Monday, December 7, 2009

Get the Nook

Here is a great review of Barnes and Noble's new Nook ebook reader from the Silicon Valley Insider. One of the amazing potential's of the Nook is it's brick and mortar tie in with Barnes and Noble locations as well as the ability to offer 'free stuff' to consumers that bring their Nook into Barnes and Noble (e.g. Free cookies, specials, promotions, etc.). How does it do this? Immediate wifi access when you come into a Barnes and Noble location. Different situation since Apple doesn't own Starbuck's but what a great marketing and cross promotion idea!

A Two-Horse Race

Do this now: Disregard all otherebook readers on the market besides Nook and Kindle. Unless you plan to get all of your books from back-alley torrents, or stick to self-published and out-of-copyright PDFs, you are going to need a reader with a good content-delivery system, one it connects to directly via wide-area network. And as long as you're set on e-ink as your preferred means of digital reading—and it's still the choice that's easiest on the eyes and the battery—you're going to need a reader that isn't crapped up with gimmicks that supposedly compensate for the slow display.from-gizmodo.jpg

Sony messed up by putting a glare-inducing film over its screen to provide questionably beneficial touch controls; iRex avoided that, but made a "touch" interface that requires a stylus. Kindle plays it straight, developing a user interface that works well enough with physical buttons and e-ink (as long as you don't use the "experimental" browser). Nook preserves the same pleasurable reading experience, but tucks in the capacitive-touch LCD screen for added control. In its 1.0 implementation, Nook is not as fast or as smooth as it should be, but already it's showing that the second screen is not a gimmick.

Still, I need to get this out of the way: The second screen is not a sudden and miraculous cure for what ails ebook readers. It may prove to be, but B&N's current implementation is conservative. As yet, there are too few occasions on the Nook when I notice an LCD feature and say "Kindle can't do that." In fact, the Kindle development team hasn't been sitting on their asses—the latest firmware makes Kindle more sprightly than ever, with subtle but awesome user-interface improvements. But Barnes & Noble is itself promising round-the-clock enhancing, optimizing and debugging over the next few months, and I wouldn't be surprised if there were three or four updates pushed through the Nook by March—the first possibly before Christmas.

Does that mean it's not ready now? Let me put it this way: If you are lucky enough to have pre-ordered one in the first wave for the Dec. 7 shipping, or patient enough to wait until mid-January for the next wave, you are going to get a gadget worth being excited about.

And when Barnes & Noble gets its in-store offers and book-lending operation underway, Amazon will have to step up, or sit down.

Big Screen, Little Screen

The first thing I noticed about the LCD was that it was too bright. E-ink is all about eyeball comfort, and I hadn't really thought about how the LCD underneath would compromise that. Because you don't want your eyes to have to adjust every time you look down and back up again, it turns out you want that thing a lot dimmer than you might if it was a standalone device. The automatic brightness adjuster isn't really up to the job, but I found that by dialing it all the way down when reading in bed, and bumping it up a tad, like to 20%, when reading in sunlight, my eyes could look up and down without any annoyance.

The second thing I noticed about the LCD was how nice its keyboard was. Unlike the Kindle, the Nook's keyboard is only visible when you need it, and as an iPhone user, I found it natural and accurate. The capacitive touch is a real boon, especially on a screen so small.

Besides the keyboard and assorted lists of settings and files, the little screen can display a directional pad for moving around text when highlighting or looking up words in the dictionary; it can give you a search box and a place to type notations; it can pop up the music player without leaving the page; it flows book covers in your library and in the store. And when the screen goes dark, you can make horizontal swipe gestures to turn the pages of the e-ink screen above.

Between the LCD and the e-ink screens is a little upside-down U, actually an "N" from the Nook's logo. This is covered with a capacitive-touch layer too, and serves as the "home" button, which wakes up the LCD with a tap, and takes you to the home screen with a double-tap. (There are physical buttons, too: Two page-turn buttons on each side, and a power button on the top, which work as billed and have no hidden features.)

I found the capacitive interface to be handy, but it also revealed the bugginess of the early software. Scrolling could be sticky, tapping the home button or the screen occasionally did nothing, and using the directional pad to navigate text made me yearn for the Kindle's physical mini-joystick. The biggest disappointment was the page-turning swipe gesture. It failed to work half the time I tried it, and when it did work, I noticed that it responded slower than pressing the physical page-turn buttons.

I raised all of these issues with Barnes & Noble, and fortunately they are on top of this. Fixing bugs and speeding up the UI are the primary goals for the first software revision, and I have no doubt that they will achieve their goals in due time, probably before most people can even buy their Nooks.

While U Read

The Nook won't beat the Kindle if all that LCD is for is facilitating navigation—the interface isn't a bad one, but in its current implementation, it's just an alternative, not an upgrade. The way B&N will beat Amazon is by making that damn screen do crazy stuff. It should start by targeting people who read while doing 12 other things.

Me, I require concentration to get through a page, and even music is a distraction. But for some people, it's not hard to read a book while jamming to tunes, periodically glancing at news tickers, and responding to email or text messages. This is the promise of Nook's second screen.

It already does this to some extent. The music player isn't much yet—and has a few kinks B&N is still working out, like automatically and unpleasantly alphabetizing all your songs—but it's a real applet, unlike the Kindle's. On the Kindle, you type Alt-Space to get a song to play, and you click F to advance to the next song. That's about it. With the Nook, you can load up songs and then scroll through them all, picking one you want to hear, or shuffling the tracks. There's no physical volume button, but you can pull up a slider to adjust it, and another slider to jump around a song. And you can do all of this without leaving the page of your book.

But when you look up a word in the dictionary, the definition pops up on the e-ink screen, not the LCD. When you get an error message, again, the pop-up is on the e-ink. Barnes & Noble designated the e-ink as the place where all "reading" would be done, and that includes messages and sidebar content. I disagree with this, if only because the second screen seems tailor-made for alerts and other pop-up info.

The second screen is also a place for third-party developers to create fun and unexpected applets. Barnes & Noble loves to remind reviewers and customers alike that this baby is powered by Android: In other words, Nook may not look like a Motorola Droid, but developers could write apps for it just as easily.

Right now, the integrated Wi-Fi doesn't feel like much of a bonus. (Though it offers certain benefits when abroad, it only works with Wi-Fi networks that don't require a pop-up webpage. Free or not, those are few and far between.) But Wi-Fi means that developers could write internet apps without fearing a crackdown by AT&T, which provides the no-fee wireless connectivity. Paging Pandora!

Built on Bricks and Mortar

When it comes to shopping for books (and reading them), the Nook is the Kindle's equal, and may soon leverage Barnes & Noble's 800 physical locations to knock it out of first place. I was not able to test these features, because they are only starting to roll out this week, but when you take a Nook to a B&N, it will automatically jump on the store's Wi-Fi network, and offer you free goodies—not just downloads but cookies from the café and other treats. Soon, there will be a way to skim an entire ebook while you're in the store, too. You might say, "Big deal, if I'm in the store, I'll just look at the real book." But that's just the point: How nice will it be to compare real and ebook editions before you buy? I asked B&N about bundles of real book and digital download, and they said discussions with publishers are underway.

Needless to say, one of the biggest advantages the Nook has over the Kindle is the chance for people to touch it before buying it. B&N will start showing off Nooks this week, and will add a few more ebook readers to its lineup, too. People who were afraid of taking the plunge will see the benefits and buy.

(My pet theory as to why Sony and others have sold any ebook readers at all in the US is that they appear in retail locations, unlike Kindle. Because if anything but the Nook was showcased side-by-side with the Kindle in a showroom, the decision to go with Amazon would be easy.)

Barnes & Noble has adopted a more natural attitude toward the books they sell, too, allowing you to access what you buy via ebook readers on Macs and PCs, iPhones and BlackBerrys (and in a few months, Android phones) as well as the Nook. Amazon has an iPhone app but as yet there's no way to read your Kindle book purchases on your own computer, and is now (finally) rolling out PC and Mac Kindle clients, as well as a BlackBerry app.

Speaking of Kindle downloads, some noise has been made about Kindle books being cheaper than B&N ebooks, but Barnes & Noble says that they are in the process of correcting their prices, basically evening them all out so that they're no higher than Amazon's. In my own experience, I found David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest for $10 and George RR Martin's A Game of Thrones for just $7. I was pretty pleased, though I was a tad annoyed that sales tax wasn't included in the base price. Be warned there.

Lending is another non-Kindle function rolling out this week that I'll be following up on. You select a book from your collection, lend it to someone listed in your Nook contacts, and they receive a message via email and on their Nook's "Daily" screen, where periodicals, offers and other notices show up. When they accept, they can read the book for two weeks. During that time, you can't read it, and when it reverts back to you, they get a notice to buy. You can't lend the same book to the same person twice.

You can also lend books to someone who doesn't have a Nook, to read on their computer or iPhone or BlackBerry, though the notification only comes from email. (Expect a radically redesigned iPhone client in January with lending and other features.) The new readers from iRex and Plastic Logic will include the Barnes & Noble store, and all your purchases will be accessible on those devices. However, at this point, those two devices won't have the lending capability.

Work in Progress

If I haven't said much about reading books on the Nook itself, it's because it feels very much like a Kindle, right down to the page-turn buttons. The screen is the same—there's no discernible difference whatsoever.

Aesthetically, the Nook is better looking, less busy, with a more proportionate bezel (and a wee bit more girth). I like the gray rubber backing as much as I loved in on the original Kindle—I still don't know why Amazon abandoned that.

The only hardware bummer was the sound of the integrated speakers—Kindle beats Nook here (soundly?), but since both have a 3.5mm jack for headphones, it's mostly a moot point.

The hardware is fully baked, but as I have mentioned the software isn't. Aside from the stickiness of the interface and the flaws in the music player, I found a definite bug in the highlights-and-notes system. I have already listed a what feels like a hundred tiny gripes, but I still have more, like why isn't there AAC playback? And why do I have to get to the home screen to see the clock? (Kindle now shows the time with a single tap of the Menu button, no matter where you are.) I do know why there's no Audible DRM support—because even the devices that supposedly support Audible files don't support the ones most people buy from iTunes, so it's a confusing mess for customers. But I'd still expect the nation's biggest bookstore chain to get serious about audiobooks.

The great thing is that the fixes will come fast and steady, and like the iPhone, this thing will grow. For those of you who took the plunge already, I don't need to tell you to be careful with 1.0 software, because as early adopters you are prepared. And for those of you who missed out on the first batch, guess what? That just means you can wait for the key bugglies to get fixed before you pony up $259. And for those who went for the Kindle this season instead? Congratulations, you have a very nice ebook reader too—for exactly the same price.

In fact, if you have to pick one right now, stick with the Kindle. It's a tough call, because I see a lot of potential in Nook that might not be in Kindle, but damn if the Kindle hasn't grown to comfortably inhabit its e-ink skin. As long as you don't expect apps and extras on a Kindle, it delivers the best ebook experience there is at this moment. And it just went international. But while the limitations of a Kindle are clear, the limitations of the Nook are hazier, presumably further out.

For now, no one will laugh at you for owning either, though you will now surely be ridiculed for spending $400 on a Sony with glare issues, or—pardon me, iRex—anything that requires a stylus. And since many third-party readers are going with the Barnes & Noble store, you'd be dumb to buy any of them instead of the Nook. That may change in the future (can you believe I made it this far without mentioning Apple Tablet?) but for now, in the ebook department, there's just these two big dogs surrounded by a bunch of poodles.