Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A nook of the north!

Last weekend, in Chicago, I bought a Barnes & Noble nook ebook reader. Since they're not for sale in Canada, I probably have one of the very few units in all of Canada now -- a nook of the north! (Yes, it was worth the US$259, just to get to make that pun.)

My initial thoughts:

The nook seems to have no trouble loading my content in eReader format from Fictionwise, and sampling and buying content wirelessly from Barnes & Noble seems to work fine.

The display is beautiful, but right-justification is forced to on, and the justification algorithms are terrible: even words with embedded hyphens (such as "middle-class") don't break at the hyphen (instead, the whole thing wraps to the next line), and em-dashes are treated as parts of words--frustratingly meaning that even if, in this sentence, "words," or "words--," would fit on one line, all of "words--frustratingly" wraps to the next line. That leaves huge gaps between words in the previous line. It is distracting and mars the aesthetics of an otherwise nice display.

(And the nook doesn't do hyphenation of its own -- which really is required if one is doing justification; look at any print book or magazine that has fully justified text, and see what a difference the hyphenation makes to the word spacing in the lines.)

Also missing is the ability to do a folder hierarchy (separate "Fiction, "Nonfiction," "Biography," or whatever you wish folders) in either main memory or on an expansion card, and the expansion card is very awkward to put in and remove; you won't be using it as a standard way to add new content.

The page-forward and page-backward buttons are in the reverse of where they should be, given the weight of the device. If you hold it with your thumbs over the page-forward buttons (on either side), it's top heavy, and has a tendency to fall backward; if you hold it with your thumbs over the page-backward buttons (which are higher up), it's balanced nicely in the hands, but you have to reposition a hand every time you want to change a page.

But except for those things, it works quite nicely.

It does not have a backlight for the main screen. Having the color LCD screen below the main screen (which is used for navigation and menus) light up in the dark (which it did once spontaneously on me last night) does starkly remind one of this lack.

Page turns (with the new 1.2 firmware, which came preinstalled on my unit) are fast; and the nook wakes up from hibernation very quickly, leaving you right at the page you were last reading.

It's substantially heavier than the Foxit eSlick -- the other e-ink device on the market that supports Fictionwise's eReader format -- and the eSlick does support folders. Also, the eSlick supports landscape mode, and the nook does not.

But the nook wins hands-down because you're back to reading your book in 2 seconds after picking up the device if it's hibernating (and only have to hit the power button to get there), versus 23 or so with the eSlick (and on the eSlick you have to re-select your book from a menu after powering up).

The nook does have a built-in dictionary (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate -- a very good one), but the interface for selecting a word on the e-ink screen is very awkward and time-consuming; the eSlick has no dictionary support.

The nook is a nice device, and I'm glad I bought it, but it needs at least one more firmware upgrade. The justification issue has to be fixed (first, it should be user-selectable whether it's on or off; second, it should obey the rules of typography when on). A better interface for selecting words for dictionary lookup (and highlighting) needs to be devised. And I'd like to see the ability to swap the functions of the page-forward and page-backward buttons.

But it is a great example of what an e-ink device can be.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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