Katherine Boehret

Judging E-Readers by Their Book Readability

If you’re heading to the beach this summer and you plan to read an e-book, you won’t want to take your iPad. The screen of Apple’s otherwise enjoyable tablet has a glare that’s accentuated in bright sun, even if you’re under an umbrella and wearing a hat and sunglasses, as I learned last summer.

Luckily, alternatives abound, including several devices that use E Ink screen-display technology. These devices offer glare-free, matte surfaces, though the trade-off is a grayscale display with no backlighting.

For the past week, I’ve been doing my summer reading on two E Ink machines: the newest $139 Nook from Barnes & Noble Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.’s latest $114 Kindle with Special Offers (that means sponsored screensavers bring the price down from $139). Both are dedicated e-readers and in lieu of color screens, both use E Ink’s Pearl Display, which has better contrast and sharper text than previous E Ink displays. Their thin, light dimensions make them a no-brainer to toss in a bag for reading on the go. And the Nook and Kindle are both capable of buying and downloading e-books right over WiFi.


The Kindle lets gift givers preregister a device for people who aren’t tech savvy.

But the new Nook has something the Kindle doesn’t: a touch screen. While Amazon’s Kindle has a physical keyboard for inputting text, and directional buttons for painfully sluggish navigation, users of the Nook can make their way around it using screen taps or swipes; its on-screen keyboard appears when needed.

With the Nook, Barnes & Noble proves that a basic grayscale-screen e-reader doesn’t have to feel antiquated.

It has been 10 months since Amazon brought out its last Kindle and the company is likely to introduce a new version of this product in the next three months, as well as a much anticipated iPad competitor. And there’s a very good chance the new Kindle will include a touch screen, so the Nook’s advantage may be short-lived. The current Kindle also comes in a $164 version with a free 3G Internet connection; the new Nook is only available with a WiFi connection.

At least for now, the Nook is in the lead. Even without its touch screen, the Nook has a few other features that the Kindle lacks. Its company-estimated battery life is two months when used for reading an hour a day with WiFi off, or twice as long as Amazon’s Kindle under the same circumstances. It enables lending books to friends directly from the Nook, while Kindle users must initiate lending books from a PC. And library books can be borrowed and read on the Nook (albeit using a side-loading procedure); an Amazon spokeswoman says library books are coming to Kindles later this year.

Still, the Nook isn’t flawless: After I read with it for about 20 minutes one night, its touch screen stopped responding. Thankfully, page turns can also be made using hard buttons on either side of the screen. I could keep reading, but I couldn’t navigate through the rest of the device without access to touch-prompted menus. The biggest problem came in the morning when I tried to use it after the device went into sleep mode overnight. I couldn’t get it out of sleep mode without being able to use the on-screen sliding gesture that unlocks the touch screen.


The Barnes & Noble Nook.

A Barnes & Noble spokeswoman said the company is aware of this touch-screen problem occurring with a small number of devices and that an over-the-air, automatic update will be sent to all Nooks over the next two weeks to fix it. (Users won’t have to do anything except have the Nook in WiFi range to get the update.) In the meantime, my touch screen eventually started working again, but holding the Nook’s power button to restart the device should fix this problem.

Physically, the Nook and Kindle have the same six-inch diagonal screen size. But the Kindle has a longer top-to-bottom design to house its physical keyboard, much like the shape of a novel but only about three-tenths of an inch thick. The Nook’s overall shape is squatter than the Kindle, and it’s slightly lighter—about 7.5 versus 8.5 ounces. Both e-readers are so lightweight that I forgot I had each one in my bag at different times.

I didn’t mind holding these devices while reading for long periods of time. The back of the Nook is slightly thicker on its sides, which makes it easy to hold, and the shape of the Kindle makes it feel well balanced in the hand. I sat on city benches and on pool lounge chairs with both devices, reading glare-free, Caroline Kennedy’s “She Walks in Beauty” with the summer sun above.

On the Nook, a tap of the “n” button below the screen directed me to a Home screen, where I could see my Nook Friends’ activities, like what books they rated, recommended or quoted. The Nook easily imports contacts from Google, or connects to Facebook and Twitter for sharing news about books with friends. Kindle allows sharing of book highlights, ratings and notes to friends through Facebook and Twitter, but the steps for connecting to these networks are buried in layers of Kindle menus.

By tapping the center of the Nook screen while a book is opened, five options are displayed at the bottom of the screen, including Go To, which now tells users how many pages are left in a chapter instead of just telling the number of overall remaining pages in the book.

One big plus for the not-so-tech-savvy book lover: Kindles can ship pre-registered for a user, which is helpful if you’re buying a device for someone who doesn’t have a PC or doesn’t know how to set up an Amazon account on the device.

Newspapers and magazines can be delivered wirelessly to both devices, and Kindle and Nook apps can be installed on various other devices to access reading materials, including Windows PCs, Macs, iPads, Android tablets and smartphones.

If you’re loyal to Amazon, you’ll probably want to hold out a few months for a new Kindle. If you’re looking for an e-reader now, Barnes & Noble’s new Nook has great social networking and a touch screen that makes it a cinch to use.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katherine.boehret@wsj.com

The Fine Print on E-Readers

Here’s how the latest Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook compare:

Amazon Kindle With Special Offers Barnes & Noble Nook
$114 or $164 Price $139
WiFi or WiFi + Free 3G WiFi or 3G WiFi Only
Yes, 14 days, must do from PC E-Book Lending Yes, 14 days, direct from Nook
No* Library-Book Borrowing Yes
7.5″ x 4.8″ x 0.335″ Dimensions (HxWxD) 6.5″ x 5.0″ x 0.47″
8.5 oz. Weight 7.48 oz.
1 month Battery Life (1 Hour/Day Reading Pace, Wireless Off) 2 months
4GB, or 3,500 books Memory 2GB, or 1,000 books
No Expandable Memory Yes, microSD slot
E Ink Pearl Display Text Display E Ink Pearl Display

* Library lending expected later this year.

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