Nook musings

So I got Amy an e-Ink Nook Classic for Christmas, it was a refurb special on ebay I found Thanksgiving morning for only $80.  I knew she wanted one, I knew I wanted one, and at that price how could I pass it up.  Read on for the story of how we went from one nook to three and my thoughts on ereaders in general and the nook e-Ink and Color in specific.

Well, sure enough we both fell in love with it as soon as she got it charged up.  So a few weeks later I managed to save up some cash and get myself one as well, another refurb to save money – but the price had gone up to $120 now.  Still with free shipping I considered it a deal and it’s gotten a lot of use.  (Before buying I actually went through and priced a lot of the books I’ve bought in the past 2 years and found that the nook would literally pay for itself within 2 years if my book buying habits stayed the same due to the lower cost of ebooks – which made the justification of buying one a lot easier.)

Of course me being me I couldn’t leave well enough along.  I had to root it.  This proved a little tricky.  The latest v1.5 software on the e-ink nook closed the hole that had been used for rooting in the past (mainly due to a change in hardware design causing the new versions of the nook to only work with Firmware 1.4.1 and newer while the old hack method relied on downgrading a nook to the original 1.0 firmware.)  The new method of rooting a nook really isn’t that hard if you have a router that lets you tweak it’s DNS resolver – but it’s still finicky and sometimes takes a few tries to work.

Once the nook is rooted you can do more with it – but it’s still fairly limited for a number of reasons:  The screens.  e-ink is slow to redraw so you’re not going to do video or anything on it.  The overall responsiveness of the nook is kind of slow as well – not a big deal when reading and all you have to do is redraw the page every now and then…but for trying to make it to much else it’s really clunky.   There were two things I added with the nook rooted though and for me they were worth the cost of entry – Trook and a Crossword game.  Crosswords are self-explanatory, but Trook warrants a bit of description.  Basically it’s an amped up RSS reader, but it also supports various on-line library formats like Stanza and OPDS.  It comes with a couple of free libraries pre-loaded but you can also setup your own if you have a bunch of ebooks you want to organize better than the nook makes possible internally.

To be honest I don’t think I’d recommend rooting the e-ink nook to most people.  It seems to reduce the battery life, I’ve had problems with the nook suddenly loosing it’s registration which means you can’t access any of your B&N books until you re-register which isn’t hard…but if you’re not near a Wifi (like on an airplane) you’re screwed until you can get connectivity again.  I fixed most of the loss of registration issues by not disabling automatic B&N updates – but rebooting the nook, which I almost never have to do, does still cause it to loose registration and Amy’s non-rooted nook doesn’t have that problem.

But the main reason I wouldn’t suggest rooting is because the nook classic is a GREAT e-reader without rooting it.  It’s one of those wonderful devices that does what it’s meant to do, does it outstandingly well and really leaves me with very few complaints.  At least with the 1.5 software – the older firmware page draws were annoyingly slow.  They’re still not LCD fast but they’re completely tolerable and a small price to pay for a device that can go the better part of a week with regular use and no charging.  I don’t get the 10 days battery live B&N claims…but that’s probably because I do more than 1 hour of reading a day like the expect.  I get about 2 hours of reading a night and seem to have to recharge every 3-5 days depending on how much I’ve been able to read.  With an e-ink screen simply being on uses almost no power at all, it’s the page draws that use power so using a smaller font and fewer page flips you can get better battery life.

Which is another interesting side of the e-ink nook.  The screen is just a little small for my tastes.  I tend to like paperbacks over hardcovers since I find them more comfortable to hold and the page/font size is more pleasing to me in general.  But the nook’s standard settings end up with less on a page than even standard trade paperbacks.  So you’ll have to read 2-3 “pages” before the page counter goes up a page.  I also found that I MUCH prefer epub format books over PDF format books.  PDF forces too much formatting while epub reflows better.  PDF also forces a font on you and on a screen like the nooks that can make some books hard to read.  The flexibility of epub is a BIG bonus with an e-reader.

The biggest complaint I have really about ebooks isn’t so much about the readers or the books as it is about the options for DRM (Digital Rights Management) – the software that keeps you from stealing books. One of the things I really like best about the nook over the Kindle is the nooks support for more formats.  With a Kindle you’re pretty much stuck with buying books from Amazon and reading PDF’s which as I already said are non-optimal for ereaders.  With the Nook you have a lot of options.  I’ve downloaded ebooks from our library in epub and pdf format, I’ve bought books from google, and of course I’ve bought books from B&N right through the nook and through their website.

The B&N option is of course the simplest.  It just works.  And if you have more than one device linked to your account your content just happily shows up on all of them.  So when I got my new nook color as soon as I registered it all my B&N books from my nook classic were right there.  If you use the nook app for android or iphone it works the same way.  Nice!

Adding books you got from non B&N sources, known as “sideloading”, isn’t quite as simple and the nooks handling of them internally isn’t the best.  You have to use USB to add them – no way to do it over Wifi currently.  And for books with DRM like the ones from the library and most from google books and other sources you’ll need to use ADE (Adobe Digital Editions).  ADE can be goofy.  I was able to get it running on our Linux notebook through WINE but it took a lot of work and still requires tweaking some settings in WINE each time I want to use it.   On my windows desktop it just installed and ran no issues….but it still sometimes freaks out when getting permission to open some books.  Really ADE is the big weak point in the entire system right now despite being the least obnoxious option for DRM (which while I loathe I’m willing to accept is necessary if you’re going to get publishers to offer popular books…at least in todays society.)

So my bottom line on the e-ink nook is that it’s a great ereader that has met and exceeded all of my expectations.  I love reading on the e-ink screen, it’s not much heavier than the paperbacks I normally ready, the books are cheaper, I can carry my entire library around with it, and I can go days without having to charge it.

There are a few things B&N could improve in the software.  The store is a little annoying to navigate and doesn’t use your past purchases to help find other books you may be interested in (Their website can, and the nook color’s store does.)  Generally I find it easier to use the website than to buy books right from the nook.  The support for side-loaded books is also minimal.  They’re segregated from your B&N books and there’s no way to organize them and only minimal ways to sort.  So if you have a large library it can be hard to find the book you’re looking for.  Note: There is a custom library that solves these complaints but you have to root the nook to install it.   But really software complaints are a minor issue since afterall they can be fixed with new software – and B&N has so far done a good job (not a great job) of releasing new firmware with fixes and improved features.   And while I doubt they’ll ever combine your B&N library with your sideloaded library since they want to encourage you to use the B&N stuff – I do hope they’ll add better sorting and searching of both libraries in the future.

Enter the nook color

So being a big fan of my nook yesterday I found myself with some birthday money and debating what to do with it.  I tossed an idea out to Amy expecting her to talk me out of it “What if I put my birthday money and the B&N gift card Katie got me towards a color nook?”  My ever predictable wife proved to be completely unpredictable and instead of being the fiscally responsible one I know her to be instead more or less talked me INTO buying a nook color instead of talking me out of it as I expected.

I wasn’t totally convinced.  I don’t like the idea of a backlit LCD for reading, and I’m not sure the hardware of the nook color is that well suited to use as a tablet computer instead of just an e-reader.  But I figured I’d go up to our local B&N so I could play with one and make a more informed choice.  “Fortunately” the display model’s battery was dead so the only way for me to try one was to buy one.  I figured I can return it if I don’t like it so why not and pulled the trigger.

My initial impression before even opening the box was that B&N is getting good at this.  The box itself is impressive.  Nice heft to it and it’s a cool clamshell design with a magnet embedded in it so it snaps open and closed.  Really other than Apple I can’t think of any hardware I’ve ever bought that came packaged this impressively.  Taking the nook color out of the box I found where that heft came from.  It’s considerably heavier than the e-ink nook.  (According to on-line sources the weight of an e-ink nook is similar to a 400 page trade paperback while the weight of a color nook is similar to a 400 page trade hardcover…but to me the color feels a little heavier than that.)

I haven’t had the nook color for even 24 hours yet.  So my impressions are still very much initial impressions.  But right off I found my preconceived notion to be correct.  As a reading device I don’t like it.  It’s a great bright colorful screen which is very impressive.  But not at all what I want for reading.  Yes you can turn the brightness down…but then it looses contrast and isn’t any easier on my eyes.  There also aren’t hardware buttons for page flips which means you have to touch the screen or do finger swipes which I find distracting – with the e-ink my fingers just fall right on the page buttons and flipping pages is no effort at all, heck it’s easier than reading a “real” book.  The color does respond to page flip swipes MUCH better than the e-ink does but I still miss the hardware buttons.

The other issue with the screen is it gets dirty.  You touch it a lot since it’s a touchscreen.  I may have to invest in a screen protector to keep it nice especially if I let Katie start to use it for kids books at some point.  And that’s the one reading task it really exceeds at.  The NC came pre-loaded with a sample kids book featuring “read to me” where it reads the book out loud.  I gave it a try and Katie was instantly drawn to it.  I still prefer to do the reading myself but it’s a neat option and sure caught Katie’s attention even at only 9 months old.  But with a kid using it I imagine the issue of keeping the screen clean will only get worse.  Thankfully the bright backlit LCD does help minimize the annoyance of the dirty screen since it makes the smudges less noticeable…but at some angles they can suddenly jump out at you.

Unless your primary reading is magazines and/or kids books where the bright color screen is not just impressive but necessary I really can’t recommend the nook color as a reader.  I tried reading some of the novel I’m currently reading on my e-ink nook on it and after just a dozen pages or so was ready to go back to the e-ink.  Reading on the NC is like reading on a computer, reading on the e-ink nook is like reading a book.  For before bed reading the e-ink is a huge win since the backlight of the LCD on the NC is just as bad as watching TV or using a computer and that light shining at my face can make it hard to fall asleep afterwards.

But I’m not about to return my new nook color despite finding it sorely lacking as an e-reader.  Because as you’re probably already guessed if you know me I had to root it the same night I got it.

Rooted Nook Color

Rooted the NC is a whole different story.  It’s an amazingly capable tablet computer at a price that no other options come close to.  Yes it’s lacking a few things I’d really like to see in a tablet (Microphone, GPS, Bluetooth – though the hardware is there it’s just not supported in software and may not have a good antenna since it’s not supported) but what it does have is remarkably good.  The 800mhz processor is slower than that in many new high end phones…but can be overclocked and really seems to do just fine.  It feels faster than any other android phones I’ve used already and the capacitive screen is very responsive and supports multi-touch – pinch zooms work great and instantly.

The root itself is almost as simple as can be.  You just have to burn a special image onto a microSD card, turn the nook off, put the card in, then plug the USB cord into the NC and your computer.  Then wait about 5 minutes until the NC reboots itself.  The Auto nooter does all the work for you and installs all the standard android tools you’d expect as well as configuring any options that need adjusting.

Getting the android market working does take a bit of fiddling (you have to use the youtube and gmail apps to get your account setup) but isn’t that hard if you can follow instructions.  With the market installed it was a piece of cake to add an android launcher to replace the stock B&N interface – and boom the NC works just like a standard android tablet.

Google sky does seem a bit flaky, not sure if it doesn’t like the accelerometer in the NC or if it’s due to the lack of GPS.  But otherwise every app I’ve tried has just worked.

I’m currently using ADW as the launcher and it does have a little issue due to the resolution of the nook.  As a result you end up with a lot of wasted space on the screen and it’s showing as “full” even though it looks like there’s plenty of room for twice as many app shortcuts.  This is correctable and is due to the way scaling works on android and the settings B&N used on the nook to try and make it a better e-reader.  I haven’t had time to mess with changing it yet and really the empty space is no worse than the same thing on an iPad where it always kind of bugged me.   I also haven’t tried other launchers yet just because I haven’t had time.

I only have 2 other complaints about it and so far they’re both very minor.  First the “home” button is a bit too stiff for my taste and a bit loud when it clicks.  But that’s a VERY minor complaint and if you toss it in a backpack or purse I’m sure those same things probably count as features to keep it from waking itself up.  The other complaint is that the back cover just kind of feels cheap.  The overall feel of the NC is VERY VERY good – yes it’s a bit heavier than I’d like but it feels solid and well made.  Except for that back cover.  And really the big problem with the back cover is that it feels loose in one spot.  If that spot didn’t happen to be right where my left fingertips rest when I hold it I doubt I’d even notice it or mind.  So again it’s a VERY minor complaint.

After less than 24 hours my initial impression on the nook color is pretty much what I expected – very sub-optimal as an ereader and if that was what I bought it for I’d probably be taking it back.  But outstanding as a budget tablet that costs less than $300.

1 comment

  1. loved your thoughts on the nook. i may get one someday because of this

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