Tuesday, April 5, 2011

NookColor Review; Blue Update

BlueLou Aronica let me know that Blue is available in e-book format for $2.99. That’s, like, thirty years off a paperback, so you can’t go wrong! It's definitely a great deal, given my feelings on e-book pricing (below, in the middle of the post.) See my interview with Lou here and review of Blue here.

Also, the winner of the Fool for Books Giveaway Hop...I need to generate one! Look for that in the next post. I sent myself a reminder to do that, so I will get on it ASAP.

Speaking of e-books, I thought it about time that I reviewed a gift I received: a NookColor.

The NookColor is one of Barnes and Noble’s e-readers. The original Nooks (with wifi or 3G) were e-ink devices that look much like a Kindle, and I actually received one of these, but I wanted the power of a NookColor as well as the ability to read things like picture books, so I used another gift to “upgrade” to a NookColor, which has an LCD screen. I believe the cost is set at about $299, but sales and promotions regularly bring them into the $250 range, and I expect the price to drop further. You might, as I did, spend a bit more for a case (handily protective, and some act as stands) or screen protector films, but as there aren’t any (or many) accessories available for the NookColor, an owner’s biggest expenses are probably going to be in buying books.

Anyway, I was a little nervous when I found out that I’d received an e-reader, period. Even though I’m interested in new technology, and even though I’d read lots of stories online and read a few e-books (via free phone apps for Kindle or via buying them from online independent bookstores), I’d clung to that idea of books, physical books, as something special, meaningful, for the ages. (I still think that.) I’ve shied away from buying files that, a few technology updates down the road, won’t be readable by newer devices--how many of you still have some great big floppy disks around that you can’t bear to part with? In addition, I hate the idea that eventually, or maybe shortly, I’ll end up buying software to jailbreak my books from their proprietary formats, so that I'm not tied to a bookstore's reader or application. My consolation was that this was a Barnes and Noble product rather than a Kindle, which is more closed-system--and as an Amazon product, well, let’s just say that I am increasingly worried about Amazon’s power plays and undercutting of other businesses.

In the Box
The NookColor comes with almost nothing in the (nifty, magnet-clasp) box. You’ve got the NC, a (proprietary) USB/mini-USB cord that does double duty as charger cable and file transfer mechanism, and (I seem to recall) a quick start guide; the manuals are onboard. In my box, I keep a copy of the extended warranty that I bought. I got the warranty because the NookColor has a backlit LCD screen, and I figured that it would be a problem to fix on my own, but beware--when I made my return and swap, I wasn’t informed that there was a price difference, and I might have turned it down, as it’s about a quarter of the retail cost of the device!

Turn It On
The NC is wifi only, meaning that some of the features only work when you’re around a wireless network. There are no 3G options available. I think you need that wifi connection to get going, so if you don’t have a router at home, you’d have to charge up and then go to a B&N to get set up. I’d be a little hesitant to do that without knowing more about B&N’s wifi network security. And, though it’s possible to use your desktop to transfer files (and the only way to transfer files like PDFs or EPUB files you’ve purchased from a vendor other than B&N), it’s a bit of a pain, and if the NC burps, your only recovery option is to re-download those files. As far as I know, there's no way to use applications from other stores unless you root your device, and you need a real computerTM and Adobe Digital Editions (or something similar) to transfer files bought outside of the Nook bookstore.

When you first turn the NC on, you go through a setup video. I need to find the instructions to make that play again, because--as there was no instruction manual to read and absorb--I started the thing up and started playing around. This was sort of a bad idea due to a particular flaw: when you have the charger plugged in, whether that’s to load files from your computer or to charge the unit (from the wall; the uptake from your computer isn’t enough to be practical), the touchscreen stutters and jumps and otherwise causes issues. It’s not impossible to use the NC while it’s plugged in, but it is very difficult to accurately enter passwords, turn pages, and so on.

And just as an FYI, some early purchasers of the NC had issues with the power cord/USB overheating and melting. This seems to have been solved, but I’d probably only charge up when I was awake and able to keep an eye on the NC the first couple of times, just to check. 

The Buttons
There aren’t a lot of buttons on the NC. There’s an on/off button that I almost never use except for airplanes and to reset the device; some web page that I visit has some sort of script that makes it very difficult to close a pop-up window in the browser. (I suspect this is Twitter's fault--it won't load as a web page for me now, too. I hope that’s resolved in forthcoming updates.) There are volume buttons, which come in handy, especially as the speaker for the NC is on its back, and if you use it in a case, it muffles the sound quite a bit. That said, this isn’t really a device you buy for its audio quality!

The other big button is the “n” button. It looks like an...n. It’s the “home” button, and touching it wakes the NC up from sleep mode and always brings you back to the home screen.

The Home Screen
The home screen is really three screens; you swipe your finger back and forth to see three panes’ worth of books and periodicals you’ve recently downloaded, purchased, or read. There’s a place at the top of the screen to go back to your current read, and an easily accessed drop-down menu to get to the last couple of things you’ve been looking at. 

The Tray
Along the bottom of the screen, in what amounts to the taskbar on a PC, are several icons you can touch to navigate or get information, even when you’re not on the home screen. There’s a little book-shaped icon at the bottom of the screen you can use to jump back to your reading, the time, an indicator of your wifi connection, and a battery icon (though not one that tells you the percentage of battery left; you’ll have to eyeball it).

Finally, there’s one touchable icon that looks like a U with an arrow in it, and that one leads you to the different NC features. This brings up a menu that lets you navigate to the B&N shop, your library, search, extras, the web browser, and settings.

The Shop
Perhaps interestingly, you can’t access the shop unless you have a wifi connection. That means you don’t load its menu, or the last cached version of the shop’s home--you’re out entirely. I’ve taken my NC to B&N to browse, but I found it clunkier and slower than just picking up books. I don’t know if there are any in-store specials--I think there are, and certainly I get coupons that I could take on the device to show a cashier--but you can read books for free for an hour in-store, I think; otherwise, there’s a free book available on Fridays, of varying quality.

Within the shop, you get a little home page with several horizontal panes, offering up specials, sales, new items, and recommendations (mine so far are not at all a match for my reading tastes). Then, you can “browse” sections, if what you like to read is in the section list, or search. 

For me, searching for specific books has been the most fruitful. The available selection is pretty limited; I’ve looked for books that I know are available digitally, and they’re not in B&N’s shop. Another issue, I think, is the algorithms. If I look in a section, I’m going to see the most popular items for at least the first couple pages of results, but these might not be good results. If I look at YA, I can easily get pages and pages of Twilight and other bestsellers, but I can’t discover new books, and if I’m not looking for the most popular few books subgenre, I might get very discouraged. The other problem is that the most popular in the shop subdivisions tend to be...awful.

I’ve worked on several self-published(ish) books--prepared for small audiences by a very small publisher using Lulu's tools (which is why I call it self-published-ish; the process is similar for me to what self-published folks are doing), nonfiction, all of the most likely indicators for success for such a book. I know that some folks are taking their previously-traditionally published books and using their e-rights to put together very nice self-published versions. But, still, I can’t recommend self-publishing for fiction writers who want to see the same success as their traditionally-published peers, and here, it’s because even if you have a truly professional cover, even if you hire (and listen to) accomplished editors, even if you have the marketing oomph to get out of the pile, you’re going to be lost in a sea of dreck, Amanda Hocking aside. ( I'm not talking about nicely-produced books; I'm talking about "I slapped this together in a weekend" books.) Folks trying to get in ahead of the rush are self-publishing some truly awful material for free or really cheap, and those free-$.99-$1.99 books are what people are taking a chance on. In any section, you’re probably going to pull up a large chunk of a) really awful, poor quality books, and/or b) books that you would not normally see in a section.

Anyway, the point I mean to make here is that I go to B&N expecting traditionally published books to take up most of the shelf space--this isn't where I'm looking for self-published items--and a lot of my searches end up in “Hmm, not what I was looking for.” The other point I mean to make is about pricing.

I think it’s important that we not assume that the pricing model for digital music transfers to the pricing model for e-books. (And while I’m here: “indies” in publishing does not mean self-published! It refers to independent, usually small publishers instead of big conglomerates, and to bookstores that aren’t chains or that have only a few locations.) $.99 for a track of music isn’t the same as $.99 for an entire novel. The overhead is different. The supply chain is different. The cost of paper is relatively small, and some of it gets replaced by the cost of digital storage/software/support employees when you transform books into bytes. If you’ve ever worked with products, you know also that a product’s cost must cover things like employee salaries and overhead keeping the lights on and, hey, let’s pay the author.

There are some neat pricing things that folks can (and do) do, like Lou Aronica’s promotion, or how a publisher might put the first book in a series on sale or out as a freebie, but don’t expect books to cost less just because they’re digital. 

And that brings me to my own needs and expectations--but first, back to the NC. When you view a book in the NC bookstore, you can see the price, often download a sample, see jacket copy and publisher information, see customer reviews (if there are any, and I don’t know how they get to be viewable or where they’re pulled from), and download the book on the spot. If you have gift cards attached to your account specifically for the NC’s use (and set up on via computer’s web browser, from what I can tell), your purchases should be applied to your gift card and then, when that runs out, to your default credit card, though there have been problems with that, and I’ve certainly had things be charged where I didn’t expect. Also, demand is outstripping systems supply, and it sometimes takes a long time for items to download, to be charged to your account after downloading, or to turn up an e-mailed confirmation receipt. I expect this to improve.

I wasn’t ready for e-books until I came to a point where I wanted more flexibility and portability for traveling, where my need to have digital rather than physical versions became a necessity (I have too many books right now and nowhere to put them, and clutter is upsetting, and I think I’m having health problems exacerbated by the difference between a dusty bookshelf and a dusty book hoard), and when there were many readily available books. I think those things are in place now. I do like to get a slightly better price for an e-book than for a hardback, and a paperback price feels about right; at the same time, I sometimes hesitate to buy a book that I might not like more than I would if it were a paperback. I probably need to make better use of free samples! The other hesitation comes from the ease of just buying and downloading and spending too much money, coupled with the first couple purchases that are like cotton candy--did I just eat air? E-books don’t feel tangible. Sometimes, I’ve gone into stores and found out that I paid almost the same price, but lost the niftyness of the design of the physical book; at the same time, I don’t really care about “extras” packaged with my book. I just want BOOK.

But when the books are great, they’re GREAT.

The Library and the Reading Experience
After downloading a book, or adding it via USB cable, you can find it in your library. As far as I can tell, you see things in reverse order of purchase. Some books show their covers; others don’t have them or the NC can’t handle them. I have heard that there’s a problem once you hit a couple thousand books in terms of things like seeing covers and being able to organize things, but I assume this will be updated eventually.

A section of the library is called Shelves, where you can create your own categories and sort books onto sections. One annoying, obvious, and (I hope) short-lived bug is the tendency for certain books to show up on shelves where you didn’t put them, though whether this is due to a problem with associating cover images to sections or a problem with allocating files, I don’t really know. There is no section for uncategorized, so it would be easy to browse your sections and not realize that you have a book in your library if you haven’t assigned it a “shelf.” Things like Google digital editions and some other files don’t keep their covers, or something goes wrong, or they never had covers, and the icons are so tiny that you might find yourself opening book after book to see what’s inside. There are similar “shelf”-like sections for periodicals and your own USB-loaded files, and a “LendMe” section for lending or finding friend-owned lendable books (with a very useless user interface, and I’ll be darned if I’m going to let it search my Google contacts for friends who might want to lend me something). I hear also that these self-created settings can’t be saved if you have to de-register and re-register your device, which is something that people are likely to have to do at some point, whether it’s to fix a bug or to loan to family. Also, beware of doing it wrong; I've heard stories of people trying to move books off their Nooks and deleting things in their account, which means that they can't access the book again--it's like throwing a book away versus archiving it in a box in the attic.

But on to reading. Right now, my eyes are pretty fatigued from too much computer time, I have to admit. I’m on a smartphone or a computer screen most of the day, and lately, I’ve been jealously guarding evenings and weekends away from having to look at things and think about and respond to things outside of stated commitment hours. At the same time, I haven’t noticed eye fatigue when using the NC unless I was already at the fatigue point, and there are some things one can do to reduce that while reading books--turn down the brightness, for example; make the font bigger; increase the space between lines; change the font; change the background color (with white on black good for some, and shades of gray another known anti-fatigue option).

Within an e-book, you can add bookmarks, jump chapters of content, look up words by highlighting them with a finger (and oh boy, I am lazy, and despite being a former spelling champ, I don’t know the meanings of a lot of words), and you can annotate files. But, WARNING: there is a limit to how much you can annotate a file, at present, before it won’t open, and you’ll have to find a way to erase your annotations using a desktop interface. Also, you can’t download, print out, or otherwise save your notes, so it’s currently a pretty useless feature. You can recommend the book to Twitter and Facebook, I think with a quote, even.

Also, the PDF interface, at present, is deplorable. You lose all these nice features and reflowingness and the like, and I don’t believe you can make notes. I haven’t tried reading any other file types on the NC, but it’s not yet worth it if I can’t track changes, if I need to; I know other folks who use theirs (NC and regular Nook) to download free stories, fanfic, and the like without too many issues, once they understand the limitations.

Also also, and I don’t know if this is a NC thing or an EPUB thing, but you have to hold the NC in portrait position while reading; you can’t turn it on its side for landscape/horizontal reading.  This isn’t a big deal for me because the NC is pretty light, at about the same heft as a regular, not-too-thick paperback, maybe one of 200-300 pages. That contrasts for me with an iPad: when I used one for about twenty minutes, I earned myself two days of weak, shaky, achy arms.

Another point about the reading experience that’s not so much about the NC is that I find e-books to not be as nicely proofread as their paper-based friends. Sometimes, it’s a scanning issue or a conversion issue; sometimes I think that these versions missed a round of edits. Words that were probably broken over the end of a line in the paper version show up in the e-version with misplaced hyphens in their middles. Less-used characters turn up as gobbledygook. Sometimes, it’s quite bothersome; other times, I can let it go as part of the game for now. The nicest book I think I’ve read in an e-version is Ninth Ward, which was not only nice to read, but nicely prepared.

I guess we read slower on e-readers than we do on paper. I read documents very quickly on computer screens--I am a master skimmer--but I haven’t noticed a big difference on the NC.

I don’t know what this actually searches; I haven’t felt a need to use it. It’s within-NC, though.

There is a small, small section of extras: a chess game, sudoku, crossword puzzles (this is the only game I’ve used, and it’s difficult to use because the touchscreen is dead around the extreme edges, which isn’t user-adjustable, and it’s hard to get your finger to touch the tiny square you want), a music player for music that you’ve loaded via USB, another portal to your picture files, and Pandora, the last of which is only usable if you’ve got a wifi connection, of course. I like Pandora, but it eats battery quickly.

That doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t; however, we’ve been promised that “sometime in the spring” we’ll have access to a B&N-curated app store, as well as a second firmware update. I only used my NC for a few days without the first firmware update, so I don’t know what’s up with that, but additional items like a calculator, calendar, e-mail application, and so on would be nice, especially as the NC is built on Android and theoretically is capable of running applications. For more on this, see rooting below.

Web Browser
Oh, the web browser. How I love it and how I hate it so very much.

Okay, so, most sites aren’t set up for touch screens. They have content all the way out to the edges, and it’s difficult to find a fingertip’s worth of blank space to use to scroll around. I find myself back buttoning a lot, and re-scrolling because I don’t remember to wait until an entire page loads, and I get taken back to the top of the page. As you scroll down, you can easily switch from portrait to landscape by tilting the device, and a floating button allows you to zoom in or out--but there’s no easy way to get back to the top of the page without scrolling allllll the way back up, and if you don’t go back to the top of the page, you can’t get back to the address bar or other navigation buttons. Hmph; I really hope this gets fixed.

In this version of the browser, there are other problems--something I visit frequently causes a menu (that pops up if I let a finger linger too long--again, not something user-adjustable) to get buggy; the only way to close it is to pick an option, and the quickest one is to view the page info. A restart fixes the problem temporarily.

Another issue I have is that while the browser handles most sites pretty well, there are a few it can’t handle well at all. Twitter is hard to use; the Blogger dashboard is nearly impossible to use, both the blog-reading, scrolly-window part and the editing/posting part, as is Google Reader, and NC time is prime time for me to try to catch up; CNN’s headlines get eaten in the rendering (and then it has no free scrolling space...). I don’t want to use mobile versions--of any site, really, but I’m tempted to in a few cases.

Finally, typing sucks. Period. If you have a reasonable password, you’ve got to have really nimble fingers and probably open up three or more keyboards within the keyboard function to type it in, and then I hope you manage to hit submit on the first try, or you’re doing it all over again.

But! Browsers get upgrades, and I expect some of these problems to disappear shortly. I really love it some evenings when I’m on COMPUTER NO mode, but I need to read some e-mails that my smartphone doesn’t handle well (truncation or poor handling of images). I’d never dare respond, but I like having a relatively large screen to browse on while I watch TV.

There’s not much to say here--it’s more or less as expected, though I often wish for a tray icon for brightness settings (or even a hardware button), and I definitely wish for user control of touchscreen sensitivity. I’d really like to set the sensitivity by application (more for e-books, less for the browser, perhaps a default for programs where I haven’t specified). 

What I Don’t Like, the Summary
  • Can’t get apps at all at present, even though it looks you should be able to do so, and the price point is high enough that more and better user control seems warranted
  • Getting books from vendors other than B&N is a hassle (which I understand from a business perspective, but I don’t like it)
  • The bookstore seems to have a limited selection
  • There are little bugs that add up to an annoying amount of bugs
  • The battery is not user-replaceable, indicating to a lot of folks that when it wears out, you’ll turn in your device for a refurbished one and probably not get your old one back (ew)

What I Do Like
  • Size/weight is easy to hold, fits in a pocket for some people
  • Brightness, font, color, and other adjustability to reduce eye strain
  • I can get books elsewhere, even if it is a hassle
  • Can root

That last one is a big one, and I may still do it even if B&N opens up an app store, though I’d really miss the NC navigation/pre-loaded programs and such. Essentially, you can wipe your NC and turn it into a 7” Android tablet, and then customize it however you want. This takes some expertise--I suspect just a bit more than I have--and the willingness to source (maybe pay for) all the applications and bits you need, right down to onscreen keyboards. This especially interests me because I could, potentially, make this my on-the-go laptop, as long as there was wifi. I have been keeping an eye on the RIM Playbook because of its ability to use a BlackBerry as an internet connection...but the days of tethering may be just about over due to provider consolidation, so, for a while, we’re at the mercy of rather than free-agent audience.


  1. Very thorough review of the NC. One thing though...When I was playing with one inside of Bestbuy it was in landscape mode not portrait. I don't know how you do it, but I know that it does it.

    I was really really wanting a NC cause it is so pretty. I currently have a Sony eReader. I'm kind of rethinking it a bit based on your review. I think I might wait until some of the kinks are out.

  2. Wow... thorough! :)

    Is the battery life really an issue with the Nook? I mean, have people worn out their batteries already? I always just assumed that by the time that happened, you'd probably want to upgrade to a new reader anyway. (I've got a Kobo, which also has a non-replaceable battery... but it still holds a charge pretty well.)

  3. @ Alexis
    I checked, and my PDFs will flip with the screen, but the EPUBs won't. I don't know if that's an EPUB thing or an NC thing, but if it's an NC thing, I'd expect it to be addressed either in the next update (supposedly happening this month) or soon thereafter.

    You know, I do enjoy using the NC, despite the issues. A lot of them seem to be things that can be fixed with a firmware update, and as long as they are committed to improving, I don't mind waiting through the evolution so much. But if you don't care about pictures/picture books/magazines/web browser, I don't know that I'd recommend switching just yet, especially if you're happy with your current e-reader. I have some friends who LOVE their Sonys!

    @ La Coccinelle
    I think people are thinking both about things that could break down the battery early, like a power surge or whatever, and down the line. If I have to return my unit and not get the same one back, I'd worry about why the (assume refurbished, previously owned by someone else) replacement needed to be repaired. I'd be somewhat worried about any private data on my NC being mishandled, even if I did a user wipe. I'd have some concerns about the cost of batteries, because I'm tied to a single vendor, and it's something I'd certainly prefer to do on my own; some companies are known for making their products in such a way that a user can't repair them, and then the users pretty much get tied into buying new ones, because it costs almost as much for repairs. And I think that some people are figuring out ways to get their e-readers signed, and wouldn't want to give them up!

    How do you like your Kobo?


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