Ebook Devices, Part III: Nook vs. Sony

This is the third post in a three-part series on eReader devices:
  1. Do You Want an eReader?
  2. The eReaders My Family Didn't Get, and Why
  3. A Comparative Review: Barnes & Noble Nook vs. Sony Reader Touch
*  *  *

The perfect eReader does not yet exist. It probably never will, but the technology is still new enough that the different vendors have not really even begun to converge on a basic set of features to meet the needs of a serious user. If you want to avoid frustrating lacunae in the feature set of your device, you're best off waiting a few more years before you buy one.

My claim is based on my experience with two devices: the Sony Reader Touch Edition that I've had for about a year, and the Barnes & Noble Nook that my father bought a little over a month ago. There are things about the Sony that drive me crazy, and it was with those particular shortcomings in mind that I recommended the Nook to Dad. Upon playing with his Nook, however, I discovered that there are things about the Nook that drive me crazy that the Sony gets right. So you have to pick your poison, I guess.

This review will be principally negative. Sony and Barnes & Noble offer some of the best eReader devices available (especially if, like me, you have philosophical objections to Amazon's business model that prevent you from even considering a Kindle). If, despite the inherent shortcomings of the technology, you have decided that you want an eReader, these are two of the devices that you should definitely consider. For the sake of differentiating between the two, however, I will concentrate on the flaws of each.

Things that suck about the Sony Reader Touch Edition

1.  The Sony Reader Library Software
I didn't think it would be a big deal that the Sony Reader doesn't have Wi-Fi (the only Sony product that does costs about twice as much as the comparable devices from B&N and Amazon) -- and it wouldn't be, if the software that you use to load books from your PC to your device was any good. But it's not.

 I can't count the times I had to reinstall the Sony Library software in the first three months I had my device -- and every time I had to reinstall it, I had to reorganize my entire digital library. I learned after a while to EXPECT that what should have been a simple 60-second task of adding a single new book to my device would routinely turn into a several-hour ordeal of fighting with the software. 

Among other problems, there is no way with the Library software to add and remove single files from your device -- it works by "syncing" your entire library to the device, and it does this automatically every time you plug the device in, with no way to override the function. Again, this would not be a major problem if it worked properly, but it doesn't. It can't handle even a moderate-sized collection of books, but gets hung up mid-sync and freezes. The help desk personnel recommended syncing a smaller selection of books to the device -- which worked, but defeated one of the primary points of having such a device, viz. to be able to carry around a large selection of books at once. (Because "syncing" involves DELETING FROM THE DEVICE any books not included in the sync, not just adding the particular books that are included.)

The problems with the Library software are so legion that I might have given up on using the device altogether had I not discovered the glorious secret: You do not have to use the Sony software to connect your Sony Reader to your PC.  Instead, you can download Calibre for free. Calibre is as good as the Sony software is bad. It allows you edit the metadata on your eBook files and even translate formats (except for DRM-protected files). I now use the Sony software only to manage the few books that I have purchased from the Sony store, and Calibre for everything else. 

I have also downloaded Sigil, which allows me to edit and create documents in ePub format. This, combined with Calibre, greatly enhances the utility of my Reader.

You still have to plug your Sony Reader Touch into a PC and transfer files, which is more cumbersome than the instant gratification of the Nook's Wi-Fi access to the B&N store. But it is really not that much of a hassle, as long as you don't rely on the horrible software that Sony provides.

2.  Glare.
The big selling point of the Sony Reader Touch Edition is (surprise) the Touch Screen, which is great for navigation and especially annotation. The trade-off that they don't tell you about is that the touch screen produces a glare, which pretty much cancels out the readability advantage of the E Ink screen. E Ink is supposed to allow you to read for long stretches at a time even in bright sunlight without any more eye strain than you would get from ink on paper; this simply is not the case with the Sony Reader Touch. I'm not even sure that it's not worse than a backlit computer screen.

3.  Limited Selection and Higher Prices
The Barnes & Noble store does a better job of matching Amazon's selection and rock-bottom prices on eBooks. Most books cost a little bit more at the Sony Reader Store than they do at the leading competitors. Moreover, the Nook supports books purchased from the Sony Reader Store, but not vice-versa.

Things that suck about the Barnes & Noble Nook

1.  The Touchpad
This is the trade-off with the glare issue of the Sony Reader: the display on the Nook is far crisper and easier on the eyes, but the cost is that navigability suffers compared to the Sony. You WILL have "fat-fingers" trouble using the Nook touchpad, especially with the keyboard. I expect that this is the kind of thing that most users will get used to as they gain familiarity with the device, but it's all too easy to hit the wrong spot on the touchpad, and it's not always easy to simply "undo" your last action and make it right. Annotation with the Nook is supremely cumbersome compared to the Sony, to the point that you will only want to bother with it when it's really important to you. 

Another feature of the Sony that I didn't fully appreciate until I found it missing from the Nook was that it remembers your past searches. When you start typing a search on the Sony, it offers up a selection of your recent searches starting with the same letter, and you can just click on one of them if you want to repeat it. On the Nook, you have to retype the entire search from scratch. This is all the more troublesome because the Nook keyboard is more difficult to use than the Sony keyboard. 

I understand from some reviews that the Nook Color overcomes the reability vs. navigability issue between the regular Nook and the Sony Touch, but I can't comment from direct experience.

2.  No Folders or Tags
This stunned me, because it's such a basic feature it didn't occur to me to imagine that B&N wouldn't provide it: there is no way to organize your content on your device; it's just a flat list. For your "library" -- the content that you purchased from Barnes & Noble -- you can at least search your content and find your books that way, but for your "documents" -- everything you load onto the device from any other source -- you can't even do that; you can only scroll through the list. Obviously, the more files you put on your device, the more of a burden this will be. I rely heavily on the tag function on my Sony Reader to allow me to pull up books quickly and easily, and am not sure how I would manage without them. There is some cause for hope that a future firmware update will correct this appalling oversight in the functioning of the Nook; in the meantime, I suppose Nook users will have to adopt some personal content management strategy to get around this problem.

3. The "LendMe" Feature
You can lend out some of the books you buy from Barnes & Noble for your Nook -- but you can only loan each book one time, to one person (only another Nook user, of course), for 14 days, and then you can never lend it again. This is beyond stupid. All it does is highlight the rights you give up by selecting digital books over the ink-and-paper variety. If being able to share your books is important to you -- and it should be -- do not be deceived by the way B&N touts this as a selling point into thinking that the Nook protects your right to share your books in any meaningful way. It does not.

So Which One Do I Recommend?

Because I'm cheap, and the Nook has the price advantage both at the original point of purchase and on the majority of subsequent content purchases, and because the thing an eReader is BEST for is simply reading eBooks straight through from start to finish, and the display on the Nook is superior for that function, and because I like to play a little sudoku, I say: all other things being equal, go with the Nook.  That said, having used a Nook, I find that I appreciate the features of my Sony that are better than the Nook so much the more. If you know that being able to organize a large number of files and/or make extensive annotations to your digital files are going to be important features for you, the Sony will serve you better.


Sarah Sours said...

Rachel, I only glanced through this series when you first wrote it, but now that Isaac has gotten a Nook for his birthday (grandparents, bless their hearts), I read through it more closely.

I really, REALLY appreciate you taking the time to write it all!

The MALI Bowers said...


I've enjoyed your posts about e-readers. I bought a NOOK last summer and did a lot of research and came to the same conclusions you did. I was very tempted by the Kindle, but they were sold out of the new one at the time and I'm so glad I didn't because of the library book issue. And the PDF issue. And the EPUB issue.

Anyway, for organization NOOK has shelves. And you can put your books on more than one shelf. There's a "Go to Shelf" command, so you can choose a shelf and go straight there.

I too hope that subsequent upgrades will make the NOOK even more user friendly. For one thing I'm a bit jealous of the games on my friends' Kindles (chess & Sudoku don't float my boat).

Jennifer Bowers
Friend of Mike & Mindee working in Mali

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