As soon as I removed the new Barnes & Noble Nook from its box, I could tell that this petite e-reader was going to be a worthy challenger to the third generation Amazon Kindle. Impressively, when I tested the Nook and its new touchscreen, I found that it does indeed out-Kindle the Kindle at its own game in some respects, while falling shy in others.

The new Nook has been completely redesigned, yet retains the same moniker as the original Nook, which is now referred to as Nook First Edition. That year-and-a-half-old Nook missed the mark with a clunky LCD screen for navigating the E-Ink display above it. This new Nook is lighter, more svelte, and introduces Neonode's Zeforce infrared touch technology to simplify access and navigation, as well as a Wi-Fi connection.

An e-reader for reading

Where the Nook First Edition's weight and size made it bulky, unwieldly and generally unpleasant to use, the new Nook is the polar opposite: It weighs 0.47 pounds, 35 percent lighter than the original Nook, and slightly lighter than the Kindle. It's also more compact, 6 percent thinner and more than an inch shorter the first Nook. It now measures 6.5 by 5.0 by 0.47 inches, notably smaller than its older sibling.

In hand, the difference between the two versions is palpable. The new Nook is clearly made for curling up with and holding in one hand for an hours-long dive into another universe. That's exactly what I did with it on its maiden voyage. Its size and weight do make it easier to hold than the First Edition, and it's even slightly easier to hold than the current Amazon Kindle, which integrates a physical keyboard and has no touchscreen display. It's remarkably well balanced to hold, be it in one hand or two. I found it quite comfortable to hold with my thumbs along the bottom bezel, and my index fingers and forefingers bracing the back.

The physical shape of Nook is pleasing in-hand, too: The e-reader's front and back both have a textured rubber finish, much like you'll find on a modern phone. The backplate cover dips in. Those millimetres effectively give the Nook a built-in grip to make it even easier to hold. Nice touch.

Now that the Nook has a touchscreen, most navigation will be done on the display, not via the buttons. As on the Nook Color/Reader's Tablet, the main home button is a lowercase "n" beneath the screen. Here, the "n" starts the display's wake-up process (as with cell phones, you also have to slide your finger along the screen to wake it fully), and returns you to the quick navigation buttons on screen.

These buttons are similar to the ones that were the central navigation mode on Nook First Edition, but they've been refreshed and updated to reflect the new Nook's interface, and bring it in line with the Nook Color/Reader's Tablet. Gone are options like "the daily" and "reading now", both of these options have been combined under the "home" screen, which shows what you're reading now, what's new in your library (be they new purchases or newly delivered subscriptions), and at bottom, what to read next based on B&N's recommendation engine.

Design

The Nook has a power button on the back top that feels well matched to a fingertip, but the button is surprisingly noisy and borderline chintzy. This button doubles as another way to wake the e-reader, and can power down the unit entirely. Good thing you can, because this was the only way to fix a snafu I ran into with the on-board Shop. After some use, the Shop would no longer connect to the server, in spite of the Wi-Fi connection working fine. To rectify this, I had to power off the device and reboot it. B&N is looking into the problem, but didn't have an answer for me as to why it happened in the first place.

My biggest gripe with the Nook's design happens to be with its physical navigation buttons. The easy-to-depress, outward-facing buttons on Nook First Edition have been replaced by cheap-feeling, raised rubber strips that run along the left and right bezel. The buttons are stiff and require a very precise and deep press to activate, and even though your finger can bleed a bit towards the edge of the e-reader and still manage to activate the button action, ultimately the experience is nothing like the buttons on Nook First Edition and on Kindle, which are both easier to depress and can work with your whole finger, not just your fingertip.

If you're wedded to the use of buttons for changing pages, I'd actually steer you away from this Nook, that's how poorly implemented I consider these buttons. And that's a disappointment, since the new Nook gets so much else right.

Now, if you're comfortable with the idea of swipes and on-screen touches, then Nook is a great choice. The fully redesigned interface is finger-friendly, and makes it easy to navigate and perform operations with the touch of a finger. And I found the touchscreen highly responsive. The on-screen keyboard even kept up with my speedy touch typing.

The case is now charcoal gray, as opposed to white, a move that helps enhance readability. But that wasn't the only step B&N took to boost the readability of the display.

The significant remaining addition to the Nook is its new E-Ink Pearl display. E-Ink Pearl brings Nook up to speed with the other monochrome e-readers on the market today. The new Nook uses the same 6-inch, 800-by-600-pixel Pearl display that Amazon and Sony integrated in their e-readers last summer and autumn, and the same display as in Kobo's eReader Touch Edition. The Pearl display is known for providing better contrast than earlier generation E-Ink displays, but oddly, in my hands-on tests with the three e-readers side-by-side, I observed different results.

I found that the new Nook's display provided only nominally better contrast than the one on Nook First Edition, and that the Amazon Kindle actually has the best contrast of the three, with blacker blacks and a brighter gray background than on the new Nook. I had the three e-readers set to similar text passages, with closely matching if not identical fonts (at the least, I observed behaviour with all e-readers set to non-serif fonts, and to serif fonts).

However, the Kindle and the new Nook flipped places on the home screen display: There, the Nook looked better than the Kindle. I chalk this up to the vagaries of the different fonts and text sizes, and to the fact that these differences cause the blacks to appear different on the different devices. They're close, but by no means identical, in spite of using the same display technology.

In truth, I found the Nook's text not as crisp or dark as on Amazon's Kindle. I liked it better than original Nook, but preferred the Kindle's text presentation the best.

Where B&N hits one out of the park: Its page refresh rates and speedy page turns. B&N says that on text pages, it has reduced the flashing between page turns by up to 80 percent. It does so by doing a full refresh only every sixth page, a move that minimises the annoying page-flashing effect long associated with E-Ink. B&N does targeted refreshes on a page that has just graphics changing (for example, in the e-reader's bookstore), and on areas that will have a heavy redraw. Page turn speed is up, too. If you hold and press the page forward and back buttons to scan by page, the pages will blow by with an impressive speed not seen before on an E-Ink e-reader.

Redesigned interface

Though touch makes the Nook easy to navigate, occasionally where you can swipe and where you can't isn't always clear. For example, you can swipe through some modules in the bookstore, down on some pages, but not on others. For the most part, this is stuff you'll learn through trial and error.

You can turn pages by tapping on either the left or right side of the screen, or you can swipe left to right (on some screens, even vertically) to change pages, too. While reading, tap at the top of the screen to reveal a status bar. The bar will show battery status, a clock and a tap-to-add bookmark, as well as the same book navigation buttons you get if you tap in the centre of the page. The buttons jump you to the table of contents, let you search for a word or passage within a book, go to a specific page within a book using a slider (and kudos to B&N for including here just how many pages are left in the chapter), or adjust text options (choose from six not so different fonts and seven very different font sizes).

The "more" option was confusing, though: I'm already in the book, and reading it, so why would I want to go to the book's profile from the Shop, showing editorial content, reviews and related titles? I get the share and LendMe options as being appropriate while reading, but the rest of this menu option left me puzzled.

Similarly, I found it annoying that in the interface, I'd often have to move my hand all the way up to the top to find the X to close out of a page. Practically all other on-screen navigation is in the lower half of the screen, which made that finger travel feel inefficient.

Beyond that one interface annoyance, though, I was largely impressed by the B&N's otherwise clean, logical software design. B&N clearly gave some thought to the layout and to how things operate. The interface is good, at times even great, but not perfect.

An example is how B&N has implemented its notes and highlights features. Really, these are the most usable examples of such features that I've seen on an e-reader to date. Tap and hold your finger on a word to select it. Then you can either drag the pins to select a passage, or choose an action such as adding a note or looking up the word in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary.

Unfortunately, I had trouble grabbing quotation marks to complete a passage. Also, right now you can't view all notes, highlights or a combination of the two. Instead, you just see a teaser of the passage under a tab for Notes and Highlights in the table of contents. B&N says it expects to offer some way to view and share notes and highlights when it launches the My Nook portal, but that portal isn't ready yet.

For now, you can view and share highlighted quotes with Gmail contacts, via Facebook or Twitter. You can also share information about books you're reading, to make a recommendation, post your reading status, rate and review a book or like it on Facebook. Nook has the same Nook Friends capabilities as on Nook Color. This social platform moves reading away from being a solitary exercise, but it does so in a less intrusive, less all-about-me way than on competitor Kobo's social platform. And it makes these functions far easier than on Amazon's Kindle.

Other features

The bookstore portal has also been redesigned, and its new interface coupled with the touchscreen makes shopping far simpler than before.

The Nook has 2GB of built-in storage, and a microSDHC card slot hidden beneath a secure flap door on the side for additional storage. In addition to sideloading ePub and PDF files, Nook reads JPEG, GIF, PNG and BMP image files. Unlike many other e-readers, Nook reflows the PDF text, which makes it great for reading text, but a mixed bag if you're trying to read a document that's heavy on its particular layout.

The e-reader runs Android 2.1, which makes changes and tweaks via firmware update viable. Sadly, as of now B&N says it has no plans for opening up its E-Ink Nook to apps. The device also has no web browser, and no onboard email, disappointing omissions given how central these can be to reading.

Setting up the 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi was easy, and the device automatically searches for and reconnects to your last network, even when booting up after a complete shutdown. Users get free Wi-Fi access at AT&T hotspots nationwide.

Battery life should be up notably. Barnes & Noble says that the Nook can last up to 2 months on a single charge, with the Wi-Fi turned off. We'll have to check in later with an update on how its battery life does in the real world.

OUR VERDICT

I can't say that the Nook is the absolute best e-reader available today, but it comes close. Nook gets marked down for its terrible button design and inconsistent contrast and yet it wins favour for its interface and touch navigation. Those factors, coupled with its light weight and long battery life rating, make Nook a solid choice, as long as you plan to use the touchscreen and not the buttons to page through your books.