Saturday, July 3, 2010

Gadgetry Part 2 - Giving in to temptation

While I have faced one temptation head on and walked away unscathed, I have succumbed to another.

The other day I was out shopping for a protective housing for Scheherazade the iPod, preferably something not terribly expensive or sparkly (since I come from a world in which drawing attention to something is a good way to have it stolen).  I also wanted something simple -- no clips or buckles or moving parts, thank you very much.  The silicone housing which protects Saraswati the Droid does a fabulous job, so I was hoping to find something similar.

Just for kicks, I decided to start at the source.  I didn't expect much in the way of reasonable pricing, but as Scheherazade is an iPod classic (rather than the more popular and widely marketed touch and nano), I thought that I might have better luck with selection.  As it turns out, not so much.  (I did find something quite functional and reasonably priced at another establishment, so all is well.)

As I was in the apple store on a Wednesday morning, however, the store was not nearly as crowded as it had been on previous visits, so I had the opportunity to play with an iPad at my leisure.

It's cute.  It's fun.  It's a shiny new toy.  (And according to the current window display at the Apple store, it is the way to read ebooks.)  The touch screen is responsive, and all selections and commands are made though those handy little pictograms known as icons.  (Yes, I am implying that you don't necessarily need to know how to read [English or most any other language] to be able to use it.)  The virtual keyboard is, of course, much larger than anything you might find on a smartphone, but I didn't find it to be all that much more user friendly for the touch typist, and when held lengthwise, the device is too big to accommodate thumb typing comfortably.  (I will admit, however, that I did not try reorienting the device.)  There is space for the commonly used non-letter keys, but you still have to touch the 123 button to take you to a separate screen.  I would imagine that the goal is to emulate the aforementioned smartphone keyboards rather than the more traditional computer keyboards.

The screen is bright, and the resolution is impressively sharp.  I can see it being a lovely device for portable movie watching.  I did not immediately see icons for more practical applications such as a spreadsheet or word processor, and I did not investigate or inquire.  Most of the offerings were social in nature, including some applications geared toward personal organization, or else portals to various entertainment media -- music, videos, the web.

For all of the fun and flash and clarity, I was not nearly as enchanted as I expected to be.

For someone who spends a lot of time on social networking sites and watching videos, possibly even reading ebooks (more about that subject in a minute) and does not already have a smartphone and/or some sort of portable computer, it is just the thing.  For someone who already has one or more of those things, it is utterly redundant.

As I already have a netbook and a smartphone with which I am extremely satisfied, I was happy to learn that I have no use whatsoever for an iPad, or any other tablet PC for that matter.  Phew.

On the other hand, what I did decide not to live without is a nook.  I gave in about a week ago, and I dare say that I am officially happy with my extravagant new toy, whose name is Gertrude(as in Stein, as in Hamlet's mother, and even as in Jekyll because Marion Ravenwood is spelled differently than Marian the librarian and Maid Marian, and I don't know that I could choose.  Marian the librarian is, of course, the most appropriate, but I much prefer Ms. Ravenwood's spelling.

I'm still not quite sure about the size and weight and the feel in my hands.  The device might weigh about as much as a standard trade paperback book, but it is quite a bit thinner and therefore denser.  The corners are curved, but the taper from back to front creates a bit of an edge, which I hope to soften with a silicone cover, at least until I decide to invest in (splurge on) a leather cover of some sort.

The device is responsive, but does require just a bit of patience.  I can see so called "mad clickers" (those who will pound on the enter key or punish the left mouse button when a command is not instantaneously and obviously executed) becoming frustrated, and navigating with a combination of physical page turning buttons and the touch screen is a bit odd, but like anything, once I learn the quirks and the rhythm, I am sure that it will be fine.

Unlike the netbook, and even the Droid to some extent, even after being on for a couple of hours, there is virtually no heat output as far as I can tell.  The sleep and screen saver settings can be easily adjusted.  The WiFi, and to a lesser extent the 3G, connection will drain the battery in a hurry, but in "airplane mode" with all network connections disabled, a full battery charge easily lasts for days.

I have wandered around and downloaded a bunch of free content, and I am looking forward to reading blogs and trying out magazines and perhaps even newspapers.  The magazine selection is limited -- thirteen offerings at the moment -- but the New Yorker is really the only one I am interested in anyway, so I am set there.  I can purchase a single issue or opt for a monthly subscription, and either option is significantly less expensive than the paper variety.  There are twenty newspapers, including the New York Times and the Boston Globe.  I am not much for newspapers personally, but it makes me think of my mother who likes to read them online.

While I did set up bookmarks for all of the blogs I (would like to) read on a regular basis, I haven't spent much time with that particular feature just yet.  When web surfing, the text which appears on the color touch screen is highlighted by a black box on the main reading screen.  It's distracting enough that it is almost easier to read the tiny navigation screen, and I wrote to nook support and said so.  The web browser is still a beta product, so there is reason to hope for the future.  It is also possible that as I get used to it, the black box will not be quite as distracting.

As far as the actual reading part goes, the screen really is wonderfully soft and gentle on the eyes.  No glare, no eye strain.  It truly is nothing like staring at a computer screen.  I spent hours with the device a couple of nights ago as I went through one of my "read a book in a day" binges and felt no ill effects whatsoever.  In fact, with the adjustable type size, I would even go so far as to say that it is easier on the eyes than even print on paper.  The blinking between screen changes and page turns is only minimally distracting, although, again, a tiny bit of patience is required.

The 3G connection in and around the house seems to be decent -- I have downloaded a few free samples and complete ebooks -- but I had to return to the mother ship (or at least have a wifi connection) for my firmware update.  Of course, spending time at a b&n to update my nook isn't much of a hardship for me.

Like all good drug dealers, they offer temptations of all sorts of free stuff, although I think that the "read in store" capability might be a little more limited than I had originally thought and hoped.  It only works for an hour per visit.  There are free articles and ebooks and samples of ebooks and coupons for paper books and even the cafe.  And there are plenty of offerings which are almost free.  Temptation at every click of a button.

The free samples of ebooks are a bit disappointing in that the first three or four pages are taken up by title pages and copyright information.  I do not know if publishers require that information to be included or if someone just isn't quite paying attention, but when an eight-page sample turns out to be only three pages of actual text from the story, it is a bit disappointing.  (I wrote to nook support about that issue as well.)

As one might imagine, new releases are much easier to come by than backlist titles, so if you are looking to consolidate your library onto an ereader of any kind the way that you can consolidate your cd collection onto an mp3 player, you will likely be disappointed.  On the other hand, a lot of those classics that you think that you ought to read at some point (or at least a lot of the classics which I think that I ought to and would like to read at some point) are readily available at very reasonable prices.  Many fall into that "almost free" category mentioned above.  Will having a library of classics at my fingertips make me more likely to read them?  If Anna Karenina doesn't weight three pounds, am I more likely to carry it around until I finally get it read?  I'm not sure, but I think it might be possible.  I wonder the same thing about short story collections.

Just as having the Droid means that I can e-mail and chat without having to be sitting at or with a "real" computer, the nook means that I am carrying around an entire bookstore, which for someone like me is a fabulously wonderful and extremely dangerous thing.  It's a bit mind boggling -- Mr. Barnes and Mr. Noble everywhere I go, for research, for reading, for whatever -- but I think that there are grand adventures to be had.