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Originally published February 11, 2011 at 5:44 PM | Page modified February 11, 2011 at 5:58 PM

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Nook Color at top of the stack of e-readers

Amazon's Kindle has dominated the market for e-book readers since it debuted more than three years ago. Now it may have met its match.

San Jose Mercury News

Amazon's Kindle has dominated the market for e-book readers since it debuted more than three years ago. Now it may have met its match.

Longtime rival Barnes & Noble recently released an updated version of the Nook, its own e-reader. Dubbed the Nook Color, the device gets its name from its full-color screen, one of the first to be found in an e-reader.

But that's not its only distinction. The Nook Color has several features that set it apart from the Kindle and place it at the top of the stack of e-readers.

Like the Kindle, the Nook Color includes flash memory, which allows you to store and carry around thousands of books. It can connect to the Internet over a Wi-Fi connection. And it includes a store application that allows you to download books, magazines and newspapers directly from Barnes & Noble.

The color screen, though, is the first thing that draws your attention. The Kindle and most other e-readers have monochromatic screens based on the e-ink technology. Because it's a high-contrast medium, e-ink is great for presenting basic text on a page. But it's poor at displaying pictures and, at least in its current state of development, can't refresh quickly enough to present videos.

That's not a problem if all you plan to read on an e-reader are novels. But the Kindle and other e-ink devices are ill-suited for displaying illustrated children's books and nonfiction titles with full-color pictures, not to mention magazines, newspapers or Web pages.

Enter the Nook Color. Instead of e-ink display, the gadget is built around the same kind of LCD display that you'll find in a smartphone or a tablet computer like the iPad. In fact, the Nook Color uses the same type of in-plane switching technology that's found in the iPad's display, which allows users to view the Nook Color from a wide range of viewing angles.

I read children's books, newspaper articles with color pictures and Web pages. All looked great on the device. And I was able to watch YouTube videos with no problem.

The Nook Color's screen has another big distinction from those on most e-ink devices: It's touch sensitive. You select items you want to read, turn pages and highlight text by touching the screen.

That's something you just can't do on the Kindle. Instead, you have to use an array of physical buttons. After using an iPhone, iPad and other touch-sensitive devices for years now, I find those buttons awkward and often frustrating. The Nook Color feels a lot more natural.

The device has other advantages over the Kindle. It's built on top of Google's Android operating system, which basically makes it a low-cost tablet computer. Barnes & Noble has tailored the operating system and interface to focus on e-reading; on your home screen you'll find books and other reading materials rather than apps, so it's no iPad.

But included on the Nook Color are a handful of games, and the company said that it plans to soon offer a curated collection of Android applications for the Nook Color in its online store.

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One of the other things I've disliked about the Kindle is that you have to pay a monthly subscription fee to access newspaper or magazine articles but get much less than you would get through a newspaper or magazine's website, which often are free.

By contrast, the magazines and newspapers that users can purchase on the Nook Color offer far more content, including full-color pictures. Often, the magazines are electronic duplicates of the physical magazines. Additionally, the Nook Color includes a full Android browser that you can use to visit websites.

Of course, some of the Nook Color's features have downsides. The color screen, for example, requires far more power than does the Kindle's screen. Barnes & Noble says you should get up to eight hours of reading between charges, but that's probably under ideal conditions. Regardless, you'll need to recharge the Nook Color far more often than the Kindle, and you're more likely to run out of power in the middle of a book or article.

Moreover, the gadget's LCD screen is much more difficult to read in direct sunlight than is the Kindle's. If you're looking for an e-book reader to take to the beach or the pool, you might want to think twice about getting a Nook Color.

Probably because of the screen and the batteries needed to support it, the Nook Color is also about twice as heavy as the Kindle, weighing in at just under a pound. That doesn't make it hefty by any means, but it could make holding it for long periods of time less comfortable.

And the device has other shortcomings. The version of Android it runs is an older one that doesn't allow you to pinch to zoom in on Web pages, nor run Adobe's Flash. While you can view Web pages and magazines in either portrait or landscape orientation, the Nook Color doesn't let you do the same with books.

And unlike some versions of the Kindle, the Nook Color doesn't have a cellular antenna, so unless you are near a Wi-Fi hot spot, you won't be able to get online or download books.

Still, I liked the Nook Color. In my book, it's your best bet for an e-reader.

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