Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Got Nook?

After much fanfare, I've finally received my Barnes & Noble "Nook" digital reader - the much-anticipated, potential "Kindle-Killer". But does it live up to the hype?

The short answer: potentially. But as-is, newly released and fresh out of the box...it's a strong competitor, not yet a killer.

The Unboxing
Right off, I have to mention the surprising quality of the packaging. The Kindle came in a sturdy, decorative box; the Sony, in a practical, sleek but utilitarian package. The Nook, by contrast, comes packaged in a hard acrylic case that I've generally only seen on the shelves of people who collect memorabilia - baseballs, rare coins, 70's cartoon action figures. I felt tentative opening it, afraid of breaking anything - including the packaging. In short I felt like I was unveiling something expensive and special.

Removing it from it's protective microenvironment I was immediately struck by the weight and solidity of the reader. The original Kindle 1 was a hollow, plastic-feeling device that imparted a sense of fragility; it was a big reason why I chose the Sony, which had a good heft and a metal casing. It screamed "durability", and the Nook manages to convey a similar sensation while still maintaining a sleekness missing in the other two competitors.

In size, the Nook falls somewhere between the Sony and the Kindle 2. It's coloring and lines are strongly suggestive of the K2, but the lack of a physical keyboard gives the illusion that the eInk screen is larger; in fact it is, but only by an inch diagonally.

Unlike the Big 2 other readers, the Nook has two separate screens - the main eInk display which is identical to other devices, and a new LCD touchscreen strip below it. This LCD strip serves as the navigation menu for the device. The default options are: The Daily, My Library, Shop, Reading Now, and Settings.

Registering the Nook was easy. I already had an account on B&N's website, and my credit card was already set up for purchases; I'd bought a few books to download once the Nook arrived. Clicking the Settings icon brought the basic info about the device onto the eInk screen - my name, available memory, battery charge, etc. The menu bar changed to reflect options where I could make changes; clicking Device allowed me to Edit my Profile or Register the Nook. Registration only required me to enter my account email and password, using the LCD keyboard provided. Done, submit...and a second later, I'm fully registered with my web account.

[Side note: the default setting for the LCD screen's brightness is at 50%, but I found it incredibly distracting set against the passive grey, unbacklit display of the eInk screen. I dialed it down to a much more comfortable 20% brightness, which doesn't distract me from the reading experience so much.]

There is a black bar separating the two screens, and on this is a small iconic "n" - the logo of the Nook, which here also serves as a home key to return you back to the main menu. I found I needed to tap this space more than once in order for it to work; I'm not sure if the area needs more sensitivity to react faster/more accurately, or if it's a failing of the construction. Keep this in mind, because it will be a recurring theme throughout the menus.

Jumping over to My Library brings me to...my Library. Which you would think is non-existent, but B&N gifts you with 4 free books to get you going: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, Dracula by Bram Stoker, Little Women by Louisa Alcott and Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

And yes, color me unexcited.

But whatever, they're free - and it gives me the chance to see how the ebooks themselves come across.

Scrolling up and down through your menu choices (they display on the larger eInk screen) is done via the smaller LCD screen; arrows for up and down, as well as an enter/submit button, is displayed along with other choices: Search, Show Covers, Sort, Hide, etc. all dealing with how the information in your library is displayed. Choosing to view the book will bring up...yet another selection of menu choices.

On the big screen, an overview of the book is displayed along with a rating (if rated). On the LCD is an image of the book cover and choices to Read the book, View Details (publication info,file size) about the book, and to Lend the book. More on that later.

Tapping Read...well, it brings the book to the eInk display. Using page turn buttons (back and forth) which are nicely located on either side of the device lets you flip through the book. You can also use the LCD touch screen to turn the page, flicking/dragging your finger quickly away from the page you want to turn (it's the same motion you would use, were you flipping the page of a real book). This motion can take a full second to turn the page; it doesn't sound like a lot, but when you're actually reading a digital book a second is a long time to wait for a page to turn. Using the page turn buttons is slightly faster, but I feel obligated to point out that both the Sony and Amazon readers are noticeably faster in this regards. It may simply be a software update is needed to correct this; Amazon recently sped up the reaction time of it's K2 with an update.

Also: some tech reviewers have noted an annoyance with the "formatting" that takes place when you first open a book, citing it as a negative - and it can be frustrating to wait the agonizingly long 4-7 seconds it takes for the reader to load and format the book you've chosen. Sony and Kindle users are used to this, I would have expected the reviewers to have been as well.

The eInk screen is as to be expected; great contrast, sharply defined characters. Even the images, although black and white, are surprisingly vivid for a non-LCD display. Here it stand equal to the Kindle and above the Sony - the Sony fails only because their touchscreen overlay, while making the device fun and simple to use, creates a blindingly annoying glare and reduces the contrast level between the pale grey background and the black lettering. The result makes the Sony seem less sharp and clear, despite using the exact same underlying technology (note: their non-touch versions do not have this limitation.)

The LCD menu gives you the option to Search for specific keywords (the keyboard will be displayed), create a bookmark, go to a specific point (more on this), highlight and take notes on a page, look up a word, change the font (you have two choices, helvetica neue and Amasis) and change the font size (5 options from Extra Small to Extra Large.)

I have to voice a slight disappointment with the Go To feature; I expected to be able to go to a specific page in a book. As it stands, you're only able to jump to the Cover, the furthest read point (?), or specific chapters. I'd like the ability to enter a specific page and have it jump to there, a simple request I think.

Also, beware of over-navigating the LCD while reading the book. If you should happen to accidently move back to the main menu on the navigation screen, it will take you OUT of the book you're reading to display the main screen info. It's also very easy to do this, as - at least the way I tend to hold the device - my thumb hovers in an empty space between the forward page turn button on the left, and the LCD screen edge where the "back to main menu" arrow happens to sit. While the LCD screen is dark this should not pose a problem, and I've changed the settings on my LCD to fade to black after 10 seconds of inactivity - but until I made that change I found myself "closing" the book far too often.

Tapping the Nook "home" button (3 tries, it took) sent me to the main menu where it was time to check out the Shop icon. The bookstore display is simple, breaking down your categories for browsing by eBooks, magazines, newspapers, bestsellers, new relesaes, recommendations, NYTimes bestsellers, and "top 100" lists. There is also a Special Offers and Articles section, where you'll see promotional items (such as a suggestion to download the True Blood ebooks as a group.)

Their magazine and newspaper selections are very limited, but I expect these lists to grow with time. PC Magazine, the Washington Post, the LA Times, Harvard Business Review...very stodgy but respected periodicals. 3 newspapers and 7 magazines in all.

Prices for the ebooks are comparable to what you'll find on Amazon; $9.99 for new hardcover releases has become the industry standard, with prices for others just above or just below that range. Most older books are in the $5.99 range, and of course there are selections of free books as well.

Using the LCD screen you can choose to Show Covers, Search for a specific title by typing it in, or - and this I especially like - bring up your personal eWish list from your B&N online account, and download/purchase a book you've tagged as interesting. I did this prior to receiving the Nook, and was pleased to find all of my selections available for easy download on my device.

Under New Releases I choose Michael Crichton's "Pirate Latitudes", which is listed at $9.99 (List price for hardcover is $21.99). It has 123 ratings, giving it 3 out of 5 stars. There is a summary overview displayed of the book, and my touchscreen options allow me to buy it, get a free sample, view the book details, or add it to my eWish list. There is also an image of the book cover on display.

I'm all about the free stuff, so chose the option; it asked me to confirm, I did...and 4 seconds later, it confirmed that my book is being downloaded. I click the Nook home icon (only 2 taps!), choose My Library...it updates, and voila! There's my free 15-page sample sitting and waiting.

I wanted to test out the Lending option, so I called up a friend and asked her to help. She was kind enough (thanks, Nel!) to download the B&N reader application for her iPhone; while she did this, I jumped over to my Settings and added her email address in my Contacts section.

Once I had confirmation that she'd set up her account, I opened my purchased copy of S.M. Stirling's "Dies the Fire" to the overview, and selected "Lend" from the options on the touchscreen. It brought up my Contacts list - I only had the one person; I selected her, it asked me to confirm, and zoom! it was being sent to her iphone. On My Library list it showed an icon indicating the book is On Loan, and I no longer have the option to Read it - the same as if I'd physically lent her the book. In 14 days, or I guess until she's done with it and returns it somehow, it will unlock for me and remove itself from her library.

Wanting to test this further, I tried lending another book to a different friend - and was told by the Nook that it was unable to comply with my request. I suspect, but I can't say for sure right now, that I'm only able to lend out one book at a time regardless of whether it's the same person or not.

The Nook is marketed noting it's expandability using an SD card expansion slot, and on first inspection I had to wonder where they managed to hide the slot. The answer is much worse - this is taken directly from the user guide, which I read online at B&N's website:
To insert a microSD card:
1 Press the power button for about 5 seconds, until your nook turns off. Your nook must be fully off, not just asleep, to insert a microSD card.
2 Remove the back cover.
3 Place your nook on a flat surface with the open back facing up and the top away from you.
4 Unlock the metal cover by inserting a fingernail in the slot in the middle of the cover (shown in the drawing above as a gray line) and pushing the cover toward the top of your nook. The metal cover only moves about 1/16th of an inch.
5 A rounded, cut-out area below the cover allows you to insert a fingernail to lift the cover. With your fingernail, lift up on the bottom edge of the metal cover, until the cover points up. In the space for the microSD card, you see eight contacts toward the top of the holder (near the hinge).
6 With the contacts on the microSD card facing down and lined up with the contacts in the holder (the thicker base toward you and the notch to the right), drop the microSD card into place. You might need to move it around a bit. It should fit snuggly.
7 With a finger, close the metal cover until it lies flat.
If the cover does not close easily, do not force it. Doing so will damage the microSD card holder. Instead, ensure that the microSD card is correctly positioned (contacts facing down and the notch to the right and flat and snug in the holder), and then try again.
8 Lock the metal cover by inserting a fingernail in the slot in the middle of the cover and pushing the cover toward the bottom of your nook. The metal cover only moves about 1/16th of an inch.
9 Replace the back cover. Full instructions for this are given in “Attaching the Back Cover” on page 25.
10 Power on your nook.

Yeah...not exactly the user-friendly experience I'm used to on my Sony (they have 2 slots along the edge of their device. Insert card, done.) I don't expect many to bother going to this much trouble; unless I'm adding a 32g card to expand from the 2g of onboard storage, it's way too much effort just to add more books.

The B&N bookstore uses the ePub format, which is rapidly becoming the non-Amazon industry standard. It IS still a DRM format, so despite Sony and B&N using the same format - you can't read one on the other device.

The Nook will also read PDF and PDB files and...well, that's it, no other document file types right now, which is a bit of a disappointment - again, given the wide range of formats available to be used on the Sony devices (LRF, TXT, RTF, epub, PDF) but I'm keeping my fingers cross that this will change in the near future. The device can be read as a storage device by your computer, allowing you to move documents from your PC to your Nook (store them in the My Documents folder, which you can access from the Nook via My Library and, in the LCD menu choices, My Documents.) There is also software via third parties which will convert documents from, say, RTF to ePub - as I did last night with some personal notes I had, and can now view on my Nook. Unfortunately you can't Share these documents, which I think would be a nice feature - but I suppose it's simple enough, since these documents are DRM-free, to email them to a friend rather than loading them onto your Nook and then sending them via the device.

I would like to see a method of loading documents onto my online B&N account, letting me download them remotely via the Nook, rather than having to use it as a USB storage device directly. It'd be an incredibly handy feature for someone like me who often reads personal documents on his digital reader.

I took the device to a nearby brick-and-mortar B&N, wanting to test the free wi-fi option. When I powered on the device it immediately seemed to recognize I was in a B&N store - it greeted me with a welcome message, and a small BN icon appeared at the top of my device screen. I did not, unfortunately, have enough time to figure out what additional content may have been available in the store - but it was nice seeing that the Nook itself becomes self-aware that you're in a store, and presumably will make such content readily available. I recall early on in the pre-reviews that there will be exclusives only available in-store via the Nook, and that you'll be able to read entire books for free while in the store itself (again, via the Nook.) I'll have to test this as more stores/the B&N network becomes more Nook-friendly.

So overall: do I love the Nook? No, but there's some serious like going on here. It has it's flaws - slower response times, less document format choices, a slightly awkward menu system, and a horrific method for adding a memory card. But it's a solid device, and with the Android OS running it the incredible potential for constant updates and, just as importantly...application programs, makes it a great buy.

Facebook viewers: some of the info in this note may not be visible, and updates to the original will not show with this facebook feed. The full original blog can be found here.