eBook Readers: Stink, Stank, Stunk

Each of these three e-book readers have enough things wrong with them that you should consider the "39 and a half foot pole approach" this holiday season.

Each of these three e-book readers have enough things wrong with them that you should consider the "39 and a half foot pole approach" this holiday season.

He's a mean one, that Mr. Pogue. He's a nasty, wasty skunk. His heart is full of unwashed socks and his soul is full of gunk. Right?

Um, no. Although I sometimes disagree with Pogue and his assessment of many consumer electronics products, after observing our own Mobile Gadgeteer's hands-on Nook video tour, I happen to think he's probably dead-on with his analysis -- the Nook ain't ready for prime time.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link for more.

The Nook has a number of problems which I think will prevent wide adoption and brisk post-holiday sales in its current generation, but I don't think these problems are unique to Barnes & Noble's e-reader. Simply put, every single e-reader on the market has some set of trade-offs that makes them undesirable in their current incarnation and not yet ready for widespread adoption. Some suck less than others, but generally speaking, as a genre of devices, they all pretty much Stink, Stank, Stunk.

Also Read: E-readers need to get better soon, or else (ZDNet Education)

The Amazon Kindle: Stink

What can I possibly say about the Kindle that I haven't said ten times already? Fine, the Kindle owns the lion's share of the eBook market, but let's not kid ourselves here, as an industry, eBooks are in their infancy, and the Kindle has every possible negative attribute and limitation that you can possibly list that makes it an undesirable ebook reader in a market that hasn't yet reached even a modicum level of maturity. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this is not the end as it relates to the evolution of ebooks. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Let's begin with the fact that Amazon is under the impression it can operate like Apple, and feels it has enough weight and influence that can control the entire content stream up through the user experience (UX) and the device level. This may work for the music industry and the iPod, but not for publishing. People want to buy (or borrow) their content from the store (or library) of their choice and read it on the device of their choice, which makes the Kindle a fail. Sure, you can read your Kindle books on a PC or your iPhone, but you are effectively locked into Amazon's store.

What else stinks about the Kindle? Storage cannot be expanded. The hardware and software platform is completely closed and can only read Amazon's AZW and MOBI ebook formats, rather than the open EPUB and encrypted Adobe DRM EPUB formats the other readers are embracing. After being on the market for nine months, The Kindle 2 only just got an update which gave it the PDF reading capabilities of the more expensive Kindle DX version, but the limited storage capability on both models hampers a large amount of PDF content from being loaded onto the unit.

More Kindle stinkage: It runs on Linux, but Amazon has no developer program so that the functionality of the device cannot be extended. Amazon's obsession with integrating 3G wireless into each and every device rather than providing ubiquitous Wi-Fi connectivity increases the cost overhead of both the books and the price of the unit as well as requiring two different models for North America and the EMEA region. And last, but not least, the build quality of the Kindle 2 and the Kindle DX leaves much to be desired from a durability perspective.

The Sony Reader: Stank

SONY has been in the e-reader game for even longer than Amazon, so from the perspective of who has the most maturity level in reader design or what device you should be looking at for possible purchase this holiday season, I would have to hand it to the Reader series of devices. Still, as good as the SONY Reader series units are, they've got certain characteristics that have a certain foulness about them that you cannot avoid discussing when comparing them to the other products on the market.

There's a lot to like about the Reader Touch and the Reader Pocket, enough that I might be able to overlook their glaringly apparent stankage.

The build quality of the hardware is absolutely top notch -- there's very little fear that with heavy use and wear, that these devices will be easily damaged, given their mostly metallic construction. The user experience is the best of any of the devices available, having an easy to navigate touch screen icon driven GUI. The mid-range PRS-600 has SD and SONY memory stick expansion and can read a wide variety of data formats including EPUB and PDF, and can accept content from stores other than SONY's. The device also has the ability to read free/paid content from the Google Books database as well as lent titles from public libraries.

So where's the stankage here?

Well, let's start with the fact that at $299.00 retail the PRS-600BC is more expensive than its two major competitors, the Kindle 2 and the Nook, which sell for $259. This wouldn't be nearly as much of an issue if the Reader Touch had all the features of its competitors, which would give it the "Premium" sort of brand positioning SONY typically occupies with its consumer electronics products.

Unfortunately, the PRS-600 Touch lacks any form of wireless connectivity, 3G or Wi-Fi. To top it off, the only way you can purchase or upload 3rd-party books to the device is through USB connectivity with a proprietary iTunes-like SONY e-book Library application for PC and Mac, which is about as unintuitive and poorly designed as I have ever seen for any "Sync manager" type application for any device.

While you can also use 3rd-party apps like Calibre (which runs on Windows/Linux/Mac) to manage your content library on and off the device, this wireless/onboard content store feature omission really makes the device a lot less friendly to work with. If you want on-device ebook purchasing and wireless connectivity, you'll have to go for the "Daily" version of the Reader, the $399.00 PRS-900BC.

Like the Kindle, the SONY readers also run on Linux, but are completely closed platforms. That's the ultimate stank in my book for a device that is otherwise the best in its class.

The Barnes & Noble Nook: Stunk

It would seem that on paper, the Nook has all the qualities you would want in an ebook reader. It  embraces open standards (EPUB, PDF, multiple content store support like the SONY) it runs on an open developer platform (Google's Android) and includes both 3G and Wi-fi with an onboard book store, with a replaceable battery and Micro-SD expandable storage. It also has the same Google Books and library content loaning capabilities as the SONY. The problem is that in its current implementation, the Nook is a big whopping Stunk.

Having not had any real face-time with the device, perhaps I'm being too judgmental. But having watched Matthew Miller's comprehensive walkthrough video and viewing the agonizingly slow UI response time and screen refresh, combined with David Pogue's scathing review, I'm going to have to give the Nook a big "wait until they get the Stunk out" before I can recommend anyone purchase Barnes & Noble's ebook offering.

How can Barnes & Noble get the Stunk out? Well, the first thing I would do is get a virtual device profile and ROM image out for the Android Software Developer Kit and allow the Open Source community to debug the hardware and see if the response time on the device can be improved, as well as submit other exploitative applications and tweaks for the device so that the UI isn't so unwieldy and klunky.

This is, of course, a device with an OS that was meant to be hacked and modified and continually perfected, but it's currently being treated if it was just like the Kindle or the SONY reader -- locked down. And that's not in the spirit of what Android is all about.

Frankly, I think that Barnes & Noble might actually sell more books from their store if they released the existing Nook store app to the Android Market for phones like Verizon's DROID, which has a high-res screen that is more than adequate for e-book reading. Sure, it's a much smaller screen, but at 480x854 pixels, it has the highest resolution and crispest display of any smart phone currently on the market. And nobody would ever call the DROID slow or unresponsive.

The biggest weakness of the Nook is the lag time between the capacitive LCD UI and the refresh rate of the e-ink. If this response time can be improved by a factor of 3, the current implementation of the device might become usable.  I think a second generation Nook that used something along the lines of a touchscreen, high performance e-paper dual mode display like Pixel Qi's might make the UI more pleasant to deal with.

So there you have it. All e-book readers currently on the market have serious trade-offs that make them Stink, Stank or Stunk. Where do you sit with the current generation of devices? Talk Back and Let Me Know.