Looking for a bit of Nookie – my search for a new eReader

Looking for a bit of Nookie – my search for a new eReader

This is the story of my epic search for the perfect eReader. I appreciate that not everyone gets as excited as me about new gadgets and stuff, but I guess we all need a hobby.

I recently ‘celebrated’ a sensitive ‘milestone’ birthday and some of my friends and family felt the need to club together and buy me a small gift. I was asked what I wanted, but couldn’t think of anything I’d really enjoy.

The problem is that I’m a bit of a gadget fan and I’m already well tooled-up with the latest Sony Vaio laptop, a Blackberry Bold smart phone and a Mesh desktop PC packing a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a solid-state hard drive. It really would be greedy to expect anything more…

Nonetheless, I had to think of something genuinely new with a price tag that wouldn’t test the affection of my loved ones. I tried to remember what I liked doing in the few moments of free time I get between paying the mortgage and breaking up fights between my kids.

The answer was quick in coming – I like reading books. In fact, I spend more time relaxing with books than I waste goggling at the TV or mucking around on the Internet. Following this line of logic, I realised what I really wanted was a new eReader device to enhance my reading pleasure.

Now, I’m a bloke and there’s nothing I like more than sublimating my primal urge to hunt into an intensive round of pre-purchase gadget research on the Internet.

The first eReader to catch my attention was the Amazon Kindle 2. It has a great e-Ink screen for comfortable reading and a 3G wireless connection to the Amazon store. However, two issues let the Kindle down – firstly, you have to ‘import’ it from the US, which means one runs the gauntlet of a falling £/$ exchange rate, additional import taxes and a probable lack of meaningful customer support.

Secondly, the Kindle locks you into Amazon’s eco-system of Digital Rights Management – the only ebooks that work on the Kindle are those you can buy from Amazon itself. What’s more, you’re stuffed if you buy an ebook from Amazon today and then change your eReader in the future for a non-Kindle device – only Amazon eReaders can display ebooks purchased from Amazon.

The next piece of kit to catch my eye was the forthcoming iPad from Apple. Now, I know Apple of old – my first job in media was in 1993 when I used Apple Macs to design and typeset newspaper ads. I know all about the ‘Apple User Experience’ and, quite frankly, I’m not that arsed about it.

I therefore wasn’t carried away by all the iPad hype and focussed my attention instead on its ability to enhance my reading pleasure. To do this I undertook a simulation of the iPad reading experience by trying to get through a John Le Carre novel on my Vaio laptop (both use standard LCD colour screen technology).

The results of my experiment are as follows: my eyeballs were fried to a crisp and I tended to nod off at least 1 hour earlier than I usually would in the evenings. In other words, my reading pleasure was severely curtailed.

The lesson here is simple but important – if you love to read and want to spend as much time with your new eReader as you do with paper-based books, then black and white eInk screens are the only way to go.

The next device to be fixed within the laser beam of my attention was the Sony Touch eReader. There are two different models available in the UK – one has a 5 inch screen, which was too small for my liking (smaller pages equal more page turns).

The other is a 6 inch device which has the added advantage of a touch-screen interface that can be controlled with one’s finger rather than a stylus. Although not as sprightly as the touch screen on an iPhone it’s still pretty good and I found it both easy and pleasant to use. What’s more, the Sony Touch doesn’t have any rotten DRM issues and can read a wide variety of ebook formats (except the Kindle’s, of course).

There are other eReader devices available in the UK, but none of them seemed to match the performance, price, design or availability of the Sony Touch eReader. The Sony machine was therefore going to be my final choice, until I went to New York recently on a business trip.

Whilst mooching along Madison Avenue (as one does) I stumbled across a Sony Style Centre shop. Inside they had on display not only the 6″ Touch eReader, but also its new big brother – the 9″ Daily Edition that’s only available in the US.

The first thing I noticed when I put them side-by-side was that the newer 9″ Daily Edition had slightly better screen contrast and image quality. This is important because all the reviews to date of the Sony Touch 6″ have banged on about how it suffers from poorer screen quality compared to non-touch devices like the Kindle.

I wasn’t unduly bothered by this because I’d fiddled around with the Sony Touch 6″ in the UK and the screen seemed OK to me. However, when I saw the incremental screen improvement between the 6″ and 9″ models I immediately transferred my affections to the 9″ machine. Note to Sony: when it comes to eReader screen quality, punters will always go for that little bit more…

Then I took a look at the price – at $399 the 9″ Daily Edition was $140 more expensive than the 6″ model. Granted, the 9″ Daily Edition has a 3G wireless service that allows you to buy books over the airwaves in a fashion similar to the Amazon Kindle. But this service only works in the US so it’s useless to me.

On balance I was prepared to pay a premium for the 9″ Daily Edition because I like its bigger, clearer screen, groovy touch interface and open-standard ebook compatibility. At this point my wallet started to burn a hole in my pocket, which is usually a good sign that it’s time to cool off and go for a walk before living to regret a spontaneous purchase decision.

And I’m very glad I did go for a walk, down 5th Avenue to be precise, straight into a Barnes & Noble store. Barnes & Noble is not a familiar name in the UK, but it’s essentially our equivalent of the Waterstones chain of book shops. In the window of their 5th Avenue store was an eye-catching display for their new eReader product called the ‘Nook’.

I’d heard about this machine but hadn’t paid much attention to it because it was never likely to be available in the UK. Nonetheless, I was intrigued and popped into the store for a nosey. First impressions were mixed – the eInk reading screen caressed my eyes and the Nook’s design and build quality were lovely.

However, the Nook also had a second, smaller colour screen that responded to finger-touch control like an iPhone that was used for navigating through menu options. Initially I found this odd to use and a bit confusing, which turned me off. However, after returning to my hotel room and googling the Nook I found its reviews were very favourable, especially since a recent firmware update had resolved a few early teething problems.

Despite this, the next day I went back to the Sony store with every intention of buying the 9″ Daily Edition. But when I picked it up again I discovered that my initial feelings for the Sony machine had turned to ashes within my heart. The screen didn’t sparkle and the design seemed drab. With a shock I realised that I’d fallen for the Nook!

I dashed back over to 5th Avenue and my feelings were confirmed. After spending another 15 minutes playing with the Nook I got the hang of the touch-screen controls and felt very comfortable with them. The device looked great and felt comfortable in my hands. I was also pleased to learn that the Nook could read as many ebook formats as the Sony Touch. Finally, the 6″ eInk screen with its 16 shades of grey and sparkling clarity turned my head and sealed the deal. The Nook’s price was an added bonus – only $259.

It’s two weeks since I bought my Nook and I’ve enjoyed using it every day. Whether you want it or not I’ll be writing a full user review in the near future, but I can confirm that I’m very pleased with it.

Since I got back from 5th Avenue having a bit of Nookie at bed time has taken on a whole new meaning in our house…

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