Touch e-Readers And Hardware Buttons

Marco Arment compares the Nook Simple Touch, Kindle Touch, and Kobo Touch e-readers:

Of the touch readers, only the Nook has hardware page-turn buttons that you can optionally use, but they’re uncomfortable to use because they require too much pressure. On the Kindle and Kobo, you must turn pages by tapping the screen. I wish they all had good page-turn buttons — you’d think the hardware would be optimized for the most common action that people perform when using e-readers, but that’s unfortunately not the case.

Pushing a hardware button to turn pages on e-readers is most common only because all e-readers except for one Sony model did not have any other option before the recent deluge of touch-enabled e-readers.

With page-turn buttons, you can simply rest your finger on them while reading and push down slightly to advance to the next page. I miss this ability on the touch readers: you need to move your finger from wherever it’s resting (which can’t be the screen, of course) into the screen area and tap each time. My ideal e-reader would have a touch screen as responsive as the Nook’s and good hardware page-turn buttons, but that doesn’t exist today.

Simply pushing down a physical button to turn a page is convenient, but I would argue is unnatural, with a touch-enabled e-reader. It’s kind of like the directional pad on pre-iPhone smartphones. Before the advent of finger-based multitouch technology on smartphones the directional pad was one of only a few (the trackball was another) options and I might add the most convenient. In some cases, like pinpointing the exact cursor location, the directional pad on an iPhone-like smartphone might be more convenient than touch, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right combination of solutions. Pushing down a physical button to turn a page is convenient but unnatural. Then there’s another problem.

I agree that having both touch and physical page-turn buttons are ideal, but the associated costs for adding one more component are not insignificant: vendor relations, component quality control, price negotiation, added complexity due to additional manufacturing steps, an additional point of failure, etc.

Then there is retail price. Hitting a certain price point or being in range of one is important. Marco Arment stressed the price points of each e-reader. Interestingly the Nook Simple Touch, the only touch-enabled e-reader with physical buttons, was the cheapest. Maybe Barnes & Noble has better negotiated the total bill of materials and was able to manufacture the Nook Simple Touch cheaper than the two others. Or maybe the other two have higher profit margins. Either way good physical buttons on a US$99 6-inch touch-enabled e-reader seems possible. Or it could mean the Kindle Touch and Kobo Touch could have a lower price. And finally, imagine a $79 Nook Simple Touch without the physical buttons.

Don’t worry, fingerprints aren’t very noticeable on the touch readers. The matte e-ink screen surface minimizes their appearance, and they’re easily wiped off.

Agreed. And here’s what I wrote back in September:

From my experience at a local Barnes & Noble store, fingerprints on matte E Ink displays on the other hand are harder to see. Almost never have the smudges gotten in the way of my reading experience. In my mind dirty screens as a result of touch is insignificant when it comes to reading on E Ink displays.

This applies to both the Kindle Touch and the Kobo Touch:

When I slip into the shoes of the new Kindle Touch product manager, I can imagine he or she had to make some difficult choices to bring the cost down, simplify the manufacturing, and make it durable. I think the choice to go with just touch without buttons was a good one. The result is a streamlined design based on an intuitive interaction model where we simply point, flick, and get on to reading.

Update: Sony has dropped the price of its touch-enabled Sony Reader Wi-Fi from US$149.99 to just $99. And if you have a old e-reader trade it in for a $50 credit. The eBook Reader Blog reports the Sony Reader Wi-Fi has been recently hacked to run Android 2.2. Either Sony is taking a loss trying to grab market share or Sony is still making a small profit selling a 6-inch e-reader with both touch and physical buttons for $99. I’d bet the later is true.