Kindle vs. Nook

Introduction:

Full disclosure: I am a Nook fan. I have been since my purchase of the first Nook, and my experiences with the Simple Touch (unboxing, review) and Nook Color (review) have been, for the most part, very postivie. Though, I’ve found that e-ink is the best reason to choose an e-reader over a tablet for reading. (See my comparison of the first two Nooks in sunlight.) Of the three Nooks, the latest–the Nook Simple Touch–is my favorite. This is due in large part to its lack of distractions from reading and the read-anywhere-with-light Pearl E-Ink display.

The Kindle 3 uses the same e-ink display technology, and considering how many requests I’ve received for a Simple Touch vs. Kindle 3 showdown, it sounds like you bookworms out there are just as curious as I was about how these two $139 Wi-Fi contenders square off. Despite my apparent allegiance to the Android-powered offering from Barnes & Noble, Amazon’s Kindle has won more of my attention than I expected it would, and for good reason. Let’s get started.

The Kindle Wi-Fi version was used for this review.

Overview:

The Nook Simple Touch and the Kindle 3 represent the latest and greatest in e-reading from their respective companies–Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Without doubt, a major deciding factor in choosing between the two e-readers is store/catalog commitment and affinity. Those who have established large libraries with one shop are less likely to jump ship than to simply upgrade to their chosen book store’s latest offering. This isn’t a bad thing, as the Nook and Kindle are on par with one another at this point: both have 800 X 600 Pearl E-Ink displays, though Nook’s is 6.5-inches over Kindle’s 6-inches; both have extraordinary battery life (Nook claims two months, Kindle one, with network access disabled); and both are thin, light, and fairly rugged.

Those who need a physical keyboard will love the Kindle’s clicky keys, and touch screen fanatics won’t be disappointed by Nook’s simplified design. Outside of the method of interaction, key points to consider are Nook’s PDF file support and Kindle’s audio capabilities. There are other pros and cons to each device, as we will see, but the most significant differences are laid out above.

Physical Design:

B&N’s Nook measures in at 6.5 x 5.0 x 0.47 inches and 7.48 ounces. The surface of the body is rubberized, right down to the page turn clickers, which sit on either side of the face. These are user assignable (you can swap the forward/backward actions between top and bottom buttons) via the device settings. It’s easy and comfortable to hold, and feels like it could take a standard-to-above-average beating for a couple of years. I never worry about tossing this guy around.

The Kindle is taller and wider than the Nook, but thinner, at 7.5 x 4.8 x 0.335 inches, weighing in at 8.5 ounces. The difference in size is negligible, and those yearning for a hardware keyboard won’t mind the extra length. Kindle, though solid, has more moving parts than the Nook and I’ve found myself babying it a bit more than B&N’s option. Numerous cases are available for each gadget, so this might not be a major concern for most. The surface of Kindle isn’t quite as pleasing as Nook in the hand, but the plastic is easy to clean and doesn’t hang onto fingerprints the way a rubberized surface does. Not to mention that Kindle requires no touching of the display, so that remains clean as well.

Hardware:

The Nook Simple Touch is simple. The only moving parts on the device are the large, flat power button on the back,the clicky “n” Nook button below the display, and the page turning tabs on the edges of the face. The page turners rest underneath the rubberized surface, so there aren’t any gaps there for crud to get into. Chances for hardware damage have been minimized. However, I’ve found the power button on my Nook requires pressure beyond the clicking point, and that has become a concern. If plastic creaks when you turn a gadget on, something probably isn’t right. I haven’t been able to find anyone else with the same problem, so I’ll chalk it up to a manufacturing aberration.

The Nook’s only input/output point is a microUSB port, which can be used for charging and transferring files. There is a small panel that can be removed for microSD card access (up to 32GB, supplementing the 2GB of on-board memory), but it rests flush against the side of the Nook and keeps the slot safe.

The Kindle, on the other hand, is loaded with buttons, each of which expose a gap in the shell that will gladly swallow up crumbs, if not protected. But the buttons are more satisfying than the few found on the Nook, and there is something to be said for a tactile interface.

The bottom of the device features a sliding lock/power switch, which glides easily and just works. A charging/charged light rests in its path. Next to that, you’ll find a microUSB port, audio jack, and volume rocker. The Kindle doesn’t have a microSD card slot, but holds 3.3GB of user-accessible internal memory. That headphone jack (and speaker setup) isn’t just for MP3s. Kindle does text-to-speech as well, so you can turn any book into an audiobook.

Keyboard:

When I first got my Nook ST, I didn’t mind the on-screen keyboard. The keys were nicely spaced, it looked good, and it worked. But over time, waiting for one typed letter to show up on screen before typing another–an annoying habit that develops after too many typos–I found this method of text input to be a bit frustrating. Not a big deal; I don’t spent all that much time typing on my ereaders. When I do, I keep the text brief.

Then, there’s the Kindle. The screen is just as slow to display text I’ve typed in, but the clicking of those hardware keys gives me confidence when typing. I don’t have to guess whether or not a certain letter was registered, or if I pressed a key twice, or hard enough, etc. I type a word or two as fast as I please, then wait for the text to appear on screen. It’s not a huge advantage over the Nook’s virtual QWERTY, but it makes a difference. And that little d-pad you see on the right side of the keyboard, Amazon’s alternative to an all-touch display, turns out to be just as intuitive and user-friendly as Nook’s touch screen.

Display:

The top questions I’ve received regarding the Nook v. Kindle issue regard the quality of displays and frequency of refresh. Both products have Pearl E-Ink displays at 800 X 600 with 16-levels of grayscale. And yet, one looks better than the other. Is it that small difference on half an inch (diagonal) size, pushing the pixels closer together on the Kindle? It is the refresh rate? I can’t say for sure, but Kindle’s display has slightly better contrast than the Nook.

Both devices, Nook on the left, after a complete refresh.

This isn’t a knock-out victory for the Kindle’s display. The difference will be negligible to most. But its screen is sharper, cleaner, and more pleasing to the eye. So there’s that.

Nook’s display only refreshes entirely once every six page turns. Concern about this difference between the gadgets was expressed by many Kindle fans after I published my Nook review. The issue didn’t bother me then, and it doesn’t bother me now. Ghosting–the faint remnants of text that can sometimes be seen after a page turn on the Nook–is very difficult to detect when reading, and really doesn’t detract from the experience. Kindle’s page turns are a bit slower than Nook’s, because it refreshes the display for each page, but this delay is equally insignificant. Some will choose a fresh page over slow turns. That’s the trade-off, and it’s an individual choice.

Menus and Options:

Nook’s tap-to-access context menu is slick. Poking the middle of the screen makes for quick jumps to the TOC, searches, Text options, and more. But, because the touch display can also be used for page turns and text selections, it’s easy to trigger the wrong option.

Kindle’s hardware menu button brings up a rather clumsy, old-school drop-down as a jumping point for other areas of the operating system. Nothing special here, but it works.

The Nook’s text options menu–accessible via the context menu mentioned above–provides numerous fonts, font sizes, line spacing, and margin spacing.

Kindle’s text options–accessed via a hardware button–include text size, line spacing, words per line, text-to-speech, and a very limited font selection. Lastly, there is a screen rotation panel, which I find to be useless. If either e-reader needs an orientation option (neither do, in my opinion) it’s the Nook–a simple slab with very few buttons. The Kindle demands to be held upright in portrait mode, because that’s how one presumably views the keyboard and interacts with the d-pad. And without a touch screen for orientation specific page-turn actions, reading the Kindle in landscape mode is just plain awkward.

Nook also wins in the book navigation department. Jumping from chapter to chapter is a piece of cake, and bookmark and highlight tabs are one tap away from the table of contents.

Kindle doesn’t handle navigation so well, and I’ve encountered many books without a TOC. Lots of the same books have a TOC on Nook. I’m not sure if this is due to publishing mistakes that are easier to avoid with Nook’s default .epub format than they are with Kindle’s .mobi format, or if Nook is just smarter about indexing chapter separations on its own. Either way, Nook is the clear winner here, both for its ease of use and aesthetic dominance.

Features:

One of the key differentiators between the Nook and Kindle, at least in terms of major features, is Kindle’s audio support. The Nook has no headphone jack, no speakers, and no microphone. Kindle has all three (though the mic is there for future implementation). This means audiobook support, which makes for easy story time in bed at night.

Audiobook titles purchased via Audible (subscription service) will automatically sync with Kindle via Wi-Fi, and playback is accomplished through a clean, simple interface. One problem I have with this section of the UI is that the transport controls are limited. You can skip chapters and jump ahead in 30-second intervals (one slow click at a time) but many audiobooks lack sufficient file divisions. Take Stephen King’s Blood and Smoke, for example: nearly four hours of King’s nasal narration is broken up into only four sections. Tapping my way through an hour of material to find the section I had last heard via the Audible app on Android resulted in my deciding that I really didn’t need to pick the story back up on a new platform after all. I’ll save that one for my Android phone.

And that brings up an interesting point regarding the value of audio support. I think most people who will purchase an e-reader already have a device–most likely a phone–that they use for listening to music. It’s often more convenient to listen with a smaller device, so I don’t mind reading on my Nook at home and listening with my Android phone while out. But for those who want an all-in-one solution for the written and spoken word, Kindle comes out on top.

Formats:

Despite Kindle’s many strengths, it is lacking a fundamental apability. Namely, PDF support. There are hacks out there that allow for what passes as native support of PDF and epub, but the average person shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of tweaking right out of the box. Sure, most people will likely buy from the Amazon Kindle store without ever knowing that they can dump their own files on the device, but I consider neglect for this very popular format to be a major error. For those that don’t want to hack, files can be converted with Calibre and other e-reading apps, and Kindle’s favored file format, .mobi, can be exported with quality writing programs like Scrivener. There are solutions to this problem, but those should not be the concern of end users.

Daily Use:

I spend a lot of time selecting text and adding notes while reading and the Nook’s touch display offers an intuitive drag-to-select method of highlighting and entering notes, not to mention the highly visible highlights and icons that represent entries.

But Kindle’s d-pad offers an ultra-fast method of entering selection mode. One tap in any direction, and I’ve got a cursor on the screen. Once a word is selected, I tap the enter button and start typing. Again, text entry is faster than on the Nook. But sifting through text, looking for my notes, is not as easy as it is on the Nook. Kindle’s markings are less prominent.

One of my favorite software features on the Nook is the “now reading” button, which is always displayed in the notification bar. That little picture of a book means you are always one tap away from your current place in a book no matter where you might be tinkering in the OS. Kindle desperately needs and equivalent to this.

As far as shopping and discovery gone, I prefer B&N’s interface over Amazons, and the Nook homescreen is much sexier than the Kindle’s. But again, beauty in software design does not equate to better usability. The experience is equally manageable for each product.

Battery use could be of concern to those who, like myself, prefer to leave network access enabled. Kindle, while boasting half the battery life of the Nook, seems to manage power use for inactive Wi-Fi better than the Nook does. With Wi-Fi on, I find both units to need a charge every ten days or so. If I go on a trip, and want extra long life, I expect disabling the Wi-Fi will produce satisfactory life for both gadgets. Kindle claims a month, Nook claims two. Whether or not they live up to these estimates in real life isn’t as important as knowing that either one will get you through a two-week vacation.

Summary:

Nook Benefits:

All-touch interface, very few buttons, rugged, small, longer battery life, memory expansion, sleek software.

Kindle Benefits:

Hardware keyboard, faster typing and note entry, audio support (with text-to-speech), more internal memory, simple games.

Conclusion:

I can say without hesitation that I prefer the software of the Nook over that of the Kindle. That said, the Kindle’s hardware, while more likely to invite damage, speeds up the input experience considerably. Not to mention that Kindle’s display is sharper. Format issues won’t be a major concern for most people, and those who want to transfer PDF files to their reader are probably capable of conversion, though the extra steps required might be annoying for Kindle users.

There is no clear winner in my mind here, as both gadgets have strong selling points. What it comes down to, as usual, are personal preferences and trade-offs. Do you want better display without touch capability? Do you need a hardware keyboard? Do you want a reader that can handle a little more abuse? One that features, perhaps, up to double the battery life of its leading competitor?

The other major decision here comes down to store/brand loyalty and commitment. With both the Nook Simple Touch and Kindle 3 coming in under $140, choosing between the two isn’t easy, unless there is one specific feature you can’t live without. Whatever that feature is for you, aside from a back-lit display (in which case, get a tablet), one of these two readers will deliver it.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,