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New NOOK Touch and Why Buttons Still Matter

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Finger smudges: the bane of a touchscreen device.

NOOK Color's touchscreen display shows the evidence of an hour spent reading.

Photo by Brad Moon

Both Kobo and Barnes and Noble have released their new e-readers for 2011 and this time, rather than pursuing the traditional (think Kindle) form factor, they've taken a page from the Sony book and opted for touchscreen models. For the most part, I think this is a good thing. A touchscreen UI tends to make for much easier navigation and lets the hardware shrink even further. Now that manufacturers have solved that reflection issue that plagued the first generation Sony Reader Touch (by implementing IR technology and upgrading displays to E Ink Pearl), I think touchscreen devices are going to take over. The Kindle, with its 38 buttons is beginning to look a little archaic.

That being said, I remain very firmly in favour of retaining a few buttons. Besides the obvious "power" button (who would want their device accidentally starting up every time something came in contact with the display?), in particular I think that page turn buttons should continue to be incorporated. Why? There are two main reasons:

  1. Nothing makes a display look grosser than touching it. Sure, we all wash our hands and wipe our iPod, iPhone and iPad displays constantly with a cloth, but the oils from fingertips are the fasted way to make a pristine device look icky. If you use that display and your finger to turn e-book pages, it doesn't take long for the finger smudges to accumulate (see the accompanying photo). While you're reading, you usually don't usually notice this -unless you're in an area where reflective light hits your display)- but it becomes pretty obvious when you finish and go to pack your e-reader away. This doesn't bother some people, while others are driven to distraction.
  2. Ergonomics. E-readers are becoming smaller because people like to pocket them and also because we like the idea of being able to read one with one hand. The ideal set-up is one with a light, compact e-reader that has a physical page turn button the reader can place his or her finger on. This allows for one-handed reading and the e-reader is stable because the finger on that page turn button doesn't have to be lifted -just put a little pressure for a page turn. With a touchscreen, the device may be small enough to permit holding it with one hand, but by having to lift a finger to swipe or tap to accomplish a page turn, stability is sacrificed; a touchscreen often calls for two-handed reading.

Given the choice, I tend to use the touchscreen on an e-reader for navigation and advanced features, while using the page turning buttons exclusively during reading. My Sony Reader Touch offers what I consider to be a perfectly acceptable solution: a fully functional touchscreen with a pair of easily accessed, physical buttons for page turns. By resting a finger on the page turn button, one handed reading is easy. Those who don't care about buttons can swipe their page turns all they want and they are not in the way, not are they obtrusive enough that they mar the design. My NOOK Color, on the other hand, lacks physical buttons. Sure, I can tap the touchscreen instead of physically swiping, but that still leaves a buildup of fingerprints, it's not 100 percent accurate (about every fourth or fifth "tap" I accidentally pull up the display adjustment controls instead of turning the page) and it's difficult to read one handed because even using the minimal "tap" gesture to turn pages requires raising a finger and loosening the grip on the e-reader, making dropping a little too easy.

Barnes and Noble has acknowledged this with its NOOK SImple Touch Reader. While most of the attention has been on the touchscreen, compact design and removal of buttons, in fact the designers have left physical page turn buttons on either side of the device. Barnes and Noble doesn't play these up at all, but they are there. Smart decision. I haven't had my hands on a Kobo Simple Touch e-reader as yet, but all of the pictures I have seen and the published specs lead me to believe the device lacks physical buttons.

There's a happy medium somewhere when it comes to physical buttons on an e-reader, especially if you value function over form. I think the days of 38 buttons on an e-reader are coming to an end, but while a single power button makes for an extremely sleek appearance, my vote is to retain those page turn buttons as well. Three can look pretty sleek too and nothing takes away from the looks of a beautiful piece of hardware more than the smear of finger smudges across a display. 

Additional Reading:

Kobo and Barnes and Noble Announce New Compact, Touchscreen E-Readers

Never Mind New Nook and Kobo, Amazon Introduces Kindle 3G With Special Offers

Review: Sony Reader Touch (PRS 650)

NOOK Color Review

 

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