Sunday, January 31, 2010

Noodling With the Nook: First Impressions of the Barnes & Noble Ebook Reader

My wife was bugging me before Christmas for a nice toy that I would like as a gift, so I thought that it couldn't hurt to get Barnes & Noble's new Nook ebook reader, which, at the time, was due for delivery before the holidays. With a hybrid eInk display for text and Android-driven touch interface for navigation combined with ePub-formatted documents, at least it would be a "walking the talk" gizmo that reflected how I saw what publishers should be doing with ebook distribution.

Unfortunately on Christmas day I got a nice new traveling case and screen protector, but only a placekeeper for the unit itself, which finally arrived the day that the Apple iPad was launched. Hmm, interesting timing. There's really no comparison, though, between the "whats" and the "whys" of an ebook reader like the Nook and a device like the iPad. The nook is all about simplifying and in some ways enhancing the process of relating to printed material, where the iPad is about the multi-sense world of Web media, with books a nice part of its capabilities but one not necessarily likely to appeal to many of its core Web-raised customers.

The Nook definitely has a leg-up overall on its Amazon Kindle rival, in the sense that it combines both the sophistication of a touch interface with a very simple and enjoyable page-turning experience via its eInk interface. I had my doubts about this combination, but, while not perfect, it works out pretty nicely overall. You can swipe your finger across a row of book, newspaper and magazine titles like you would on a touch-screen phone interface, tap once and start digging in. A second or two after your text is displayed, the color touch interface powers down and you're enjoying crisp eInk text, which only improves its readability in bright daylight. That's a boon when on a beach or in a sunny train or plane seat where moving to a better spot is not an option.

The physical controls of the Nook are bone simple. An "on" button on the top of the unit, a bar between the eInk display and the color touch display that activates the touch screen, and page-turning buttons on either side of the screen. The page-turning buttons are just about perfect and a joy to use. Each page-turning button has a pinhole-sized protrusion in its middle, which makes it a no-eyes procedure to get your fingers in the right place, and no edges. It's a seamless case, so there's no place for dirt, dust or sand to get into the controls or to spoil the smooth look of the unit. Best of all, the buttons are repeated on either side - a huge plus for righty-lefty usability and for when you get in those wierd positions that feel great put that put your hands at odd angles.

Downloads of new and updated materials are smooth and effortless, with simple and well-designed procedures. It's a no-brainer to use for all of its basic functions. Searching the Barnes and Noble store is simple and easy via a touch keyboard, which overall is no worse than Kindle's weird Chiclet-style physical keyboard but has rather slow typing response and an early-release Android look and feel that leaves something to be desired compared to the Android-based Nexus One phone that hangs next to me most of the time. Barnes and Noble also provides its own content via "The Daily," a daily newsletter that includes a listing of your latest content downloads. You can accelerate download performance by powering up your Nook on your local wireless network, but it will drain your batteries fairly rapidly. Without a wireless LAN connection or a lot of use of the color display, your batteries can last for days, typically, since the eInk display is not powered once a page is displayed.

While I am certainly open to reading book content on powered displays, I really like this "off" nature of eInk. After a day of staring into backlit computer and phone displays, there's an "unplugged" aspect to the Nook that fits the nature of book reading nicely. Reading books is about sharing some "quality time" with the thoughts of another person. The simplicity of the Nook encourages me to tune out many of my typical daily electronic distractions and to focus on one relationship. Want Web browsing? Go to your PC or phone, please. The only other significant function of the Nook is its ability to play downloaded music, which is a nice complement to reading, if I am willing to tax the batteries a bit. Downloading tunes from a PC is easy via the Nook's standard USB cable, which doubles as the charging cord when plugged into a special AC converter. Economy of design and purpose is the theme with Nook, and overall it delivers on that theme well.

However, the Nook is far from perfect. The delay in getting this unit to market was doubtless getting some of the product development kinks out, some of which still shine through. The most glaring problem with the Nook is its overall performance. Loading large books for reading can take several seconds in many instances, and some large ebooks did not load at all (possibly due to being formatted an older proprietary format not compatible with Nook). Page-turning is quick and smooth enough and bookmarking functions simple enough, but the bookmarks themselves cannot be given easy-to-use human names; you're stuck with a geekish, URL-like name based on chapter numbers that is hard to understand. At times it seems that bookmarks were not being saved. The note-taking capability on the Nook is decent but nominal at best, not something that's likely to satisfy a real student or scribbler often. You can bump up font sizes in the eInk display, but there's only three settings overall for font sizes. An extra-large font setting would be nice for those days when your eyes have had far too much work. Combine these rough spots with the touch keyboard issues, and it's a fair bet that the Nook needs a newer version of Android ASAP to improve performance and a few interface tweaks to boot.

And while the online store interface is smooth and features millions of books from Google Books, Barnes and Noble's own ebook title offerings are still a little bit thin; you'll get most major titles, but don't expect too much peripheral content beyond Google's offerings. Some of the ecommerce for newspapers and magazines is still a little rough also. The online store, for example, lists The New York Times as a $13.99 subscription. For, what, a month? A year? It doesn't say. The subscription provides only a subset of NYT information, which is a bit annoying, but you get at least the highlighted stories that you're likely to want to spend time with in an "unplugged" mode on the Nook.

Finally there's the color touch display, which feels comfortable to use if you're used to touch-screen phones and is generally a pleasure to use, with easy-to-use menus and features that are well-designed overall. The main annoyance here, though, is that after a day of touching the screen of my Nexus One, it feels kind of awkward to look at content in the eInk display that's controlled in the touch display below it. A full-touch display such as in Plastic Logic's new Que document reader would be ideal, but I am not interested in hauling that much hardware around. A Nook slips comfortably into my parka pocket and is not hogging up any significant space on the coffee table next to my favorite reading chair. And again, since book-reading is about getting into the words more than fiddling with features, I am willing to live with the compromise.

I am not really sure that you can call the Nook clearly superior to the Amazon Kindle as a machine, but it's definitely a sleeker and more flexible unit overall with better design and more potential for improvement via its Android underpinnings, as well as more potential to get your content to play nicely in other ebook readers via its use of the ePub formatting standard. I was unable to test out the book-sharing feature yet with another Nook user, but this is certainly an important first that deserves at least a nod of appreciation for the many efforts that Barnes and Noble has put in to replicating some of the most important parts of the book-reading experience. Nook's titles are a little pricier than those found in the Kindle store, but that's a small price to pay for the ability to use content on other ePub-compatible readers. Lock-in to the Kindle system is the price to pay for it's cheaper titles, a price that I am not willing to pay.

And I suppose that's the point of the Nook at the end of the day. It's a great little reader that will allow one to prepare for any number of great new ebook-displaying products that will be coming out in the years ahead. With the Kindle, or, for that matter, materials on the iPad purchased via Apple's online store, you're likely to have a more restricted range of technology options moving forward. It's not clear that standalone ebook readers will be with us much longer, but for those wanting simple functionality in a rugged unit with great battery life that will be highly usable in any number of conditions that would be daunting to many advanced display units, the Nook offers a good reading experience and the ability to escape without hauling around a pound of books - or Jeff Bezos' business model hangups, either. That's good enough for me today, at least.
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