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Kindle vs. Nook: Comparing eBook Readers

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Interested in a new eBook reader? Not sure which model to buy? In this article, author Michael Miller compares the latest eBook readers from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and helps you decide which model is best for you.

Printed books are so passé. It seems like everyone these days is reading electronic books (eBooks) on dedicated eBook reader devices. In the U.S., there are two primary brands of eBook readers[md]the Kindle line, sold by Amazon, and the NOOK line, sold by competitor Barnes & Noble. Both companies offer multiple models at multiple price points.

If you’re in the market for a new eBook reader, which model should you buy? Is an Amazon Kindle the way to go, or should you invest in a Barnes & Noble NOOK unit? Read on to learn more.

Comparing Basic Readers

eBook readers break down into three key types. First, there’s the basic reader, with a non-lit 6” E Ink display. Second, there’s the backlit type, which adds a backlit display. And finally, there’s the eBook tablet, which is more than just an eBook reader[md]it’s a full-fledged tablet with color LCD screen and the ability to run apps, play games, and surf the web, just like the iPad and similar tablets.

We’ll start our examination with the basic eBook reader category. The competitors here are the fifth -generation Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble NOOK Simple Touch.

Both of these units have 6” displays with 600 x 800 pixel resolution, or 167 pixels per inch (ppi). Both come with built-in Wi-Fi (for downloading new books), 2GB of internal storage (to store all the books you download), and a single-core 800MHz processor. That’s where the similarities end.

Figure 1 The fifth-generation Amazon Kindle eBook reader.

Of these two units, the Kindle is definitely a holdover from previous generations, whereas the NOOK is a true new-generation device. You can see this in the device’s operation; the NOOK features touchscreen operation, where the Kindle is not a touchscreen device. (Instead, you turn pages and such using dedicated hardware buttons beneath the screen.) The NOOK also gets about twice as much battery life as the Kindle[md]although it weighs about an ounce and half more, too.

Figure 2 The NOOK Simple Touch eBook reader, from Barnes & Noble.

When it comes to price, the NOOK is the better deal at a flat $79. Amazon advertises the Kindle for $69, but that’s for a model with “special offers”[md]that is, onscreen advertising. If you want a Kindle without the onscreen ads, you pay $89, or ten bucks more than the non-ad supported NOOK.

From strictly a hardware standpoint, then, the NOOK Simple Touch looks to be the better choice than the basic Kindle. Compare for yourself in the following table.

Basic eBook Readers

 

Kindle

NOOK Simple Touch

Manufacturer

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Price

$89 ($69 with ads)

$79

Screen size

6” diagonal

6” diagonal

Display type

E Ink Pearl

E Ink Pearl

Backlight

No

No

Display resolution (pixels)

600 x 800

600 x 800

Display resolution (pixels per inch)

167 ppi

167 ppi

Touchscreen

No

Yes

eBook formats supported

AZW, AZW3, MOBI, PDF, PRC, TXT

ePub, PDF

Battery life

1 month

2 months

Internal storage

2GB

2GB

Processor

800MHz single-core

800MHz single-core OMAP3621

Wi-Fi wireless connectivity

802.11b/g/n

802.11b/g/n

Weight

5.98 oz.

7.48 oz.

Dimensions

6.5” x 4.5” x 0.34”

6.5” x 5.0” x 0.47”

Comparing Backlit Readers

The nice thing about basic eBook readers is that the E Ink display does a great job of mimicking ink on a printed page; it’s quite easy on the eyes, especially with the newer E Ink Pearl technology. The bad thing about these basic devices is, just like printed books, you can’t read them in the dark.

That changes when you move up to a backlit eBook reader, which offers backlighting to create a subtle glow behind the text. This makes it possible to read in low- or no-light situations, which many readers like.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble both offer backlit readers[md]the Kindle Paperwhite and the NOOK Simple Touch with GlowLight. Both have 6” touchscreens with E Ink Peal technology, both have built-in Wi-Fi, both have 2GB internal storage, and both run 800MHz single-core processors. There are some differences, however.

Figure 3 Barnes & Noble's NOOK Simple Touch with GlowLight.

The main difference is the screen resolution. Here Amazon wins the race, with a 768 x 1024 pixel display with 212 ppi resolution. The NOOK’s display is the same as in the basic Simple Touch unit, with 600 x 800 pixel and 167 ppi resolution. The result is that text displayed on the Kindle Paperwhite looks sharper[md]with the backlight off, anyway.

Figure 4 Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite.

Turn the backlight on, however, and to my eyes the NOOK’s GlowLight looks superior. The Kindle Paperwhite has a slightly brighter backlight, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The softer light on the NOOK GlowLight is easier on the eyes, and seems more natural than that of the Kindle Paperwhite.

Pricing is also an issue. The NOOK Simple Touch with GlowLight sells for a flat $119; you’ll pay $139 for the similar Kindle Paperwhite without ads, or $119 for the version with “special offers.”  Advantage NOOK[md]unless you like ads, that is.

I think it’s a tougher choice between these two backlit readers, but my personal choice is the NOOK Simple Touch with GlowLight. There’s nothing wrong with the Kindle Paperwhite, I simply feel that the ergonomics (and the pricing) of the NOOK give it a slight edge.

Backlit eBook Readers

 

Kindle Paperwhite

NOOK Simple Touch with GlowLight

Manufacturer

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Price

$139 ($119 with ads)

$119

Screen size

6” diagonal

6” diagonal

Display type

E Ink Pearl

E Ink Pearl

Backlight

No

No

Display resolution (pixels)

768 x 1024

600 x 800

Display resolution (pixels per inch)

212 ppi

167 ppi

Touchscreen

Yes

Yes

eBook formats supported

AZW, AZW3, MOBI, PDF, PRC, TXT

ePub, PDF

Battery life

2 months

2 months

Internal storage

2GB

2GB

Processor

800MHz single-core

800MHz single-core OMAP3621

Wi-Fi wireless connectivity

802.11b/g/n

802.11b/g/n

Weight

7.5 oz.

6.95 oz.

Dimensions

6.7” x 4.6” x 0.36”

6.5” x 5.0” x 0.47”

Comparing eBook Reader Tablets

Now we come to the category of eBook reader tablets. These are really full-featured tablet PCs that compete head-to-head with the Apple iPad and Google Nexus tablets. But, given who’s selling them, the Amazon and Barnes & Noble tablets are used disproportionally for book reading, and less for watching videos and running apps and games. (Or, to put it more bluntly, the Amazon and Barnes & Noble tablets are built to be easy-to-use frontends to their respective online stores.)

Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble make two sizes of tablets, smaller 7” models and larger 9” devices. Both sizes of the Kindle Fire HD come in 16GB and 32GB versions; the smaller NOOK HD comes in 8 GB and 16GB versions, where the larger NOOK HD+ comes in 16GB and 32GB versions.

Figure 5 The Amazon Kindle Fire HD tablet.

Hardware-wise, the Kindle Fire and NOOK HD tablets are very similar in features and performance. Oh, one might have a slightly higher-resolution screen or another a slightly faster processor, but they all do pretty much the same things in much the same fashion. I really find it difficult to recommend one over another, at least on hardware specs alone.

Figure 6 Barnes & Noble's NOOK HD tablet.

eBook Reader Tablets

 

Kindle Fire HD

NOOK HD

Kindle Fire HD 8.9”

NOOK HD+

Manufacturer

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Price

16GB: $214 ($199 with ads)

32GB: $264 ($249 with ads)

8GB: $199

16GB: $229

16GB: $314 ($299 with ads)

32GB: $384 ($369 with ads)

16GB: $269

32GB: $299

Screen size

7” diagonal

7” diagonal

8.9” diagonal

9” diagonal

Display type

LCD

LCD

LCD

LCD

Display resolution (pixels)

800 x 1280

900 x 1440

1200 x 1920

1280 x 1920

Display resolution (pixels per inch)

254 ppi

243 ppi

254 ppi

256 ppi

Touchscreen

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

eBook formats supported

AZW, MOBI, PDF, PRC, TXT

ePub, PDF, TXT

AZW, MOBI, PDF, PRC, TXT

ePub, PDF, TXT

Battery life

11 hours

10.5 hours

10 hours

10 hours

Processor

1.2GHz dual-core OMSP4460

1.3GHz dual-core OMAP4470

1.5GHz dual-core OMAP4470

1.5GHz dual-core OMAP4470

Internal storage

16GB/32GB

8GB/16GB

16GB/32GB

16GB/32GB

Wi-Fi wireless connectivity

802.11a/b/g/n dual-band

802.11b/g/n

802.11a/b/g/n dual-band

802.11b/g/n

Weight

13.9 oz.

11.1 oz.

20 oz.

18.2 oz.

Dimensions

7.6” x 5.4” x 0.4”

7.65” x 5.0” x 0.43”

9.45” x 6.5” x 0.35”

9.46” x 6.41” x 0.45”

Why would you want one of these eBook tablets instead of a dedicated eBook reader? Let’s face it, these puppies are larger, heavier, more expensive, and have much shorter battery life than dedicated e-readers. On the surface, that doesn’t sound like a good deal.

Unless, that is, you want to do more than just read books. A Kindle Fire or NOOK HD tablet is a pretty decent device for watching movies and TV shows, listening to music, and playing games. I think they’re less successful at running more complex apps and browsing the web; there a more fully-featured tablet, like the iPad, would be a better choice. But if you want a eBook reader that does a little more, and you don’t mind paying a little more, then a Kindle Fire or NOOK HD is worth considering.

An eBook tablet is also a good choice if you want a slightly larger screen, or if you want to read four-color books and magazines. Dedicated eBook readers are one-color only (that’s a drawback to the black-on-white E Ink display technology); tablets have the same type of full-color LCD screens you find on smartphones and computer monitors. If color is what you’re looking for, one of these tablets is the only way to go.

Comparing Content

Comparing these eBook readers and tablets on hardware specs alone is somewhat disingenuous. You really need to look at the whole purchasing and reading experience; after all, it’s the reading that matters.

This means you first need to look at what kinds of eBooks work with each type of reader. We’re talking file formats here, and not every reader is compatible with every eBook file format.

In the eBook world, the somewhat universal standard is the ePub format. ePub is kind of like the MP3 format for electronic books; most devices can read ePub-format books, wherever they’re purchased.

Most devices, that is, except for the Amazon Kindles. Amazon has invested in their own proprietary format, dubbed AZW (in its encrypted version) or MOBI (for unencrypted books). What this means is that if you purchase an ePub-format book from Barnes & Noble or another retailer, you won’t be able to read it on your Amazon Kindle device. Likewise, if you purchase an eBook from Amazon, you won’t be able to read it on your NOOK. There’s no cross-compatibility.

The practical upshot of this file format dilemma is that you need to choose which retailer you want to buy from up front, and then stick with it. If you’re a loyal Amazon customer, buy a Kindle; if you prefer to shop at Barnes & Noble, buy a NOOK. It’s a matter of choosing whichever retail ecosystem you prefer to be locked into.

Fortunately, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer similar selections of eBooks. Just about every book from every major publisher these days is available from both retailers in their respective formats. You won’t find many (if any) books available exclusively from one retailer or the other. And, in most instances, pricing is competitive between the two.

All that said, you may also want to consider longevity. Since buying a Kindle or NOOK locks you into that retailer’s ecosystem til death do you part, you want to be confident that that retailer is still going to be around next year and the year after that and the year after that. You might think that both Amazon and Barnes & Noble are established retailers with long track records, but even big players can go out of business. For proof of that, witness former competitor Borders, which, despite its size and national presence, closed its doors in 2011.

I’m not saying that either Amazon or Barnes & Noble are on death’s door, but B&N is facing some challenges, both in its bricks and mortar stores and online. In fact, sales of the NOOK line have been disappointing of late, which makes one wonder how long Barnes & Noble will continue to compete in the hardware market. That said, the company recently spun off its eBook readers and college textbook channel into a separate company that received a $300 million investment from tech giant Microsoft, so there’s that. Still, as much as I support Barnes & Noble (they sell a lot of books for me), they do make me a little nervous sometimes.

That’s not to say Amazon is necessarily more stable. Oh, I think the company itself is on more sound financial footing than Barnes & Noble is these days, but I’m no more convinced of their dedication to the e-reader market. Amazon (like Barnes & Noble) is a retailer, not a hardware manufacturer, and I don’t know how long they’ll stick it out in the relatively low-margin device market. You just never know.

So there you have it. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble make a number of attractive, relatively low-priced devices for reading eBooks. While I tend to prefer Barnes & Noble’s current devices, I think they all do a pretty good job. I have no doubt you’ll be satisfied with whatever choice you make.

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