I finally had the chance to try out the Nook this weekend, not the in-depth look needed for a full review but 30 minutes or so hands on as a customer trying it out in a Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) store. My experience wasn’t linear; I stopped to let others give it a shot. One would-be customer, who said he owns a Kindle, started to order the Nook, then backed off when he found out he couldn’t leave with the device. That was before anyone even had a chance to tell him Nooks ordered now won’t be delivered until early February. As we reported earlier, the Nook wasn’t supposed be sold to go in most B&N retail outlets this holiday season — and since those plans were acknowledged, B&N has postponed stocking any stores indefinitely in an effort to fulfill existing orders. That means for now the only way to buy a Nook at any B&N is roughly the same as buying one from home; the difference is the bookseller does the online ordering.
The customer service station at my local Barnes & Noble has been transformed into Nook central, with huge signs to mark the spot and a demo unit loosely tethered to the counter. The ability to walk in and try is the biggest sales advantage B&N has over Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) and Kindle for now; the chance to showcase the new device in hundreds of outlets is its best advantage over Sony (NYSE: SNE), which also has a large retail presence for the Digital Reader but doesn’t stand out in all of them.
— Form factor: Feels a lot like Kindle 2 and has the same off-white case with a metal back and side navigation buttons. The biggest differences with the Kindle: No physical keyboard, a larger screen and the color navigation strip across the bottom, and no joystick.
— Speed: Or lack thereof. Bloomberg’s Rich Jaroslovsky called it “achingly slow. Might-as-well-go-pour-yourself-a-cup-of-coffee slow.” He timed the Kindle 2 at 3 seconds from power on to read; the Nook at nearly two minutes. Pages are slow to load, almost like watching someone very thoughtfully put their finger to their tongue, then carefully turn a page. To be fair, I don’t know what’s like to read a whole book or even a whole article; I was just able to turn a few pages and scan.
— Navigation: Within minutes I grasped the frustration expressed by Walt Mossberg and David Pogue. The Nook’s navigation is counter intuitive, to put it nicely. For example, as far as I could tell, you can only maneuver vertically through the reading screen by touching up and down arrows in the navigation strip — and you can only select stories in magazines or newspapers by touching a small circle in the strip. Making it even more confusing, the arrows show up next to other options — like “go to” and “find” or “browse” and eWish list,” depending on the area being viewed — but don’t help access them. The physical side forward-back buttons are primarily for use once you’re in the book or article. As for the keyboard, if you’re already used a virtual keyboard, you may find this easier to use than the Kindle 2 physical version.
— Content: Kudos to B&N for making it possible for potential buyers to download the content they want to see. (The device is wiped clean every night.) I skimmed a few pages of Pride and Prejudice, already on the Nook when I started but otherwise spent my time with periodicals. I was able to download the Washington Post, which is how I realized how complicated it can just to open a specific article. WaPo, $11.99 a month or $0.75 an issue, is one of the few papers available now. The others are the FT, LAT, Chicago Tribune at $9.99 each. More magazines but still very limited with nine titles, in including Harvard Business Review, $6.95 a month or $16.95 per issue. (Not a typo.) Each starts with a 14-day trial. On the plus, the e-versions should be readable on any device that uses the chain’s e-reader software. Still, this isn’t the device — yet — for anyone who wants a broad selection of digital magazines and newspapers.
— Readability: User can choose from three fonts and multiple type sized. The spacing looked a little funky at times but otherwise pretty easy but nothing special.
— Upshot: Would I buy it? Not instead of my Kindle 2 at this point. I’d want to know fixes are coming and that if I invest in it, B&N will upgrade the speed and as much of the navigation as possible. On the content side, the book selection is fine but the rest is too sparse for me. Still, if I saw it as the improvement promised over Kindle, that wouldn’t keep me from at least recommending it to others. I can’t do that yet.