The latest version of the Barnes & Noble Nook adds features and performance, and seems to compare well up against the Amazon Kindle, but that is not the big boy on the block; the performer that sets the bar. The item that all of these devices are now being compared to is the iPad.

The Nook is a much more limited device than the iPad, but the limitations are getting fewer, and the comparisons not as easy.

The PC Magazine which outlines the changes to the Nook shows why the comparison may be more difficult to do with a single thought, and may require some rumination to reach a final decision.

Barnes & Noble on Friday released version 1.3 of the software for its Nook e-reader, which includes a Web browser, faster page turning, and several games. The Android-based Nook now also lets users read books for free in Barnes & Noble retail stores, and fixes a few bugs.

Already boasting some capabilities not available in its rival Kindle e-reader, Barnes & Noble’s Nook now goes even further to widen the gap. Nook not only offers double the book selection — one million versus Amazon’s 500,000 — but it also supports the open EPUB format, and even lets you borrow electronic books from public libraries and friends. Nook also allows access via open Wi-Fi points, while the Kindle only can use its own 3G network. A Micro SD memory expansion slot rounds out the Nook’s advantages.

Expandable storage, the ability to move purchased content off to standard storage, wi-fi access, and EPUB – all of those make it a better proposition than a Kindle, so for me, I would never think of a Kindle as a viable choice again.

If you do nothing, your Nook’s firmware will be updated within the next week. To install it on demand, I went to “My Library” and checked for new content. After this, a tooltip appeared saying “You have a new software update.” Going to “The Daily” section showed the 1.3 update. A note about the update was then displayed, telling me that the update would occur when I next connected to a Wi-Fi access point. Otherwise, I could download the update to my PC and transfer it. The point is, you can’t get the update with just 3G connectivity.

After I connected to our Wi-Fi, nothing happened, so I opted to download the software onto my PC and transfer it to the Nook via USB. I dragged the 65MB update file to the main Nook folder. After I disconnected it, a “Preparing Update” message appeared, and then the Nook restarted, and an “Installing Software Update” screen appeared, with a progress bar on the LCD at the bottom. After a few minutes of starting up, my new Nook OS was ready to roll. The whole process took about eight minutes.

The first thing I noticed after the update was that the LCD’s menu buttons had increased in number, and I could swipe to the right to get to new choices like games, Wi-Fi, audio, and Web (beta). A few of these buttons provide more up-front access to existing capabilities, saving you from going through menus.

The story just gets better, with more and more ability to do things that might make you forget that you cannot do general purpose computing as you can with an iPad. There is the cost difference, and remember, using an iPad for general purpose computing is not as easy as it sounds.

One complaint about the Nook compared with the Kindle has been its slower page turning screen refresh. Both devices use the same E Ink Vizplex electronic paper display and need to flash the screen to black between each page turn. Forget about iBooks on the iPad’s beautiful, smooth page turning animation here. I compared page turning on the Kindle and Nook, and on the original Nook, page turning took twice as long as page turning on the Kindle – two seconds compared to one second. After the update, the Nook was nearly as fast as the Kindle at turning pages. It is still about a tenth of a second slower now, but the difference had become fairly negligible.

The flow of reading would be broken up by this for me. I am not sure if I could use it on an everyday basis, but for trips, general traveling, and occasional usage it would be fine. If I had to depend on this for important reading on a daily basis, I would become irritable quickly, especially with the black flashing – that’s just nuts. But again, for occasional usage the Nook would be acceptable.

In addition to giving a minimal black-and-white view of Web pages, the Web browser lets you use access points that require Web sign-in. This is key, since you can only use the browser with Wi-Fi. The Nook’s color-touch screen is a big plus when it comes to the Web browser; on the Kindle’s experimental browser, you’re more limited in what you can do, with only the E Ink display.

On the Nook, you can use the browser to scroll around the Web page and click buttons and links. And your A box on the E Ink display shows the LCD’s control area. It a bit slow and certainly doesn’t offer the kind of smooth, fast touch Web browsing you get on the iPad, but navigation with the touch LCD is much easier than using the Kindle’s joystick button, and the Nook is easier to hold than the much heavier iPad.

Is this the appropriate place for the Hans and Franz joke about being a “girly” man? How heavy is an  iPad really? Since when was 1.5 pounds considered heavy? I’m going to have to check out the Nook, to see if I could actually tolerate the browser. If it’s better than the browser on the Sony PSP, I’ll be fine, I was able to tolerate it for browsing after a bit of settling in.

The new games menu gives access to but two games at this point: Chess and Sudoku. I can’t say I’m a big fan of the latter, but the implementation of it on the Nook is quite pleasing, offering easy, medium, hard, and extreme levels and making number placement a snap. You can only play Chess against the machine, and again, moving using the bottom touch LCD is straightforward. This game only offers three difficulty levels. You can take back moves and see the complete move history in standard algebraic chess notation. I really hope that playing against human opponents online is added soon, but the game does offer a decent way to pass the time.

Better than a sharp stick in the eye. I’m not sure that I would use them, but it’s nice that they are included.

The update includes another beta “Read in Store” capability that allows you to read selected e-books for free while you’re in a Barnes & Noble store. You just get one hour per book, and B&N’s blog states that some bestsellers, as well as classics, will be available. I didn’t get a chance to try the in-store books yet, but will update this article when I do.

In all, the updates are all quite welcome. Particularly the faster page turning that nearly brings Nook up to Kindle’s speed. The new features make great use of the dual screens on the device, and the Web browser is definitely more pleasant than on the Kindle, though nowhere near the experience you get on an iPad. One feature on the Kindle but not yet offered by Nook is text-to-speech reading of e-books, but most users won’t miss this.

One hour per book? Is that really helpful, or just a way to do some hard-core previewing and sales pushing? I am definitely going to have to check this out in a complete way, but I am still thinking that the iPad, despite its gargantuan weight, will have to be my choice.

However, the Nook is much better than before, and I’m sure it will have an audience. I think it has already shown that the Kindle is way overpriced, but I also think it needs to show me that it deserves my dollars, and that’s something I am not sure it will be able to do.

I’m liking what is detailed here, but my mind keeps flashing on the iPad I saw demonstrated on Charlie Rose, and how sleek the thing looks, how well Apple products work as a rule, and the ability to do that general computing on it in a pinch.


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