Friday, July 29, 2011

Nook & Kobo: eReaders with a Touch of Innovation

I recently had an opportunity to play around with the Nook Simple Touch Reader and the Kobo Touch Edition, both which came out this past June.

Overall these new eReaders are vast improvements over the previous models and here's my experience using each device:

Nook: The Simple Touch Reader

The first thing you notice is the complete overhaul of the design, which looks nothing like the Nook 1st Edition. This time Barnes & Noble decided to abandon the dual screen approach and focus on delivering a solid product with minimal bells and whistles. I have written about the first Nook and was not a fan of the hybrid approach.

The second thing you notice is how it feels in your hands. The exterior has a nice, gentle, rubbery feel, and the back is somewhat concave, making it really comfortable to hold. Taking a page from Apple, it has very few buttons that seem to disappear since they're beautifully integrated within the wide border that surrounds the screen. And that border contributes to the comfort factor, inviting the user to hold the eReader with two hands. But this Nook is incredibly light, so holding it with one hand is no problem.

The third thing that becomes immediately apparent is the touchscreen display. I'm really impressed by the responsiveness and you can effortlessly page through and bring up navigation with either a tap or a simple touch of the main button. This eReader truly lives up to its name. The quality of the display is very good, but unfortunately not great, and that's the only negative thing I have to say about this latest Nook.

The 6" Pearl eInk display is meant to rival the Kindle 3 (which is not touchscreen), but I'm sorry, it does not. In a side by side comparison the difference is obvious. It might be due to the additional layer necessary to make the screen touch sensitive, but the latest Sony Readers look just as sharp as Kindle 3 and those are touchscreen devices as well, so I'm not sure what happened here. For me, that's the only disappointment because if the display was killer, the device would be too.

But overall I believe B&N has done great job of taking the eReading experience to the next level by keeping things simple and offering an affordable device that any devotee of the bookstore chain will want to own.

Kobo: Touch Edition

I've written before about the Kobo eReader and have always been a fan. It's consistently been a good, portable, lightweight device that hasn't tried to be anything more elaborate than that. And I mean this in the best way possible.

You could load Kobo with a bunch of books and take it just about anywhere without worrying whether or not this inexpensive eReader fit in your carry on, was dropped, got sand on it, or whatever. The body was made of plastic, but didn't feel cheap, and the ingenious quilted back made it a pleasure to hold.

Now we have the touch edition and overall it's very much the same cute, lightweight, easy-to-use eReader the Kobo has always been except, (you guessed it), its got a touchscreen!

I found the screen to be sensitive and the response time pretty fast. The navigation is simple and intuitive and the big toggle button found on previous models has been replaced with one slender home button. All nice developments for sure, but again, the 6" Pearl eInk display has less contrast than the Kindle 3 or the Sony Readers. And again, that's disappointing, because like B&N, Kobo misses out on delivering the "wow" factor.

I've read other blog posts that point out how both the latest Nook and Kobo should've been released with displays that not just attempted to match, but instead surpassed that of Kindle 3. That's hard to dispute since this fall Kindle 4 will most certainly include an improved Pearl eInk screen with touch capability and even higher contrast. And you can bet these latest models from Amazon will be aggressively priced, so they're going to be hard to beat as the eReader of choice as we head into the holiday season.

That said, Barnes & Noble has the advantage of synching the Nook with in-store promotions at locations throughout the U.S. and Kobo, a Canadian company, is working hard to establish an international presence. Kobo also includes a social media feature called Reading Life that awards quirky badges to users in the spirit of FourSquare and GetGlue. Time will tell whether or not these efforts will attract customers away from Amazon, the current leader of the pack.

Touch: The Future of eReading

It's great to see both Barnes & Noble and Kobo introducing innovations to the eReader market and word on the street is that Sony will soon be releasing a new line of their touchscreen devices, which is good news since they usually add something inventive to the mix. There is no doubt touch is here to stay and any eReader that doesn't feature this functionality will instantly feel archaic, like the recently released "Google integrated" Story from iRiver.

Regardless, if you're seriously thinking about purchasing a dedicated eReader this year, you'd be "touched" not to wait until the new Kindles are announced. By then there'll be plenty of devices to choose from and surely one will meet all your digital reading needs.

If not, there's always the (rumored) Amazon tablet ;-)

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