say that the Nook Simple Touch is the best e-reader available on the market. I can only say that it’s the best one I’ve used.

Note: I have purchased all three of my Nooks with my own money.