My Time with the nook

Considering my love of technology and gadgets,  combined with the fact that I'm an avid reader, it should come as no surprise that I decided to purchase an eBook reader.  Amazon's Kindle has been on the market for some time,  long enough for the second generation of the device to become available.  Sony also has a similar offering, and there are a few other offerings from lesser known companies as well.  Despite wanting to get a Kindle for sometime, I held out.  I had major concerns about DRM, open formats, price, and durability.  Amazon clearly had a great selections of books, but they were all in a proprietary format of Amazon's own design.   The support for other formats was limited, and there seemed to be no easy way to load documents directly on the device.  You had to go through some convoluted schemed of emailing them to a special account to get them transferred wirelessly to the Kindle, and in some cases, there was a fee for doing so.  I was also concerned with paying over $250 for a device that might easily be damaged if treated in the same way I regularly treat my books. When Barnes & Noble entered the market with the nook, I viewed it with mixed feelings.  From a technical standpoint it was very similar to the Kindle, same basic technology and stats.  The Kindle offered a few more features, such as a web browser, and it also sported a keyboard instead of a touchscreen for navigation.  It seemed likely that B&N would be able to match Amazon for selection, or at least come close.  The nook also supported more formats, including the popular ePub format, and you could load documents to directly via a usb cable just like a usb drive, no special software or convoluted processes involved.  Of course the content purchased from B&N was DRM protected, and I still had concerns about price and durability.

Eventually I decided to forgo my concerns and purchase one.  Or actually two, since my wife is also a voracious reader and wanted one as well.  So after a trip to the local B&N to try one out, I ordered two of them and anxiously waited for their arrival.  There were a couple of main factors that led to me deciding to buy eReaders for us.  The first was simple portability.  I often take books with me to dinner, to the doctors, to the park, etc.  Anywhere where I might have a bit of downtime and a chance to read.  I also tend to read multiple books at a time, switching between them as the mood takes me.  With the nook I could easily carry five or six novels with me so I would always have a variety of books available.  And if I ran out, I could just buy another one and download it immediately from just about anywhere.  The other issue was that of space.  With both myself and my wife reading several books a month, and our reluctance to get rid of books, the house was really filling up.  We have books everywhere and have pretty much run out of shelf space, and there isn't a whole lot of room left in storage either.   A few years ago I made the shift from buying physical CDs to buying electronic downloads of MP3s whenever possible and really like the fact that I don't have to figure out where to store the discs anymore.  It is more environmentally friendly, and creates less clutter.  Moving to eBooks would save a lot of space and mess.

The nooks arrived in a few days and we got them charged up and eagerly went about purchasing our first eBooks to read.  This is the first annoyance I have with the system.  Since the eBooks are DRM'd you cannot share them between devices if those devices belong to different users.  The nook does have a share function, but it is limited in how long you may lend a book, and only allows you to lend a book once.  This feature is also not available on all books.   So, to allow my wife and me to share books between us, both nooks had to be registered under the same B&N account.  Not a huge problem, but it does somewhat impair the usefulness of the B&N account.  All the targeted marketing that makes suggestions on which books you may be interested in effective, now is muddled by the fact that two different people's tastes and preferences are being represented on one account.  Now whenever I log on it has a list of romance books I may want to check out, great.  More importantly, it makes sorting through the books on the nook, or in my account history more difficult, as it will contain a lot of titles I'm not interested in.   It also means that if we are both reading the same book at the same time, it makes keeping track of where you left off.  The nook will sync your bookmarks and last page read amongst the devices registered to the same account.

You can browse the B&N book store right from the nook, but I found it easier to just do it on the computer.  Once you buy a book online it becomes available to the nook for download, or can be set to auto download if you prefer.  So getting a book was easy.  The price wasn't bad, cheaper than buying the new release of a book in hardcover, generally around the cost of a paperback for most titles.   I chose Stephen King's Under the Dome for my first download.  I figured that I might as well throw in for the long haul with one of King's traditional doorstop novels.  Of course, since it was electronic the size of the book doesn't really hit you.  You can see the page counter which gives you an idea, but you don't have this huge thick book intimidate you.

I really liked the eInk screen on the nook.  It is pretty much identical to the one on the Kindle.   It allows you to read under just about any lighting conditions that you could read a normal book and is very easy on the eyes (though I would like to see a built in book light for reading in the dark).  Couple that with the ability to change fonts and text sizes it makes reading a comfortable experience.   My wife particularly liked being able to switch everything to large print.  Pages could be turned with either navigation buttons on either side of the screen, or by sliding your finger (or more often your thumb) along the small LCD touchscreen below the eInk display.  I've heard many people complain about the slowness of page turning on both the nook and the Kindle, but I did not find it to be much of a problem.  There is a bit of lag from when you initiate a page turn and when the new page displays, however it was not really long enough to disrupt my reading.  I also got into a bit of rhythm while reading and would start the page turn a line or to from the bottom of the page.  Timed right, the new page displays shortly after you finish the last line on the previous page.  The size of the nook and the location of the navigation buttons made it feasible to use the nook one handed, which was a bit of an advantage over normal books.

Overall, the process of getting a book and reading it on the nook was easy, and I enjoyed reading books on the device.  This is important as it is the primary function of the device, and if it did not perform well in this category, it would be destined for failure.  There were a few glitches here an there, but overall they were minor and not frequent enough to be much of problem.

One of the reasons I had opted for the nook over Kindle was that it came with native support for PDF files.  I have a lot of content (mostly game books and newsletters) on PDF, and I was looking  forward to being able to read them somewhere besides my computer screen.  This turned out to be a bit of a problem.  It was very easy to connect the nook to a usb port and drag the files to it.  The problem though,  is that while it will display the PDFs, it does not give you the ability to change font sizes or zoom.  It displays them page per page, so if you have a PDF formatted with two columns, then it displays this way on the nook, making the text nearly too small to read.  This was something of a disappointment.  The Kindle added PDF support after release, but appears to have the same problem from what I have been able to determine.   So my plans for taking a bookcase full of game books along on one slim device did not pan out.

Like the Kindle, the nook also has the ability to take notes.  I did not find this particularly useful, it is not something I do outside of school, and my main use of the nook was reading novels for enjoyment.  That being said, I think the Kindle probably comes out ahead in this aspect.  The nook uses a soft keyboard on the small navigation LCD screen, while the Kindle has more of a physical keyboard.  For trying to type out anything beyond a few words I think the soft keys would get a bit frustrating.

The Kindle has a web browser, though from what I hear it is slow and not particularly pleasant to use.  The nook added this functionality after release, though I never tried it out.  The eInk display is not well suited for displaying anything much beyond text, and does not refresh quickly.  I have a phone that I can browse the web or check email with, so this is not functionality I desired in an eReader.  There were a number of other minor features that I'm not going to get into.  I bought the nook for reading books, and it worked very well for that purpose, the other abilities seemed to be just things tacked on for the hell of it.

The great problem with the nook goes back to one of my initial concerns, durability.  Around a month after getting the devices, my wife's nook slipped from her purse and fell about a foot onto the desk.  There was no visible damage to the nook, but part of the screen simply stopped working, making it unreadable.  There are no repair options for the nook, Barnes & Noble does not repair them, only replaces them.  Of course this was accidental damage, not covered by warranty (and I'm ok with that, I don't expect them to pay for our mistakes).  So basically we have a $259 dollar device that lasted a month.  When you purchase it, you can pay an additional $70 for a two year protection plan that would have covered it, but that brings the price up to $329.  For me, this is a bit of a deal breaker.  I understand that electronics are delicate, but I also know that accidents happen.  I can't just casually throw the nook in my gym bag or the seat of my car.  I don't feel comfortable putting it in my motorcycle saddle bags, taking it on a canoe trip, or placing it anywhere were it might get something spilled on it, sat on it, or knocked over.  It is a very expensive device that wants to be a book, but cannot be treated like a book.  I'm almost afraid to take it out of the house, which greatly reduces the value.  I decided at that point not to buy a new one.  I gave mine to my wife and figured I would just go back to reading dead tree versions of books for the time being.

A side not here, I bought the nooks with a platinum MasterCard which supposedly has purchase assurance, insuring your purchases against accidental damage.  Well, this turns out to be a joke.  I went through a lengthy process of submitting documentation for the purchase and the damage, to have them time and time again find minor reasons to reject my documentation.  The final hang up was that I have t to submit a repair estimate from an authorized repair center for the device.  Since there is no authorized repair center for nooks, this is impossible.  I submitted letters from B&N stating that they do not repair them and any other repairs would void the devices warranty, but MasterCard still demanded a repair estimate.  I found one place online that sold screen for the nook for $199 and had a flat repair rate of $59, meaning that it would cost $258 to repair a $259 device, plus shipping and handling.  I submitted this to B&N and they rejected it because I had not shipped the nook to them for evaluation.  I finally gave up as it was apparent they had no intention of honoring the claim and I was just wasting my time.

This brings up the second problem, DRM.  At the point I gave my nook to my wife, I still had a couple of unread books on it.  So now, if I want to read them, I have to sit in front of my PC and read them with the B&N software.  I am in the process of getting an Android phone, but there is no nook software for that yet.  They do have it for the iPod and iPad, but of course, that doesn't help me.  I don't particularly like reading books on a LCD screen, but to get through the books I have that is what I will have to do.  However I have no portability.  I can't read them on my netbook, since that runs linux at the moment and I'm only allowed to read the books I bought on Windows and Mac.  This problem will continue with any new books my wife gets for the nook that I may be interested in reading.  And if at some point she breaks this one, or it just outlives its life expectancy (2-3 years I would guess), then all the books bought for it will still only be available on whatever platform B&N deigns to allow.  I have heard that there are more open ePub readers that will read these books, but you have to input the credit card number you used to purchase the book originally since this is what is used by the DRM.  So if I want to be able to re-read a book in the future, I will have to keep track of what credit card I used to buy each book, a patently absurd idea.

So, what can I say.  I greatly enjoyed the nook for the short time I had it, and I really do miss having it now.  I'm still jealous when my wife reads hers in bed at night.  It performed its primary function admirably and was a convenient, pleasant way to read books.  Outside of that primary function, it was pretty limited, but that was never a major concern for me.  I don't want a multi-function device that can kind of do everything, I want a device that does what it was designed to do, and does it well.  In the end though, paying hundreds of dollars for a device with such a short life expectancy, and buying books in a format that I can't be assured of being able to read when and where I want to just seems like a bad investment.  I hope that eventually eBooks will go the way of mp3s and become freely available.  I also hope that the technology gets to the point where it is a little less fragile.  Until then, keep cutting down those trees to make my books.