Monday, June 27, 2011

A Look At The Nook Simple Touch Reader, with Kindle Perspective

I bought a Nook Simple Touch Reader, and it has nothing to do with the fact that people sometimes mispronounce my name as 'Tom Simple'.

I like my Kindle a lot, and would recommend the experience to almost anyone who is in the market for a dedicated eReader. But there are a few things it just will not do, or do well, or that I have special requirements for:
  • reading ebooks borrowed from a library
  • as an ePub 'reference system' that I can use for learning and developing ebooks in that format
  • to feed my curiosity about reading and reading technologies
  • for holding my library of computer books, with quicker navigation and better formatting than Kindle provides
  • desire for a touch interface

OOBE ('out of box experience')
The Nook arrived promptly on my doorstep (I followed it there couple of days later). No eco-friendly packaging here: glossy full color cardboard box with foam lining. After a glance at the quick start guide, I turned it on and began the registration process (what, it isn't already registered?). Wow, a 140 page EULA to read (and another 178 pages for the Open Source Licenses).  There's no way to register the device without wi-fi. Dig out my 63 character cryptic router password, I'm lucky and type it correctly the first time. Finally, sync Library. My B&N library appears. Not so bad, but Kindle comes pre-registered to your account, and you need only configure the wi-fi (and not even that, if it includes 3G).

First, I'll walk through the various screens one navigates when not in reading mode:

I won't be coming here very much. Half of the screen is taken up with ads for books, there's a button to open the most recently read book, and a few items from my library. This screen is pretty much redundant. Fortunately, it can be avoided entirely.

This is very similar to Kindle's Home screen, but it has more options and views. Books can be listed as thumbnails or as items in a list, sorted by Author, Title, or Most Recent. The view can be filtered by All, Books, LendMe, Shelves, My Files, Archived, and Everything Else. Some of these categories are not self-explanatory. For example, 'Everything Else' consists of B&N content that can't be viewed on the Nook Touch (incompatible formats, multimedia, etc.). 'Books' is a list of the books actually on the device, but for some reason this does not include ebooks borrowed from the library (those can only be found in All or in a Shelf that you've added them to). You cannot delete any content found in the library. B&N content (including Samples) can Archived, but to delete you have to go on the web to your B&N account. Side-loaded content has to be removed using a computer. Shelves can be created to hold books, which can be on more than one shelf. I found the Nook library more efficient to navigate than Kindle.

Content is either downloaded directly from B&N over wi-fi, or side-loaded from a computer via the included USB cable. B&N advertises '2GB' of storage, but only 1GB is actually available for content, and 750MB of that is reserved for B&N content downloaded via wi-fi, leaving 250MB for side-loaded content. The latter can be expanded through use of microSD cards to as much as 32GB.

Library search is restricted to Title and Author. To search content, you have to open the book (assuming you know which one has the content that you want to search).

I don't like this label, 'Shop'. It connotes a time and money wasting activity, certain to result in the acquisition of Crap I Don't Need Or Want. I never 'shop for' books, and have never been to a 'book shop'. It seems sexist too, somehow. 'Store' (the term Kindle uses) is more more neutral, and thematic (as in 'bookstore'). Shop has a set of scrolling ads that rarely seem to change, none of which interest me at all. But as with 'Home,' you never have to visit this screen if you don't want to.

The Shop 'Browse' UI is much like the Library UI and is easy to use, organized into categories and sub-categories. Book details include a short summary, file size, User and critical reviews, and Related Titles, much as on Kindle.

Another of the device navigation options is Search. By which is meant 'Search the Library'. This is redundant, as you can launch such searches directly from Library.

This is where you access device info (battery status, available storage, SD card info, About Your Nook, Erase & Deregister, and those ever-fascinating Legal notices.

Form Factor
Nook is smaller and lighter than Kindle (mostly because it doesn't have keyboard). The rubberized skin (not customizable) makes it workable without a case, while Kindle is a little slippery without one (but the lighted cover is awesome). I can slip Nook into the cargo pocket of my REI trail pants, or tucked under the elastic band that holds my Kindle case shut (aww, they look so cute together!).

The screen is identical, and specs are the same in resolution (600x800), greyscale depth (16) and contrast ratio (whatever it is).

Each claims to have better battery life than the other, I'll just say that it doesn't matter, they are both good.
Nook has a faster CPU, and indeed seems more responsive or at least more efficient.

Both have page advance buttons for forward/back on both left and right sides. Both have page buttons that take a little getting used to.

Both use the same microB USB connnector for charging and connecting to a computer.

Kindle has the keyboard and various other buttons. Nook has only the 4 page turn buttons, a 'menu' button, and a 'power' button (which is only needed to lock the screen when you want to tuck it away for the night).

Wi-fi setup is slightly easier on Nook. It's easier to find the settings & enter passwords when required. I did have a little trouble connecting via proxy to a particular, unsecured network, but only because it was using an invalid SSL certificate. I had to invoke the hidden browser by typing an URL in Library search, then elect to Continue when it offered that option, and was able finally able to touch the 'Accept' button on the authentication page to connect. Normally, such proxied connections would be more seamless on Nook.

Where the two devices diverge is in how much they are able to leverage the wifi connection. On Nook, wi-fi is good only for 'Shop' access, and the occasional tweet, facebook, email posting. The web browser is not currently usable (except for very specific tasks, like hooking up Nook to Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail, and to authorize proxied wifi connections).

Kindle does everything Nook does with wi-fi, but also has a serviceable web browser, and you can browse web sites and download compatible content (dropbox, calibre content server, etc.) directly without tethering to a computer and side-loading it. Wikipedia lookups and Google searches are integrated with the reader. The browser has an 'Article mode' reading mode which extracts text from a web page and makes it much more readable (wikipedia for example).

But you can also 'push' content to the Kindle, converting it to Kindle format if necessary, using email, services like Instapaper, calibre, and browser plugins like 'Send To Kindle'. It's very powerful and useful to be able to do this.

Reader viewing options
Nook has 8 text sizes, six built in typefaces, margin and line spacing adjustment, and ability to toggle something called 'Publisher Defaults'. It must be said that the typefaces vary in quality, and the smallest text sizes are 'too small': there isn't enough resolution to render them with clear, dark strokes. But even the larger text sizes don't 'pop' like Kindle's: to use a photography analogy, they seem to be 'underexposed' (I'm still trying to determine if this applies to all Nooks, or just mine). Arguably, the best Nook typefaces are the same ones Kindle has: Caecilia, and Helvetica Neue.

Kindle's typefaces all look sharp, clear, and even, at any size. But Kindle's smallest text size is larger than the two smallest B&N text sizes, so they left themselves a little more 'margin of safety'. Kindle's fonts look slightly better to me at the sizes I like to use, but Nook's are just fine for the most part, as long as you avoid the small text sizes. Hopefully an update can address the apparent issues with lack of contrast/saturation.

As it is, I would regard the smallest 2 sizes as 'special purpose' options, not to be used for productive reading because of their lower quality, but useful on occasion. For example, code listings (in computer programming books) often are made more difficult to read due to word wrap. Having the option to make the text smaller to avoid word wrap is a useful thing to be able to turn on once in awhile, even if the letterforms are not as 'black'. I would not mind having one or two smaller text sizes available on Kindle even if they are not as high quality. Again, not for regular use, just something occasionally useful.

The Publisher Defaults option allows the Nook to render ebooks with CSS formatting defined by the publisher. This disables the ability to adjust margins and line spacing, and the result is not always pretty for reasons that will require further investigation. In particular, zero line spacing often results. On the other hand, turning the option off breaks CSS features which depend on coordinated styling. So, for example, drop-caps don't work correctly (Nook's styling doesn't properly justify the text around the drop-cap).

Nook has hyphenation, a step in the direction of better typography. However it's not a clear win since there's no way to turn it off when it's distracting, and it hyphenates indiscriminately (including headers), and occasionally makes outright errors (truncates a header, hyphenates in odd places). There are ways to turn it off selectively in the ePub source, but hyphenation is new on the scene so most ebooks are at the mercy of the reading system. I would like an option to turn hyphenation off as it can be distracting, particularly at larger text sizes.

Nook cannot zoom embedded images at all. Kindle has the ability to zoom medium sized images to full screen. On K3 that maxes out at 600x800; still not enough zoom in many cases, especially where images are 'optimized for DX' (Kindle mobile apps let you zoom in to full resolution and pan around—I wish Kindle itself had that ability as well). So both fall short of perfection (as do we all).

Kindle has landscape viewing, Nook inexplicably (given the obvious symmetries of the device) does not. But for the most part, this is a nice-to-have for ebook reading, not a necessity.

Text search
Nook does not use indexes for fast lookup. Every time you ask it to look for a word, it takes a little time to think about it and build search results. It keeps a list of recent search terms for reuse, which Kindle does not. It offers navigation from one 'found' location to the next (similar to a text editor), which Kindle lacks.

Kindle is faster at generating search results, because of its content index, and you can type in more than one word to search for and it will generate search results show the words where they are found in close proximity to each other. And as mentioned, text search can extend to all content on the device when invoked from the Home screens.

Dictionary lookup
Nook is a lot quicker to pull up a definition. Just touch and hold, (the selected word appears at top of screen, and updates as you move your finger around on the page, making it easy to select the desired word even with small text) then select 'Lookup'. Kindle's 5way can be quick, but is more awkward, even with a lot of practice.

However, Nook has only one dictionary, and doesn't allow you to substitute others for lookup (e.g. translation dictionaries). B&N has a number of dictionaries for sale, but they can't serve as the lookup dictionary. The saving grace for Nook is that there aren't that many alternative 'lookup' dictionaries for sale to Kindle users, so the limitation is rather moot.

Also there's no way to look up an arbitrary word or even a selected phrase using Nook's built-in dictionary, you have to find it in the text, or purchase a dictionary that you an open and search for a word in (ick). It's a nice feature on Kindle (together with always-at-hand wikipedia and google search). I was not able to search for a phrase, it just looks up the first word in the selection. One bug in the current Nook implementation is that you can't look up a word that is hyphenated.

So despite the generally more convenient implementation of Nook, Kindle is more flexible in its use of dictionaries (which may not matter to the masses).

Image viewing
Nook advertises that they support viewing of PNG, JPEG, and GIF image formats. In Real Life, that applies only to the custom screensaver images that you can load in. You can cycle through the screensaver images by pressing the Power button repeatedly, but it is a poor substitute for an actual picture viewer that could view content in the Library on demand. Kindle has an undocumented picture viewer that is reasonably functional (but buggy).

Custom screensavers
Nook lets you create folders for different sets of screensaver images that you can switch between. Kindle does not support custom screensavers, though hacks are available.

PDF support.
Nook has bookmarks, 1 level of zoom (trims margins a little bit), TOC navigation, and PDF reflow. Also ability to view Adobe DRM PDFs (still a common format in library collections), but no landscape viewing.

Kindle has landscape viewing, password support, text search, zoom/pan, contrast adjustment, annotation/bookmarks, landscape viewing mode, but no reflow option or TOC navigation.

Ideally you'd have a superset of these features, and while both devices offer useful if narrow PDF functionality, neither comes close to Sony Reader's support.

With some caveats, this is where Nook is clearly superior to Kindle. It has multiple, complementary ways of navigating a book, and nearly all of them are quicker and less awkward than what Kindle offers. These include:
  • 'Contents' navigation. You can bring up the Content navigator with two taps, and then view and navigate a list of the Table of Contents, a list of Bookmarks, or a list of Notes and Highlights. Touching the TOC item, Bookmark, or Note takes you right to that location. On Kindle 
  • Go To Page navigation. Use a 'scrubber' to navigate to a new location in the book, or enter a page number to navigate to a specific page. A Back button on the Go To navigator takes you back to a previous location. The panel also displays the chapter title, and the number of (logical) pages left to read in the chapter.
  • Hyperlink/footnote navigation. Touch a footnote reference, or a hyperlink, and it jumps to the referenced location immediately. A Back button appears at the top of the screen to take you back to the reference.
  • Fast Page(TM). holding down one of the page turn buttons turns pages at a rate of 4 or so per second, allowing ability to establish a new reading position quickly, with some visual feedback.
  • Navigating search results. If you type a word to search for, you can jump to any of the locations where the word is found at a touch. Then you can navigate to previous and next 'found' positions or jump back to the search results using the find panel that remains on screen.
It is damn quick and versatile. But it is not perfect. In particular, you can lose your position pretty easily, without recourse to more than one 'take me back' (Kindle's Back seems to have unlimited memory of previous reading locations that are arrived at by 'jumps'). The hyperlink Back button disappears if you need to turn the page to read a continuation of a footnote or description, or if you bring up the reading options menu. Contents navigation offers no Back facility (but it does provide context so you can see where you're headed). Bookmarks reference the start of a 'logical' page, which typically will extend over several screens/page turns, and as such are not precise markers for a location in Kindle terms (use a Note or highlight instead). The current TOC list implementation includes only top-level TOC items. So you can't navigate directly to 'part 3, chapter 7'—you need to navigate to 'Part 3' and then forward from there, or to 'Part 4' and backward from there. This is probably the worst bug I have seen so far in terms of impairing functionality, and is also present in Nook Color apparently, but B&N hasn't seen fit to fix it yet.

Kindle lacks much of this versatility and agility, and as a consequence, you're much less likely to lose your place. But what both systems need is a 'History' navigator that logs each new reading position that is established, and lets you navigate back and forward, like a browser.

But I'll take Nook's navigational agility and flaws over Kindle's relative awkwardness, any day of the week. It's particularly useful for 'reference' books that are not read linearly, and for footnote-laden material.

Nook 'has this feature', but as far as I can tell, there's no way to export notes, apart from tweeting or emailing them as you go. They don't sync, if you remove the book they reference from your Nook, they are gone. If that works (and it might for some), great. But I can't really see the point (I may be missing something).

As far as I can tell Sync does not work on Nook; I've tried every reasonable thing and can't get it to sync reading position with Nook for iOS. Others claim some success.

Nook and Kindle are pretty evenly matched in terms of individual page turn times, but Kindle lacks 'fast page' or 'burst' mode and overall efficiency. Kindle is a little quicker to build search results (due to the content indexes it builds). But Getting back to the Home screen can take several seconds. On nook it is almost instantaneous.

Library borrowing
Nook wins by default, since Kindle does not yet offer this feature. But come December 31, Kindle will have much better integration, and will have more than neutralized this advantage, and its support will be best in its class.

In practice, format is not currently an issue for most people. Text is text, and that is what most books consist of, and what every ereader is designed to optimize the display of. But for more discriminating reader, ePub potentially offers more typographically pleasing options, better table support, scalable graphics, floating images, a richer set of design options, and other possibilities, particularly as ePub 3 is phased in. It should be noted that it is easier to create badly formatted books in ePub than mobi, and support for ePub features varies from device to device. But that can hardly be blamed on the format.

I think we can expect some ePub 3 features to make their way to Nook, as part of an update to the Adobe client libraries, even as early as later this year. Amazon, meanwhile, has yet to announce any plans for improving the existing Kindle formats to achieve greater parity with ePub, or to adopt ePub itself in the future. It's a continuing, lingering weakness of the Kindle platform, that Amazon will need to address sooner or later.

In Store Features
Nook offers free wi-fi access at B&N stores, 'special in-store offers' (or at least a free cookie?), and ability to read any title for up to one hour per day. Some people might find this of value, so I feel compelled to mention this, though it has no value to me personally as I don't even 'infrequent' B&N stores—there isn't one that's conveniently located where I am, and I find the store experience not to my liking. As a 100% online retailer, Amazon can offer no direct equivalent, but I see Kindle with Special Offers as a sort of virtual equivalent.

Nook does not do Audio, much less Text To Speech or 'talking menus'. This makes it largely unsuitable for visually impaired readers, not to mention those who like to listen to audiobooks.

Customer Service
It's hard to compete with Amazon on this one. Amazon has a very good reputation that continues to be upheld. B&N's support is probably at least on par with the industry average, but seems bad by comparison.

The Touch Screen
I have nothing but good things to say about the touch screen. It is responsive, intuitive and accurate, and when combined with the physical page turn buttons, I prefer it to Kindle's 'real' keyboard and navigation buttons.

I have yet to clean fingerprints off of the screen, and to the extent that they are there, they are completely invisible except under lighting conditions that would render actual reading impossible. If you think you would not like a touch screen because of fingerprints, do yourself a favor and try one of these out in a B&N store. It's a non issue.

However, without voice-assisted navigation, Nook is not as 'accessible' for visually challenged people. Kindle has voice-assisted and its keyboard can be operated with tactile feedback only.

Nook has made a lot of progress since Nook 1, and has some compelling features that make it worth considering (at least in the USA, so far the only market it is officially available in). I'm finding it to be an excellent complement to Kindle, which remains my main ereader. However, the ecosystem Nook is part of is not quite so compelling. Until B&N demonstrates improvement in support, selection, and service, including 'cloud' features, it is difficult to recommend Nook over Kindle now. Once library borrowing on Kindle is possible, and Amazon releases a Touch Kindle, Nook will lose every advantage that it now enjoys except perhaps for ePub support.

Update 10Oct2011:
Library borrowing for Kindle has arrived, and my Nook Simple Touch has gone back on the shelf, its role diminished to one of 'reference device'. It is just not nearly as convenient to move library content onto and off of the NST as it is with Kindle, and of course there is no note backup of library content for any side-loaded content on the NST.

Having read a number of books on the NST, however, some new annoyances became evident. For best 'styling', often Publisher Defaults is the way to go, because the Nook styling breaks correct styling of drop-caps (and perhaps other types of styling as well). But some books don't look at all good with that option applied (line spacing becomes zero, making the text hard to read). So I found myself constantly switching the options when switching between books. And I found at least one book that looked terrible either way (but was better on another Adobe RMSDK-powered reading system I tried). This sort of trouble just does not happen on Kindle, because of its more limited support of CSS.

I had previously counted myself among those clamoring for ePub on Kindle, but this experience (together with experience with other ePub reading systems) has me to re-calibrate my ePub enthusiasm somewhat. I would still like to see the better typography that ePub offers—in theory—but have no desire to be forced to tweak settings (much less hack CSS) all of the time to achieve best results.  Some of this can be laid at the feet of publishers or book designers who don't take the time to identify and correct layout issues, but in all fairness, they can't be expected to test with every reading system their book might end up on, for there are dozens of them.

In many respects this reprises the problems we've seen with web browsers. There are many ePub rendering systems, and it is nearly impossible to have a single ePub file render in each of them with consistent results, particularly when more advanced CSS is used. It defeats the purpose of the ePub standard if publishers are required to design different ePubs for different reading systems, to workaround all the limitations or bugs. Perhaps with ePub 3 there will be a fresh start, and renewed resolve to achieve the high quality and consistency that has only relatively recently arrived in browser rendering. And perhaps there will be more convergence on underlying technology like WebKit. And maybe then Amazon will join the ePub party.