Review: Nook Simple Touch Reader, by John Schember
June 12, 2011 | 4:33 pm
When Barns and Nobel (B&N) announced the All New Nook, the Simple Touch Reader I was interested. When I heard it was going to be an e-ink device I became very interested. I’ve desired owning a Nook for a long time but I’ve never bought one until now. The 1st generation Nook with the dual screens looked like a good product but I passed on it. The battery life and e-ink screen compared to the Kindle 3 (I was in the market for a new reader a while back, when I broke my Bookeen Cybook Gen 3) just weren’t enough to get me to buy it instead of the Kindle. The Color wasn’t to my taste because I use my ebook reader to read books. So e-ink is a must for any ebook reader I get.
I decided to get the Nook simply because I’m not happy with the Kindle and because the Nook at first glance is the device I’ve been dreaming about. The Nook is a 6″ e-ink screen with a bezel. That’s it. There is no wasted space. It’s as small and compact as you can get while still being able to hold it comfortably.
Social: I have few friends who read.
Making purchases: It’s easier to find things on the web site.
Battery life: I don’t want to wait two months before publishing this review.
Updates: I’m not aware of any yet.
Signing up for a B&N account using the Nook: I already have an existing account and I don’t need another.
The Nook is a solid device. It doesn’t feel cheap and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to break if you drop it. It is plastic but that’s good in an, it makes it lighter not weaker way. The back of the device has an anti-slip paint that feels good on your fingers. It’s a very attractive, but squat, device. It doesn’t weigh much and you won’t get tired holding it.
The back of the device is slightly curved on each side. This makes the device a bit thicker but it makes it easier to hold. This plus the anti-slip back are nice touches but I always keep mine in a case. I learned my lesson about naked ebook readers when I dropped by beloved Cybook Gen 3.
For the most part it’s just a screen and a bezel. The bezel is large enough that you can hold it comfortably. There are six buttons total on the device: power on the back, home on the front (think iPhone or iPad), and page forward and page back on the sides. All other buttons appear on the touch screen on an as need basis.
When I first saw the device I was very happy about the physical page forward and back buttons. Often I read on my lunch break and touching the screen after touching my lunch isn’t something I would care to do. These buttons would be very helpful and handy if they weren’t such a pain to use. You have to use a lot of pressure to press these buttons. They also make an audible click when you use them. Noisy buttons that are to resistant to being pressed aren’t useful.
The page forward and back buttons are even less useful if you have the Nook in a cover. Pretty much all official Nook covers from B&N clip the Nook into the cover only on the left side of the device. So it’s only being held on one side. If you try to use the page buttons on the left side, the nook pivots to the left and the right side of the device lifts into the air. The buttons are already hard to press and this makes it harder and more awkward. The right side doesn’t have this problem because the cover is holding the device down on the left side.
The issues with the left and right buttons aside. I found it easier to use the touch screen to turn the page. If I’m holding it on the right side touching the screen with my tumb next to the bezel the page turns. If I’m holding it with my left hand (I alternate hands while reading) then swiping with my thumb works fine. Also, the extra effort of swiping versus taping is still less effort than trying to use the page buttons.
As expected of a first party accessory the cover fits the device perfectly. With this reader (it’s number 5) I decided to go all out and get a nice cover for it. I got the Industriell Easel Cover in Carbon. The covers B&N sells are a bit pricy but it was well worth it. The construction of the cover is on par with the Nook itself. I feel very confident about being able to carry my Nook with me and I’m not afraid of putting it into my messenger bag with my lunch and folders.
I really like the cover I chose because of the easel feature. It opens from the top and has a magnetic strap which allows the cover to be setup like, you guessed it, an easel. This means I no longer have to prop my device up against a box of plastic spoons in the break room at work. There isn’t very much adjustment that you can make to the angle the cover holds the device at but I found it to be adequate for me.
I do have one grip about the cover other than the price. B&N made a big deal about accessing the power button though the cover. The power button is on the back of the Nook and it’s used for locking the screen as well as turning the device on and off. On the back of the cover there is a Nook logo (an n) and you press this to activate the power button. I guess I missed something but when I watched the videos it seemed like there was something special with the cover and the power button, some special technology they developed. Literally all you are doing is pressing down on on the cover hard enough to activate the power button. There isn’t anything special about it.
This is my first touch screen ebook reader and I have no complaints about it. Touch works. It’s simple and for the most part intuitive (especially if you have another touch screen device like a smart phone). I didn’t know how I would like my ebook reader having a touch screen but after using it I’m satisfied. It really is the right way to go. For one things it reduces the number of physical buttons allowing the device to be smaller.
One major problem with early touch based e-ink screens were the need for a touch sensitive layer to be put above the e-ink layer. On early devices this reduced clarity. The Nook thankfully doesn’t have this issue. The Nook is using a technology that uses infrared to determine where you are touching instead of a physical sensing layer.
I did run into one oddity while using the device in regard to touching. When you scroll though places such as your library you swipe vertically to scroll up and down. When you are in a book you swipe horizontally to turn the page. It just seems odd to me that B&N decided to use different swipe directions instead of keeping it consistent throughout the interface.
The only real issue (more of an annoyance) I found with the touch screen is related to using the dictionary to look up words. You press and hold on the word, then click lookup in the menu that appears at the bottom of the screen. Personally I think it takes too long for this menu to appear. I also think that since the majority of time people will be using the dictionary it should show the definition and the menu at the same time instead of making the user click again to get the definition.
My biggest worry with using a touch screen is it getting dirty. So far I haven’t had the device long enough to really judge this. However, as long as I don’t have to clean the screen daily I think the advantages of the touch screen outweigh having to clean it every so often.
I haven’t had any issues with the touch screen being slow. I’m not a super fast typer but I didn’t have to wait when typing in my WPA wifi key. There is a slight delay between an action and the screen displaying it but that’s more due to the small amount of time necessary for the e-ink screen to update. I’m not seeing any delay in the touch screen itself as an input system.
First Run Wizard
B&N completely messed up the first run welcome wizard. The first run wizard has four steps. All of them are required and there is no way to skip, avoid, or do any of them at a later time.
The first step is agreeing to a 178 page legal document. You are required to agree to the Nook terms of service / use (ToS) before you can even use the device. There is absolutely no reason for B&N to require you to agree to anything before you can use the device. It’s my reader, I bought it, I’m not renting it from B&N, they should not be dictating anything to me about the use of my property! That said reading over the ToS, parts deal with the B&N store, the Nook Friends social service, et cetera. Why you must agree to this will make sense when I explain step four of the wizard.
The second step is setting your timezone. Nothing wrong here and this step actually makes sense.
The third step is connecting to the internet using wifi. At first glance this seems harmless. It is a wifi enabled device. However, again, this step is required. You must allow the Nook to connect to the internet before you can start using it. I don’t plan nor do I want my ebook reader connecting to the internet. Especially after the 1984 fiasco that Amazon went though. To me this step would make sense if it were optional. I don’t want to have my reader download books from my B&N library. I use calibre for managing my ebooks and calibre does a much better job than the Nook or B&N’s web site can.
Connecting to the internet via wifi is not optional. There is no way to skip it. It is required. In cases where you don’t have wifi at home B&N’s customer support and knowledge base recommends one of two solutions. First they say, “you can access Wi-Fi hotspots at many public places”. Later they tell you that you that you can use wifi at a B&N store. Personally I would have said that you can connect at a B&N store first before telling people to look for public wifi in their neighborhood.
Other than being required, wifi is done very well. It does a good job of showing the signal strength. It also connects quickly. Finally, I’m happy to say a WPA2 pass phrase can be used and a WPA2 64 character hex key can also be used. I’m very happy that the hex key can be used because so many devices today only allow pass phrases. My home setup uses a 64 character hex key so this is important to me. I’m not going to change my wifi key and reconfigure every device in my home because one device isn’t going to support a valid key type.
The last and final step is signing into or registering a B&N account. Again I do not want my Nook connecting to the internet. I do not want to download books using the Nook. I do not want to register it with my B&N account. I do not use the connectivity features nor do I want them. The Nook does not make this an option. You must sign into a B&N account which registers the device with B&N before you can use the device.
I realize that for most users none of the above are an issue (aside from possibly the 178 page ToS). I am an outlier who wants a dumb e-ink reading device. None of the above are deal breakers but they are not pleasant steps and I don’t like that to use the device I purchased I have to do any of them (aside from the timezone).
Overall and objections aside the first run wizard is a smooth simple experience. Nothing should jump out as hard and they’ve kept the steps to a minimum. The only thing I could see B&N changing to make it easier would be to tie the timezone into your B&N account so you don’t have to enter it on the device. Otherwise the wizard is easy and straight forward. I just wish they had made the connectivity steps optional.
B&N Integration Required
The Nook is not intended to be used as a stand alone ebook reader. It is fully integrated with Barnes and Nobel’s web site. The closest to avoiding this is, initially setting up the device by register it with your B&N account then turn off wifi and never turn it back on. However, you can’t get rid of the B&N integration within the device interface.
The Nook allows you to deregister the device from your B&N account. This process also removes all content (purchased and sideloaded) and resets the device to the factory defaults. You will have to go though the first run wizard after doing this. Meaning you will have to connect to the internet and register the device with your B&N account before you can use it again.
The home screen looks good. It has a very clean newspaper feel to it. It is divided into three panels, “now reading”, “new reads”, and “what to read next”. Now reading shows you the cover of the current book you’re reading and the the page number you are on. New reads is a list of the latest books you’ve added to your B&N library. Anything you buy on the device or add though the web site will be added to the top of this list. What to read next is an advertising list of what B&N recommends you should buy. A full half of the home screen is devoted to advertisements for books B&N recommends that you buy. This list is just the four most popular books B&N is selling at the moment and probably won’t reflect your reading interests. This feature might actually be useful if B&N took into account the books in your library and made recommendations instead of only showing popular titles.
The library is very well done. It’s easy to see what books you have and find the book your looking for. There are a number of filtering options such as only showing books or only showing newspapers. The list of books can be sorted a number of ways too: author, title or most recent. You can show the books as thumbnails (covers) or as a list. You can even search the library. This is very useful and for example can be used to only show books by a particular author.
Side loaded content is treated as a first class citizen in your library. If you choose to show only books for example it will show all sideloaded books along with B&N library books. There is no distinction given in this view. I personally like this a lot. If you only want to view sideloaded content you still can and it even exposes the folder structure so you can have folders if you don’t like using shelves.
One major limitation of the library is it shows all books in your B&N library. It only automatically downloads a few of the most recent books but it will show all books. It marks ones that need to be downloaded so you know if it’s on the device already. If you have hundreds or thousands of books you will be relying on search. If you’re the type of person who only wants a few books on the device you can fake it by only looking at sideloaded content.
Another issue I ran into is covers not showing for sideloaded content. The Nook is very picky about how a cover is marked in an EPUB file. If it’s not to the Nook’s liking it won’t show the cover in the library view. Only about one fourth of the books I put on the device showed a cover and one of them showed the wrong image for the cover. A little bit of testing and I found that putting a .jpg file on the reader with the same name as the EPUB did not work. The .jpg file was not used as the cover. It appears there is no way to use an external file as the cover.
The most annoying thing in regard to your library is B&N does not treat your library as if it really is yourlibrary. When you register your new Nook with your B&N account, sample books are added to your library. I contacted B&N and was told there is no way to prevent this. My objection to this practice was met with being told I can archive the samples if I don’t want to see them in my library that way I can unarchive them and read them later. Basically B&N is treating your library as another platform to push advertisements in front of you. B&N support was not clear if this is a one time thing when your register your Nook or if adding samples to your library is going to be a common occurrence.
My hope is the samples added to your library are just a blanket one time occurrence when you register your Nook. Many devices come with sample content preloaded on the device. I can see this as the next step with this practice and B&N using your library to make samples available across the board, no matter what device you’re on. I can see B&N having made the decision to add the sample content to ensure a new owner will have something in their library when they first use their Nook. That said, I don’t like this practice and if it is a one time deal to make sure the users doesn’t have an empty library then check to see if the user’s library is empty before adding the sample content!
B&N, I don’t like advertisements. I don’t like you putting samples for books I’m not interested in into my library. I really don’t like either of these because I paid you money to buy an ebook reader from you. I can see why your official statement in regard to a low priced “Nook with Special Offers” is, you will never have one because your full price product already comes with something similar. That’s how this situation feels to me.
Reading a Book
Reading on the Nook feels good. Holding it with or without a cover feels good. It has a Perl screen which gives it high contrast. Text does not look muddy and swiping or tapping to turn pages works well.
The Nook sports multiple text sizes and multiple fonts. One of my favorite features is the margin option. The Nook lets you choose how much of a left and right margin you want the book to have. This is very useful for a poorly laid out book which has obscenely large margins. With two taps you can remove the margin completely. You can also control the line spacing. There is also an option to use the publisher defaults for text size, font and what not. All of this is easily accessible by tapping the center of the screen (when reading a book) and selecting the text option.
If you use multiple B&N readers (Nook, Android, computer…) then you will be happy to know that the Nook supports syncing your last read position. I don’t have any bookmarks or annotations so I don’t know if it syncs those as well.
One major issue I ran into is in regard to the table of contents (TOC) support. The Nook only supports the first level of TOC items. EPUB supports multi-level TOCs. Meaning the book can have an entry, such as book 1 or book 2. And each entry can have subentries, such as chapter 1, chapter 2. B&N even sells books that utilize multi-level TOCs. However, the Nook only supports fist level entires. So any subentries are not shown in the TOC when reading on the Nook.
Another issue I found was with opening books. It is slow. If you only read one book at a time and leave that book open you won’t have any problems. If you read multiple books at once there is a very noticeable delay when opening a new book. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that the screen is completely blank while a book is being opened. The first time I saw this I thought the battery had died or possibly my new Nook was broken.
Page changes are smooth and quick. B&N has opted to do a full refresh only every six page turns. Their reasoning is, it’s less jarring to see. I am inclined to agree with them but this does create a small problem. Since it’s not doing a full refresh, after about the fourth page turn the text starts to look jagged. Basically the more page turns without a refresh the more the text degrades. I’ve only used the default font and I have the font size set to one below the default. This issue might be reduced with other fonts and font sizes but I did not test this because I’m happy with the font and size I’m using. If B&N were to change the refresh (or make it user configurable) to four pages the degradation would be minimal to the point it isn’t very noticeable. As it stands now by the fifth page turn the text looks terrible. It’s still readable but it looks like garbage compared to how it looks after a refresh.
eReader PDB Files
A long time ago I was a devoted Fictionwise customer. Then B&N bought Fictionsiwse and suddenly the books I was interested in weren’t being sold in the Fictionwise store. They were however now being sold in the all new B&N ebook store. Thus I started buying from B&N. Since then B&N has been my primary ebook store. The transition wasn’t a very big deal for me as B&N has been, for many years, my primary physical book store.
Being a Fictionwise customer I have many an ebook in the eReader PDB format. I’ve even received about one fourth of my ebooks from B&N (as recently as two weeks ago) as eReader PDB files. Unfortunately, the Nook does not support this format. The 1st generation Nook is the one and only ebook reader B&N has produced to date that supports this format.
The retirement of the eReader PDB format is inevitable and while I would like to see B&N and the Nook continuing to support it, I understand why they have chosen not to. It’s in all honestly a terrible format and I should know as I developed and maintain support for it in calibre.
Dropping support for the eReader PDB format isn’t something I can be angry about. Now, how B&N handled this is something I am still angry about. I’ve written about it previously but the short version is, I received a PDB file for a book I purchased and I was concerned about being able to read it on the Nook I had just pre-ordered. I was under the impression that I received a PDB file because B&N does not offer the book in EPUB (supported by the Nook). I contacted B&N and was basically told that I cannot read the book I just bought from them on the Nook.
I had to go to a third party web site (MobileRead) to find out that I only received the PDB file because I use a Mac. Mac users were / are the only customers getting PDB files. If I changed my web browsers user agent so B&N thinks I’m using Windows or if I downloaded using a Nook (I didn’t have one at the time) I would have gotten an EPUB file.
Some people on MobileRead were concerned as well because they had been told by B&N (phone, email, store representatives) that the new Nook would support the eReader PDB format. The new Nook does notsupport eReader PDB files. B&N support made a simple question into an ordeal and actually made the situation much worse than it should have been.
By default the Nook will let you buy anything using the device. I don’t like devices having unlimited access to make charges to my credit card. There is a setting you can enable to require your B&N account password to complete a purchase. However, B&N really doesn’t want you using this feature because you are required to enter your password to enable it. I can understand requiring your password to disable this feature but for enabling it? I guess B&N wants to make it easy for children (for example) to be able to spend their parents money by making it inconvenient to enable account protections on the Nook.
When you connect your Nook to a computer it will only show you sideloaded content. It does not show any of the purchased content that has been downloaded to the reader. As a calibre user (and developer) I find this very annoying. One feature I use is calibre’s detection if a book is already on the device. Not showing B&N purchased content breaks this feature.
Kindle 3 Comparison
Size and Weight
The Nook is about an inch shorter than the Kindle. This doesn’t sound like much but it makes a huge difference in the overall feel of the device. The Nook is noticeably thicker than the Kindle. The weight between the two devices is so close that I can’t tell a difference.
To me the Kindle has always felt cheap. This is mainly due to the buttons. They feel stuck on and flimsy. Especially the page forward and back buttons. The Nook by comparison feels like a much more solid device. The added thickness with the Nook also make it feel a bit more durable. The Kindle being so thin and long makes me afraid that it will easily break due to twisting or folding.
Both use a beautiful Perl e-ink screen. Text looks gorgeous on either device. It almost looks like the Nook doesn’t have as dark blacks as the Kindle but I think this might be an illusion due to the Nook having a much darker bezel than the Kindle. Overall both have great screens.
The physical dimensions of the device really do make a difference in how you will percieve it. The screen on the Nook and Kindle are the same exact same size. Holding the Kindle then putting it down and picking up the Nook the Kindle’s screen looks much taller than the Nook’s. Conversely, the Nook’s screen looks wider than the Kindle’s. Again, both devices have screens with the same dimensions so this really is an optical illusion.
Ease of use
I have always felt that the Kindle is just too cluttered due to the physical keyboard. The five way controller also always seemed odd to me. I showed a friend my Kindle once and he was throughly confused on how to use it. The Nook being so similar to a smart phone I can easily see people having less issues using the Nook than the Kindle.
My feelings are the Nook’s interface is easier to use and get used to than the Kindle. Really it’s the touch screen. The Nook is just easier for me to use. I’m not saying that the Nook’s interface is perfect because there is a lot B&n can do to make the Nook better. Navigating with a touch screen makes more sense to me than using a plethora of buttons. I think a large part of this is the touch screen enables the Nook to only show what’s necessary at any given time where as the Kindle always has buttons (5 way controller) showing even when you don’t need them.
One major frustration with the Kindle is it getting hung up and rebooting instead of waking up. I have had several occasions where I’ve toggled the power button to have the Kindle wake from sleep but instead it got confused and rebooted. I realize that holding the power button will turn off the device but that’s not what I was doing. After toggling the button the Kindle didn’t do anything then after waiting a few minutes the device rebooted. Often when this happens the green light under the power switch has stayed on the entire time until it reboots. When this happens it forgets what page I’m on. I’ve not had anything like this happen with the Nook.
Should You Buy the Nook?
If you’re reasonable tech savvy or if you already have a relationship with B&N then I would recommend the Nook. If you’re not very tech savvy you might be better off with something else like the Kindle. B&N support is terrible and will often make you more confused than help you. I am not confident in B&N support and there is quite a bit of miscommunication throughout the company. Now this is just my experience, others might have had more luck.
If you’ve been a long time Amazon customer and have built a reasonable library of Kindle books then I would not recommend the Nook. The Kindle cannot read books from B&N and conversely the Nook cannot read books from Amazon. If you already have established yourself with Amazon moving to the Nook is going to require you to either re-buy or dump your current library.
If you buy your books from retailers other than Amazon, places like Sony or Kobo, then the Nook is a good device for you. Ebooks purchased from Sony and Kobo can be read on the Nook. However, The reverse is not true. B&N is taking the Amazon route and trying to create a walled garden to prevent you from leaving their platform. B&N makes it easy to step but hard to leave.
If you’re new to ebooks in general the Nook is a good choice. I do feel it’s better than the Kindle but not by so much that I would discount the Kindle. My recommendation would be to go to a B&N store then go to some place like Best Buy that sells the Kindle and hold each one yourself. I think the choice will really come down to the touch screen.
There are a number of other ebook reading devices out there such as the Sony and Kobo. I don’t have any experience with newer Sony devices and I have no experience with the Kobo. From looking at them I don’t see any advantage they can offer over the Nook. The fact that B&N has retail locations where you can go and ask questions makes me more conformable with recommending the Nook over other devices.
I really like this device and it is now my primary and only used ebook reader. For all of B&N’s faults they’ve made an amazing device. I’ll put up with the Nook’s annoyances because so far it’s the closest I’ve found to my dream device. My Kindle 3 has now been retired to my bookcase. What can I say I need something to put on my bookcase now that I only buy ebooks.
Editor’s Note: John’s review can also be found on his blog.