I liked my Nook. I really did. It had the usual minute frustrations one expects from technology that isn’t user-tested extensively enough among real users in the real world, but what would you rather have – an FDA-like wait for technology approval (they just wave through all kinds of dangerous things, anyway, if you’re a big enough company – think Monsanto – so it’s a wait for the bribe, that’s all) – besides, we already go through one level of wait as stuff filters out from the intelligence buffoonity – or would you rather be holding the latest tech a couple of years early, and enjoying its good points and simply tolerating a few little kinks? As far as I’m concerned, I want it now, and this review is about that.
So I got a first generation Nook, and loved it. Loved (past tense) because I sold it again. I’d easily take another one. They’re great. I’ll tell you why I sold it shortly, but here’s what I loved:
- It does EPUB – get books from the library, or right off Project Gutenberg – it’s a nice open-source format for e-books
- It handles PDFs very well. If you’re reading documents (even Gutenberg has some PDFs, like Silvanus’ book on Calculus – to preserve the equations), I found it superb for this.
- It pulls Google Books. So I’m reading a book that refers to another book, like something from Upton Sinclair, so I yank Sinclair’s book off of Google Books and begin reading it too. What a nice deal. That’s the only value I can see for 3G, actually – the ability to do that anywhere.
- It has WiFi, and I didn’t bother buying a 3G. I never found the need for 3G. If I’m that far away from a wireless connection, I’ve already got the books I need – I spend more time reading than purchasing or ‘browsing’. 3G, to me, is a gimmick to ensure people can buy instantly from anywhere – it benefits the store, not me. And it’s only good for buying books – don’t think E-readers let you surf the web for free on 3G – they don’t. But WiFi has been handy – not because I’m going to web browse – it’s just not a good device for that – it’s not really built for it – just like the epaper phone we reviewed (Motorola F3) does text messages, but you really don’t want to. Bring a netbook if you want browsing – this is a single purpose device and hopefully will learn to be prouder of it. Wireless is strong. I can quickly enable airplane mode to keep battery use to a minimum. Then it automatically finds previously selected WIFI points in seconds. It’s really best for syncing down books I purchased online, and then being turned off again.
- The fonts are nice – I can get a nice big typeface in a nice, readable sans-serif, to go without glasses.
- It remembers my spots. I can jump out of a book, do other things, then press “current reading” and it takes me right back. I can switch books, read a while, then go back to the previous book, and it remembers my place in both, any, or all. It does this even after power off/on.
- The microSD card slot helped. I found the clip that holds the card in to be a bit dodgy. They should have done a better job there (they seem to think people will drop an SD card in once, and forget about it, not switch it out a lot – why that assumption?). They should have just made a simple slot with no clip, to load a card easily from the outside without having to take the back off . Goofy. Sony beats them in this area. But there’s a place for SD – that beats Kindle.
- It’s just damned handy as a device. This goes for any e-reader, one assumes, that isn’t overly annoying in some way (e.g. screen glare on non-ePaper models). If your primary goal is to get reading ASAP, there’s nothing wrong with the Nook.
- By the way, I don’t really understand why people insist on getting “covers” for these things anyway. It’s like putting a book cover on a book – it *comes* with a cover. The Nook isn’t showing it’s guts, so why? I hear people saying it’s to “protect” it. From what? I suppose if you get enough cushion, it’s good for dropping it, but if you’re carrying it in a briefcase or something, isn’t that cover enough? I want something air-light to hold, not to bulk it up with armor, and have to bend a cover around backwards. I’d like to see some drop-kick tests on the Nook and the Kindle. With the Motorola F3, another e-paper device, you could throw it out of a plane and just about not worry – no cover needed. On the other hand, I once knocked an entire laptop off a desk, by catching the charger cord with my leg, so I suppose.
- The stats – 16-bit or 8-bit, how many megahertz, how much RAM, just don’t matter much to me. I’m looking at one book at a time and so are you. So just because it’s what those guys at the kiosk think is important, doesn’t mean it is.
So why did I sell the Nook and what did I get in its place? Well, I sold it very reluctantly. Frankly, I loved it. But I wanted the latest generation Kindle (3) in graphite, and was willing to give up a couple of features to get it. I’m still waiting for it to arrive, though, so I’m reading a paperback in the meantime. The Nook helped restore my love of books in general. Here’s why I went for Kindle 3:
- Compatibility doesn’t matter – Kindle will always be around. You could focus on the ostensibly superior compatibility of Sony or Nook (both do EPUB format e-books, and both take SD cards), over Kindle’s proprietary e-book format and no card slot. Kindle, however, is more like Apple. Instead of striving to be compatible, it sets a standard with which others will strive to be compatible. It’s a proprietary format, technically, but it’s just a similarly cross-platform MOBI format with a special header added, and Kindle also reads ordinary MOBI format (so you can easily download books from Project Gutenberg, for example) without any conversion. So where Nook and Sony reach for compatibility with traditional libraries (EPUB format), Kindle reaches for compatibility with online archives (like Gutenberg) with MOBI format, and leaves libraries alone for now – possibly a prescient move. Where Nook seems to beat Kindle for real is direct access to Google Books, but you can easily download the PDF of the same book from Google and put it on your Kindle, just like you have to with Sony. Yes, so Kindle also reads PDFs, just like all of the e-readers. Better, though, if you want your PDFs to flow, you can convert them (free or for a dime, depending on how easy you want it) to make them “flowable” for easier reading and resizable fonts. There are free, third-party applications that will simply convert a PDF to MOBI, though, which is how I prefer to do it, and then you can just drop it on the Kindle via USB or e-mail it to your Kindle if you prefer. While I think Kindle may eventually support EPUB, simply because it’s the standard that traditional libraries have chosen, I think they were wise to focus on online archives that are accessible to everyone first, and set their own standard – it’s not common for large collections of e-books to be available at libraries yet, and selections vary widely by locale. Early adopters have some, but not a huge collection. The reason is the libraries have to purchase e-books just like regular books and they check out just like regular books (two people can’t check out the same copy at the same time). The only difference is that the book automatically returns itself when your time is up (though I think there’s online renewal available on some library sites). I expect libraries will remain conservative (at least in terms of funding e-books) for some time yet. Funds are limited, paper books are still in wide circulation, yielding no need to acquire older books in e-format, and people are already treating e-books like mp3’s on iTunes – purchasing new books in droves and skipping the library shuffle, not that libraries aren’t valuable – I think one day, they’ll be rediscovered as the savers’ source of e-books. Meanwhile, though, Google Books will make all the difference in old books, by making as many available as possible, as soon as the copyright expires or the owners give consent. The full text ones are already downloadable as PDFs and therefore readable on any e-reader. Then there’s the force of precedent being set by Netflix – currently streaming a percentage of their DVDs over the net, but working to eliminate sending out DVDs altogether and make *all* movies streaming – no more environmental impact from making DVDs, shipping them, no more paper, etc. It may be hard to imagine that books, the last bastions of paper, which draw much of their self-definition from the medium itself (authors are aware that how something falls on a page affects the reader in ways that flowable text cannot), will go the same route, taking the remaining big magazines and newspapers with them. At that point, keep in mind, either Kindle will read EPUB, or everything will be available in MOBI/Kindle. Besides, how long are you going to keep your device? You could wait years for the compatibility issue to be resolved, while the rest of us are reading contentedly – we’ll all be getting later model e-readers years from now anyway. 5-years from now, you’ll be using a different one than the one you purchase today, and the old one will have a simple hack that opens it up to freeware you can install to read anything, if you just like the old device. It’s not like in the days of VHS/Betamax where machines still costed more than $1000 several years later, and content from one wouldn’t physically fit the other – digital changes things. These things work themselves out in mere seasons, now. Amazon even gave away Kindles for a while – the device isn’t the point – the content is. Sorry to your Blueray guys, but regular DVDs will be around for ages and ages, and everything will play them. Worried about your library being stuck in the wrong format? No, there will always be both EPUB and MOBI readers, and you’ll be able to get them on any device. Your books are safe, at least for your lifetime, and then there will be a gazillion converters that will batch-convert them to whatever is the latest format, and makers of that new device will give you the utility free to motivate you “upgrading”. You needn’t fear. That worry is like saying PDFs aren’t a safe way to keep your documents, because of Kindle’s format, or Google Docs, or Word. Besides, converters for all these formats abound – it just isn’t a big deal, anymore – the early days of computers were different – nothing reads Wordstar, anymore, but this isn’t like that. Read now, or wait until everyone’s in the pool. I’d rather be reading.
- While I like the Google Android OS on the Nook, because I love Google, and it has already been widely hacked (jailbroken) to open it up to run nearly any Android applications, also spawning a custom-Nook version of many Android apps to make user experience even better, Android actually slows the device down a bit – e-readers just don’t (currently) have the resources to run Android full tilt. Notably, page turns are a bit slower on the Nook. I really didn’t find that much of a problem – a minute annoyance. I developed a timing for turning pages as I read the last sentence or two on a page. But Kindle’s OS is proprietary, if faster. A lot of us want Kindle to open their operating system so we can install our own software. First thing I’d install is an EPUB reader, of course, so I can read both major formats as well as PDF, then a Twitter client. In its defense, though, Amazon has jumped out there to offer sharing passages in social media like Twitter and Facebook. Remember, the device isn’t the point. It hasn’t been, since the PC got more powerful, even fully bloated with poor maintenance and the garbage most users allow on their machines. Current PCs are more powerful than the average user can keep up with or bog down, assuming the OS is clean – Windows 7 sure has some hiccups in this department. We’re not counting gamers here – they will always push for faster everything. But business users only need so much, after which it’s just posturing. Kick the tires, ask what brand it is (like that matters anymore), throw out some words like Pentium and “quad core”, refer to the newest (=best?) version of something – like Word 2013 – sure, there will be one. But it doesn’t matter. The guy with Windows 2000 and Word 2000 is typing out the same document as the guy with Windows 7 and Office 2010 (and the former’s document is readable by more people in more places). Since the device isn’t the point anymore, it’s just what you do with it (yep, size no longer matters – we’re all huge), what a lot of us really want is for Amazon to separate the OS, the software, and the device (like Google has done with Google Docs), by simply opening up their operating system. I think the situation will evolve, as it did for Apple/Mac (there was a time, you couldn’t run anything on an Apple that didn’t come from Apple, and they’d sue you if you tried). Kindle will learn from the history, and do it better and, before long, you’ll have options, of some kind, on Kindle. But maybe (and this is heresy to the rest of the PC crowd, unless they’re running Linux instead of Windows, which incidentally comes from the same UNIX parentage as the Mac OS) – maybe having a completely open system is not the only way to drive development as far and fast as possible. Linux is really doing well, especially since Ubuntu became a game changer – it’s almost, almost there – so close – but Apple can just jump up and do things, and not wait for a guy in his garage to build a better WIFI or sound driver. Maybe Kindle keeping it partly closed (and you can read into this an argument for social democracy over pure laissez-faire if you want to), will take us farther, in better time, than just saying “here’s another device, go ahead and create stuff for it” like you do with a PC and a Linux install. Maybe the monopoly with a gazillion garage software writers can’t push a thing as far or fast as a company that says, no we’ll limit access, but we’ll strive to be better than the competition, not bribe our way to hegemony. Maybe, in fact, letting it be the uber-hackers, the guys that break the thing apart anyway, restrictions be damned, and build anyway, face some challenges to do so, will result in better innovation than just tossing the key up in the air, like AOL did when it let all its users out onto the net in 1994 and SPAM was the greatest resulting innovation, among other things. It’s hard to say if Kindle staying more closed is better – I think they have to open some – but if they manage to be Apple-smart while being Intel-smart on price break point, I think they’ll trounce everything. And what matters here is not what’s rated most highly by someone else (you have your own mind, don’t you), or who sells more (Chevy sells more than Mazda, Subaru, and Mini, but it’s not a better-built car), but who drives innovation farther and faster. Don’t be a herd person who looks for sales numbers to decide what to buy – look at what it means, and buy vision, or you’ll end up with another borg device in your hand some day, trying to figure out how to update your virus signatures.
- The Amazon store is unparalleled. They are the original online big box store, but they don’t really act like a big box. They’ve got heart. They’re more like Costco than Walmart. Frankly, there’s just nothing like Amazon – they’re a trend-setter, not follower. And I think the quality of the online store is at least as important as the quality of the device. B&N or Borders or Sony won’t ruin your day with their e-store, but amazon will make your year. Anything major, from toaster to t-shirt, I buy from amazon, unless I’m getting it used, closeout, or mom and pop (E-bay, Etsy, and I really like morethanalive.com). User experience is subjective, as is what you value about a device or the software that runs on it, but I think they’ve got the right idea with the amazon.com aesthetic. They’ve picked up on the social media vibe earlier than most, too, which is smart.
- Aesthetics of the device itself is something, however, that Apple brought to technology devices in a big way, and Kindle is keeping the tone. Apple kicks a substantial share of Microsoft’s easily found butt for many reasons, all of which amount to stubbornness, obtuseness, pride, and lack of imagination on the part of Microsoft, but one of the ways that”s easiest to spot is the Apple aesthetic, feeling like something you’d hold on the Starship Enterprise, versus the Borg-like quality of a PC – especially infected with (er… installed, that’s the word we want – with Windows installed). I benefit, personally, from using a PC, because on a budget, you can run down the street with my box, and I’ll have built another one by the time the Doberman is starting on your other arm. I’ve got parts in the closet, or I can just rip them out of any machine. Borg. “We are compatible, and you *will* be assimilated.” Yeah, but the Borg ain’t exactly the girl you want to take to the prom. It’s a geek chick who’s been in a wreck and got Robocopped. She’ll bring in your mail, but she kind of gets twitchy and blue-screens once in a while. No, Microsoft has a purely cerebral aesthetic, an authoritarian one, and of course emphasizes compatibility (she ‘gets around’ in other words, and has the viruses to prove it) and she’s not immune to everyone in their garage throwing together a spare program like something out of Johnny Mnemonic or a really bad demo tape, but that’s because they enslaved Intel, and bilked most of the creative types out of their copyrights, and so on. And they still managed to suck – now that takes doing – they can’t even *steal* greatness. OK, moving on, PC users, we all know it sucks and we use it anyway. Google is the Gandalf galloping over the crest of the hill at first light to kick some Orc ass out in Redmond (to you non-Geeks, that means Google is good, Microsoft is bad). Google made the document virtual. It made everything ‘web’, separating more than ever the document from the device – it made documents work on anything. Google and Amazon are doing more to beat the crap out of the Microsoft model than anyone. Ubuntu, Netflix, and some others are putting up a good show, too. And the result is, we expect a damned good online experience with our devices, and the devices themselves are therefore less important, so then we aren’t willing to put up with klunky Borg guts anymore – we want to hold something that’s a bit Bauhaus, a bit Frank Lloyd Wright, a bit John Ruskin and William Morris. We want a little elegance and simplicity and *pleasure* in how a device looks and feels. Apple and Amazon are saying that design is important, design shouldn’t suck, design is aesthetic – they’re saying that users of devices aren’t extensions of those devices – users of devices are whole people – devices don’t just exist in the mind or the specifications, they exist in the eye and the hand and in our space – the device augments me, not the other way around. Not top-down, adjust for us – the all-wise makers of your OS, and if you get stuck just look up common fixes for “ERROR_LOG_APPENDED_FLUSH_FAILED 6647 (0x19F7)” or click here to report the error to those diligent researchers in Redmond that get another laugh every time the bell dings over Gates’ desk that means some poor user somewhere hollered from one tin can to another across some wax string and thinks the phone company is listening and will get right on that connection problem – that’s not how we want to live. We want beauty in our technology. I think Kindle is second only to Mac in delivering it. The Mac’s cube computer is in a major museum, I’d like to see the Kindle go next.
- The store is dead. At least, as originally envisioned, it is. Don’t get me wrong – the shop isn’t dead, just the store is. Blockbuster knows it. They’re peeing themselves and will be twitching their last soon – the disease is fatal. Barnes and Noble is the book version of Blockbuster. Yes, as a big box store, if you set aside a love for mom and pop shops, or you live in one of those sprawling roadside suburbs and small towns that have sold your small businesses into subjection just so you can get a Super-Walmart and a drive-through Starbucks (tithes and offerings, baby – but to whose god?), it’s not the most horrible place on earth. I won’t go there, as long as mom and pop are still open, but at least, if I do, I’m not dodging diapers in the parking lot, or listening to someone on a cell phone in line at the counter talk about how she hit her man with a hammer last night, oh girl, or watching some 30-year old father in hip hop baggies scrape his tattoo sores and piercings with his kid in the other arm. Walmart – it would be theatre, if so many people weren’t really like that – as it is, it’s just freaking scary like a George Romero film – “they’re coming to eat you, Margaret”. Anyway, I do think it’s a very exciting feature, in theory, that you can take your Nook into any Barnes and Noble and read ANY e-book they have for an hour. I like the social opportunities that makes me envision – a group of us deciding to sample a book a week and talk about it – how fun. But, in practice, B&N isn’t a very social place. Yeah, you get the twenty-something date crowd, and students huddled over their standardized texts, and the line of fat kids with parents buying them the Venti frap with extra syrup, extra caffeine, extra whip, but it’s not particularly social – not like Powells in Portland, where a feature like 1hr previews would kick ass. And also, you can download a sample of any e-book online anyway. So why go to the store to get it? They’re busy building Nook kiosks in there that promise to let you plug in and download books, but you can download books from anywhere. What they really are is little sales desks, like you find in an AT&T store, trying to sell you Nooks and Nook accessories. But again, just buy them online, if you want them. Use your Nook to buy your Nook accessories – it’s got a crude web browser. The atmosphere is starting to sound even less social: stop in to your local AT&T cell phone joint – does it make you want to spread out and chat about philosophy with your friends over over-roasted espresso? It makes me feel like I’ve been sent to Hell, and all my minutes there roll over. Stores are dead. Amazon, Netflix – these guys get it. And Google should be getting the credit for driving the nail in the coffin of ‘stores’, who with Google Docs made documents share-able, social, collaborative entities on the internet (leading to video and e-books – think Youtube then Netflix, Google Books then Amazon – OK, so Google bought Youtube and Writely, the original Google Docs, but they made a mountain out of the vibe), instead of the arcane and not-very-human model of documents as device-possessions that you store, backup, and timeout while sending as attachments (Microsoft’s rubric of compatible but not collaborative, ubiquitous but not social, send-able and control-oriented but not share-able and cooperative) . Give me a store, and I’d rather have a search engine. Give me a shop, OK, then I’ll go sit down and take along my device that does Kindle, Netflix, and Google/Youtube/Google Docs, and I’ll have that espresso, if you make it with better beans and don’t bombard me with “kiosks”. Kiss your kiosks goodbye – they’re the pulpits of an outdated religion pandering for loose change in the back of the pews – even the Geeks are starting to follow the crowd (they always follow) – the crowd that strangely, in it’s completely disinterested self-interest, has sense enough to recognize the amenities of the Enterprise Lounge fits better than the Borg charging station – if you’re still human anyway – that is, if the crowd doesn’t spend all its time listening to geeks. That’s the point, technology is normal now. And that too is killing the store. When’s the last time you walked into a store and bought a song in mp3 format? Have you ever?
So look, I think the Nook is a good purchase, and a great device, for years to come. I’ve no qualms with purchasing another one, and owning it, and using it, and reading with it. If you’re buying it to read, then buy it and read, and don’t worry about the other stuff. It’s likely that I won’t have my Kindle3 in five years and you won’t have your Nook either. The technology you use now is either optimum, or you need to optimize it, if you can. But for me, I made primarily a philosophical choice. It’s the same reason I bought a very small car. I’m trading a little comfort, and my payments are more than the gas on the one I traded in, but I was also buying an outlook on life. I guess I’m kind of a philosophical consumer. Philosophy isn’t enough of a reason for most people, I think, to care whether it’s a Nook or a Kindle on which they’re reading their Jane Austen or the latest bestseller. In terms of every day use, you won’t notice or care. I’m just describing my reasons, what I think is happening to the industry, and why I think beauty and non-geeky reasons are great reasons to make your own choice of device.