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(There’s an updated post on the 1.1.0 firmware.)

This isn’t a full review of the device. In particular, I don’t cover purchasing books or reading PDB or PDF books at all. I was mainly interested in evaluating the Nook as a general-purpose ePub reader.

Adobe Mobile SDK

Like other e-ink devices, the Nook uses the Adobe Mobile SDK as its rendering system. This means that some of the same features and quirks found in Adobe Digital Editions and earlier e-ink devices like the Sony Reader should apply here.

However, I didn’t know whether the version of the Mobile SDK on the Nook would be any more recent or evolved than the ADE or Sony versions (I have a PRS-505). So I experimented with the ePub rendering in the way I would any new device.

Test set

As you might imagine I have a lot of ePub books lying around. I tried a variety of commercial and non-commercial books, some generated via InDesign or other automated processes, and some coded in XHTML/CSS by hand.

Library lending

The Boston Public Library subscribes to the OverDrive ebook offering and there are a number of titles in ePub format. I checked out a book, and when Digital Editions started up it discovered the Nook (connected via USB) and asked if it wanted to authorize it. I was then able to transfer the library book over with no issues.

It did take a minute to find the book on the device: books copied via ADE end up in My Documents rather than in the main B&N books list. Since it’s just a regular filesystem, I think many users will probably manually copy books into just one place to keep it simpler.

Nook filesystem

Top level filesystem on the Nook. Files uploaded via ADE end up in Digital Editions

IMG_0379

Library book on the Nook. Hey, all the good books had holds on them.

Fonts

The Nook comes with three fonts: two serif and one sans-serif. In most ePubs I tried, changing the font face had no effect.

The image is blurry but you can vaguely see that while I have the font set to Helvetica Neue (which is sans-serif), the title and text are still in the serif font.

IMG_0380

In another book I was able to change the font to sans-serif, but it didn’t apply equally throughout the content. A subset of the text that had its own styling remained serif:

IMG_0386

Click to enlarge; see “The experiences” at the beginning of the chapter.

Font size changes did work as expected.

General UI comments

Changes in the local filesystem aren’t auto-detected. When you add a new book via USB, you have to manually “check for updates” to see the changes.

Selecting a book only brings up a rudimentary metadata page. While this is the kind of thing a nerd like me wants to see, does anyone else really care about the filesystem location of the book?

IMG_0378

Only after selecting “Read” from the touch screen do you get to the cover image.

Language support

One of the things I was really hoping would be improved in the Nook relative to other Mobile SDK-derived products was international character support. Unfortunately, that is no better than ADE or similar readers:

IMG_0382

Frustratingly, the Chinese book shown above did display Chinese characters in the listing of my library. I’m assuming this is because the Android OS is perfectly capable of reading the UTF-8 characters and has a Chinese font on-board, but the Mobile SDK does not.

I also tried an Arabic book with an embedded font, and while the font is displayed, the book’s text does not run right-to-left, and the necessary ligatures aren’t rendered. This is the same behavior as ADE. (Stanza and web-based readers like Bookworm display this same book correctly.)

Rendering performance

Here’s where things really fell down for me. I tried an edition of The People of the Abyss by Jack London. Mike Cane used this book to demonstrate some problems with ADE’s rendering.

This is a complex ebook though by no means an extreme outlier. It is hand-coded, which means that it doesn’t have unnecessary auto-generated markup, and it’s valid.

Many ereaders that paginate only render chapters on request, rather than at book loading time. That’s a good practice; it lets users get reading as soon as possible, and defers boring loading messages as long as possible. The Nook seems to be no different. When toggling between chapters (not pages), the user will generally get a “Formatting” alert; my guess is that it’s laying out each page based on the current font settings and content. You get a similar message when adjusting font settings, which also requires re-rendering.

IMG_0388

Somewhat unprofessionally, the loading messages often aren’t middle-aligned correctly.

In most books I tested, the re-formatting between chapters or font changes took between 4-5 seconds. That’s slightly longer than the Kindle 1 or Sony PRS-505, which are the two devices I have for comparison.

For this particular book, re-formatting a chapter or going to a new chapter took 30 seconds.

Chapter renders are cached, but only in memory. If you close a book and re-open it, you get the same “Formatting” message again, and it will take just as long as before, even if you haven’t changed any settings.

(Jumping ahead into the book via the table of contents and then going “back” to a chapter you haven’t read before triggers the long rendering process, but no loading message is displayed. It looks like the device just hangs.)

This book demonstrated the same issues that ADE did in Mike Cane’s original post, so I don’t believe that the CSS support is any different in the Nook.

Loading failures

I tried loading a number of O’Reilly Media titles that are valid and work on the Sony Reader and every other ePub device. The Nook only brought up the “Formatting” message, and then hung. Only a full restart would bring it back.

This is an extremely serious problem.

Edited Dec 12, 2009 to reflect independent confirmation of this.

Hardware comments

I actually like the hardware quite a bit. While I’m right-handed, I like holding my ereader in my left hand and being able to turn pages that way. I prefer the Kindle 1 button placement to later Kindle versions, and I really dislike the hard, awkwardly-positioned buttons on the Sony 505. The Nook’s are easy to operate with either hand and don’t suffer from the extreme “bump” sensitivity of the Kindle 1.

I also didn’t have nearly as much of a problem with the LCD touch screen as other reviewers. Yes, the scrolling is quite slow and inaccurate, but single touch operations were responsive. Generally I found the interface intuitive, but your mileage may vary.

My one big complaint with the hardware is the weight. In the course of just 15 minutes of holding it, my hand got tired. I’m not sure the LCD screen is worth the strain.

Overall

I imagine that the books purchased on the B&N store won’t show these issues (especially those that are PDB rather than ePub with full CSS). But one of the key advantages of the Nook over the Kindle is its ability to read ePub from other sources.

While many of the rendering limitations are the same as those on the PRS-505 (now over a year old), I don’t have the same expectations in a new, more expensive device. The lack of support for non-English languages and non-Roman scripts is totally unacceptable, especially when the device’s operating system already comes with that support.

I do hope that the language issues and especially the performance bugs are resolved quickly, as non-B&N publishers may get hit hard on returns for non-functional books that are absolutely valid and should work.

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24 Responses to “Nook as an ePub renderer: review”

  1. Liza Daly

    By way of comparison, I checked that same Jack London book on my Sony Reader, and chapter loads take ~ 10 seconds (not great, but a world of difference in experience).

  2. eBook Reader

    Thank you for the information! Very helpful. Most of the “reviews” from the big gadget sites never even mention ePub files on a nook.

  3. Wayne Martin

    > I really dislike the hard, awkwardly-positioned buttons on the Sony 505.

    Rotate to landscape mode, and then you can page through the book using only one finger (your left thumb). It makes all the difference in the world, being able to0 no have to use both hands.

  4. Peter Sorotokin

    Font change in Nook is done through CSS user stylesheet which applies custom fonts for body element. If you specify your own embedded font for individual paragraphs or spans, your style will “win” and that’s what you’ll get. That makes sense because precise font control is important in some specific cases and user stylesheet should not override that. If body font is specified on body element as it should be (or if no font is specified at all), it all should work.

    And “The People of the Abyss” – hey, this book tries fairly advanced CSS (anonymous table rows and cells – how many people even know how it is supposed to work?). We’ll get to all obscurities of CSS eventually, but doing features like that without sacrificing performance is not easy. There are other, more battery-friendly ways to format poetry that work today.

  5. Keith Fahlgren

    Peter: Thanks for clarifying some of what’s going on here. It’s easy to speculate, but even easier to miss the true cause.

    Font change in Nook is done through CSS user stylesheet which applies custom fonts for body element.

    While I understand extremely well the difficulties of implementing font selection on arbitrary CSS inputs, I can’t get around the overriding feeling that no customer cares. On a physical device, the reader expects the thing to behave according to the principle of least surprise. If a font selection menu is added, users expect the font to change. They really do not and should not care about the specificity of the EPUB authors’ CSS selector (especially when the software was built from the ground up with this feature in mind).

    As far as all of the obscurities of CSS, when should we expect Adobe to be public about the capabilities & limitations of the renderer? I haven’t enjoyed stumbling around in the dark…

  6. Liza Daly

    For what it’s worth, the particular style on that span is simply font-variant: small-caps;. The font family isn’t overridden.

  7. Peter Sorotokin

    Actually, looking more at it, I think it does not override the body element font, it just sets the default font. This is very similar to the font selction in the browser.

    I disagree about font necessarily changing when user selects a font. There is some content which will not look right if the font is changed. I think guidelines needed for authors and reading systems on how to style the document so it remains customizable as much as possible.

    There have been the same argument about font size in the past. If font-size property is specified in absolute units it will not change when user changes the font size in UI. There were some books like that initially and they did not work, but now it is mostly used correctly. If we decided to just apply the same logic and do what “user expected” irrespective on how the book is authored we would have to have an archane rule and we would lose ability to set the font in absolute units (which is important in some advanced cases).

  8. PeterY

    For anyone considering the nook, please read about my experience.

    First I had to wait about 30 days for my nook to arrive. It worked as advertised at first but began having problems after the third recharge cycle. The nook was stuck in the screen shot mode and would not respond. After holding for 45 minutes, B&N tech support was able to walk me through rebooting the reader. After a full recharge, again the nook would not turn on at all. I tried everything recommended by tech support and nothing worked. How does a new item with a new battery stop working like this? Why doest it take 45 minutes each time you call their help desk?

    I decided to ask for the manager and request a refund. Although they agree to fully refund me the price of the nook, all accessories and membership fee, they would not refund the ebooks I had purchased. I can tell you that the service managers are anxious to get unhappy customers off the phone. I suggested that I receive a store credit to purchase the physical books in their stores which they refused to do. They were just happy to get me off the phone.

    I can’t remember the last time I such a terrible experience with a retailer. They are not prepared to handle the tech issues and not committed to providing good customer service.

    Bottomline is that if you are considering the Nook, buyer beware!

  9. Walt

    Nice review. I was wondering if you tried PRSplus for your 505. It has many wonderful hacks, my favorite is the ability for me to choose which fonts I want my epubs to use. I installed the free Fontin fonts, set up a small css file and now all epubs on my 505 are rendered in the new fonts. Even drm’d epubs. :)

  10. art w

    thanks PeterY, I am having almost the same problem with my nook as you described. Luckily it was a gift from my wife and she is the ‘techy’ in the relationship so she will handle support. I was very happy with the nook

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  12. David

    Nice review. I just picked up the PanDigital eReader that supports ePub and the B&N store. Any plans on reviewing these features with other ereaders?

  13. Gustavo the helpdesk guy

    Thes devices are still limited, i can’t believe that only supports english , and the price is expensive $150-$190 in US.

    as Liza said: ” The lack of support for non-English languages”…

    Even if the price would be $100, i could not use to read in spanish, portuguese, etc. by text, Unicode not by images.

  14. Ben Kindle Case

    The Nook was good but surely the Kindle 3 puts amazon in the pole position as far as e readers go. Yes there maybe some competition from other e readers and the iPad but the Kindle seems so far ahead compared to others. Yes they face more of a fight potentially with the iPad but the Kindle app negates this.

    Ben – Kindle Case

  15. Sam from free android apps

    The truth is, I haven’t tried iPad yet but mostly of my friends are. Although, iPad is the latest in the market nowadays, but I do have more confident with Kindle usage. I’m comfortable with it though one of this days i’ll have to test my upcoming iPad.

  16. BBalex htct150

    I still prefer the Kindle. I’m using it in Italy now, and it still works perfectly. I saw the IPad of a friend f mine and it was not so entusiastic…

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