I’ve long been a user of eBooks, and have tried to consume content on some unlikely devices in the past. I’ve tried PDAs, Smart Phones, various apps on computers, until I finally found a device I could love: Amazon’s Kindle 2. So, when I was tasked with reviewing Barnes & Noble’s nook, I fully expected to not like it as well as my trusty Kindle. I wasn’t wholly wrong in that expectation, but I found myself a bit surprised at how well the nook stood up in comparison.
Ever since pulling a copy of Treasure Island from Project Gutenberg and loading it up onto my HP Jornada PDA about a decade ago, reading that book on an eReader has always been my testbed for a new reading device. So that’s what I first worked towards with this black & white nook; the goal of reading that classic novel on this new device. I hit some roadblocks right away.
Fire up the nook, and it wants to know what my B&N account information is. To the best of my knowledge I didn’t have an account, but apparently I was wrong. Went through some wrangling to figure out my account password, and got the nook registered with Barnes & Noble. Do I want to give it my credit card info? No, I really don’t. Moving on.
Try to search the nook store for a copy of Treasure Island, do I want to pay $.99 for a copy? No, I’d really prefer to find a free copy, just as I have for every other eReader. So I sort by price, and lo and behold there are free copies of the book available… right after several pages of other content that, although free, bears little resemblence to my search for the book title. Dirty pool, B&N; don’t make it hard to find free content. Alternately, time to dramatically improve your search algorithms. At any rate, I find a free copy of the book I want, and tap the touch sensitive eInk screen to download it… only to find that before I can buy a free book I have to have credit card information on file with my Barnes & Noble account. Oh, and since I declined to input my card info on the nook when I first registered it, I now have to track down a computer and input the card info online instead.
Only after all that is done am I able to download the free book, at which point I discover that it’s a copy digitized by Google, and they did an unimpressive job of the digitization. Given the number of errors in the text, I found myself unable to read more than a chapter into that eBook before giving up.
So, my initial impression of the setup is that if you don’t immediately tell your nook what your credit card info is, you’re in for a world of hurt. Also that if you get free content, you may very well regret it. (I’ve not found any text so mangled when downloading free content from Amazon, so I was sorely disappointed with the B&N offering.)
Okay, time for a positive impression of the nook itself: I like the physical device. At “under 8 ounces” it is far lighter than my Kindle 2, and unlike my iPad it is quite possible to forget you are even holding a piece of hardware. There are two buttons on each side of the device, and by default the top is set to “Next Page” and the bottom to “Previous Page”. As this was the opposite of what I am accustomed to on the Kindle, it threw me for a loop… until I noticed the setting to reverse these buttons. Although I find the rubberized surface of the buttons slightly too firm to press for my taste, I do like being able to control which button is which. About that rubber surface, the back is covered with it too, making the nook far more comfortable in my hand than a Kindle or iPad ever felt with their cold metal backs.
The screen of the nook is touch sensitive, which I can take or leave. I far prefer using physical buttons to touching an eReader screen. That being said, the screen was just as clear to read from as my Kindle 2, which is high praise coming from me.
The interface of the nook surprised me. I’m used to starting out a device at a listing of books contained on the eReader, and having to navigate to a storefront when I want it. The nook goes almost the other way around – you’ll see a “Reading now” section which shows the latest book on the device you are reading, but the rest of the screen is aggregates of other books the nook is suggesting to you, which is not the passive “shelf of book titles” that I’m used to. Even though the screens felt a bit intrusive, I’m sure this is something I’d become accustomed to very quickly though, so I can’t truly criticize the nook on this issue.
Now one of the most intriguing features of the nook I’d been hearing about was it’s added functionality when you are physically in a Barnes & Noble bookstore. The buzz I’d heard was “you can read any book in the store on your nook, while you’re in the store.” So, I took myself off to the Barnes & Noble store in Temecula to see how that worked out.
One thing of note I discovered while walking around that store: They have removed all seating in the store except for a couple benches in the kid’s area and, of course, the integrated Starbucks. So, even if this book browsing function worked out, I wouldn’t have a place to sit and read comfortably, not now. (That store used to have a good number of nice leather chairs, but it seems the floorspace previously devoted to such is now needed to sell stuffed animals and LEGO sets.)
Now, when you fire up a nook inside a Barnes & Noble store, the device does recognize this and ask you if you want to browse for books. I ran some spot checks, and most of the content that physically appeared on the shelves really was available as an eBook on the nook. There were a couple of titles that weren’t available electronically, and a couple titles that were present for free on the nook that weren’t on the shelves, but mostly things seemed to match up well. So I went ahead and told the nook to let me try out a title. And that’s when things started to go in an unexpected direction.
I was told that I could go ahead and start reading this book… and that I had access to these free books for one hour each day in the B&N. Looks like the buzz I’d heard neglected to mention a one hour time limit. At any rate, I tried reading a couple chapters in my novel, and the difference between the quality of this for-pay book and the garbage I’d gotten with the free copy of Treasure Island was very noticable. Clearly the B&N paid book was well done.
Next I decided to test the range of the B&N wireless network, to see if there was a good place to sit and read this book some more. I’d parked a good hundred feet away in the parking lot, so I tried reading the book while slowly walking out to my car. I almost made it, but the nook lost signal a few feet away from my car. Now, maybe it’s just my tech inclinations, or my laziness, but I decided next to pull my car up to the front of the store (where spaces were now available) and try to resume my reading experience. After all, I still had at least half an hour of reading time left today.
Turns out I didn’t have reading time left. When I pulled into a spot right outside the store, the nook reconnected to the wireless network just fine. When I tried to resume reading the book, however, I was informed that I could read some more tomorrow, or buy the book. Apparently leaving the network expires your time for the day.
After that experience, I was done fooling around with Barnes & Noble. That was too many caveats and problems. Of course I still wanted to read that book, so I went down to the library in Temecula and got a library card for the first time this century. They had the book in the stacks, so I’m going to call that a win. Library: 1, Bookstore: 0.
So, although I found the nook to be decent hardware, the problems and let-downs surrounding it were depressing. Combine that experience with the $99 price-tag for this device (down from $139 last week), and my lack of desire for a touch screen, and I’d far prefer to have the new $79 Kindle device.
As a final “insult to injury” issue, I wanted to fire up the nook to confirm my memories of the layout of several screens for this review. Turns out my nook is totally unresponsive; it changed to a brick at some point over the weekend. This gave me the (silver lining) opportunity to try out the nook support. Rather than try their help line (as I dislike support phone calls), I tried out the nook chat support system. Over all it was a pleasant experience, with Dante – the support tech who picked up my chat request – walking me through a curious button-pressing configuration which ought to have reset the device. It didn’t, so I’m now waiting with baited breath for a replacement, which they were willing to ship out with no problems at all. I do feel it’s a shame I couldn’t just walk into a Barnes & Noble store with my return number and walk out with a replacement (which, again, is what the buzz about nooks led me to expect), but apparently the company prefers to have UPS shipments passing in the night, instead.
Overall, the nook seemed comparable with a two-generations-ago Kindle, for a higher price than a new generation Kindle, and the extras with the nook depressed instead of impressed. Although better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, the nook is not the eReader device I’d prefer waiting for me under the tree on Christmas morning.