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Barnes & Noble's Nook: A new character in the e-book story

Today's column covers something I'd once hoped to review back in December, Barnes & Noble's Nook electronic-book reader.


But New York-based B&N sold out its initial inventory, and this $259 e-book reader has been listed as back-ordered ever since. The company's PR department was unable to provide even a vague estimate of when it might have a review unit available, and so I wound up doing something unusual: borrowing one from a Post reader.

This fellow -- I'll keep him anonymous here, though he's welcome to out himself in the comments if he wishes -- had bought a Nook early on, received his in mid-December and asked if I'd like to take a look at the thing. I replied that I'd be more than happy to, which was why I spent much of the week after Christmas toting around a small electronic tablet and taking notes on the experience instead of slacking off like a normal person.

(Note to fellow journalists: This is one reason not to ignore reader mail and comments. You never know when you could use a little help with a story.)

So that's how the review happened. And now, a few technical details that didn't fit in the column, most from an interview yesterday afternoon with Barnes & Noble digital-devices vice president Doug Gottlieb:

* Although B&N says the device runs only on AT&T's 3G service, it works on that carrier's far more extensive 2G "EDGE" data network, too.

* While just the Nook and B&N's Windows reader program can send loan requests now, the company plans to add that capability to the Mac, iPhone/iPod touch and BlackBerry versions of that application by March. (The BlackBerry reader software can't receive loans either, but Gottlieb said that should be fixed next week.)

* While the Nook uses only the ePub format, downloads to B&N's other reader programs come in the older PDB format (those of you with Palm handheld organizers may remember that file-name extension; yes, this is the same thing). Gottlieb said that the 2.0 releases of its reader software due late this winter will also accept ePub files; at that point, re-downloading a book will get you an ePub file instead of a PDB document.

* I copied a couple of PDF files to the Nook, and they looked pretty much as they did on a computer -- just without color of any sort. Larger PDFs may take a while to display, though. I also copied over some MP3s; the Nook's music player includes a shuffle function and runs in the background, allowing your reading to have the soundtrack of your choice.

* The Nook runs Google's Android operating system, but I didn't even mention that in the review because I never saw any sign of the underlying, Linux-based software. Naturally, that hasn't stopped some enterprising souls from hacking into a Nook to make it to do other things.

Overall, I -- like most reviewers so far -- didn't find that much to like in the Nook. This model and e-books in general seem stuck at an awkward, version-0.9, beta-test stage of development; maybe a year or two from now, after other competitors have joined the market, they will have grown more appealing. How about you? Have you bought a Nook or tried one out? Share your thoughts in the comments.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 15, 2010; 12:41 PM ET
Categories:  E-books , Gadgets  
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Glad you found it useful. In further use I find that I can get all the way through LoTR:RoTK without recharging it. But it then gives me the need to recharge message.

Boy, do they need to do something about the handling of footnotes/endnotes. Mainly by enabling them. I get the "*", but can't use it to navigate to the endnotes, or back from them to the text I'm reading.

The Maps in LoTR are about 2 inches on a side... Not very readable. But all the appendices work, including the Elvish and Dwarvish character sets. So, yeah, an 0.9 release.

Edit needed on your review: "First, having only one screen accept touch input doesn't invites confusion"

The fun now: Trying to get a Silverlight (Microsoft technology) project created in Visual Studio 2008 (a MS product) to render properly in Blend 3 (another MS product). Yeah, one MS developer tool can't cope with projects created in another MS developer tool.

Posted by: wiredog | January 15, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse have all the cool stuff way ahead of everyone your contributions.

Posted by: tbva | January 15, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Actually I tend to trail the zeitgeist. Didn't get rid of the landline until last year, didn't get rid of cable tv until this month (still have cable internet (BTW, Rob, raising my rabbit ears up 3 feet resulted in ch 22 coming in.)) Using a 2 year old iMac. First gen Canon Digital Rebel, which is still a great camera. Didn't get an iPod until 2 years ago.

The main reason I got a Nook instead of a Kindle was epub.

Posted by: wiredog | January 15, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Props for being resourceful, Rob!

Posted by: query0 | January 15, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

I have read 5 or so books on my Nook and traveled with it overseas. My experience is that it works best for non-fiction, memoirs and current events; in short, books that can be read quickly and linearly, without reference to footnotes, maps, diagrams or previously read material. The footnote experience varies from book-to-book, but as a general rule footnotes are not convenient and often flat out inaccessible. Same story with the table of contents. Occasionally the table of contents can be utilized to go directly to a particular chapter, but don't count on it. Don't plan on using the index either unless you want to page through the entire book, one page at a time to reach it. I have no technical knowledge but I am assuming that there are two separate software systems interacting: the software used to digitalize the book and the e-reader software. Consequently, each book is a singular experience. The Nook software has eccentricities. For example, it will return you to the furthest point read, but if you are reading on page 10 and you checked footnote 3 which was located at the end of the book on p. 263 then you will be returned to the end of the book where the endnote was located. If you turn the Nook off, you lose your bookmarks--how crazy is that! If you are traveling for an extended period, an e-reader is great. If you like out-of-copyright literature, the Nook enables you to download it instantly without charge which is nice for those of us who do not live near a college/university library. The e-reader can be a useful supplement to your library, but it is a supplement. It has a long way to go before it endangers the 500 year old technology of the codex.

Posted by: twwr | January 16, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

I love the idea of having an e-reader, so I bought a Nook. The biggest surprise is how unbelievably slow and cumbersome the software is. I feel like I'm working on my Apple IIe and it's 1981 again. Haven't we come an awful long way in the past two decades? Sometimes the touch screen doesn't respond to one tap, sometimes it responds to two taps, sometimes not. Navigation simply is not there on a lot of newspapers and magazines and books. Couldn't get four of the Bibles to navigate at all. I'll tell you what, if the Tablets come out from MS or Apple with the ability to read eBooks and can navigate like a computer, me and millions of others will simply abandon our Nooks and Kindles . . . in a heart beat.

Posted by: Nookie2 | January 17, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

" If you turn the Nook off, you lose your bookmarks--how crazy is that!"

That's a shocker, actually. It really diminishes a central feature of ebook reading. Now, are you able to copy quotes from something you're reading? And either send it to yourself via -e-mail or save into a notebook? That's another key feature.

Now, I assume that it remembers where you left off in each book--or is that another feature that it's missing?

Posted by: Astrogal | January 17, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

Yes, the Nook is slow. The price is low, so the speed is slow. I have spent the last week trying to adapt to the two screens, and non-intuitive interface. It takes practice.

My greatest hope was an ability to read PDFs. It can read some, but not all. I was really disappointed in it's cranky display of plain text PDFs created from Office 2007. Some worked, some didn't (?!?!?!WHY?!?). Things looked bad until I discovered Calibre (free converter, Mac or PC). It talks directly to the Nook, converts anything to it. It is a little geeky to learn, but since sending a few test files to the Nook, it has opened it up. Now I can upload anything, read anything. Phew! Table of Contents even appear in the color window. That's actually cool.

Calibre saved the Nook. Yes, it is slow. Yes, it had bugs. Yes, it feels like a pre-release of something great. I can stand a lot of this torment, though, just to be able to sit in a comfortable chair and not have to hold a laptop to read.

My biggest complaint? It is not with the Nook (I look past it's faults). It is with the Cover designers. Not much originality to be seen. I looked for a cover where the Nook was on the left side, and a pad of paper (for notes) was on the right side. How about a place for a pen? Nope. Also, $125 for a cover??? That is half the price of the Nook. I would need a cover for the cover.

Posted by: Jeffell | January 19, 2010 7:40 AM | Report abuse

Once again, Rob does a review of slow and cumbersome eBook Readers. Yet, once more Rob ignores the Astak Pocket PRO with the Epson Controller and 400 MHz processor. This device is worth reviewing not only for speed but it has 20 formats, displays 24 languages, has Text-To-Speech, used Adobe Digital Editions, has 8 level grey scale, and holds up to 8,000 eBooks and music on the optional SD card. Did I mention a User-Replaceable rechargeable battery? It comes WITH the case and earbuds, choice of 6 colors, weighs under 6 ounces, and costs $199.

Wake up, Rob!!

Posted by: EZReader1 | January 19, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

@wiredog: Now the story can be told... thanks again! While I'm giving credit, the rest of y'all should check out his review of the Nook--a bit more detailed than my own.

@Jeffell: Appreciate the mini-review of Calibre. FYI to others, that app is also a free download for Linux.

@EZReader1: I don't mind the PR pitch, but why do you keep using blog comments for it? Why not e-mail me like everybody else, so I have an easy way to respond directly? We print my e-mail address at the end of every column I write, and there's also a handy little "E-mail Rob" link at the top of this page for that purpose. (I did look for your company at CES but didn't spot it in the eBooks TechZone.)

Now, one data point to add to the review: The book I loaned to myself, William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition," remains readable in the B&N iPhone app a full 16 days after I accepted the loan-- two days after the loan should have expired. (The iPhone app has a "refresh" button, but tapping it doesn't seem to do anything.) Wiredog, in turn, just e-mailed that he can't open that title on his Nook. And yet when I log into Barnes & Noble's site and check my account, that page shows that the book was "Returned on 01/17/2010."

It's great to see DRM work so seamlessly, isn't it?

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | January 19, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Maybe tomorrow the book will come off of loan. ;-)

A few thoughts after living with it for a month:
The LCD screen is a good idea, but the more commonly used functions should be hardware buttons. Maybe the joystick that the Kindle uses? The cover flow idea just doesn't work on that small a screen. Turning pages is faster with hardware buttons than with the screen.

Newspaper/magazine reading needs major work, mainly as a result of the LCD screen issues, but also a matter of the way they are formatted. The local sections of the Post don't get distributed. Nor does the Magazine. And no comics! That's a real deal killer. The Nook (and Kindle, etc.) have great potential as newspaper readers. Think of the printing and distribution money the Post could save if every Dead Tree Edition reader was replaced with a Nook/Kindle reader.

As a book reader it's pretty good. I carry mine 'most everywhere with me, and have now read several books on it. Very readable, even in low light, and goes days without a recharge (if you don't turn on the cell phone or wifi).

Main problems with books on the Nook:
Footnotes and endnotes aren't navigable. Forget about indexes. Pictures need to be specially formatted, and most publishers seem not to have bothered. All the maps in LoTR were about an inch on a side.

Posted by: wiredog | January 19, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Would be very interested in your reactions to the Aztak EZReader, even if its advocate is a bit irritating. We seekers after truth want to know if it is really the best option currently available!

Michael Scriven

Posted by: MSCRIVEN | January 19, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

For those of you keeping score at home, the e-book I loaned from wiredog's account to my own still hasn't expired.

I can continue to read it on the iPhone--even after installing an updated version of the iPhone reader app--and wiredog still can't read it on his Nook, five days after it should have been "returned" to him. He's now posted a query about this on a B&N tech-support forum, so we'll see if that discussion yields any insight.

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | January 22, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

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