By Barry Levine / Top Tech News. Updated June 20, 2011.
When it was first released for the 2009 holiday season, Barnes & Noble's entry into the e-reader category, the nook, was widely panned as not ready for prime time or for taking on Amazon.com's Kindle. Now Consumer Reports and others are praising the newest nook as better than the Kindle -- the first time the Kindle hasn't been the top-scoring model.
On Friday, the nonprofit CR published a review of the new black-and-white nook Simple Touch Reader. It said the Simple Touch, which Barnes & Noble also calls The all-new nook, "matches or bests -- albeit modestly -- its Amazon competitor in almost every aspect of performance."
The dramatic turnaround, according to CR, is due to Barnes & Noble "emulating Amazon's focus on reading with minimal fuss and extra features." While the first nook featured two screens, one in color for navigation, the Simple Touch drops the second screen to allow the user to concentrate on reading.
One edge for the nook, according to CR, is that it supports e-book loans from public libraries, although the Kindle is expected to offer similar support sometime this year.
Other observers are also noting that the newest nook is smaller and weighs less than the Kindle, two values that matter highly to readers on the go. Other new features include a single Home button a la Apple, an E Ink touchscreen, and easy-to-use social-sharing features via e-mail, Facebook or Twitter.
The e-reader category is a hot one, and Sony, among others, is expected to soon update its line. Additionally, the tablet category, dominated by Apple's iPad but with a variety of competitors, features e-book reading as a core function.
A key question for the future of the e-reader category is whether these one-trick ponies, designed only for reading, will be able to compete with tablets, notebooks or even smartphones that offer e-reading as well as countless other applications.
At Launch, 'A Mess'
Some observers think the e-reader category will eventually evaporate into more versatile devices, while others think very light, inexpensive, easy-to-use reading devices, which offer one-handed reading and a big-enough screen, have found a niche that won't easily be replaced.
The new nook's favorable reception is a long way from its debut. When it first launched at the end of 2009, the nook was called slow and clunky.
For example, at the time of the launch David Pogue of The New York Times wrote that "every one of the nook's vaunted distinctions come fraught with buzz-kill footnotes." Barnes & Noble was touting its two screens, one for navigation and one for reading, but Pogue said the small color touchscreen felt "disconnected" from the larger black-and-white screen above, the touchscreen was "balky and non-responsive," and it took almost three seconds to turn a page.
He also pointed out that his test device locked up twice and crashed twice. In short, he wrote at the time, the nook was "a mess."