Midweek Ebooks: Touch Edition

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Welcome to Midweek (usually Monday) Ebooks, in which the Editrix indulges her most harmless delight in electronic books and gadgets with which to read them.

It’s been an exciting few weeks in ebook land! Prices of devices are dropping and new ebook readers are coming out from the top players. First Amazon announced a new model of the Kindle–the same (really nice) device as the current Kindle, with only a wifi radio, but bargain-priced at $114. The caveat: one must accept ads and special offers shown as screensavers while the device is in “sleep” mode.

Observers of the ebook industry have long predicted the rise of ad-supported ebooks–perhaps even free ebooks supported by ads, an idea that has been received with mostly suspicion and disgust by actual readers. However, it can be argued that Amazon’s approach at least isn’t very intrusive–the ads/special offers only appear while the reader is in sleep mode, not while one is actually reading; and some of the special offers are actually desirable coupons, the same sort of thing one might receive from Groupon (here’s a list of some of the more attractive offers).

However, two of the other major players in ebook devices, Kobo and Barnes & Noble, have just struck back with announcements of new devices this week at Book Expo America. First Kobo announced their new Touch Edition, a touchscreen (of course) version of their reader with the upgraded Pearl eInk screen providing higher contrast, just like the most recent Kindle and Sonys, as well as an infrared touchscreen, allowing touch navigation without the glare issues that have plagued such devices in the past (the most recent Sony ereaders use this technology). The device is tiny, 4.5 by 6 inches, thin and light but with a full-size 6″ (diagonal) screen. Like its current wifi reader, there is no browser; the wifi is only used to buy books and sync one’s library without having to plug into a computer, but there also will be social networking built into the device, which is already available in Kobo’s iOS and Android apps. At $129, the device, which will be available in early June, immediately became a serious rival to the Kindle, still the top-selling ebook reading device.

Not to be outdone, the next day Barnes & Noble announced its new device, the NOOK Simple Touch Reader. Like the Kobo Touch Edition, the new Nook sports a Pearl eInk screen and a infrared touch interface. B&N clearly stripped the machine down to basics in order to save battery life and weight and to keep costs down. No more web browser, no more mp3 playback, no games or apps, no more 3G radio: this is a machine made for serious reading. However, the STR features social networking built in, including Nook Friends, book sharing, and the upcoming MyNook website (the Nook Color already incorporates these features–we love highlighting a passage and sharing it via Twitter, assuming of course it’s under 140 characters). This is a serious reader’s device, and has dispensed with features that we, at least, rarely used on our readers.

We have been seriously impressed with the industrial design of our Nook Color (which has spoiled us forever for lesser devices), and B&N has clearly incorporated the same sense of great design in the Nook STR. We have read some complaints online about the “wide bezel,” which incorporates pageturn buttons, though it is possible to turn pages by touching the screen as well, and the funny-looking back, which strikes us as delightfully ergonomic–one’s fingers will cradle it comfortably, the middle depression as well as the rubberized back keeping it secure. Besides the page-turn button, there is only a power switch–located whimsically in the middle of the top back of the device–and the Nook N-shaped Home button, just like on the Nook Color. The new covers have special Nook-logo buttons on the middle back to show you just where to press to operate that oddly located power button! Click through to one of the covers and watch the demo–the attachment system is incredibly elegant. The device is half an inch wider than the Kobo Touch Edition and a smidge heavier. B&N has really hit it out of the park with this device. It’s a fine follow-up to both the original Nook and the Nook Color. It’s certainly competitively priced at $139, and we would not be surprised to see the price dropping around the holidays to something close to the $99 magic price point. The Nook STR might be the real grandmother-friendly device. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve handed someone one of our eInk readers and they start poking impatiently at the eInk screen, so a touchscreen device will be very welcome, and having used the Nook Color we can tell you that the interface is elegant, intuitive, and easy to use–and the interface for the new device looks very similar. Yep, we have definite gadget lust. Though we still love The Precious (the Nook Color, that is), and it can certainly do things that the Nook STR cannot, we can definitely see adding a Nook STR to our ebook harem. We really need to get around to selling our discarded readers to raise money to do so…we have till June 10!

It will be interesting to see how Amazon reacts to this new device. We have observed that, while the Kindle was the first superstar reading device, Amazon has often been reactive in its device strategy. When Barnes & Noble introduced the original Nook at a lower price point, Amazon lowered the Kindle price; when critics complained about the original clunky design, they redesigned to something thinner, lighter, more elegant….more Apple-like. We were really surprised that Amazon let B&N be the first big seller to create a reading-centric tablet, the Nook Color. However, reports abound that Amazon is producing not only one tablet but a family of them–and possibly even an iPhone competitor–but still, they are following, not leading. Since B&N’s announcement yesterday–which included the eyebrow-raising claim that the Nook STR will get two months of battery life on a single charge–Amazon amended the Kindle’s specs to claim the same kind of battery life. Battery life, of course, is relative; the “two months” estimate is based on 30 minutes per day with wifi turned off. Heavy readers, and those who want to be “social” with their reading, can expect, er, different results. ETA: And late in the day, Amazon announced a 3G ad-supported Kindle for $164.

We realize that talking so much about the Nook devices is a bit U.S.-centric, as the devices aren’t technically available in other countries, and the B&N bookstore mostly isn’t, either; however, earlier this week Liberty Media Corp., which owns the home-shopping channels QVC and HSN and Sirius XM radio, as well as other properties, made a takeover stock offer, and unlike the earlier hostile takeover attempts part of the deal is keeping current chairman Len Riggio in place. If the sale goes through, Liberty has the goods to take B&N global.

However, one place in which Amazon is being very aggressive is in publishing. Long a supporter of self-publishing authors, Amazon is creating several book imprints, including genre imprints for romances and mysteries, and has hired a well-known literary agent, Larry Kirshbaum, as head of a general trade imprint. Publishing is, to put it mildly, in a tizzy over this. It will be very interesting to see how it all shakes out. Things are moving so quickly in ebooks and publishing that it makes one’s head spin.

That’s it for this week’s Monday Midweek Ebooks, and always remember, Gentle Readers: Ebooks Are Nice Too!

ETA: To correct late-night, extra-inning spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors.

4 thoughts on “Midweek Ebooks: Touch Edition

  1. Joan

    Thanks for this interesting information on e-readers! I have resisted getting one until recently. There are 2 instances when an e-reader would be helpful to me. Reading in the car at night when I am a passenger & reading in bed in the dark when my husband is asleep. I hate fooling around with book lights. They are cumbersome & don’t illuminate very well. Would any of the e-readers solve these 2 problems?

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    • Joan, for both those situations you probably would like a reader with a backlit screen such as the Nook Color (a tablet such as the iPad or BlackBerry Playbook or Motorola Xoom would also work, but as they are general devices you have to download the apps to allow you to read the books–no big deal).

      Devices with eInk screens, such as the Kindle or the Nook Simple Touch Reader or the Kobo readers, have no lighting in the screens and require an external light just like a paper book. Many people use book lights (and some ebook reader cases have built-in lighting) but if you don’t like book lights, a device with backlighting would be better.

      I read my Nook Color in bed all the time with the lights out. It has a special setting called Night that is a dark gray background (not quite black) with white letters. That way you’re not putting off a huge amount of light with the screen while your husband is trying to sleep. I don’t have that issue, but I prefer the Night setting while reading in the dark anyway.

      The drawbacks to tablets such as the Nook Color, iPad, etc. are that it is difficult (but not impossible) to read them in full sunlight, and some people have eyestrain from the screens. I always thought I would have eyestrain from a tablet–I do from PDAs and smartphones–but wanted the Nook Color for other reasons, and thought I would use an eInk reader for my main reading, but I have to say that the screen doesn’t really bother me. They have given it very high resolution and it makes a difference–there are more pixels making up the screen, so the screen image is much sharper. And you can easily change the print size, background color (you can change it to “sepia,” which is a beige color, and a lighter gray), font, etc. to make the books easier to read.

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      • Joan

        Thanks, Mags for responding to me so quickly! You have made it very easy for me to make my decision on which e-reader to buy. The Color Nook seems the best choice on so many levels especially now that I know that I can read books in the dark. Thanks again Mags! Have a great weekend! Joan

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  2. I thought I’d commented before, but the brain and memory are failing, I guess. I just wanted to say thanks for all the detailed and insightful blog posts on eBooks and eReaders! I don’t have one, but you definitely help demystify the wide assortment. Thanks. šŸ™‚

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