Saturday, December 18, 2010

NookColor: 28 days later

I’ve now had the nookColor for four weeks, enough to draw observations about the product and tablets more generally.

It’s been a long time since I had a 1.0 of anything: it’s both exciting and frustrating. I’m hoping that Barnes & Noble (like Apple and others) will have a generous software upgrade policy — beyond the subset of the Android Market promised for Q1 next year.

I carry the nookColor to work, to home, to Starbucks, to the airport, on several airplanes. I’ve used it for wardriving (well warwalking) down a city street with more than a dozen hotspots. I’ve loaded PDFs and RTFs and DOCs, bought a magazine and tried to buy a book (but it wouldn’t let me).

The use cases I’ve found so far:
  • paid media (for me, more likely magazines than books)
  • PDFs (which for a college professor is the format for professional journal articles)
  • web-surfing at home (the WiFi at work is too user-hostile)
  • (someday) viewing/listening to online media.
I haven’t resolved the issue of when to carry it and when to leave it home. However, for use in a hotel room, I find it makes a great second screen (for a web page or PDF) when writing something on my laptop.

I believe I’ll own a tablet for the next few years (until tablets merge with laptops or smartphones or both.) There’s no way I’d ever buy a single-purpose device like the Kindle, no matter how cheap. And unless Apple ships a $300 7" iPad next month, I’ll not have any regrets about my purchase, despite some significant problems. (B&N promised money back until Jan. 31, but my wife or tween will grab it if I give it up.)

The hardware is pretty good: yes battery and weight could be better but I suspect they’re close to the state of the art. (And being priced half that of the 7" Samsung Galaxy, I’m gonna be realistic). The hardware gripes:
  • Lack of a hardware brightness control (I use the hardware volume control about 2x/month vs. 2x/day for brightness)
  • A case better designed to use as a (landscape) easel for watching video
  • The @*!#%& charger: a nonstandard cable and a non-standard (1.9amp) brick (try carrying a single brick for all USB devices; try grabbing a spare microUSB cable when you left your charging/upload cable at home).
  • Nonstandard microSD cards: my Class 4 microSD card doesn’t work and tech support was useless; the manual is ambiguous but implies the nookColor requires a Class 6 microSD, but I can’t find anyone who sells them.
A hardware related issue is that (due to the power plug) the NC can’t be used in portrait (vertical) mode when plugged in — until the software people decide to allow 180° rotation.

The frustration comes from the software. This is a portable tablet computer, implemented as a hodgepodge of apps cobbled together to ship in time for Christmas.

Several basic functions are different depending on where you are: paid book, paid magazine, your own PDF, a .RTF file or a web page. The device (not applications) need a consistent and standard interface for:
  • zoom in/out, and auto-zoom to width (set for HTML but not PDF)
  • brightness control
  • browsing/page turning in a hundred or thousand page document (except HTML)
  • finding specific text
Some things are just sloppy implementations: if you zoom magazine pages, you have to re-zoom on the next page.

Someday it will be a good media device. With WiFi and a good UI, it would be great for podcasts — except that today it only streams .MP3 files and not .PLS files (a simple 10-line text file with embedded URLs). Once I thought I got it to play YouTube videos, but today the YouTube preflight proves that it fails both the MP4 and H.263 tests. (sigh).

The tablet desperately needs apps for email, calendar, address book (editable) and Twitter. The AJAX-based UI of Google Maps fails miserably, because it’s never clear whether the zooming/scrolling is for the NC or for the app. (The iPad solves this with a dedicated app, something the nookColor badly needs.) My luck entering text into Facebook has been similarly spotty.

I’m guessing most of these are known problems. Certainly getting YouTube working and some of the zooming quirks are going to be high on any gripe list. (If you call 1-800-THE-BOOK, nookColor is the first tech support option offered).

And then there’s that tech support: inexperienced and not very good. I was unable to buy any books, or even browse books free in the B&N store. I finally got through to tech support (dialin hours are biased towards East Coast customers). After being told that the way to fix the problem was to reset my computer — wiping out all settings, preferences, bookmarks and documents — I had to point out to tech support that the problem was probably that I had no valid credit card on file at BN.com. (Sure ’nuff, that was it.)

Finally, there’s that business model issue. Apple thinks it’s selling me a general purpose hardware device for me to use as I see fit, while Amazon wants to pay me to take its e-reader in hopes that I’ll be locked to its file format in perpetuity. B&N is trying to appeal to the Apple market, but its TV ads emphasize the color Kindle angle, hoping to get me to buy hundreds of dollars of locked content. (Ain’t gonna happen.) Meanwhile, Samsung TV ads promote the Galaxy as a ubiquitous 7" Internet tablet — without the content cross-subsidy and without the reasonable price.

As the first one on my block, in my building, on my train/plane to own a 7" color tablet, I get a lot of envious stares. People look closer and realize it’s not an iPad, but are intrigued by the smaller size (and even more by the smaller price).

Still, it’s at the bleeding edge of technology — even before the early adopters. Things may get better with the app store, the claimed update to Android 2.2 (or, better yet, 2.3) and an improved browser. In the meantime, it’s an interesting way to avoid doing my real job.

1 comment:

spaetz said...

Hi Joel,

I have been an nookColor owner for about a week now and on my 50h trip from the US to Europe I had plenty of time to use it.

I agree with most of your points, especially:
- Inconsistent behavior with books, and pdfs
- That freaking charger :), a close but not real MicroUSB cable means, I have to take great care of one more cable (at least I don't need to label that one as it has a nook logo, like I have to do for my camera cables). Also it means, it won't work in Europe without adapters, despite me having USB adapters that are capable of delivering 2 amps.

- I don't mind the brightness switch, I use it rarely and it doesn't bother me.

- I actually find the weight quite OK, I actually like the feel of having something tangible in my hand.

- Another European gripe: B&N works only with a credit card with US billing address. I know this is due to legal licensing issues, but hey these are virtual goods, and I have a perfectly find Swiss credit card... (same with the web radio that won't work in Europe, and I cannot install another one that would).

- My biggest complaint is not the nook's fault though: Most publications prefer to use ipad apps or other channels to distribute their stuff. The Economist is available via Kindle (not for me) and iPad, but not on any device that works for me. Fortunately, http://calibre-ebook.com/ (excellent for managing ebooks/magatines and downloading news) is able to easily scrape the rss feed of my Economist account and assemble a nice epub file for me. Still, it is painsome.

Having said that, I really love the device. The 250$ price tag is very reasonable, the screen astonishingly good. And it is much more than an ebook reader, which is great. Having been stuck in London heathrow, I used it to display the departures time table from the Internet, which showed changes as much as 20 Min. earlier than the official airport display, which gave me a welcome head start at queueing at the customer service counter for rebooking.

There will be an update in 1Q2011 that brings email functionality, is what I heard. Plus various other improvements, they wanted to ship it before the holiday season and cut some routes to achieve that.

And for those into hacking, it seems possible to root the device and install the full fledged Android Marketplace on it. (I haven't done that)

About to review another paper from my nookColor now...
Sebastian Spaeth