August 15, 2022

State of the Art: Moving Forward in E-Readers

Our grandchildren will listen to our technology tales — spotty cellphone coverage, 24-hour movie viewing windows, three-hour battery life — and burst out laughing the minute they’re out of earshot.

Take e-book readers, like the Kindle and its rivals. “Come on, Grandma. You really couldn’t read Kindle books on a Nook, or vice versa? What a dumb system!” “Tell us again why you couldn’t read Harry Potter books on e-readers?” “Grandpa, what do you mean ‘monochrome’?”

This week, though, e-book readers just took their first slimy steps out of the primordial soup.

Both Barnes Noble and Kobo, its far less advertised rival, introduced nearly identical readers that are clearly intended to embarrass the industry leader, the Amazon Kindle.

They’re called the All-New Nook ($140) and the Kobo Touch Edition ($130).

Yes, Barnes Noble actually calls it, and capitalizes it, “All-New NOOK.” Not only is that cloying and annoying, like you’re doing their advertising for them (see also: the exclamation point on Yahoo!), but it’s going to look really silly when it’s no longer new. What are they going to call the next models? The Even Newer NOOK? The All-New All-New NOOK? The Newest NOOK Imaginable?

These two readers have the same latest-generation, six-inch E Ink screen as the latest Kindle: supercrisp black type against very light gray. But they’re smaller, because they do away with the Kindle’s thumb keyboard. Instead, they have the infrared-sensor E Ink touch screens that debuted on much more expensive Sony e-readers.

Good call. How often do you use the keyboard anyway? Maybe about 0.01 percent of the time — when you’re typing a book’s name while shopping, or when annotating something you’re reading. The rest of the time, the keyboard just makes the Kindle bigger. And on an e-book reader, size is, so to speak, huge; after all, you’ll be holding it for hours.

In weight, the Kobo is the winner. Among its competitors — the Kindle, and the touch-screen Nook and Sony Reader — it’s the lightest. It weighs seven ounces, which makes it only slightly less likely to blow away on the beach than an actual paperback book.

The Kobo is also the least expensive brand-name model, apart from the Kindle with Special Offers ($114), which displays ads on its screen saver and in the bottom inch of the home screen.

The All-New Nook is only slightly heavier, but it’s thicker and 0.3 inch wider, which, in blazer-pocket terms, may as well be a football field. That porkiness serves a good purpose: the battery goes for two months on a charge (Wi-Fi turned off). That’s twice the life of its rivals, and almost good enough to avoid being laughed at by grandchildren.

When you hold an e-reader, most of what you’re touching is the back. Both the Kobo and the Nook have slightly rubberized hard-plastic backs. The Nook’s back panel contains a shallow oval indentation, sort of a finger well. Its soft rim provides a secure, supremely comfortable grip for your fingers.

The Kobo’s back is sculptured in a quilted pattern, like a queen-size mattress for hamsters.

Each has built-in memory for 1,000 books, plus a memory-card slot.

Barnes Noble’s engineers have somehow managed to eliminate most of those flashes that occur every time you turn a page on an e-reader using E Ink. On the All-New Nook, you get that flash only once every six page turns. The rest of the time, each page briskly cross-fades into the next.

True, that once-every-six flash is more distracting than ever. But for the previous five pages, you’ve had a completely immersive, seamless reading experience. It’s fantastic.

The Nook’s advantages over the Kobo also include excellent control over the typeface (six fonts), font size, line spacing and even page margins. The Kobo offers only two fonts and no spacing or margin controls. It’s also slower than the Nook; sometimes you tap twice, wondering if your first tap even registered.


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 8, 2011

An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported that the new Nook and Kobo readers were the first to have infrared-sensor E-ink touch screens.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 8, 2011

An earlier version of this column omitted mention of Barnes Noble’s e-book app for Android tablets.

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