My first week with the NOOKcolor

My new NOOKcolor
Originally uploaded by Daniel Greene

Here’s my real-person experience with the Barnes & Noble Nook Color eReader. I’ve owned and used my NOOKcolor for a week now. In my review, I will answer three questions: “Why buy the NOOKcolor instead of the iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab?”, “What do you wish you had known before you bought the NOOKcolor?”, and “What do you love about the NOOKcolor?”

Why not just buy the iPad or Galaxy Tab?

The NOOKcolor is half the price of the cheapest iPad, and even with a cover is less than half the price of the Galaxy Tab; it has a beautiful 7″ wide-screen-format full color LCD (which I actually find to be a better fit for my hands than the iPad); it comes with 8 GB internal memory and a MicroSD card slot for expansion (which the iPad doesn’t have); it has a full web browser (Google Chrome) that allows you to view anything on the Web that isn’t made with Macromedia Flash (which the iPad doesn’t support, either), and it has QuickOffice software that allows you to view Word, Excel, and Powerpoint documents. It allows you to drag and drop (with a standard MicroUSB cable, not the proprietary iPod/iPad connector) files such as audiobooks, music, photos, documents, etc. for listening and viewing (even in a photo slideshow) on the pretty screen. There are a few games (Chess, Crosswords, Sudoku), and you can use the Pandora app to listen to streaming music if you get bored of the music files you loaded into the device. There may be more “Extras” to come (free or for purchase), as well. As for the Galaxy Tab, I don’t need a portable videoconferencing device, and I don’t need another Android phone. I still like my Nexus One, thanks.

As for the NOOKcolor’s web browsing capabilities, so I have watched YouTube videos, checked my GMail, caught up on Facebook and Flickr, read content on news websites, downloaded content from the Barnes & Noble store (some free or 99¢ public domain books) and free ePub download sites, and managed my Netflix queue. Primarily, though, I enjoy the NOOKcolor for reading e-books. Go figure! I’m not a big gamer, so I don’t care about iPad games designed for the accelerometer, and I don’t expect to do much document creation on a tablet, so I don’t miss iWork. For my intents and purposes, the NOOKcolor does everything I would want the iPad or Galaxy Tab to do— for half the price.

What I wish I had known before I bought the NOOKcolor

  • You can only use the LendMe™ feature once per book—only one time the whole time you own the book!—and you can only use the LendMe™ feature with a limited selection of Barnes & Noble books, not with all of them! You can only “lend” a B & N book for seven days— just long enough for your friend to get hooked and click “Buy Now” to buy it from Barnes & Noble, unless they read fast and don’t put off starting the book. In other words, LendMe™ isn’t to help you save money; it’s to help B & N make money.
  • You can only use the Share feature to post quotations, write reviews, make recommendations, etc. about Barnes & Noble books, not with any other books! Yes, the Barnes & Noble books are standard ePub, but they’re specialized in such a way that your NOOKcolor knows if you’re reading any other ePub and it won’t let you use the Share feature with anything but their books. What this means is that you have to pay, say, $1 or $2 for a public domain book you can get free elsewhere for the privilege of giving Barnes & Noble free advertising so your friends are encouraged to buy these old public domain books from them instead of downloading them from any number of other ePub download sites.
  • On a related note: the only books that are guaranteed to show up in your library with cover art are your Barnes & Noble books. This may be a bug they will fix, but I wouldn’t count on it. Why? Because having their books and not other supplier’s books show up with eye candy is another reason for you to buy books from them. It’s a way of devaluing the competition’s product and making you want to fill your virtual bookshelves with books that look pretty. When you drag and drop ePub books you got from other places, what you get on your NOOKcolor screen is just a little gray rectangle with a text title that’s often truncated. When you buy a B & N book, you get the full color cover art. Nice, eh? You also sometimes get little badges that say “Sample” or “New” or “LendMe™” on the B & N book covers—dandy.
  • You will have to charge your NOOKcolor every day with regular use, and be sure to bring your NOOKcolor charger with you if you’re planning to use it a lot in a day and be away from home all day.

Bitter? Not really; just disillusioned. I still my NOOKcolor, and here’s why:

What do you love about the NOOKcolor?

  • I love its size and shape and curves
  • I love its gorgeous touch screen
  • I love its intuitive interface
  • I love that it’s a pleasure to read on*
  • I love that it has WiFi and a full Web browser that lets me see anything on the Internet I want (as long as it’s not Flash)
  • I LOVE the dictionary— a must have, I think, for any ebook reader. With the dictionary on the NOOKcolor, it will also take you to Wikipedia or Google if you have a WiFi connection and want more info.
  • I love how easy it is to rate books you’ve gotten from the BN website, and I think I’ll love the LendMe™ feature because it’s better than not being able to share books and/or try them before you buy them.
  • Oh, and I do like it that you can spend up to an hour in a Barnes & Noble store reading a book free of charge, although I don’t know if I’ll ever actually do it, and—again—I’m sure it’s designed to make them money, not save you money.

So, there’s my honest opinion about the NOOKcolor. I’m glad I got it. I chose it carefully over the e-readers from other manufacturers such as Amazon, Apple, and Sony. I would recommend the NOOKcolor to a friend. Or to you! And, of course, because I care about my friends, and about you, “Gentle Reader,” I’m warning you of its shortcomings as well.

Did this review help you? Did it save you $300? If so, would you reward the time I took to write this for you by giving me a small donation of even $1? I work hard on these blog posts and I do them without sponsorship from tech companies or advertisements. If you like, please give.

*P.S. I just have to laugh at the television ad with the woman reading her Kindle at the pool next to a guy who can’t read on his iPad. I don’t read at the pool! In fact, I can count on my fingers and toes the number of minutes I spend on the deck of a pool each year. I need an e-reader to be easy to read indoors without having to sit directly under a lamp or with a booklight.

Comparison of EPUB Download Sites

Where to Get the Most Readable e-Books

Before I compare websites where you can download e-books in the EPUB format, I should tell you that I just got a Sony Reader Pocket Edition Silver PRS-300SC from my husband on Valentine’s Day. I’ve spent a bit less than a week with my new e-book Reader, but I’ve crammed a lot of reading and researching into the past five days. I’m pretty well versed in typography, and I have been disappointed with the readability of some of the e-books I’ve put on the Reader. Having viewed various books on the Reader, I don’t blame the Reader; I blame the formatting of some e-books. In an effort to find more readable e-book formats, or styles, I went a-searching, and these are the results of my trials.

PDF was not designed for e-books

PDF at default size (S)
PDF at default size (S)

First off, I found that PDFs are difficult to read on the Pocket Edition. I discovered this when I went to my local library’s digital download site and downloaded four books by Nicholas Sparks — all formatted in the same way by Warner Books in PDF. The margins were huge, the font size small, and the font face’s x-heights very small. (To oversimplify, x-height is the difference in size between capital letters and lowercase letters. Fonts with small x-heights look classy, but are not readable at smaller sizes.) These books were impossible to read at the default “small” size on the Pocket Edition. Not only that; the printer’s crop marks were visible, which made the margins even bigger since what I saw on my screen included extra margins that shouldn’t be visible to the consumer.

PDF at medium size (M)
PDF at medium size (M)

I had to set the text on these PDF books to “medium” size to make them readable. That makes the type large enough, but it breaks the formatting. Chapter headings show up two or three pages into the chapter rather than at the beginning of it. Lines occasionally break early or, worse, words break from one line to the next.

No doubt, PDFs like these might be readable on a larger Reader, such as the Daily Edition, but I prefer the compact simplicity of the Pocket Edition, and I think digital libraries should make their digital books look good on smaller devices. Instead of offering PDFs of hard cover books, perhaps they could offer PDFs of paperbacks, because they are formatted to be more readable in small form, where you will find thinner margins and more readable fonts.

EPUB was designed for e-books

Ideally, a text should be readable on any device. I have been a proponent of device independence for years now, and I suppose I knew that PDF was not a device-independent format, but reading PDFs on a small device really made me see it. I suppose that is why the EPUB format was developed with e-book readers in mind. Unlike PDF, EPUB e-books are designed to be readable on screen as opposed to on paper. I notice that, with the EPUB format, I don’t see misplaced chapter headings or lines and words breaking up. I notice the default font faces and sizes tend to be bigger and more readable; for instance, the font sizes are a couple-to-four points larger, and the font faces may have larger x-heights.

I’ve been experimenting with several EPUB download sites this week. I also searched the web to see if there was anything written comparing EPUB download sites, but I couldn’t find anything. So here is my — albeit limited — comparison of the EPUB books I’ve downloaded from (in alphabetical order) epubBooks, Feedbooks, Google Books, the Greater Phoenix Digital Library (powered by OverDrive), The Gutenberg Project, Smashwords, and the Sony Reader Store.

All EPUBs are not created equal

When I download EPUB books from the Greater Phoenix Digital Library, which offers books from OverDrive, I don’t know what I will get from book to book. One is readable at default size while another is more readable at medium size. EPUB books from OverDrive offer the benefits of the EPUB format I listed above, but there is no standardization. Still you can get some good EPUB books. At the time of this writing, though, the selection of EPUBs is limited; there are only 653 EPUB titles while there are 15,831 PDF titles.

EPUB from Google Books
EPUB from Google Books

When I download EPUB books from Google Books, I notice typographical anomalies due to OCR scanning errors. (OCR stands for optical character recognition, a program through which a scanned image of text is run to convert it from a picture of text to actual text.) Due to these uncorrected OCR errors, nonsense characters may appear on the page, lines may be broken in strange places, and letters might be missing here and there. Free, yes, but not very readable. On a positive note, Google offers a way for readers to report scanning errors so they can improve Google Books for the public good.

Finding my favorite EPUBs

EPUB from Feedbooks on Reader
EPUB from Feedbooks on Reader

I actually made my greatest discovery while away from my Sony Reader. I had my Google Nexus One smart phone with me (as always) and I searched the Android Market for a good e-book reader. Being unimpressed with FBReader, I downloaded Aldiko and was blown away. Not only does it have a great user interface and even a way to download free and paid books directly in the app; it has a partnership with the best EPUB library I have found yet— Feedbooks. I downloaded an EPUB book from Feedbooks to read on my Nexus One and I loved the formatting. Very nice and clean. Interested to see how Feedbooks EPUB books would look on my Reader, I downloaded a few and put them on. Gorgeous! Almost every book I’ve downloaded from Feedbooks has the same formatting, or I should really say, style. Seeing the same style across multiple titles might bore some people, but I appreciate the beauty, dependability, and readability of the Feedbooks style. In addition to being an EPUB resource, they are a publishing platform, and they “consider that the structure of a text is very important.” It’s all about structure, baby! Not presentation. Yet, by offering EPUB books with solid structure (XML) and readable style (CSS), they make for a very nice presentation. I might even think of publishing something with them. (P.S. Feedbooks did not pay me to write a glowing review of them.)

I also discovered Smashwords through Aldiko. Like Feedbooks, it’s a place to get both free and paid e-books (in EPUB and other formats) and it’s also a publishing platform. I don’t like their site as much, though, nor do I like the style of their EPUB e-books. It seems fairly similar from book to book, but it’s not as elegant and readable on my Reader as the e-books from Feedbooks.

Classic EPUBs from the source

EPUB from Gutenberg Project
EPUB from Gutenberg Project

When I looked at the first pages of the EPUB books I downloaded from Feedbooks, I saw that most of the texts were actually from The Gutenberg Project. So I went to the source to see how I liked their EPUB downloads. Their downloads page for each title says the EPUB download is, at this point, “experimental,” but I found the e-books I downloaded to be just as readable and error-free as those from Feedbooks. They just didn’t have as pretty a style, in my opinion. Still, it’s not so much about style as it is about readability, for me, so I consider Gutenberg a good place to download EPUB books.

Speaking of EPUB books, there is actually a site called epubBooks, and went there to download a couple of books as well. I was surprised to find that they did not have A Room with a View or even anything by E. M. Forster, but they did have Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as did every other place I went to. I found it to be error-free, at least in the first pages I viewed, and simply styled. I don’t like their site navigation as much as others, but I still consider it a decent place to look for EPUB downloads.

A one-stop shop when you need it

The last place I went to download EPUB books, ironically, was the Sony Reader Store [closed March 2014]. One of the reasons I wanted a Sony Reader is because I am a cheapskate* who would rather borrow books from the library than pay for them. Unfortunately, the Sony Reader Store does not have any free books. They do, however, have two different editions of Frankenstein for 99¢ or less (and, inexplicably, some that cost even more). I don’t see any reason to pay for an electronic book in the public domain that I can download free elsewhere, but the Sony Reader Store does make for a seamless process of browsing, downloading, and installing e-books in my Sony Reader Library. It’s probably ideal for people who are not comfortable with downloading and file management, because the Reader Library application takes care of that for you when you buy books from the Sony Reader Store.

EPUB by MobileReference
EPUB by MobileReference

For the sake of good reporting, I plunked down $1.94 for two editions of the same book— one published by Mobile Reference and the other published by B&R Samizdat Express. The publication by Mobile Reference was formatted just like all the others: flowing text in a font readable in the default “small” size on my Sony Reader Pocket Edition. The publication by B&R Samizdat Express, on the other hand, was styled with a font size that was unreadable in the small size, and it had bigger margins than any of the other editions I had downloaded.

EPUB by B&R Samizdat Express
EPUB by B&R Samizdat Express

*Actually, when I just have to have it the day it comes out, I’ll buy a book and donate it to the library after reading it. I’ve donated a lot of books to the library over the years, but mostly I just borrow nowadays. Speaking of donating, if this article helped you make some money-saving decisions, then please consider donating a dollar or more to my blog. Thanks!

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