Review: Barnes & Noble's nook e-reader

The Library recently acquired Barnes & Noble's nook e-reader. It is the main competitor against Amazon's Kindle in the e-ink e-reader market. (Click on the images to enlarge.)

[Figure 1] Homescreen.

The nook is an interesting gadget and it did some things very well -- and some things not very well at all. I put it to the academic test by trying to replace two volumes of Congressional committee testimony and about a half dozen PDFs that I'm using for a current research project. Would this be the device to free me from my man-bag?

[Figure 2] The nook's wi-fi trying to connect.

Web-browsing: thumbs down

The nook, to its credit, allows the user to get on the open web with a browser (of sorts). However, it always wants to do it. I would turn it on and soon see the screen above. “You’re not a computer, I just want to read,” I’d think, but the nook really wanted to connect and would anxiously bring my attention to its connectivity (or lack thereof).

The web browsing experience really isn’t anything to shout about either: the user simultaneously surfs on both the LCD touch screen and the not-epileptic-friendly e-ink display. (Actual navigation is by the touchscreen, the e-ink display is not touch-sensitive.) Simply put, browsing the web on the nook wasn’t quite right. In fact, like a number of nook’s “features,” it was frustrating and I barely completed a basic Google search before saying “forget it.”

[Figure 3] A nook screensaver featuring Homer.

E-ink display: thumbs up

This was my first exposure to an e-ink device, and prior to handling the nook I was a vociferous e-ink skeptic. “I just have my doubts about how much people are going to want to look at a black-and-white screen,” I would say. (Indeed, I still feel that way about all-in-one devices such as any trying to compete with Apple's iPad.) However, the e-ink display does live up to the hype when it comes to eye fatigue. As a special collections librarian I look at LCD computer screens, books and manuscripts all day, so when I get home reading is not at the top of my to-do list, often because of eye fatigue. (Full disclosure: I’m also nearsighted and prefer to read without glasses, which I rarely do at work.) But there are times when I either must or want to read after work, and a physical book or printout is the only way I’ll go. (Read a scholarly article in PDF format on my home computer after working all day? No thanks. It just doesn’t happen.) So when I got a chance to try after-work reading on the nook, I gave it a shot, and I was really impressed: I had a couple marathon (for me) sessions of about 3 or 4 hours after reading all day at work, and I never suffered aching eyes. The “refresh” --the flash of black to white when you turn the page -- of the e-ink screen is only really annoying when using the web browsing feature or impatiently navigating the “My Library” or “My Documents” menus. When engrossed in a text the refresh is not only not bothersome, but something I failed to notice entirely after a couple pages. Some people won’t believe that, but I’m not the first reviewer to say that.

PDFs: thumbs down

But what initially intrigued me about the nook – and eventually disappointed -- was B&N’s claim that the nook would handle PDFs. In my mind, this is an absolutely essential feature for the working professional, academic, and contemporary college student -- a make or break feature. So I put the nook through its paces, downloading (via PC) a number of articles from JSTOR, a commonly used academic database. The transfer from PC to nook was easy – no complaints there (aside from the fact that I had to connect the nook to my PC with a wire to execute the transfer) . But once I opened up the PDFs on the nook, things went downhill very quickly.

Basically, I wanted to see if the nook could save me some printing, and save my back from carrying around reams of paper (and volumes of books). Granted, not everything that went wrong with the nook’s reading of PDFs is B&N’s fault; surely much of the problem lies with the initial creation of the PDFs by the periodicals, their parent company, and the quality control implemented (or not) by JSTOR when the mega-database slurps up the files. Anyway, so much of the nook’s handling of PDFs seems to depend on the properties of the specific PDF, and these properties differ from journal to journal, perhaps even volume to volume or issue to issue and, it would figure, from database to database.

But still: promise me the moon and I’ll expect the stars, you know? If the thing is supposed to handle PDFs, then I’d better be able to read PDFs. Period. Some PDF files allowed the nook to re-size the text to legible size, and some simply did not, leaving them minute and best read with a magnifying glass (figures 4 and 5).

[Figure 4] That's my thumb.

[Figure 5] A PDF whose font size could not be adjusted.

Other PDFs were so flexibly manipulated by the nook that I could distort them beyond readability, i.e. when I super-sized the text (Figure 6).

[Figure 6] A more flexible PDF.
[Figure 7] This PDF was actually able to adjust text size reasonably well. Here, text size is small.
[Figure 8] Here the same PDF is shown with medium text size. Not perfect, but at least it did something.

This also happened with many free books acquired via Google Books, making them much less desirable products to use (which saddens my librarian heart). Many if not most of the free books displayed poorly on the nook. OCR mistakes and poor page-formatting were apparent. Sometimes the scan just wasn’t that good and you had to live with it. So, in the case of “free” books on the nook, you get what you pay for. The best-reading books on the nook are those formatted for e-reader devices, and of course those are the ones you pay for, silly consumer.

For instance, I bought an e-reader-formatted Complete Shakespeare for $4.79. Not a bad price for all of the Bard, and it was pretty readable mostly, except for when I increased the text-size and blew the page-formatting all out of whack, making the iambic pentameter run over the end of lines into some free-verse-looking mess. (That’s not a knock to free verse poetry, of course, it’s just an affection for iambic pentameter.)

Usability: thumbs down

The nook was the first device I had personally handled that featured any iteration of Google’s Android operating system, so I was pretty excited to take a test drive. But I was not excited for long. Aside from the fact that the LCD screen for navigating the device was way too small and really did not play well with my adult-male-sized hands, I found the OS sluggish and its navigation unintuitive. Several times I would detour from reading to utilize a feature such as bookmarking, highlighting, or note-taking (all good ideas, by the way), accidentally hit the wrong “button” on the LCD, find myself thrown back to a home or menu screen, and then spend a number of minutes just trying to get back to the page I’d last been reading. Not exactly convenient. Of course there’s much blame to be placed on user-error, but when a relatively tech-savvy person finds himself snarling “No! That’s not…oh wait…argh!” at an electronic device, surely some blame lies with the device.

I handed the nook to a friend and after giving her a quick tour, her immediate response was “I don’t see old people using this.” Quite right. The “reading” part of the nook is great, and if you get sucked in to a (well-formatted) book (that you paid for) you might just forget how unhelpful the computer inside is. But the nook, with the small LCD screen and weak Android OS, makes it very difficult to get to that point of reading (which is the point of owning this thing, right?) where you relax and sink into the story on that milky e-ink screen.

I don't think this is the last we'll see of B&N or the nook, but future versions will need a serious OS upgrade and some redesign of the touchscreen to make it a market winner.

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