Nook WiFi: one device to read 'em all

Now that the Nook WiFi has fallen below $150, I went out and bought my first e-reader. $150 is my psychological price point for new gadgets -- I waited until prices fell to nearly that to buy an iPod Touch too. It also helps that I'll be going to India later this summer and and not having to lug around a dozen books, or to buy them, is a big plus. Having used the Nook for a few days now, this is what I think: (1) e-readers are very useful, especially if you read a lot (2) The Nook's user interface must have been designed by engineers who don't actually use the Nook in their day-to-day life: the user interface really sucks.

The poor quality of the Nook's user interface really shows up in contrast to the iPod -- there is not a single operation that I would change on the iPod. Everything is so intuitively correct. So, given my appreciation for the iPod, why did I go for a Nook and not the iPad? Three reasons: (1) The iPad is $350 above my price point, and at that price, I want a device that'll almost replace my laptop. It won't because I can not tunnel back to my work computer. (2) Also, the iPad doesn't do Flash, and I need Flash to play on Bridge Base Online. (3) A backlit LCD screen gets very tiring to read. E-Ink is really good for reading for long periods.

Before using the Nook, I downloaded three software programs: Adobe Digital Editions (ADE), Calibre and iTunes Export.

Why ADE? You need ADE in order to read digitally signed content (such as in-copyright books borrowed from the public library) and to read badly formatted PDF files. ADE is what lets you "side-load" these onto the Nook. I borrowed Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance, Peter Carey's "Parrot and Olivier" and a programming book on Ajax. Another thing I side-loaded was a AMS journal paper (in PDF) that I had to review. Although the Nook can supposedly read PDF documents, it doesn't quite format them page-by-page. ADE being an Adobe tool knows how to deal with PDF properly -- it "reflows" the PDF, replacing the fonts used so it's better to get PDF files onto the Nook via ADE.

Why Calibre? Calibre converts public domain books in pretty much any format into ePub. This would be useful for classics, although I don't read those much. It also has a news-downloader with "recipes" for a variety of websites and this is a killer app. I scheduled downloads of the New York Times and of Scientific American. Calibre follows links from the public website and creates a "book".

Why iTunes Export? Apple doesn't provide a convenient way to copy iTunes playlists and the associated mp3 files to a player other than iPod. iTunes Export is an open source Java application that does. I used it to copy a segment of my music library on to a microSD card and put the microSD card onto the Nook.

So, at this point, I had one non-fiction book, one fiction book, one technical book and one PDF document with a bunch of equations. I also had a magazine and a daily paper. And a music library. Note that none of this involved going to Barnes and Noble and actually paying for a book ... this open nature of the Nook is why I went with it rather than with Amazon's Kindle. One device to read 'em all. And to listen to music while doing so.

So, what do I think?

Reading books, magazines and newspapers is very, very nice. Black ink on a non-reflective, unlighted white screen is very, very comforting. You will not want to read a newspaper website on the web again. I would gladly pay for a newspaper delivered automatically to my e-reader (we pay $95/yr for the Norman Transcript that I hardly ever read anymore; I would gladly pay that for the New York Times on the Nook if they'd make some arrangement with local papers to supply a "Local News" section that is tailored to where the reader lives).

Reading blogs and websites sucks, simply because the eInk display flashes too much and navigation (following links, hitting the back button, etc.) all suck. Even though the Nook has WiFi, don't imagine that you're going to be browsing the web on this thing. Browsing on the Nook sucks.

Reading technical documents (I was trying to review a journal paper originally in PDF) does not work. The screen is too small, and the letters are too faint to read. Changing the font makes the document unreadable because the old document's line breaks are still honored. So, forget about reading PDF documents on the Nook.

The music player is adequate, but it displays all the songs in a flat structure, so you can't really select a single playlist. You get a jumbled mixture. Before you go on a trip, decide what kind of songs you want to listen to, and export just that one playlist. Not very nice, and an illustration of what I meant when I said the engineers who built this device don't actually use it.

The only way to get content onto the Nook (other than paying for it at Barnes and Noble) is to side-load it with a wire. This means, that for reading newspapers, you need to connect the Nook to the computer running Calibre every morning. Calibre actually functions as a server and can ship the document to you over the web, but the Nook WiFi can not be used to load e-books that way. So, even though you paid $150 for this device, it's crippled.

The user interface design sucks. What's the most common action you need to do when reading a book? That's right, go to the next page. The way to go to the next page on the nook is to either (a) click a button on the side of the Nook or (b) flick the LCD screen or the bar above the LCD screen. The button is too hard to press (especially considering that you're going to have to press it 20-30 times a minute) and is placed at the wrong spot (in the lower-third of the device: the button at the side-center takes you back one page). Flicking the LCD screen is very iffy. You have to do it very lightly -- a hard touch brings up the navigation panel. I'm now to the point where I get it 4 times out of 5. But this is so wrong -- the simplest gesture, which would be a single tap -- is what ought to have been used to move to the next page.

I wonder if soft-rooting the Nook will let me use the WiFi to download books and to remap buttons ... something to explore ... But meanwhile, it's a great way to read books, magazines and newspapers.


  1. I agree with the button mapping. I want the left button to display to the previous page, and the right to flip to the next one. Anything else for those that read from left to right is counterintuitive. That's my biggest pet peeve of the nook.

    Secondly is navigation of your books. B&N claim you can hold thousands of ebooks on the nook, but they make no provisions to navigate even a hundred easily. You should be able to tag your books, then filter by tag. Or a hierarchical system of folders where you can group books together.

  2. Actually, B&N doesn't expect that you will store all the books on the Nook. They expect you to "archive" the books and then download the book again via WiFi from the B&N website whenever you want.

    I was able to fix the button mapping problem by soft-rooting the nook: