First impressions of the nook

 

As requested, I am expediting getting out my preliminary review of the new e-reader from Barnes and Noble. They call it the nook. No capital n, notice; I personally find that a tad pretentious but don’t hold it against B&N, as they are competing in a space where pretense rules. I only got it day before yesterday, so there are definitely features I have not yet tried. But with nursing clinical cancelled today due to the snow, I have some unexpected time to share first thoughts.

OOBE (Out of box experience)

Not the best. That’s the bad news. The good news is, you have only one OOBE.

The nook arrived via UPS in an outer box with foam padding to protect the cargo, a rare but nice touch. I quickly set aside the packing list and the other paper in the outer box without looking at them — bad idea. I encountered a hard, clear plastic container that turned out to be devilshly difficult to open, and equally challenging to entice it to disgorge the nook from its clutches. If only I had bothered to look at the double-sided page which outlined in detail the “instructions to unpack your nook.” Seven steps! Seems strange to me why they had to go to so much trouble, and make the buyer go through so much trouble, just to get to the darn thing!

The nook arrived with a partial charge. Nevertheless, I plugged it in to top off the charge, using the supplied AC adapter and USB cable. It’s actually rather ingenious, not at all like the bulky bricks we see too often. The AC plug extends from a white 4-cm adapter barely bigger than a miniature Hershey chocolate candy, with a USB standard-A jack at the opposite end. The USB cable plugs into the jack, and the other end of the cable plugs into the nook. Even though B&N refers to the cable as having a standard USB micro-B plug at the nook end, it is unlike other USB plugs I have seen, smaller and not interchangeable with any of my other USB cables. On the plus side, you can charge the nook either using the AC adapter or by taking the USB plug out of the adapter and connecting it directly to a computer. (It seems from the documentation as though it should work fine with a Mac, but since I do not have one I cannot comment further. My PC, by the way, is running Windows 7 Professional. When we get to the file management part, for those with other operating systems, YMMV.)

The first thing the user is encouraged to do is to “register” the nook, in fact this is the first screen that appears on powering it up. First one has to have had set up a Barnes and Noble online account at their Web site. Most folks not receiving nook as a gift, or buying one off the shelf at a B&N bricks-and-mortar store, will have already done this when they ordered their device online. The registration is done on the nook by cajoling it into connecting either via B&N’s 3G “Fast & Free Wireless” or via Wi-Fi. The 3G service turns out to use the AT&T cellular data network. Some may have a different experience than I, but the locale where I live does not have AT&T data coverage. (Think of the Verizon commercials where they show the blue AT&T 3G map compared to Verizon’s red one. The blue one has lots of holes, and as I expected, I’m in a big one.) So, Wi-Fi it is. The nook did pick up my home wireless network. Of course, my network is WPA2 secured, so in order to use nook on it, I had to enter the wireless network security key on the device. Major pain! The rectangular touchscreen at the bottom of the nook displays a touch-sensitive keyboard for entering text. Since it uses capacitive sensing, you can’t use a stylus or other instrument to poke at the letters and numbers, rather you must use finger or thumb. Now I have big fingers, the letter squares are very small, and I — by design! — have a very long and complex wireless security key consisting of a variety of lower and upper case letters, numbers, and symbols. Put all those factors together, and it took me about a dozen tries over an hour to correctly enter my key into the nook so that I could use my Wi-Fi connection. Fortunately, I shouldn’t have to do it again, but even once was not a pleasant experience. I think the vendor ought to devise a better way for users to enter text, as this one is really clumsy.

Content

The nook comes with three complete e-books loaded on it. They are ones you can download for free anyway, public domain and all — Little Women, Dracula, and Pride and Prejudice. I might read one of them on nook someday, though forty years after having read them on dead trees, I am unlikely to return to them unless I have nothing else to read. On the B&N website I purchased several e-books, most for $9.99, some a bit less, some a bit more. They have a number of “classics” at bargain prices, again mostly public domain in nature. It looks like fiction readers will have lots more to choose from than nonfiction types like me. Even so, I found enough titles to keep me busy for a considerable period. I look forward to further e-book penetration, as some of the titles I looked for are not yet available in this format. I also purchased a couple of books directly from the nook, and that experience is seamless as well. You can subscribe to newspapers and magazines, though I did not venture there. I may try some maagzines at some point, but not now.

Usability

I emphasize that I have not tried any of nook’s competitors, such as the Amazon Kindle, so I have no frame of reference for comparison. But once I got nook registered, the titles I purchased online using my PC were waiting for me in my library. There are arrow keys on the touchscreen and a circle-shaped icon you touch to select an item. I found it difficult at first to resist touching the monochromatic text display area directly, like one probably would with an iPhone or similar device. Touching anywhere on it doesn’t do a darn thing except smudge the display. I found the touchscreen to be less intuitive than I hoped, but to be fair, after an hour or two of use, I think I got it fairly well figured out. So, plan on taking a while to acquaint yourself with the user interface, which by the way is built on top of the Google Android operating system now popping up on numerous smartphones.

The actual text, displayed using something they call E Ink, is easily readable. That is, if you are old like me, you have your reading glasses on! It does require ambient light, there’s no backlight. So you can’t read in the dark. You can change from a serif to a sans serif font, in one of five point sizes, so most people should be able to find one that’s convenient. Large soft keys along both the left and right edges of the reader page you forward and backward. All other controls except the power button are on the blasted touchscreen. The book display shows what page you are on — e.g., 15 of 353, with a horizontal visual rendering of the same. You can create bookmarks and highlight text, but I have not tried those features yet. Stickin’ with the basics.

Other stuff

You can copy content (e-books in several formats, mp3 music files, pictures to change from the preloaded screensaver files, etc.) to nook. It comes with 2 GB onboard, which for now looks to be quite sufficient. It does allow for expansion using a microSD or microSDHC card of up to 16 GB, in case you have a lot of music etc. to load onto it. I had a microSDHC card handy, so I gave it a whirl. The back comes off fairly easily, though it looks unlikely to pop off accidentally, so that’s good. The card holder seems to be bigger than the card, not making a snug fit; so, I inserted the little thing, closed it up, and crossed my fingers. Fortunately, nook recognized the card immediately. (I did not have the same luck with my BlackBerry when I tried the same maneuver; I had to struggle with that for a long time, but that is off topic here.) Next I connected nook to my PC with the aforementioned cable. I copied some mp3’s and a PDF file to the card with zero issues. The user guide makes a big thing about being sure to eject the drives (both the the microSD card and the nook drive itself) from Windows Explorer, not from the icon in the notification area. I did heed that advice, fearing to tempt the file system gods who are capable of bricking devices for the smallest infractions. Follow the directions and you’ll be fine.

The music does play in the audio player, though not very loudly; the speakers are minuscule. You will want to use headphones, plugging them into the 3.5 mm mini jack at the bottom of the reader. Sound quality with earbuds is fine. I will need to look at how my music files and folders are named, though. The nook puts them all in one long list on the touch screen, but can only show four at a time. Makes it tough to find a particular item, and my naming convention in album folders fails when files are lumped all together. You can set it to shuffle, though for a classical music listener such as myself such a feature is useless: I have no reason to listen to the second movement of a concerto, then the prelude of a cantata, then the third movement of a sonata, all at random. Just me.

Also of note, the single PDF file I copied over failed to open in nook. I will try others as time permits, to see if this is just a one-off fluke or a more pervasive issue with their claim to support PDF content. I just now notice that when I read this particular document on my PC, the Foxit Reader tells me it is (SECURED). Hmm, that may have something to do with it.

Summary

The nook overall performs much as advertised. As with just about any modern electronic device, it has its share of eccentricities. A total non-techie will probably require an in-person tutorial from someone who is more conversant with such devices in general. The user guide is fairly well done, if rather basic in language. Again, the neophyte will appreciate that.

Now that I have invested some time in figuring out how nook works, I am sure we will be friends. The trouble with being a voracious reader is that my bookshelves fill up much too fast. A nook takes up far less space than the books I can put on it, and it’s much more portable. Thumbs up!

Pictures: nook with ruler (to give an idea of its dimensions); with text from a book on the screen; book covers on color touchscreen; “asleep” with screensaver displayed; touchscreen “keyboard.”

 

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