Nook Touch: the good, the bad, and the crazy (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Tue, 26 Jul 2011

Nook Touch: the good, the bad, and the crazy

I've been dying to play with an ebook reader, and this week my mother got a new Nook Touch. That's not its official name, but since Barnes & Noble doesn't seem interested in giving it a model name to tell it apart from the two older Nooks, that's the name the internet seems to have chosen for this new small model with the 6-inch touchscreen.

Here's a preliminary review, based on a few days of playing with it.

Nice size, nice screen

The Nook Touch feels very light. It's a little heavier than a paperback, but it's easy to hold, and the rubbery back feels nice in the hand. The touchscreen works well enough for book reading, though you wouldn't want to try to play video games or draw pictures on it.

It's very easy to turn pages, either with the hardware buttons on the bezel or a tap on the edges of the screen. Page changes are much faster than with older e-ink readers like the original Nook or the Sony Pocket: the screen still flashes black with each page change, but only very briefly.

I'd wondered how a non-backlit e-ink display would work in dim light, since that's one thing you can't test in stores. It turns out it's not as good as a paper book -- neither as sharp nor as contrasty -- but still readable with my normal dim bedside lighting.

Changing fonts, line spacing and margins is easy once you figure out that you need to tap on the screen to get to that menu. Navigating within a book is also via that tap-on-page menu -- it gives you a progress meter you can drag, or a "jump to page" option. Which is a good thing. This is sadly very important (see below).

Searching within books isn't terribly convenient. I wanted to figure out from the user manual how to set a bookmark, and I couldn't find anything that looked helpful in the user manual's table of contents, so I tried searching for "bookmark". The search results don't show much context, so I had to try them one at a time, and there's no easy way to go back and try the next match. (Turns out you set a bookmark by tapping in the upper right corner, and then the bookmark applies to the next several pages.)

Plan to spend some quality time reading the full-length manual (provided as a pre-installed ebook, naturally) learning tricks like this: a lot of the UI isn't very discoverable (though it's simple enough once you learn it) so you'll miss a lot if you rely on what you can figure out by tapping around.

Off to a tricky start with minor Wi-fi issues

When we first powered up, we hit a couple of problems right off with wireless setup.

First, it had no way to set a static IP address. The only way we could get the Nook connected was to enable DHCP on the router.

But even then it wouldn't connect. We'd re-type the network password and hit "Connect"; the "Connect" button would flash a couple of times, leaving an "incorrect password" message at the top of the screen. This error message never went away, even after going back to the screen with the list of networks available, so it wasn't clear whether it was retrying the connection or not.

Finally through trial and error we found the answer: to clear a failed connection, you have to "Forget" the network and start over. So go back to the list of wireless networks, choose the right network, then tap the "Forget" button. Then go back and choose the network again and proceed to the connect screen.

Connecting to a computer

The Nook Touch doesn't come with much in the way of starter books -- just two public-domain titles, plus its own documentation -- so the first task was to download a couple of Project Gutenberg books that Mom had been reading on her Treo.

The Nook uses a standard micro-USB cable for both charging and its USB connection. Curiously, it shows up as a USB device with no partitions -- you have to mount sdb, not sdb1. Gnome handled that and mounted it without drama. Copying epub books to the Nook was just a matter of cp or drag-and-drop -- easy.

Getting library books may be moot

One big goal for this device is reading ebooks from the public library, and I had hoped to report on that. But it turns out to be a more difficult proposition than expected. There are all the expected DRM issues to surmount, but before that, there's the task of finding an ebook that's actually available to check out, getting the library's online credentials straightened out, and so forth. So that will be a separate article.

The fatal flaw: forgetting its position

Alas, the review is not all good news. While poking around, reading a page here and there, I started to notice that I kept getting reset back to the beginning of a book I'd already started. What was up?

For a while I thought it was my imagination. Surely remembering one's place in a book you're reading is fundamental to a device designed from the ground up as a book reader. But no -- it clearly was forgetting where I'd left off. How could that be?

It turns out this is a known and well reported problem with what B&N calls "side-loaded" content -- i.e. anything you load from your computer rather than download from their bookstore. With side-loaded books, apparently connecting the Nook to a PC causes it to lose its place in the book you're reading! (also discussed here and here).

There's no word from Barnes & Noble about this on any of the threads, but people writing about it speculate that when the Nook makes a USB connection, it internally unmounts its filesystems -- and forgets anything it knew about what was on those filesystems.

I know B&N wants to drive you to their site to buy all your books ... and I know they want to keep you online checking in with their store at every opportunity. But some people really do read free books, magazines and other "side loaded" content. An ebook reader that can't handle that properly isn't much of a reader.

It's too bad. The Nook Touch is a nice little piece of hardware. I love the size and light weight, the daylight-readable touchscreen, the fast page flips. Mom is being tolerant about her new toy, since she likes it otherwise -- "I'll just try to remember what page I was on." But come on, Barnes & Noble: a dedicated ebook reader that can't remember where you left off reading your book? Seriously?

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[ 19:46 Jul 26, 2011    More tech | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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