When Barnes & Noble launched a black-and-white potential Kindle killer at a press event in New York City, I was there for a hands-on experience with the Android-based All-New NOOK’s five-button streamlined design, highly user-friendly touch screen, and light but squat form factor.
In an opening presentation, B&N CEO William Lynch proudly proclaimed that the company’s NOOK Color tablet — just introduced last November — has quickly soared to the dual status of top seller among all eReading devices and second runner to the iPad among all tablets.
Yet B&N’s latest b&w eInk reader is targeted at a different type of user, one who enjoys the “simplicity” of a traditional paperback book and who might not be all that technically inclined, Lynch said, at the launch event on Tuesday.
True to these words, like the NOOK Color, the All-New NOOK runs a custom version of Android. Yet unlike the NOOK Color, the The Android 2.1-based eInk NOOK won’t run any Android apps at all. That’s partly because Android apps aren’t really going to play well on the All-New NOOK’s eInk screen, Lynch suggested.
During a press Q&A just afterward, Lynch denied that the All-New NOOK will “cannibalize” the NOOK Color, also predicting that B&N’s latest NOOK will soon outsell any other b&w eReader (a highly populated category that also includes B&N’s original NOOK and the Kindle readers of its arch nemesis Amazon).
Slated to arrive at B&N and other retail stores on or around June 10, the All-New gadget will also cost a lot less, at $139, than the $249 NOOK Color. B&N is taking pre-orders already.
Five Buttons, Four Too Many?
As one of its main claims to fame, the All-New NOOK comes with only five buttons, in contrast to the dozens of buttons that clutter some other readers. One of these buttons is located in the center of the bottom panel. There are also two larger buttons each along the right- and left-hand sides.
In playing around with the All-New NOOK during my hands-on demo, I got these sense that even five buttons might be four too many. Although the buttons on the sides are also configurable for other functions, they’d been set up for demo purposes to handle page turns.
Since you can also turn pages just by touching the screen, maybe these side buttons aren’t all that necessary. Why waste hardware real estate, especially on a small device? On the other hand, the side buttons do offer one cool feature not available through the other method. With “Fast Page,” you hold down one of the side buttons to quickly skim through content and get to the page or section you want.
Meanwhile,the button on the bottom quickly brings up controls for a number of things, including settings, NOOK Friends, and a functions for searching a book by specific word.
First intro’d hand-in-hand with the NOOK Color, NOOK Friends is a social networking tool for seeing what your friends are reading, loaning eBooks to them, exchanging book recommendations, and so forth.
A soft keyboard takes the place of a hard one, popping up for tasks that require it (such as search, for example).
Compact or Truncated?
The compact design of the All-New NOOK extends to ports, too. These are limited to a mini-USB and SD Card slot, said Victoria Repice, B&N’s senior director of product management in an interview with me at the event. The eReader uses an OMAP 3 processor from TI and E Ink’s latest “Pearl” display technology, she told me.
Weighing in at 7.48-ounces, the new NOOK did seem light in my hands. Yet whether or not you like its dimensions – 6.5-inches high by 5-inches wide by 0.47-inches deep — will be a matter of personal preference.
Although it offers the same size screen as the Kindle (6 inches), the new NOOK isn’t as tall. In press materials handed out at the event, B&N maintained that the smaller form factor is aimed at permitting the device to “fit easily” into a jacket, pocket, or backpack. (I will concede to the backpack, but I think you’d need a very large pocket!) Still, the All-New NOOK looks kind of truncated to me.
Since I only experimented with the All-New NOOK for about 20 minutes, I obviously can’t vouch for B&N’s claims of 20-hour battery life. Also, since my demo took place indoors – at the launch site within B&N’s flagship retail store in Union Square, Manhattan – I can’t attest to B&N’s assertions of viewability even in bright sunlight.
Yet my experiences with the new NOOK do tend to corroborate B&N’s other claims about its screen: highly responsive touch, much less flashing when turning pages than you get with other eReaders, and 50 percent more contrast than with NOOK first edition. Also for easier reading, the All-New NOOK comes with five different fonts and six font sizes.
Repice attributed the springiness of the touch mechanism to infrared (IR)-enabled wireless-enabled touch technology from Neonode, and the readibility in sunlight to the gadget’s non-backlit reflective screen.
Like the NOOK Color and previously offered NOOK Wi-Fi first edition, the All-New NOOK is enabled for WiFi but not 3G wireless. I find the lack of 3G kind of disappointing. There might be times when you’d like to download books and you’re nowhere near a Wi-Fi hotspot, such as when you’re on vacation.
It certainly isn’t a tragic flaw, though. You can always download books in advance and take them along with you. After all, the All-New NOOK holds up to 1,000 of them. How many books will you really read while you’re away on vacation?