By DAVID POGUE/THE NEW YORK TIMES
We think we’re so modern. We think we’re hot stuff, with our touch-screen tablets, video cellphones and Internet movie downloads. But mark my words: we’re in the Paleozoic era of consumer technology.
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.
On both readers, you turn the page by swiping across the screen, or by just tapping the right edge. (The Nook also has physical page-turn buttons.) Hold your finger down on a word for its dictionary definition. And you move down a list by swiping up the screen, just as on a touch-screen phone.
But these are not, ahem, iPads. The screen image doesn’t actually scroll when you swipe up a list; you wait a second, and then the new list image appears all at once. Similarly, these aren’t multitouch screens. You can’t pinch or spread two fingers on the screen to shrink or reduce the type size.
Both companies make much of their social features. The Nook Friends feature lets your buddies on Twitter and Facebook see what you’re reading and lets you “lend” them books you’ve bought. (I use quotes because the feature is so lame: you can lend a given book only once in its life, for two weeks — and only books whose publishers allow the procedure.) The Kobo lets you broadcast your reading progress to Twitter or Facebook, awards you points and badges for reading, and so on.
You can read either company’s books on a Mac, Windows PC, Android phone or tablet, iPhone or iPad; technically, you don’t need to buy an e-reader machine at all. The Kobo also has reader apps for BlackBerrys, Palm Pre phones and PlayBook tablets.
Each company’s system remembers the page where you stopped when you switch gadgets (when you move from your phone to your PC, for example).
These readers both connect to their bookstores over Wi-Fi. Their e-bookstores carry pretty much the same books at the same prices.
Barnes & Noble has come light years since its first, slow, buggy e-reader (do they call it the All-Old NOOK?). The All-New model, for this nanosecond in marketing time, offers the best combination of size, shape, battery life and features on the market; it’s a superb reading machine. But remember that buying an e-reader means locking yourself into that company’s bookstore. Idiotic, incompatible copy-protection schemes mean that you can’t read a Kindle book on a Nook, or a Nook book on a Kobo, or a Sony book on an iPad.
So carefully consider which corporation you want to marry. For example, Barnes & Noble’s color Nook may not be All-New, but it has a color touch screen, a rudimentary Web browser and an e-mail program. Amazon is about due for a new Kindle, too — it’s been 10 months since its last new model; fans hope for a color touch-screen Kindle combining all Amazon’s offerings, including books, music and video.
All of this is clear evidence that the clunky primitiveness of the Paleozoic e-book era is finally drawing to a close. At this rate, before you know it, e-book readers will arrive solidly in the Jurassic period.