The holidays are no joyride. Between the stress, the money and the relatives, no wonder so many people contract Seasonal Depression, Financial-Obligation Migraine and Family Drama Disorder.
And in the electronics business, Greed-Borne Insanity is contagious.
That’s when electronics executives, blinded by dollar signs on their corneas, rush a product to market before it’s ready. (See also: BlackBerry Storm, Christmas 2008.)
Well, here comes the hotly awaited Nook from Barnes & Noble : an electronic book reader in the style of the Amazon Kindle.
Actually, not just in the style of; this thing is ripped right out of the Kindle’s master playbook. Same price ($259), same off-white plastic frame around the same six-inch E Ink screen (crisp, black type against a light gray background). Same screen saver showing woodcuts of famous authors. Same ability to display your own photos and play music files. Same free cellular connection so that you can download books wherever you happen to be. Same compatibility with iPhone or computer.
But according to the Nook Web site, there are differences. Oh, what differences. “A beautiful color touch screen.” A catalog of “over one million titles.” (Kindle: only 385,000.) “Browse e-books, magazines and newspapers on AT&T’s 3G Wireless Network or on Wi-Fi.” Cool! The Kindle doesn’t have Wi-Fi.
“Loan e-books to friends, free of charge.” Wow, that’s a first; until the Nook, buying an e-book meant locking it to your account — not lending, nor donating or selling. You can even “read entire e-books for free at your local Barnes & Noble.”
Read entire books free? Unheard-of! (Except at the local library — but it doesn’t have a million books.)
Unfortunately, we, the salivating public, might be afflicted with a little holiday disease of our own: Sucker Syndrome. Every one of the Nook’s vaunted distinctions comes fraught with buzz kill footnotes.
That “color touch screen,” for example, is actually just a horizontal strip beneath the regular Kindle-style gray screen. (In effect, it replaces the Kindle’s clicky thumb keyboard.)
This screen is exclusively for navigation and controls. Sometimes it makes sense; when you’re viewing inch-tall book covers, for example, you can tap to open one.
At other times, the color strip feels completely, awkwardly disconnected from what it’s supposed to control on the big screen above.
Worse, the touch screen is balky and nonresponsive, even for the Nook product manager who demonstrated it for me. The only thing slower than the color strip is the main screen above it. Even though it’s exactly the same E Ink technology that the Kindle and Sony Readers use, the Nook’s screen is achingly slower than the Kindle’s. It takes nearly three seconds to turn a page — three times longer than the Kindle — which is really disruptive if you’re in midsentence.
Often, you tap some button on the color strip — and nothing happens. You wait for the Nook to respond, but there’s no progress bar, no hourglass, no indication that the Nook “heard” you. So you tap again — but now you’ve just triggered a second command that you didn’t want.
It takes four seconds for the Settings panel to open, 18 seconds for the bookstore to appear (over Wi-Fi), and 8 to 15 seconds to open a book or newspaper for the first time, during which you stare at a message that says “Formatting.”
“Over one million titles?” Yes, but well over half of those are junky Google scans of free, obscure, pre-1923 out-of-copyright books, filled with typos. (They’re also available for the Kindle, but Amazon doesn’t even count them).
Fact is, Amazon’s e-book store is still much better. Of the current 175 New York Times best sellers, 12 of them aren’t available for Kindle; 21 are unavailable for the Nook.
Kindle books are less expensive, too. Inkmesh.com studied the top-selling 11,604 books for early November, and found that 74 percent of the time, Amazon offers the lowest-priced e-books (cheaper than B&N or Sony) by an average of 15 percent.
What about the Nook’s built-in Wi-Fi? It’s there, but you get no notification when you’re in a hot spot. And if the hot spot requires a login or welcome screen, you can’t get onto it.
And the “loan e-books to friends?” part? You can’t lend a book unless its publisher has O.K.’ed this feature. And so far, B&N says, only half of its books are available for lending — only one-third of the current best sellers. (A LendMe icon on the B&N Web site lets you know when a book is lendable.) Furthermore, the book is gone from your own Nook during the loan period (a maximum of two weeks). And each book can be lent only once, ever.
Also unfinished: the auto connection to the wireless hot spots in B&N stores, which will offer special treats like a free-cookie coupon.
Those missing features are symptoms of B&N’s bad case of Ship-at-All-Costs-itis. But the biggest one of all is the Nook’s half-baked software.
To use the technical term, it’s slower than an anesthetized slug in winter.
Wait for 2010
And it’s buggy. In four days, my Nook locked up twice and displayed an “Android operating system has crashed” message twice. You can change the type size for books, newspapers and even your own PDF documents — but not for B&N’s own essays on the Nook’s Daily screen. The software isn’t even smart enough to ignore little words like “a” and “the” when alphabetizing; “Pride and Prejudice” comes before “The New York Times.”
Navigating the Nook makes the 1040 tax form seem like a breeze. You’ve got two page-turn buttons (< and >) on each side of the reading screen, up/down/back buttons on the color screen, and a Home button above the color screen. Quick: Which one returns you to the table of contents?
So O.K., the Nook is a mess, clearly rushed out the door in hopes of stealing some of the Kindle’s holiday cheer. “We want to optimize everything quite a bit,” a product manager concedes. The first of many software fixes, B&N says, will arrive wirelessly on Nooks next week. The company also says that it’s working to bring the selection and pricing of its e-book catalog more in line with Amazon’s.
Now, the Nook may have some hardware advantages — a removable battery, a memory-card slot and (because of narrower plastic margins) a slightly trimmer shape — but the Kindle is still a better machine. It’s faster, thinner, lighter and much easier to figure out. Its battery lasts more than three times as long (seven days versus two).
Amazon also syncs with the Mac, PC, Kindle and iPhone copies of your books, so you’re always on the page where you stopped, even if you’re on a different gadget. Any notes and highlighting you’ve added to your books also appear magically on your other gadgets. (Barnes & Noble says that these features will arrive — yes, you guessed it — next year.)
Meanwhile, the Kindle offers a few things that Nook lacks, like playback of audio books from Audible.com, a basic Web browser, a synthesized voice that reads your books out loud and the ability to rotate the device 90 degrees for a wider “page.” It also centers dashes between words — like this — instead of weirdly attaching them to the first word— like this— as the Nook does.
One day, the Nook may be a much more usable, more capable bit of gear. Of course, Amazon and Sony won’t be standing still; 2010 sure will be an interesting year.
Until then, happy holidays to you. And may you remain immune from Unopenable Package Syndrome, Rebate-Form Anxiety — and the Post-Holiday Blues.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.