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Barnes & Noble Nook

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Official Nook LogoAs I’d mentioned a few weeks ago, for my birthday I got a Barnes & Noble Nook Wifi, seeing as how the reduced price of $149 was finally within my comfortable price range for such a device. Yes, I know the Kindle is a bit cheaper at $139 for a similar model, but I liked several things about the Nook. First, that it is based on Android (albeit not a terribly current Android), which means that things like add-on apps and the like should be easy to develop and add through an update from BN. But mostly that it was trivial to sideload EPUB and PDF books (such as those I buy from O’Reilly) via USB, and with expandable storage via microSD.

A note about the rest of this review. I have not rooted my Nook. I’m thinking about it, but I haven’t. I do know others who rooted their Nooks within days, and for most Nooks in the wild, that looks pretty easy, but I’m trying to give the default software a chance before I take that step.

I went with the Wifi only model, as I don’t spend too much time outside of an available wifi cloud. Which actually leads to my first criticism of the device. Since the Nook team forked their version of Android early, it doesn’t support certain things that Android has supported since 1.6, such as WPA-PEAP, which of course is the Wifi standard used by WSU, and increasingly by other large enterprises. This is not the most enormous problem, certainly, as I can load content via USB or while I’m at home, but right when I bought the device and wanted to play with it when on campus, it was annoying. I emailed Nook support about this, but they requested I call their help line. I think I got that gentleman to send the problem up so that it can hopefully reach their software staff.

The touch screen has proven to be fairly easy to get accustomed to, even for typing in text, though Catherine is still debating getting a Kindle for it’s physical keyboard. Since she’ll probably use the device primarily for reading and annotating scientific journal articles, it’s possible at this time that the Kindle may be better. Annotation is a weak point on the Nook, but given that the Kindle has not met success trying to get on University campuses, I suspect this may be a weak point of all eBook readers at this time. Part of the problem is the relatively low refresh of the e-ink display. While this is not a problem for reading, it can make moving a cursor to select text somewhat cumbersome, since the Nook presents you with a directional pad on the touch screen to find the start and end points. Plus, for some reason, the cursor position for selecting the end point of a word is just before the word you want at the end of the highlight, even though the UI presents opening and closing square brackets for marking your selection.

Even once you’ve annotated some text, it can prove somewhat difficult to get to that annotation, as the ‘View Notes’ options are located three menus down from the book’s main menu.

Currently management of side-loaded content is a bit unpleasant. The files are a presented as a simple alphabetical list, and I’d like to see a way to organize the documents into folders, or possible by tags, in order to make it easier to find a book, or subset of books. With an 8GB microSD, that can be a LOT of side-loaded content. Actually, this problem applies to the content downloaded from B&N as well, their content just organizes in order of last access, instead of alphabetical. This sort order is configurable, these are just the defaults the device uses.

I have had problems with rendering of PDFs, particularly those for books which were in a multiple column per page format, and had sidebar information. While reading a GURPS book I’d purchased through e23 some time ago, there were sidebar headings position away from the content they were associated with. The Nook, in attempting to reflow the document, removed the vast majority of the visual cues that the original editors had embedded in the document, making it slightly more difficult to read. I suspect a device with a true letter-sized screen probably wouldn’t do this, but it’s a weakness of the device.

In spite of the flow issues in PDFs, Reading on the device is pleasant. The refresh takes a bit to get used to, but I hardly notice it anymore. In the roughly four weeks I’ve had the device, I’ve finished three fiction books, and at least two non-fiction technical books. I’ll be doing book reviews more regularly, I think. The point is that I’m reading a lot more since I got the device. It’s just convenient. It doesn’t weigh much, I have plenty of choices in what to read, and more content does not occupy more physical space in my home. Will it replace paper? For me, it might. The benefits so far seem to outweigh my concerns.

So, will I stick with the BN Software Stack, or root my nook? I haven’t decided yet. Part of my wants to stick with the standard stack, to see what BN does, and try to work within their ecosystem, particularly for when they add app development and such. However, the Nook Dev people have done some cool stuff, and better management of my side-loaded content is likely to overwhelm my desire to stay vanilla. Either way, I love the device, and it’s fantastic for my needs. For a real academic like my wife, we’re a bit up in the air between this and the Kindle, but I’m exceedingly pleased with my purchase, even though I still would have waited for this more reasonable price point.

Initial Impressions of the Nook

I’ve been pretty interested in the Nook since Barnes and Noble announced it. An Android-based e-ink eBook reader? Hell yeah, I’m interested. So, when our local College bookstore, who’s owned by BN, put up their Nook display, and had some sample units, I took the opportunity to get my hands on one.

I only played with the device for about five minutes, and the display units didn’t have any books in their library, so my impressions of the device might not have been fully indicative of the device. Incidentally, my exposure to the Kindle is a similar time frame, so I’m not terribly biased, at least on based on usage.

The device is solid, and well built. It felt like the kind of device that I could toss in my bag and haul anywhere without any problems. The touchscreen had a nice finish, that wasn’t too glossy in the sharp artificial light of the store, but also felt like it would be durable to the kind of treatment I know this device would be apt to get in my briefcase (trapped with other devices and cords, subject to pressure and general moving about. Plus, the back of the device is removable, for customization, installation of the MicroSD card, or replacement of the battery (potentially nice).

The interface on the touchscreen did take me a few minutes to wrap my head around. I was often scrambling trying to figure out what I needed to tap to move forward, and it wasn’t always clear when something I’d do on the touchscreen would result in feedback on the e-ink display. This was most noticeable when I went to the devices on-board memory looking for files to read. Suddenly, the file list was on the upper screen, but I was given no feedback to know to look there to proceed. Selecting a file from that list, required hitting a small white dot on the right side of the touchscreen, which offered no visual indication that it was the select button.

Ultimately, I did figure it out, and it didn’t take that long, but I don’t consider myself a normal user when it comes to decoding UIs. This interface is going to frustrate a lot of people while they get used to it, but I suppose after a half hour or so of playing with the device, it’s not bad.

There was one glaring fault I had with my time with the device. Annotations didn’t seem to work really well. First, unlike the Kindle, the device’s keyboard is touch screen, so you lose the tactile feedback of real keys, but more than that, typing felt really sluggish and the key layout felt off. On a real keyboard keys are offset just a bit, and the on-screen keyboard not having that made typing just feel a little off.

Worse though, was that once I highlighted some text and put an annotation to go with it, I couldn’t actually seem to access it. I tried to follow the prompts, but though the display seemed to indicate that an annotation existed, I couldn’t read it. This was likely user error, but it was still annoying. Long and the short of it, that I don’t see my wife using this to annotate journal articles anytime soon, though certainly, I’ll have her try to in store.

This device is, at the very least, on par with the Kindle, since I’ve heard major complaints about the Kindle’s annotation feature as well. But I do really like that it appears to use ePub as it’s document format (though I’m not sure what kind of DRM is on the books by default), and it looks like more books are available through BN than through Amazon, especially with the availability of Google Books through their service. My only problem with BNs service (and I think Amazon is this way too), is that once I’ve bought a book, I can’t re-download it from BN if I lose it for whatever reason. This is, potentially, a deal breaker for me. Not necessarily for the Nook, but certainly for the the BN eBook store, especially if they use any DRM.

But I’ll be writing more on that in the future. The kid at the kiosk had some fascinating things (untrue, the lot of them) to tell me about taxes and licensing. In the meantime, I’d definitely suggest getting your hands on a Nook, if you’re the least bit curious about eBook readers. It’s a great little device, and it definitely still has me intrigued.