Bait & Switch?

Maybe it’s just me, but when I enter a discount code good for a web site (I received the “invitation” today) I kinda expect the discount code to go towards the cost of an order at the same site.  Especially when Barnes & Noble send out a “25% off anything” promo. However this doesn’t seem to apply to the new Nook Color, which apparently can’t be ordered at all from where I am.

So yes, I was drunk enough to attempt to order a new Nook Color, but B&N sees it fit to stop me from ordering it. Maybe they’re desperately trying to stop me from making a very stupid, drunken mistake.  Well cheers B&N, you’re pretty much right.  After panning the last incarnation of the Nook I really should know better than to spend money on such a flawed product. Thanks for saving me the money I guess. One could only hope all online merchants were so scrupulous.

The Barnes & Noble Nook: a Critical Canadian Review

A few months ago on a business trip to the USA I went to Barnes & Noble and decided to purchase a Nook, which is B&N’s answer to the Kindle. I’ve been using it for some time now and thought it would be a good idea to review the device for the benefit of those also thinking of procuring themselves one.

Discerning readers will realize from the title alone that the review isn’t going to be gushingly positive. In theory the Nook is a pretty solid device; it comes with 2 gigabytes of memory (roughly 1.3 gigabytes usable for books), it uses a combination of a 6″ e-ink screen for text display and a 3.5″ color touchscreen for navigation and book-cover display; there are also page-turning buttons set on both sides of the device. All in all it’s a smart-looking device. The Nook connects to your computer via a micro-USB slot, and as with other e-readers it comes with a USB cable and a wall-plug adapter for those times when you’re not near a computer but need to recharge the battery. The battery itself is user-replaceable, which I’m told is not the case for all reader devices.

It supports Adobe Acrobat (PDF) and EPUB format documents; PDB documents are also supported, although I have yet to come across one of those. Note that DRM’d documents can only be displayed if they were purchased from the B&N ebook store. If you live in the USA, that is. More on that later.

PDF support is quite good on this device, as long as your PDF files have been scanned for text using optical character recognition (OCR). As long as that’s done the text is formatted acceptably on the e-ink display. If you have a scanned PDF, well, the results aren’t going to be so good, because then the PDF renders each and every page as one image, and the Nook will by default display one page image entirely. This almost always results in an unreadable document because the text is very small. Those of you with Acrobat Professional will want to make sure that you both optimize and scan your documents with OCR before uploading them to the Nook. Those of you who don’t have Acrobat Pro, well, good luck. Then again I find that most of the public-domain documents you see on the internet will have been OCR’d before they’re made available.

The Nook’s memory can be expanded by adding a micro-SD card… maybe. Now that we’re past the spec stage and onto the actual user review, things tend to look rather less rosy, to be honest. There is no question that there is, in fact, a micro-SD slot on the back of the unit, next to the battery, the user guide tells you in detail how to insert a memory card in it. My question is, to what extent is micro-SD actually supported by the Nook software? My experience is that support is patchy at best, and tends to vary a great deal. Of course when I got the device home the first thing I did was to add a 8GB micro-SD card to it; I have a large-ish PDF collection I wanted to get onto the Nook, so having less than 1.5GB of space wasn’t really going to cut it. I manage my ebook collection using Calibre (the Nook itself doesn’t come with any software for ebook management), and that seemed to work well with the Nook at least for a while. To save time I put the entire collection on the micro-SD card; it doesn’t come anywhere close to filling it up, it’s less than 1000 documents. Surely that wouldn’t be a problem, right?

At first the Nook worked with the card. However as time has gone by it seems to have become unusable. When you start up the Nook and go into the Library, it automatically checks for content. Now my Nook with the micro-SD card installed, when it starts up and I navigate to the Library, displays the “Checking for new Items” message… and seems to get stuck in that mode. Because it’s a battery-powered portable device it eventually goes into power-saving mode (I have mine set to do that after 20 minutes), and when you wake it up it’s still “Checking for New Items”. One particularly frustrating morning after syncing new content into it the evening before I picked it up, and it was still “Checking for New Items”. After looking over the Support/QA forum for the nook it seems I’m not the first or only person with this problem.  Oh yes, and to add insult to injury, under “Checking for New Items” appears the message “This will only take a moment”. Which I suppose could be considered accurate if you’re a geologist. Personally I’m not that patient. I restarted my Nook over an hour ago and it’s still displaying the “Checking for New Items” message (I keep pushing on the page-turn keys periodically so it doesn’t go to sleep), so you really can’t accuse me of not being patient enough. In this time I’m certain that I could have read out the titles and author names of all 800-odd volumes in my PDF collection, yet the Nook is still struggling, with no way for me to know if it’s working or if it’s just plain frozen.

As the saying goes this leaves me high and dry. There’s not enough space in the built-in memory to put my collection, but if I use a micro-SD card the whole device becomes completely unreliable.  B&N advertises the capacity of the built-in memory as “1500 books”, but that’s the domain of fantasy. It could be 1500 epub-format books that you download from B&N (if you can do that at all, that will be looked at later), but that means that you should shell out (using average figures) at least $15,000 to Barnes & Noble. These people must be as imaginative as those Sony execs who think that people will unquestioningly re-purchase their entire DVD collections in Blu-Ray format, and while the people I know aren’t necessarily average consumers I can’t imagine that someone would be enough of a sucker to do that. Most ebooks out there are in PDF format and significantly larger in size than epubs; my ebook collection certainly is, and in that world 800 titles take up about 6 gigabytes, or 3 times the “capacity” of the Nook which is advertized as 2GB but is in fact about 1.27GB once you factor out the OS and interface.

I’ve tried to make it work again, to little avail. The one time I was able to get it to work acceptably again, I deregistered the Nook from my B&N account, slow-formatted the micro-SD card (quick format didn’t work for this), reset the Nook to factory settings, re-registered it, and re-transferred the ebooks to it. This workaround worked, but it took several hours. Not the kind of timeframe that’s acceptable if I just want to add a couple of publications to the device.

I wish I could reset the firmware to a “clean” version, but that is not an available option; you can go through the software but the only thing this does is wipe out your user settings. I attempted downloading the 1.4 firmware, transferring it to the Nook’s built-in memory and restarting it, but because I already had the 1.4 firmware installed I only get the message “Invalid Update” on the bottom right corner of the e-ink screen. Clearly whoever designed the Nook software has no idea that software can get “crufty” and corrupted over time. I’ve been in the computer business long enough to know that this happens all the time. It’s not supposed to, but it does.

Yes, I could cut down on the number of books I have on the device so it all fits in the internal memory. However, that’s a workaround, not a solution. In my experience the Nook just does not work as intended once you use the micro-SD slot which is supposedly supported by the device. That’s like someone selling you a car with shot suspension and telling you that you should only drive down smooth paved roads.  That wouldn’t be acceptable either. You’d probably punch that guy in the nose and knee him in the groin for having the audacity to tell you that it’s a functional car, and you’d be right in doing so.

I’m also not thrilled about the interface of the Nook on those occasions in the past when it did eventually manage to work. When you have a large number of items in your library navigating to a title is very frustrating but in a “we really didn’t think this thing through” kind of way. For one thing, the only way to navigate through titles is through pages that show 10 items. You can’t search for a title (not in the “My Documents” section anyway), for one thing. The titles display doesn’t “wrap around” either, so that if you feel like opening “Zymurgy for Beginners” (that’s beer-brewing BTW) and you have a large collection of ebooks you are in for a frustrating time indeed — in my case that would involve pushing the “next page” button 81 times. Now once you do have it open you can reopen it by touching the “Now Reading” button on the navigation window, and once you have opened it you will find it quicker by switching the book sort order to “recent”, but it’s still a huge flaw in the fundamental function of the reader. So not only was this not designed by a very experienced software person (see above), it clearly wasn’t designed by someone who’s ever managed an even moderately-sized documents library. The Nook also does not support folders, so the idea of categorizing anything goes out the window. You can have folders in the file structure of the device, but in the Nook interface the display assumes a flat “hierarchy” where everything is at the same level. Again, that would have been a very easy to implement; all the Nook would have needed to do is retain the way in which the files it contains were originally organized when they were transferred to the device, but the interface flattens everything and undid all the good work previously done by the user.

Nor was the Nook designed by someone familiar with even the basic rudiments of the English language, either. How do I know this? Well, when you have a book called “The science of [something]”, you naturally would file that book under “S” for “Science”. The Nook files it under “T” for “The”. This is pretty elementary stuff. You don’t need a diploma in Library Science to figure that out. Yet the Nook software fails at this, and when you have a large document library — which the Nook and other e-reader devices should be good at managing, they’re usually marketed as a way to “carry your entire library around”, the Nook specifically states in its overview “Store as many as 1,500 eBooks, eNewspapers, and eMagazines”, but if everything is filed under “The” or “A”, it’s going to be hellish just finding the publication you want to open. Calibre is an open-source, free application, and it has that bit figured out. Why can’t the Nook, which you have to pay money to get? It’s not even a particularity of English. The use of definite and indefinite articles is something that’s seen in most languages. But the Nook software completely misses that well-known grammatical feature.

And finally, the tags you add to the book in Calibre may or may not work without any apparent rhyme or reason. Good luck trying to figure out what the book “entitled” “0192853791.pdf” is — the title and author are clearly visible in Calibre, but for some reason that got lost in the rather long time it took to get copied over to the Nook (which long time could be Calibre’s fault). Not very reliable, that.

Of course the principal purpose of the device, from B&N’s point of view, is that it will help sell books, but if you’re not in the United States, right now, it’s not going to happen. The shipping address of my B&N account is in Canada where I live, and practically speaking there is nothing available to people outside the United States, not even free books that are in the public domain — and I’m talking about stuff like The Federalist Papers, written by Alexander Hamilton in the late 1700s, and which is available from any number of other web sites but not from B&N. In my experience even those public-domain works that are hosted on Google Books aren’t available from the “Shop” button on your Nook, even if you can read them directly on the Google Books site from a computer located in Canada! Even worse, if you do try and “buy” it from the site you get a horribly misleading error message that states “You must have a billing address in the United States, U.S. territories, or Canada for B& to process your order”. I do have a billing address in Canada on my account, I double-checked. I’m afraid that this oversight is rather typical of a product that’s been rather poorly designed and QA’d. Being physically in the United States does not help with this problem either because it’s based on the billing address in your account.

To be fair, there are about a handful of books that I could purchase through B& in electronic format, but it’s a tiny fraction of 1% of the content that the store has. It’s an almost negligible selection of Simon & Schuster titles, plus stuff from some boutique publishers. People on the Nook support board seem to think that it’s some political issue.

However, in contrast, I’ve looked up random content I would be interested in on, and in an interesting reversal it seems that the stuff that’s unavailable to me as a Canadian customer is very, very small. Chances are if they have it I can in fact buy it. Frankly if I’d been aware of this when I purchased an ebook reader, I would have bought a Kindle, but this was a bit of an impulse buy when I was physically at a store.

What else have I not covered yet… the Nook has a very basic web browser built-in, but the less said about it, the better. It’s just a beta anyway. Navigation is done through the secondary screen, but the process is pretty clunky. The Nook has a virtual keyboard for those occasions when you need to enter text, but this is clearly a data consumption (and not production) device; the keyboard has to fit the small touch screen so the keys are very small, and men will have serious difficulties using it without touching the next letter from the one they want to type, even those like myself who don’t have particularly large fingers. There are two games built-in, sudoku and chess, but again the navigation is just completely unsuited to the task at hand. Why not have a crossword instead, it would make more sense at least. The Nook has a built-in audio player, but with only 1.27GB to work with you’d have a very hard time fitting much music on there if you want to, you know, actually have books available. There are just so many flaws to the whole design that it might be understandable if the Nook had preceded the Kindle to the market, but it didn’t. Even the very idea of a touch screen for navigation is terrible because in comparison to the Amazon device it is an energy waster, not as practical as a keyboard and joystick, and when you use it in not-so-well-lit conditions it annoys the eyes and is distracting (it’s a regular backlit screen).

To be frank that’s the sort of experience (though it’s by no means the only one) that has led me to not go physically shopping anymore. In this case I’ve splurged some $200 (Nook wifi, cover, screen protector) on an unreliable device that really doesn’t suit my needs or work as intended, and being light it doesn’t even make a good paperweight. I cannot in good conscience recommend it, so if you get a Google ad at the top of this page advertising a Nook for God’s sake don’t buy one.

Can I recommend the Kindle? No. I haven’t tried it out at all, so it’s entirely possible that it suffers from the same problems as the Nook. Which I will likely find out when the Kindle 3 becomes available again, as it’s currently sold out. I could buy a Kindle DX which I think would suit me better, but that’s almost $400, if I’m going to spend that much I might as well throw some more money at the issue and get an iPad which is an entirely different and more capable device.

So my Nook seems destined to end up on top of the rather embarrassingly large pile of tech gadgets I now regret having purchased. The presentation in the stores is very good, but it’s organized carefully in such a way that the customer will just not see the major usability and reliability issues that the device suffers from; that’s what marketing is for. The Nook does have a saving grace, and it’s that it’s been cracked (“rooted”) by a group of developers over at, with whose work I will hopefully be able to make a useful device out of it. Sure it’ll void my warranty, but at this point I can’t return the thing — I’m hopelessly past the 14-day satisfaction guarantee, and AFAIK the unit functions as well as B&N expects it to work — and it just isn’t usable for me in its standard configuration so I don’t really feel that I’m losing anything.

But if there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it’s that you should never, ever just buy electronics as an impulse purchase. Take it from a guy who’s spend thousands upon thousands over the years on useless stuff so you don’t have to.