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In Praise of the Barnes & Noble Nook

Some friends of mine were recently singing the praises of Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader. And, indeed, the Kindle is a worthy little device, but I’m going to put in a good word here for the Barnes & Noble Nook, not just because I have one — well, two, actually — but because I think that with the possible exception of the pricey iPad, it’s the best e-reader on the market. Amy bought me the original e-ink Nook for our anniversary last year and I loved it. This year I splurged and bought myself a Color Nook. And Barnes & Noble has just come out with a really cool new e-ink model that, in my opinion, blows away the comparably priced ($139) Kindle.

The Color Nook is beautiful. It has a lovely touch screen interface (and not just that tiny touch screen interface that came with the first e-ink Nook). It’s basically a crippled tablet PC running the Android operating system. And even though it costs $250, which is barely more than half what the cheapest Android tablet costs, it reportedly can be converted to a real Android if you’re technically savvy and don’t mind voiding your warranty. (Supposedly the process can be reversed and warranty reinstated, but I don’t want to hassle with it because it’s already doing everything I want.) It does a great job of reading both epubs and heavily formatted color PDFs, like magazines. (I have a year’s worth of Scientific Americans on it in PDF format and they look great.) It has a Web browser, an email program, and an app store with a limited selection of Android apps, including the inevitable Angry Birds. And I can read it in the dark (which I happen to like).

The new e-ink Nook seems to be the only full touch screen reader at the $139 price point. I don’t know if it has any other tablet PC abilities, but it looks to read epubs beautifully and more easily than the original e-ink Nook, which required pressing buttons on the side to turn pages. Now you just swipe the screen, as with the iPad and the Color Nook.

The Kindle, by contrast, has no touch screen to my knowledge and no epub reading capabilities, which means that if you want to read those epub editions that you can download from many libraries (including the LA County ones and at least some of the New York City ones), you’d better know how to (a) crack the DRM and (b) convert it to Mobi. (It’s easier to do the second — just download the wonderful Calibre program — but if the file is DRMed you have to do the first before Calibre will allow you to do the conversion. And while I know how to crack DRM, I’m certainly not going to talk about it here.)

I think Barnes & Noble has the superior e-reader to Amazon (and, yes, you can also use the Nook to buy books directly online via the device itself, just like the Kindle), but Amazon has managed that rare magic trick that a few companies have pulled off over the years with brand names like iPod and Kleenex — they’ve made it synonymous with the product category. Anything else, even something superior, now looks like a cheap Kindle knockoff. Too bad, because I’d hate to see Barnes & Noble fail with a better product. (Not that the Kindle is chopped liver; I just think the Nook is better.)

And I might as well put in a full plug for Calibre while I’m at it. This product is free, downloadable from the link I just posted, runs on a variety of platforms, and is essentially an iTunes for e-book readers. (As far as I know it’ll work with any standalone reader on the market.) It even has a cover flow mode that gives you the virtual illusion of owning a shelf of books. Spend a little time learning it and you’ll find out how to download full metadata for your books, including covers, descriptions, review quotes and ISBN numbers. It will install the books to your device, no matter the brand, or take them back off, while still maintaining them in your computer’s library. It even has a built-in e-reader that will read books in several different formats on your computer display. And — best of all — it will convert among 16 different formats, so that if you want an epub edition instead of Mobi (or RTF, LIT, TXT, PDF, etc.), it will do the conversion at the click of a mouse and will even let you tweak parameters from a large dialog box while doing so. Anybody with a large collection of e-books really needs this to organize them. You’d be surprised how much this is like having an old-fashioned library at your electronic fingertips.

If it sounds like I’m really getting into this e-reader thing — I am.

About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and our cat Lola, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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