Nook Simple Touch review

Introduction:

Of Barnes & Noble’s three primary iterations of the Nook (there are more if you throw in WiFi/3G options), the Simple Touch is, you guessed it, the simplest. Color screens, fancy software interfaces, and luxurious bodies have been pushed aside in favor of a more practical reader–one that gets you straight to the business of reading. Simple Touch isn’t begging to be hacked, won’t draw your attention to the web, and has no blaring colors that might entice needless swiping. It is missing the audio capability of previous Nooks, so fans of audiobooks will be stuck utilizing their mobile phones, home or car stereos. But we all have one of those these days, don’t we?

At $140, with access to over two million titles–including periodicals, pre-ordered novels from frequent bestsellers and more obscure fare–you could do a lot worse with your cash than to pick up the WiFi-only Simple Touch. If nothing else, avid readers owe it to themselves to step into their local B&N retailer for a little hands-on time with the chain’s latest electronic treat. I won’t call it a toy because I have had a difficult time putting mine down and I feel like my reading has been productive. And for those of you who don’t devour two or three books a week, why not? Don’t like ordering books or going to the bookstore once a month? One of the greatest benefits of e-readers is that they have a way of reigniting your passion for prose by delivering books to you in an instant. Bookmark sync across platforms, the ability to highlight text and create notes with a handful of taps, and the luxury of looking words up in a dictionary without typing or turning a page are great as well. I’m not selling the concept of e-readers here, but I think the most obvious benefits are worth a mention, if only to remind those of you who haven’t purchased or thoroughly tested an e-reader yet.

There are plenty of options out there for those in the e-reader market, and I’ve been clear about my preferences (see my Nook Simple Touch early impressions post), so the purpose of this review is simply to bring you as close to the experience as possible–hopefully assisting you in matching your potential purchase with your own preferences. If you do decide to buy a Nook Simple Touch, there won’t be any big surprises.

Design:

The Nook Simple Touch is sturdier and more slight than its predecessors and the rubberized back and bezel make for a safe, comfortable reading experience. By safe, I mean that this guy isn’t slippery. And it’s smaller dimensions–6.5 x 5.0 x 0.47 inches, at 7.48 ounces–mean that its easier to manage and to take with you. It can easily be held by one side, grasped from behind, or propped against the edge of a desk, resting in your lap. It begs to be taken everywhere, at any time. The top bezel is perfect for clipping on a reading light, which Barnes & Noble sells specifically for their Nook line. In contrast with previous Nooks, which had glass screens, this one appears to be designed with the student or workforce member in mind. I don’t feel the least bit concerned with tossing it in my laptop bag and forgetting about it. I probably will get a case just to be extra safe, but the hardware feels resilient.The only real caution is moisture and fire, as is the case with good old paper books. Of course, you will be out a lot more if you get this thing wet. Overall, the construction is brilliant. I do need to mention one minor complaint–and it is minor–about the physical design of the Simple Touch.

There is a tiny gap where the bezel meets the screen that seems to attract gunk. Lint, pollen, cat hair (good lord, the cat hair), dust, and whatever other tiny particles might be floating around, collecting in the bottom of a backpack or hanging onto a shirt are drawn to this region and often get stuck under the plastic bezel. I cleaned the Nook for this review, but first took several photos of it–after several days of use but before the quick and easy wipe-down with a damp paper towel. Look closely at the image above and you’ll find more than the most obvious fleck in the upper-right section of the screen. I’ve used my fingernail to dislodge all of the aforementioend items from that seam, and it bugs me a bit to know that there are likely some strays that got away, lurking inside my reader. But again, it is a minor complaint.

I took another photo to capture the smudges that my fingers had left on the screen after reading one book and several shorter stories, as well as browsing through my library and the store. The smudges were difficult to capture. The matte finish display hides them very well, and not once have they distracted me during a read. The flecks at the edges have, however.

Someone on Twitter asked me about ghosting–faint leftovers of the previously viewed pages, a potential problem because the Simple Touch only invokes a complete screen refresh after every six page views–and I replied that I was trying to see it, but couldn’t. But when I tilted the Nook in various directions attempting to capture smudges, there it was, a ghost of the author that had been my screensaver. Look at the negative space in the picture above, especially the left side of the screen, and you will see the black lines. The effect has never been apparent to me when reading, probably because old, faded text is replaced by sharp new words. I ran into it again when browsing through some settings today, but I exited the screen and returned to a clean, fresh background. This might be of some significance to those considering a Kindle 3, as ghosting is not an issue with that product. Again, a minor complaint, but there are sticklers out there who will care.

The lock/power button

The empty microSD card slot with cover

The microUSB port

(See more of the device in my Nook Simple Touch unboxing.)

Specs:

One of the strongest spec sheet bullet points the Simple Touch has going for it is an impressive two month battery life. That’s the best claim on the market of any e-reader, and unfortunately, it’s a claim I can’t vouch for. After four days of reading, starting with a full charge, the battery gauge indicated a drop of more than ten percent. There are other issues at play here and if you’ve researched the battery life reporting of cell phones at all, you know that those software can miscalculate the actual percentage of remaining life. If you’re curious, ask me in two months if I’ve had to recharge. By the way, the battery is non-replaceable.

This e-reader runs Android 2.1 with an 800MHz TI OMAP3 processor under the hood. It ships with 2GB of internal storage and supports up to 32GB via the microSD card slot, which is empty at purchase. The most important and prominent technical aspect of the Touch is its 6.5-inch Pearl e-ink display–the same technology employed by the Kindle 3. The 800 X 600 display, which offers 50% more contrast that the original Nook, is capable of 16 shades of grayscale and refreshes only once for every six pageviews. This is one way that battery juice is saved–with “80% less flashing.”

Formats:

The Simple Touch supports the following image and text formats: JPG, GIF, PNG, BMP, ePub, PDF–not a very long list. PDF support is minimal, and because there is no zooming, text with images quickly gets jumbled. It works with re-flow and allows for font size adjustment, but if you’re a voracious PDF lover, this Nook might not be for you. The Google Books I’ve tried to read, even with the largest font settings, were impossible to decipher. I don’t look good with a magnifying glass attached to my hat, so Google Books are off the menu. Not a big deal. I tend to stick with ePub and am completely satisfied, but buyer beware. Google Books is a vital resource for some.

Software:

The beauty of the Simple Touch is that it stays in the background, where it belongs. You’ll spend a small percentage of Nook time browsing the store, vertically swiping through your library, or tapping links to chapters in the table of contents. But you’re likely to spend the vast majority of your session reading text and turning pages. There are times when you will need to access additional tools, and less frequent, the Touch settings, but the paragraph you left to tinker is always a tap away with the little icon of a book on the left side of the notification bar. Getting to your homescreen and waking the device up can be accomplished by clicking the Quick Nav button on the face of the gadget.

The one software configuration I didn’t like within ten minutes of reading was the assignment of the simple, clicky, page-turn buttons that sit on either side of the display. On unboxing, the top buttons page forward, the bottom ones page back. This had to be changed because of the way I tend to hold my e-readers. A couple of clicks, and voila!, I found the option exactly where it belongs in the settings.

I haven’t spent much time typing on the keyboard in the last five days, really just because it isn’t necessary all that often. It is a tad slow to respond, and Kindle 3 fans will happily point this out. But I prefer an all-touch UI over the extra text-free real estate required for a physical keyboard. Again, personal preference. Note a bit of ghosting on the cancel, number and search keys. Definitely more noticeable in interface elements that in a page of text.

One of the now common but equally useful ability the Simple Touch offers is the highlighting of text for dictionary look-ups, sharing, and notes. The notes feature is fantastic, and I often find myself grabbing a sentence and tapping in a quick few words of my own on the subject. But selecting multiple words is a lot tricker than selecting one. When I need to refer to a dictionary for a puzzler, I just long-press the word, it becomes highlighted, and I tap “Look Up.” But when I want to highlight a sentence or paragraph, I long-press one word within it and then drag the selection points to the beginning and end of my desired chunk of text. It works like any other Android, except that the IR ring display touch technology, perfect for simple navigation and page turns, is a bit wonky with the pinpoint accuracy stuff. Again, not a big deal, but something that could be improved upon. At the right: a list of the notes I made in a book. Tapping one takes me to the page of the relevant highlighted text. Next to that sits a little note icon. Tapping it opens my notes on the text.

Note highlight

Single word highlight

Dictionary definition

Barnes & Noble have implemented Facebook and Twitter integration for the purpose of sharing books and text with friends. Not just the titles of books, either. Their LendMe feature lets you share a selected book in its entirety, though it will be missing from your library while your buddy reads it. Deleted, actually. A new download will be required when it’s your turn to read again. Maybe you want to keep your titles private so Bill will stop hassling you about The Rum Diary. Hide it in the settings and tell him your mom is still working on it. Or his mom. Once a LendMe request has been made, the book owner has seven days to accept or decline. Once a book has been lent, the borrower, who must be a “Nook Friend,” has fourteen days to finish.

Practical Use:

In terms of daily use, the Nook Simple Touch provides exactly what I want and need from an e-reader. The page turn buttons are easy to press but difficult to accidentally activate, and I can tap the left or right side of the screen for page turns if the mood or holding position dictates. Swipes work as well. This trifecta of page turning glory causes me to forget that I’m using an e-reader. It just disappears. The Simple Touch is brilliant not only in its sturdy, pared down design, but because it draws no attention to the soft or hardware. It really is all about the content, which makes it a joy to use. And, as I indicated in the design section of this review, it down’t require any special handling. It’s rough and ready and shouldn’t require much charging. When it does, it seems to charge rapidly. At least the first charge after I opened it would seem to indicate so. Regardless, I won’t be hauling the adaptor and cable around with me because I won’t likely need them. And because the Simple Touch can charge with just about any old microUSB cable, I’m willing to gamble that, if I do happen to drain the thing on vacation or something, I’ll be able to locate a power source in my hotel room, or, in a worst case scenario, a nearby cell shop.

I think one of the best things I can say about my Simple Touch is that it has inspired me to read. I never lose my place, and I don’t spend time looking for a particular passage. I mark the ones I think I might return to and it’s quicker and easer than doing so in a real book. Yeah. So it’s hard for me to come up with any complaints that would deter me from using my Nook or recommend that others not purchase one. The daily experience is just too good. Whether I’m in the sun, a dentist’s office, or in bed at night with my clip-on LED, I enjoy reading. The same cannot be said for my NOOKcolor, which gave me headaches in the dark and had to be looked out for. I was always worried that thing was going to break. Not so with the Simple Touch. And the Barnes & Noble online shop recommends titles similar to those I like. I just want to keep on reading.

Conclusion:

Barnes & Noble’s Nooks and Amazon’s Kindles are clearly at the forefront of the e-reader game. Deciding between the Kindle 3 and Nook Simple Touch will largely depend upon personal preferences: company vs. company, one online shopping experience vs. another, and an all-touch UI vs. a hardware keyboard. Whether you choose one of these e-readers, or a Kobo, or something else, at least take the time to give the Nook SImple Touch a test drive at the local B&N. It’s a major player in the e-reader market.