By Casey Lynn
Contributing Writer, [GAS]
I had heard rumors of the Barnes & Noble eReader, set to compete with Amazon by offering a software alternative to the Kindle that takes advantage of your existing devices like an iPhone or Blackberry. So when I received an email this morning encouraging me to try it out and offering (gasp!) 6 free books, I decided to give it a whirl. I should say upfront that I’m not a huge fan of ebooks just because I collect books like some people collect records – but I do use Stanza on my iPhone. Though I offer the below critique with the caveat that if you’re using a Blackberry rather than an iPhone and don’t have access to other ebook readers like Stanza, then the B&N reader might actually be a good choice.
For those of you familiar with Stanza, the B&N eReader looks basically the same. It syncs up to your B&N account much like Stanza syncs up to Fictionwise, and displays the books currently in your library. The interface for reading the actual books is basically the same as well (as you can see from the screenshots below – B&N to the left, Stanza to the right); one addition I noted is that the B&N reader will scroll the text automatically, but as someone who reads very quickly, I’d rather turn pages. But when it comes to the reader itself – B&N is right up there with Stanza as far as readability and design (on an iPhone, at least).
The problem that I encounter with the B&N eReader comes in with the actual obtaining of books. First of all, these six “free” books provided when you sign up – including Dracula (shown above) and Pride and Prejudice – are free anyway. As in, they’re all in the public domain and can be downloaded in seconds on Stanza through Project Gutenberg or several other providers. The most downloaded book from Project Gutenberg on Stanza is The Art of War, which when searching through B&N’s iPhone bookstore will cost you $8 as a download, as will Don Quixote. I remember reading that B&N had partnered with Google to provide Google Print’s collection of public domain books for free, so I was momentarily confused when I saw these prices – until I realized that if you search and get a list of results for all ebook versions of any given public domain book, you have to scroll down and down and down to get to the free version, which you then have to “purchase” and check out like any other book, including putting in your credit card number.
You can also search for books on the iPhone Barnes & Noble Bookstore app, but it’s actually a port of the entire online store rather than just ebooks. In order to search just among ebooks, you have to go to the website – which is what shows up when you click on “Shop for eBooks” within the eReader itself. The website doesn’t seem to be iPhone optimized so it’s a little annoying to navigate.
However, I will give the B&N iPhone bookstore kudos for one cool feature – you can take a picture of a book and it will pull up the listing for it. However, it looks like the coolness of this is currently crippled by a lack of common sense. You only get a listing for the version of the book pictured (so for example, a hardback) rather than a listing for all available versions. So the camera feature was essentially useless since I ended up having to search by the title anyway in order to find an ebook version.
So after spending some time with the Barnes & Noble eReader, I can’t really think of why you would want to use it over Stanza (or perhaps other eReaders that I’m not familiar with) unless you just have B&N brand loyalty. The interface for the reader itself is essentially the same, and obtaining books is considerably easier with Stanza. For the record, books that aren’t in the public domain aren’t any cheaper on Stanza since you buy them through Fictionwise. They are slightly cheaper for Kindle, but the iPhone Kindle app is inferior to both of these. If B&N wants to make a dent in this market, what they need to do is offer ebooks cheaper. Or they might benefit from a model like, say, the science fiction book club where you get to pick a certain number of free books when you sign up and are then locked into buying more later.
But offering me “free” stuff that is already free is kind of lame. If you want to read Dracula (which you should) on your iPhone, download Stanza instead. And as a bonus, Stanza has partnerships with some publishers like Harlequin and Randomhouse to offer free books which are available with just a click in the app, no web browser or credit card required – I recommend Blood Engines by T.A. Pratt.