Steve Heisler
December 14, 2009 AT 11:47 PM EST

Is Barnes and Noble’s Nook this year’s Kindle killer? Nearly: The sleek e-reader offers some notable improvements, but it’s still plagued by problems common to the Kindle and similar devices. Perhaps that’s not a ringing endorsement, but don’t close the book on the Nook just yet.

Look and feel: At just under 12 oz., the Nook weighs about as much as a mid-sized hardcover book, though it’s only about as wide as the cover and as thick as a few chapters. The main, black-and-white screen occupies the bulk of the surface area; below it is a secondary color touchscreen, used mostly for navigation. Throw in the white trim, and it’s that iPod-on-steroids design we’ve come to expect.

Navigation: The majority of the Nook’s operations have been relegated to the touchscreen, leaving only forward, back, and home buttons as part of the device’s body. As you’d expect, the touchscreen changes depending on what you’re doing, displaying a keyboard, an options menu, a flip book of book covers, or arrow keys to move the cursor on the main screen. Those spoiled by the iPhone’s touch-responsiveness will find the Nook slow on the uptake, but when it comes to packing maximum control and flexibility into minimal space, this design element does wonders.

Reading: The matte e-ink screen displays crisp text when viewed from any angle —  it’s uncanny how print-like the screen looks. With the ability to change the font and size with a few taps on the touchscreen, reading under normal conditions is a breeze. Problems arise in both expected and unexpected ways when the lights dim: The Nook’s screen mimics print, so, obviously, no light means no sight, but in low light, the glow of the touchscreen washes out the text even more — at least until the touchscreen goes dark a few seconds later. Also, the Nook hasn’t managed to improve on previous e-readers’ achingly slow page-turn time. Rather than queuing up the next page in its memory, it loads each one as needed, which adds a second or two between pushing the right arrow and the new page appearing. No, not an eternity, but it’s surprising how much the delay interrupts the flow of reading. And the Nook’s bookmark system could do with a standard naming format. We’re not sure how helpful “3,OEBPS/superfreakonomics_fm01.html#point…” is.

Bonuses: You can loan books to friends using the Nook’s borrowing feature, called “LendMe.” It’s currently in beta, but it seems to work well — that is, if the book itself is actually loanable, as only about half the titles in Barnes and Noble’s store currently are. Open the book you want to loan, punch in your Nook-toting friend’s e-mail address, and they will get seven days to accept and download your book, and 14 days to read it. As with loaning out a real book, you can’t read a book you’ve shared with a friend, but oddly you can only loan a book one time. Downloading books is a snap, as the Nook’s 3G and Wi-Fi capabilities are speedy. The most unexpected cool feature, though, is “The Daily,” a section of the home page that displays your newspaper subscriptions, short humor pieces, and book excerpts. It’s only one click away from everything, and its dynamic content, along with “LendMe” feature, lays the foundation for a community built around the Nook.

Verdict: While it’s not perfect — or even markedly superior to the Kindle — the Nook is a sleek, easy to use device with a lot of potential.

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