NOOKStudy: Test drive

Today I received mail from Barnes & Noble saying that their new NOOKStudy app is available for download. I was chuffed. I think good ereader software aimed at students would be great, and has the potential to make a huge impact on learning in developing countries. In South Africa, digital textbooks could solve many of our distribution and price problems, as long as the rollout of computer labs in libraries and schools continues apace, and the cost of computing continues to drop.I downloaded and installed the 19MB app, and for the first twenty minutes got precisely nowhere.

On install, I’m asked to choose between “I have an account” and “Create Account”. I don’t think I have a B&N account, and I don’t have a Nook, so I choose to create an account.

I start worrying when the app only lets me use up to 12 digits in my password. My passwords tend to have at least 14 characters. It then tells me there’s a problem with the password I entered, but doesn’t tell me what the problem is. After some trial and error, I realise it doesn’t allow non-alphanumeric characters (like symbols). With a sigh I downgrade my password security to please the app’s developers, but I power on – this app sounds so good in the press release.

My mood lifts when the app identifies that this computer has an Adobe account, and gets the registered email address right too. Nice one: dealing with Adobe IDs in a user-friendly way is a challenge for app developers, so this is a good sign. Presumably NOOKStudy will link neatly and seamlessly to my Adobe ID, and I’ll be able to open all the Adobe DRMed books I’ve bought in it.

Out here in the Rest of World, I have to lie when I’m required to say which US state and school I’m in. As a student, I was once quite keen on Columbia in New York, so I pretend I’m there.

Right, I’m ready to go: “create account”.

Surprisingly, the app tells me an account already exists under my email address, and that I must use a different email address to sign up. I have an account? Okay, I’ll try logging in with my alleged existing one. Does it want my B&N username and password? Since I use a very regular algorithm for my passwords and usernames, I reckon I can figure what my password would be if I’ve created one in the past. I give it a go.

But again, the password field only takes 12 digits, so my usual algorithms won’t work. Ah, there I remember: Adobe IDs used to (maybe still do) have the same limitation. Could it want my Adobe ID’s password?

But I can’t remember my Adobe ID’s password. And amazingly there is no “forgot password” link or prompt. I try several possible password variations that I have used in the past for character-limited passwords. Nothing. Eventually I get a warning: “Your account will be locked due to repeated sign-in failures.”

I’m out. Thanks for playing, B&N.

I’m usually very understanding about teething problems in new apps and technologies. Most are developed by hard-working, well-meaning developers who’ve had to wade through endless meetings and half-baked specs with clients who only barely understand the technology they’re dealing with. So I really hope there’s an update for the NOOKStudy coming soon that fixes these problems.

Long, quiet pause.

NOOK Study homeOkay, fine. I’ll try another email address. I don’t like doing this, because it makes life confusing to have to use different email addresses as usernames. But that does get me in. I’m grumpy by now, but once I’m in, I’m fairly impressed.

  • The UI seems simple and intuitive. The Shop button brings up an ISBN or keyword search, and hitting Search launches my browser and the B&N ebook store. (A link to ISBN help launches what seems to be a pretty random ISBN help page relating largely to print books. When I search for the ISBN of the British edition of Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, I get back a no-results page from the B&N Music store – a delightful bug with the B&N site, not the app. An search for an ISBN the B&N carries takes me straight to the page.)
  • As expected, I can open PDF and epub files.
  • In a sample epub (that comes with the app), the rendering is good. Further use will tell me more about the engine, but I’m guessing it’s all built more or less on the Adobe RM SDK, and will run much like ADE. (I like the default epub font, certainly an elegance upgrade on ADE’s.)
  • PDF rendering is good, if a bit slow (but this is often a problem caused by the Adobe RM rendering engine). In fact, the whole app feels pretty sluggish (compared to ADE). I assume it’ll take a while for the app developers to find ways to speed up performance.
  • I can add Adobe DRMed books I’ve bought before to my library and read them – the Adobe ID detection and integration is as seamless as I could have hoped.
  • Making notes and highlighting is pretty easy. It’s a nice feature to be able to add a link to my note, and have an instant preview of the site I’ve linked to (a la Facebook).
  • The dual-book view is great. I can see two books open at once, and annotate each of them. Neat.
  • When adding new books to my library, the app doesn’t create cover thumbnails for them, using a default ‘My Stuff’ logo instead. This is a minor annoyance likely to be fixed in an update release I’m sure.

On the whole, this is a solid first release that sets a few new UX benchmarks for ereading apps. As this kind of user experience improves, it would be nice to see some positive responses from students and lecturers in digital-textbook pilots. In South Africa, that’s where the real digital-content money is going to be.

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