nook initial impressions

My birthday present to myself arrived yesterday: the new Barnes & Noble “nook” ebook reader.

As you probably know, ebooks and ebook readers have been a hobby of mine for a while now. I’m rather passionate about ebooks. So of course I had to get a nook to see how it stacks up.



The look of the nook is great. The front is smooth slightly glossy plastic, with a matte finish on the buttons on either side of the screen. The back is a slightly rubberized plastic that feels comfortable in my hand. The weight feels good, and it feels sturdy overall (though I wouldn’t want to drop it). The buttons don’t have seams, and have a nice click to them. The buttons are on both the left and right edges, so it’s good for left or right handed use.

The side buttons do have one major flaw in my mind – they are reversed. When I hold the nook, my hand is comfortable gripping it by the side, with my fingers on the back and my thumb resting on the edge. But my thumb rests on the upper button, which is the “previous page” button. To go to the next page, I have to bend my thumb down every time, which is uncomfortable, or hold the nook by the bottom edge, which is also less comfortable. Lying on my side in bed, I found myself holding the nook with one hand and tapping the “next page” button with my other hand, obviously not ideal.

This button issue isn’t a dealbreaker, but it’s such a basic error it makes me wonder what sort of person tested it – after holding it for one minute, my conclusion was that the “next” and “previous” buttons should be switched.

The screens

The e-ink screen looks great, same e-ink technology as in the Sony and Amazon devices. It has a gray tone to it, nowhere near as white as paper, but is very easy to read. No built-in light source, so you’ll need a reading lamp or some sunlight, same as a paper book.

As with other e-ink screens, the screen takes about a half-second to refresh, and does it with a sort of a blink, which some people find offputting. I’ve never had an issue with it, I find e-ink very easy to read from.

The nook’s particular hook is the second screen, a small LCD touchscreen. I found the initial brightness of this screen way too high, especially next to the non-light-emitting e-ink screen, so I turned the LCD way down, to 7% brightness.

This screen is an interesting workaround to the slow refresh rate of the e-ink, and not cluttering up the device with lots of buttons, like the Kindle. In fact, all three major ebook makers have their own solution for interactivity: Sony has a touchscreen surface overlayed on the e-ink screen, which some say makes the screen harder to read; Amazon has a physical keyboard; Barnes&Noble has the small LCD touchscreen.

The LCD looks good, but is somewhat unresponsive. Using it as an on-screen keyboard works fine, but scrolling vertically through the iPod-style menus is clunky. As an iPhone user I am used to the buttery-smooth scrolling of the Apple device, in comparison the nook’s touchscreen is barely working. It seems more like a software issue than a hardware one, so I’m hoping they can make it respond more smoothly with an update at some point. Right now though, it’s very clunky.

The store

The B&N store on the nook is obviously a first attempt. It’s not terribly well-designed, and in a lot of ways seems broken.

First and foremost, navigation is bad. Just going to “ebooks” gives a result something like “Page 1 (items 1-20 of 30,000)”. While I’m sure B&N wants to show off how many books they have available, putting them all in one long list (with no apparent order to it) is absurd, who is going to page through thousands of screens of random books?

Going to a category isn’t much better, I went to “reference” and the books there seemed to be random as well, there were things like “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” in there. In fact, most of them seemed to be fiction, not reference. So whoever categorized these (or wrote the category code) did a terrible job.

I think right now browsing the store is pretty unusable, I didn’t try searching for a specific book, but that’d probably be the best bet for locating content.


The nook is a nice little device. I really like the feel of it and the design, aside from the flaws mentioned above. It seems like most of the issues are software ones, so it remains to be seen how aggressive B&N will be in doing updates. If they step up and work hard, they could rival Amazon. If they sit back, I think they’re going to lose out.


PDAs I have known

I was thinking about it yesterday, I’ve had quite a few PDAs over the years.
I’m probably forgetting one or two, but here’s the ones that come to mind:

Casio BOSS organizer
I actually had 2 or 3 of these in succession, but I don’t remember the brand/model of the first ones. The Casio BOSS was handy – it fit easily in my pocket and stored all my phone numbers and schedules. It didn’t have any fancy extras, but it got the job done and had great battery life.

Casio Databank calculator watch
Ah, what nerd hasn’t had a calculator watch at some point? I was really fond of this one, though – although the memory was limited, it was still plenty to store all my phone numbers and schedule. And being a watch, the battery lasts for YEARS.

Palm Pilot
The first PDA I got with the ability to install apps. The Palm OS was lightweight and efficient, and there were a lot of people releasing free apps for the Palm. Good times.

Palm III
The Palm III improved on the Palm Pilot’s screen and memory and was just better in general.

Palm IIIxe
The PalmIIIxe was the same as the Palm III, but with more memory and I think a faster processor.

Kyocera Smartphone
Combined a Palm with a cellphone in a form factor that was not unlike duct-taping the two devices together. Still, I could check my email when out and about, and even though the web browser was hacky and barely better than Lynx, at least it was something.

Dell Axim X5
A capable PDA with a color screen. Bulky in design, but a nice device. Running Windows Mobile, it was more capable than Palm OS, but also not very optimized. There were also less apps than on Palm OS, and unlike Palm, most Windows Mobile apps weren’t free.

Tapwave Zodiac
I really wanted to like the Zodiac, it used the Palm OS and had a pretty color screen. The controls were perfect for games… however, the underpowered processor, small RAM, and terrible camera meant I ended up returning it after a week or two.

Dell Axim X50
A big improvement over the Axim X5, the X50 had a beautiful full VGA screen (even today, many PDAs are lower-res than that), a fast CPU, and WiFi. The mobile IE was pretty bad, but usable. App selection was ok, although one flaw with Windows Mobile is that if an update to the OS was released, each PDA manufacturer was responsible for working with Microsoft to create a custom build of the release for that PDA. Which meant that you were pretty much stuck with the OS on the PDA, and could only gaze wistfully at updates.

Danger Hiptop 2 (aka Sidekick 2)
Sexy design with a swiveling screen. However, a crappy CPU, crappy camera, poor app selection, and bad web browser had me returning it not long after getting it. It did do AIM real well, but that was about it.

iPhone 3G
My current PDA. Sleek and powerful, it comes at the expense of battery life. I didn’t get the original iPhone because at that point there were no apps for it. With the 3G iPhone, Apple launched an app store and a flood of applications quickly appeared. Interestingly, the main menu GUI is pretty much the same as the Palm Pilot, from way back when.

One thing I have noticed: over time, CPU and RAM has gotten better, but batteries really haven’t improved much. Which means I have over time gone from a PDA that could run for weeks or even months on a charge, to the iPhone, which can go maybe 2 days.

Analog Man in the Digital Age

Analog Man in the Digital Age
The Engineer’s Dilemma

Being a Somewhat Rambling Musing on the Information Age

We live in an interesting time. We have come out of the Industrial Age and into the Information Age. More and more the world is connected digitally, but paradoxically, people feel more lost than ever.

Partly, this is caused by a disconnect between the analog and digital world, and a loss of tangibility and analog character.

Let’s take the example of a letter. In the old days (not so long ago) a letter would be written by hand, pen to paper. Then came the typewriter, and here is where the engineer’s dilemma comes in to play. The typewriter, when it comes to the task of conveying text, is vastly superior to handwriting. It is far more legible and consistent than handwriting. From an engineer’s perspective, it is a better solution to the problem of how to record text. It’s pretty black and white, there are a number of advantages to type over handwriting, from an engineering perspective.

But there is a sterility, a loss of analog character, that takes place when transitioning from handwriting to type. The essence of the message is intact, but the flavor of it, the subtle changes in handwriting, the ability for non-linear writing, the insertion of non-textual doodles, the feel of the line quality from pen or quill as ink grows lower, all that is lost.

Take that to the next stage, and the typewritten letter becomes an email. In that transition, the look is more or less the same, black type on a white surface. From an engineering perspective, the gains are substantial. By making the information digital, it can be transmitted nearly instantaneously anywhere in the world, copied to other locations for redundant backups, and indexed and searched easily. But here, there is also a loss of analog character. The transition from paper to screen has come at a cost of tangibility.

This is more substantial than it might seem, because we are analog animals, and all of our senses are important to us. For example, a letter might have a scent, applied either accidentally or intentionally by the sender, which not only relays sensation to the recipient, but also helps form stronger memories. In an email the physical form is gone, which to means not only a loss of tactile sensation (the thickness of the paper, the flipping from page to page) but also a loss of potential context.

Emails are usually always read in the same place: while sitting at one’s computer. A letter is received at the same place, the mailbox, but might be opened and read in any number of places. This loss of context removes potential context that could form more meaningful memories, such as reading a letter from your lover while sitting at a kitchen table, the sunlight glinting in and the smell of fresh-baked muffins in the air, or reading the same letter while on a noisy crowded subway on the way to work. Memories are more solidly formed when they are associated with all senses at once, and can be triggered in the future by stimulus to any of those senses. In the subway example, years later you might be on a train, and the swaying motion might suddenly bring back the memory of reading that letter, and bring a wistful smile to your face. By homogenizing the letter-reading experience, each email is much less likely to have unique environmental context, or indeed much content beyond purely visual.

Digital content is generally higher-quality than analog content at this point (from the view of production value and perceived “professional” quality), it is slicker and better produced. In a few clicks, a person can create a pleasing slide show of high-quality images. But it is the analog character, the “fiddly bits” that makes people yearn for an old photo album, with photos stuck in slightly crooked, and handwritten notes on the backs. “Scapbooking” is a hyper-extension of this analog character, and the abundance of textures and visuals, the crunchy analog feel, has made this hobby incredibly popular.

So this is the engineer’s dilemma: how to preserve the analog feel in a digital world?

Arthur C. Clarke once famously said “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – and this is one place that engineers can look. Engineers are technology-minded, so will most often look forward for solutions.

An example of this is the digital picture frame. It takes the intangible digital photos on your computer and places them in a tangible item. Displayed on the digital frame, the picture can be used in an analog way, it can be picked up, brought closer for examination, and carried around. As technology improves, it could become more and more analog, to the point where the frame could be the size of a polaroid, and a special pen could be used to write on the photo and on the back of the photo, and calling up a particular image would call up the handwritten notes as well. It will essentially become a magic polaroid, almost exactly like the analog ones, but able to be changed at will, perhaps responding to spoken command or even your mood.

Another example is the Nabaztag, which acts as an analog bridge from your computer – it is a rabbit-shaped gadget that can flash different colors or wiggle its ears to indicate things like incoming emails, or the weather forecast. Silly and frivolous, yes, but by branching a tendril into the analog world, it allows the computer to interact with people more on their own plane, and in so doing, become potentially more relate-able, more lovable.

The loss of analog character and tangibility makes it harder to make an emotional connection to digital content than similar analog content. Although a child can form a connection to an animated teddy bear on a computer screen, that connection comes much easier if it is an analog teddy bear that they can touch. In the movie A.I., one character is a robotic teddy bear, designed to play with children. He bridges the digital/analog gap, like Nabaztag. He is a tangible conduit to digital data, a computer in the shape of a teddy bear, able to interact by engaging multiple senses.

DRM issues aside, one objection people have to digital books is the experience. The screen is capable of displaying text very similar to printed text, but the tactile experience is a flat, cold device, with buttons and menus and plugs and wires. But it is not inconceivable that in the not-too-distant future, you could pick up a book and say “I would like to read Homer’s Odyssey” and the cover would change to Homer’s Odyssey, and all the pages would magically fill with the text. Perhaps a bookmark would even unfurl, showing where you left off last time.

But that is the not-too-distant future. One thing that can be done relatively easily, and right now, is personalization. Allowing data to be displayed in the manner a user wants allows a digital experience to have a more analog feel, without electronic rabbits or nanotechnology. This is clearly evident in cellphones, where users can change the ring sound, background, menu, and other things to make the device more unique. This customization imbues the device with some analog character. Recently Google added an option to customize the look of your Gmail account, which gives the interface a more analog feel.

It’s a situation that arises again and again, as newer technologies try to supplant older ones.

Current computer operating systems represent the ongoing struggle to provide analog metaphors for digital content. “File Folders”, icons that look like pages, tabbed and windowed documents… all symbolic representations to give things a more analog feel.

It’s an interesting problem, from an engineering perspective. And not just in an academic sense. This problem, in fact, is what I currently do for a living, as I try to convert print catalog production systems from sheafs of paper and handwritten notes in a folder into a database with a (hopefully) user-friendly front-end.

It’s very difficult to supplant an analog system with a digital one, even if the digital system will speed production and reduce costs. Even though the system being used is now the web-based application that I am working on, some users still pass around folders with catalog section names written on them, even though the folders are now empty, and only symbolic. They persist because we are analog creatures, and tactile, physical things are more meaningful to us then digital representations on a screen.

It’s my dilemma.

iPhone gripe

So I really like my iPhone. Yes, it has flaws, both hardware and software, but there is one hardware limitation above all others that I run into every day: the pathetic 16GB of storage.

It might seem like a fair amount, but coming from an 80GB iPod, it’s not nearly enough. I can only put a fraction of my music library on the iPhone, and every time I want to add a new album, I have to remove one, a dark sacrifice to appease the Apple gods.

This morning, I thought I had enough space to add a new album without removing one – no luck, only half the new album would fit.

16GB is just *too small*! 32GB would be great, 64GB would be fantastic.

Ok, rant done.

iPhone Case

I got a case for my iPhone – previously I had just been using an old dice bag.

The thing that caught my eye about this case is that it actually adds a feature to the iPhone that was missing.

It’s the Griffin Clarifi and it has a little lens that you can slide in front of the iPhone camera to give it a macro mode for close up shots.

The normal iPhone camera has a focal length of like 2 feet, so trying to get any kind of close up shot is an exercise in blurriness. The Clarifi not only seems to be a decent case, but the lens actually does the macro thing pretty well.

Here is a comparison of shooting without the Clarifi lens and with it.

iPhone camera without Clarifi:

iPhone camera WITH Clarifi:

It still doesn’t change the fact that the iPhone camera is pretty low-res and generally poor, but at least now I can take pictures of notebook doodles and other documents, which is a nice thing to have handy.

p.s. In case you’re wondering what the nutritional label is from, it’s Cactus Jerky. Spicy Teriyaki Cactus Jerky.

Quit bogarting the fun tech!

As William Gibson pointed out:

“The future is already here.
It’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Case in point: the EKG and EEG.

These technologies have been around for a while, and with the advent of printed circuits and microchips, should now be extremely cheap to produce. However, since they are considered niche technology – specifically they are only sold to doctors and hospitals who have deep pockets – they are prohibitively expensive to the average consumer, or even for healthcare providers in poorer countries!

In this day and age, it would be possible to sell an EKG for $50 and an EEG for $100, if they were computer accessories that used software to do some of the heavy lifting. If they were stand-alone, tack on another $100-$200 for computer-on-a-chip components.

But since they are “niche” products, this will never happen, creating a technology divide between rich and poor.

Now in my case, I am merely annoyed by not being able to play with what looks like fun tech. In the case of poorer countries, or even poorer regions in the US, it may mean not having access to technology important for medical care.

iPhone has the slowest sync in the known universe

When you sync the iPhone, if you have made any changes to the apps you have on the phone, it does a full backup when you sync. Which for me, is pretty much every time.

A full backup is I N C R E D I B L Y     S L O W.
I haven’t timed it, but I would say between an hour and an hour and a half.
Which is a fucking long time, especially if you are trying to sync some podcasts and get out the door on your way someplace.

What I don’t understand: why isn’t it an incremental backup? If 95% of my iPhone is unchanged, why take over an hour to sync the whole thing, instead of taking 5 minutes to sync the part that changed?

It’s really, really frustrating. You also can’t use the iPhone while it’s syncing, so you can’t use it to call someone to tell them you are running late because your iPhone is taking FOREVER to sync!