Tuesday, July 28, 2009

eReaders - Barnes and Noble Application

I downloaded the Barnes and Noble eReader application the day I heard about it and synced up my iTouch immediately. I was curious to see how it compared to the Kindle application, especially across devices.

The install from iTunes is seemless. I "purchased" it from the app store (it's free) and then it appeared on my iTouch after syncing. It asked for my Barnes and Noble account information, and once I put it in, I immediately had  a few books downloaded to the device: Dracula, Last of the Mohicans, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, and Sense and Sensibility. It also has a copy of the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

I tried a bunch of things on this device, and so I'll run through some comments on how things work as well as some comparisons with the Kindle application.

Ordering Books

Buying books online, or getting samples, is easy, and about the same as the Kindle application. Both applications launch a browser that connects from the iTouch. You can also use a PC to purchase books. There is less of a selection from Barnes and Noble, but it's a good selection for me.

Buying requires that you set up a default credit card and then it’s a click and a confirmation.

Navigating Your Library

The ordering in the Kindle application was always set for me to show the most recent read book at the top. This worked well as I often read a couple books at a time and keeping the most recent ones first was great. There were also author/title sorts.

The B&N app does it by download date, which is a pain for me. While typically my most recent book might be downloaded, there are times I'll buy 2-3 books and start reading one. Not having the most recently accessed book at the top is a pain to me. Not sure if it matters to others.


There is no sync. I have my “library” on multiple devices and there is no synchronization between them. At first I thought this was a big deal, but the more I think about it, perhaps not. If my wife and I share an account, and I think we should, then I don’t want her progress impacting mine. We share books in real life, but we might have separate dog ears or bookmarks in there.

As I think about it, the only good way for this to work is to have the ability to manually sync the book location up. Which means that every device would upload its progress periodically and then you’d get a list of devices on your account and locations, and you’d have to select one. Might be a nice future enhancement.


The readers are similar, but the more I’ve used the B&N reader, the more I think it needs work. In the Kindle reader I can swipe my finger right to left to turn a page, a gesture similar to turning a real page. I can go both ways, and that’s the default BN behavior. However the Kindle allows me to also touch the edge of the page on either side to change pages. The BN reader allows that, but I have to change the settings. I can select

  • swipe left/right
  • touch left/right
  • swipe up/down
  • touch up/down

It’s nice to be able to set this, but I’d like to be able to have a choice as I’m reading. There are times that I get tired of the swipe, and would like to touch. Changing the settings seems intrusive.

One of the reasons I get tired is that I prefer tapping. However tapping the page in BN reader works fine for turning pages. But if I want to get to the settings, and I have a few times, the tapping keeps turning pages. Normally in both readers tapping the center of the screen brings up the menu. Handy for changing books. I finally learned that I can swipe up or down to get the menu in the BN reader, but I keep forgetting. Very annoying.

On the other hand, their swipe seems to require a bigger swipe than the Kindle reader. I don’t know how you program these apps, but they definitely react differently on the same device.


The BN reader has many more options, from everything like colors and fonts to automatic scrolling, a search feature, line spacing, justification, even a quick day/night setting to allow you to set two reading modes and switch between them with a single choice.

There are two big things that I think really give the BN reader the edge, despite a few annoying ergonomic things. The first is the ability to select a word and look it up. A dictionary is included with your BN reader for free, and once you’ve accessed it, you can press a word for a second, and the dictionary will open and find the word. I think it’s a light dictionary because there have been quite a few words that weren’t in there, but still it’s nice. One of the things I really appreciated about the Kindle device was being able to look up words. I’d never done that with physical books, just guessing at meanings from context. I often looked up words on the Kindle device, and thought it helped me learn a few things.

I was very disappointed the Kindle on iPhone didn’t have this, and liked that the BN reader had it. What’s more, it will ask you if you want to have it look the word up in the dictionary, in Google, or in Wikipedia. That is really handy, and I think it’s powerful on a PC, iPhone, or Blackberry. Not so great on the iTouch unless you have a wi-fi connection, but still cool. You can also set the reader to automatically look it up with one of those sources instead of asking.

The second thing that I think is amazing is that they give you real page numbers. They might not match the exact page in a paperback or hardback, but that is infinitely more reassuring than the Kindle’s “locations.” The book paginates, which slows the reading when you get started, but after that it’s nice to see page xxx at the top.

And even better is a graphical bar chart at the bottom of the screen that roughly marks chapters and the progress to date. I would love that on the Kindle as I often want to decide how much further I have in a chapter. There’s no good way to do that with the Kindle other than page forward and find out.

The Verdict

There are things I like about both readers, and while I think it’s easier to read on the Kindle app, the BN one’s progress indicator and lookup features make it my preferred reader.

I think both companies could learn from the other app, and I look forward to seeing them ported to other devices.

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