NOOK 3G and NOOK Wi-Fi Updated Review
Firmware Version 1.5
A lot has changed on the NOOK™ since the original review. New features have been added and a Wi-Fi-only version has been released. Some bugs have been addressed and some have been added. NOOK is almost certainly the #2 ereader brand after Kindle, with B&N claiming between one and two million NOOKs having been sold so far.
The official name has changed to NOOK in all-capitals, while the official logo is still all lower-case. Officially, the name is simply NOOK, not "the" NOOK. B&N has stuck the NOOK name on almost everything associated with their ebooks. B&N ebooks are now called NOOKbooks, and enewspapers and emagazines are sold at the NOOK newsstand. In addition to the original (3G-capable) NOOK device, B&N now offers a NOOK Wi-Fi device, a NOOKcolor device, the NOOKstudy software program, and NOOK for PC, NOOK for iPad, NOOK for iPhone, and NOOK for Android apps.
The E-Ink NOOK models virtually demand comparison with Kindle, and for refinement and overall ease of use, Kindle remains the clear winner. NOOK is an attractive alternative for American readers who are uncomfortable with the long-term commitment to Amazon that Kindle involves, are concerned about Amazon's collecting of intimate details about the reader's usage of Kindle, or have an existing collection of non-Amazon ebooks.
Ammunition Group's design gives NOOK a sleek look with a touchscreen color LCD instead of Kindle’s keyboard, and the “coverflow” full-color display of NOOKbook covers is a very attractive feature for some people. While many people prefer Kindle-3’s dark bezel to the NOOK’s white bezel, third-party skins are available to change the look of the bezel on either device.
At about twelve ounces, NOOK is one of the heaviest ereaders on the market. It’s noticeably heavier than Kindle, especially when compared with the Kindle-3 which, at less than nine ounces, is about the same weight as a paperback novel. NOOK still is considerably lighter than hardcover novels, which typically weigh more than a pound.
NOOK can be fully test-driven in Barnes & Noble stores whereas the Kindles found in stores (Target, Staples, etc.) are locked into a demo mode. Most B&N stores can provide hands-on support for NOOK users; there’s no similar assistance for Kindle owners. The hands-on support can be especially valuable for new NOOK owners who may have some difficulty learning to use the touchscreen, especially if they haven't used an iPhone or similar device with a capacitive touchscreen and scrolling interface.
For the actual reading of ebooks, both NOOK and Kindle are excellent and the differences are mostly minor. Kindle-3 offers the new Pearl screen with its darker blacks, but NOOK's older Vizplex screen compares very well, especially with the slightly bolder fonts introduced in the 1.5 update. With NOOK's 1.5 update, page turns are now quite rapid on both NOOK and Kindle.
An occasional EPUB ebook will specify a particular font face and/or size, and NOOK won't let the reader override those specifications.
The NOOK's battery will need to be recharged long before the Kindle-3's will. Under normal use it will still last for a number of days before recharging, though.
Navigation within ebooks
NOOK has page-forward and page-backward buttons located on both the left and right edges of the bezel. Readers who hold NOOK with a bottom corner cupped into their palms find the page-forward buttons well-placed under their thumbs. Readers who hold NOOK by its side are often frustrated to find that their thumbs are on the page-backward button, and it's almost impossible to click a page-forward button with that hold.
Many NOOK owners prefer to turn pages by swiping a finger across the darkened touchscreen rather than by clicking a button. The 1.5 update seems to have made the finger-swipe a lot easier to master than it was in prior versions.
NOOK has a Go To Page function that brings up a scroll bar. The page number and chapter name are displayed as the scroll point is moved, but it's not possible to type in a specific page number.
NOOK has a Go To Chapter function that displays the top level of the ebook's chapter index. Since the 1.5 update, NOOK no longer shows multi-level chapter indexes and doesn't show additional information about the chapter.
NOOK has a simple text search feature that displays the next instance of the word or phrase starting at the top of the current page. The search is not case-sensitive. As each instance is found, that page is displayed and the word is highlighted. From there it's possible to search for the next or previous instance. NOOK doesn't show a list of found instances to choose from.
Bookmarks can be set on any page, and are labeled by page number only. It currently isn't possible to annotate a bookmark to say what it's for. NOOK doesn't save bookmarks to the B&N account, so they can't be shared with other reading devices and they'll be lost if the ebook is removed from NOOK. The small icon that shows that a page is bookmarked is located in the top right corner of the ebook text area, and for some ebooks that have minimal top and right margins the bookmark icon can overlap a character or two.
DRMed ebook formats supported
NOOK’s main claim to fame is the combination of wireless access to a major ebook seller and the widest compatibility with DRMed ebook formats of any dedicated ereader. NOOK not only handles B&N’s EPUB NOOKbooks, it handles eReader PDB, Adobe-secured EPUB, and Adobe-secured PDF.
Most public libraries now have ebooks available for check-out, and most of those ebooks are in Adobe-secured EPUB format or in Adobe-secured PDF format. NOOK can read both of those formats, while Kindle can’t read either of them. For many NOOK owners, the ability to read free library ebooks was a deciding factor in choosing NOOK over Kindle.
With all of those supported formats, it’s possible to buy ebooks for NOOK from almost any ebook vendor except Amazon and Apple. Where the Kindle owner who wants to buy a DRMed ebook has no choice except to get it from Amazon, the NOOK owner can buy from a wide variety of sources in addition to B&N. This feature isn’t quite as compelling as it was a year ago. In that interval, B&N has filled out its ebook catalog quite a bit, and the Agency Model has made price-shopping pointless on most major titles, so there's not as much reason to buy from a seller other than B&N as there was. However, anyone who already has a collection of ebooks from other ebook sellers and is looking for a dedicated ereader will likely find NOOK at the top of the list, especially if those ebooks are in eReader PDB format (NOOKcolor doesn’t read eReader PDB ebooks).
One reason to consider buying ebooks in Adobe-secured EPUB format from a vendor other than B&N is to avoid being locked in. Each DRMed ebook that a Kindle owner buys adds to the Amazon lock-in, because those ebooks can be read only on a Kindle or on a Kindle app. Each DRMed ebook bought from B&N pretty much does the same, because only a few ereaders other than NOOK can read B&N’s DRMed EPUB format — notably the Pandigital Novel and the jetBook Lite. However, each DRMed ebook bought in Adobe-secured EPUB format can be read on a wide variety of ereaders and other devices.
Alas, using Adobe-secured EPUB or Adobe-secured PDF necessarily means wrestling with Adobe Digital Editions (ADE). Many users find ADE to be unintuitive and frustrating. Adobe provides little support for ADE, and although B&N’s Customer Service operation tries to be helpful, ADE isn't a B&N product. Fortunately, the problems are usually just a learning curve — once ADE and NOOK are set up and running, and the user has figured out how to work ADE, things generally go smoothly from then on.
When connected to a B&N store's Wi-Fi hotspot, NOOK provides some unique features.
Read In Store allows reading NOOKbooks for free while connected to B&N's Wi-Fi network. Some NOOKbooks allow Read In Store and some don't, and there's no way to tell except by going to the store and trying. Each NOOKbook can be read for up to one hour per day per account. After the hour is up, a different NOOKbook can be selected. If desired, another hour of reading of the NOOKbook will be available the next day, and B&N remembers where the previous reading session left off.
More In Store is a rotating collection of author interviews, short stories, essays, recipes, and such. Each item is available for four weeks. Every week, two or three items are replaced by new entries. The schedule for More In Store is published by B&N in their press releases, and the current list can be found at http://bn.com/moreinstore.
B&N occasionally provides store coupons in the Shop section that are exclusive to NOOK owners. These coupons are typically for a discount on certain products. Many NOOK owners particularly look forward to the coupons offering free treats in B&N stores that have a B&N Café; those coupons have been turning up once every few months.
Privacy and security
The privacy-minded reader will appreciate that NOOK normally doesn't send any information back to B&N. With the 1.5 update, NOOK can now be configured to send the current page number being read when an ebook is exited to allow reading to be continued on a different device but that's optional and is disabled by default. In contrast, Kindle regularly reports back to Amazon what's being read, when it's being read, and, at least for Kindles with 3G, where it's being read (apparently based on the location of the cell towers).
Both NOOK and Kindle offer optional password protection to keep your reader from being used by someone else (such as a thief or a child). NOOK also offers optional password protection for buying B&N NOOKbooks.
B&N's DRM (Digital Rights Management) system
Barnes & Noble uses a different DRM system than the other ebook sellers. Where the other major DRM systems Amazon, Adobe, and Apple lock ebooks to a few specific computers and devices, B&N's DRM is a password-type system. You can read a NOOKbook on any computer or device that understands B&N's DRM as long as you have the password. Furthermore, NOOK and the NOOK apps store the passwords that they've used, so you have to enter each one only once. This makes it fairly easy to share NOOKbooks simply by copying them.
The password used to encrypt a downloaded NOOKbook is created by scrambling the B&N account owner's name along with the credit card number of the default credit card registered to the account. The thinking would seem to be that nobody's going to publish their name and credit card number on the 'Net.
B&N provides non-DRMed ebooks from those publishers that don't demand DRM Samhain, Carina, O'Reilly, Microsoft, ereads.com, Ellora's Cave, and Smashwords, for example. The publisher's name is the only hint on B&N's Web site as to whether a given title is DRMed or not.
Adobe said in 2009 that Adobe Digital Editions would be updated to handle B&N's DRM sometime in 2010, but that didn't happen.
A credit card is required
One disadvantage of B&N's DRM approach is that you must leave a default credit card registered to your B&N account if you want to buy NOOKbooks from B&N. A few people balk at leaving their credit card information stored online; a few others don't have a credit card. But registering a default credit card isn't optional there's no way to download a NOOKbook without it. Debit cards and prepaid credit cards can be used provided they have an associated billing address and don't require a PIN.
B&N will occasionally test the credit card number to see if it's still valid by doing a pre-authorization against the card, typically for $1. This is only a pre-authorization, and the amount is never charged to the card. However, it does show up in online credit card transaction reports. Some people get unnecessarily upset about it when they don't understand that there's never going to be a charge made.
Ebook sharing and syncing
Up to six devices and reader apps can be registered to a single B&N account. Unlike Kindle, the selection of downloaded ebooks will be identical among all registered readers. If one reader buys an ebook, that ebook will be downloaded to all of the others when they sync to the account. If one reader archives an ebook, that ebook will be removed from all of the others when they sync to the account.
B&N's password-based DRM system allows ebooks to be copied to any number of readers as long as the name and credit card number of the purchaser is known. The readers store the keys, so it's necessary to provide the name and credit card number only once for each reader. Simple copying can be a practical way of sharing ebooks within a family without the complications of syncing to a shared B&N account.
Despite earlier claims by B&N, NOOK has never been able to sync notes, annotations, and last page read with other devices. With version 1.5, it now can sync the most recent page read but nothing else, and only for NOOKbooks that were downloaded wirelessly. Probably in order to reduce complications for families that have multiple NOOKs on a single account, the sync process is not automatic; it requires manual actions on both devices. Syncing requires the ability to connect to wireless, which is a bigger issue for NOOK Wi-Fi users than for 3G NOOK users.
"Mothership" ebook stores
The Amazon ebook store has (at this writing) about twice as many fiction titles and about five times as many non-fiction titles as B&N's ebook store does, not counting free public-domain titles. The difference in fiction titles isn't noticeable to most users, being in titles that are seldom sold, but anyone looking for non-fiction ebooks will likely find large gaps in B&N's current catalog. Also, B&N has almost no textbooks available for NOOK their etextbooks are designed for use with their laptop/desktop software program called NOOKstudy.
B&N offers a limited number of newspaper and magazine subscriptions for NOOK. The focus of NOOK newsstand is now on providing magazines for NOOKcolor, and B&N doesn't even provide a way of getting a list of NOOK-compatible periodicals via their Web site. In this instance, shopping from NOOK is more practical because only the NOOK-compatible periodicals are shown. As of this writing, there are 24 newspapers and 22 magazines available for NOOK.
Amazon's ebook store offers a number of refinements not available on B&N. B&N's ebook store also continues to experience occasional outages and slowdowns, while Amazon seems to keep theirs running smoothly—even through the Christmas crush.
Amazon allows ebooks to be returned within seven days. B&N doesn't allow ebooks to be returned once they're downloaded unless the ebook is seriously defective.
Amazon provides the ability to give a particular ebook as a gift. B&N currently doesn't, and a gift card is the only recourse.
B&N offers a number of free ebooks. In addition to the almost 2 million Google Books classics that Amazon also offers, there are (as of this writing) around 2000 free ebooks from self-published authors via Smashwords, and in the neighborhood of 50 free titles from major publishers being offered as promotions. These promotional ebooks usually are earlier titles in a series that has a new entry either coming out soon or just released, and the promotion typically lasts from a few days to a few weeks. Every Friday, B&N spotlights a free promotional ebook in "Free Fridays!" postings that appear on NOOK's "The Daily", in NOOK's shop advertisements, and online. Amazon does similar promotions, often for the same ebooks; Amazon also offers some free non-fiction titles, which B&N rarely does.
B&N's Membership card is not valid for NOOK, NOOK accessories, or NOOKbooks. Many B&N Members choose to let their memberships expire after they switch to NOOK.