Trying Out a Barnes & Noble Nook eReader, Especially for PDFs

As described in a separate post, I was working through steps to become more mobile in my computing.  To that end, I took an interest in using an eReader.  The evaluation process brought me around to the point of buying a Barnes & Noble (B&N) Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight.  This post describes my exploration of that device.

Getting Started

I charged the Nook for the recommended 3.5 hours.  It had a funky technology:  the Adobe Eink (that is, e-ink) technology was able to stay onscreen when the device was powered down, so for the day or two it took me to get back to it, I could see it showing me a nice American Gothic-style image.


(The blue tinge is an artifact of my camera and the lighting, not of the Nook itself.)  Eventually I realized that, no, it had stayed powered on; that was just its resting state.  It used up 5% of the battery charge during that day or two of lying around unused, suggesting that its sleep mode used very little power.  (Its settings gave me the option of choosing a nature scene instead, and I preferred that.  There was apparently an option of using my own photos as screensavers; I did not explore that.)  The User Guide said, “You do not need to turn your NOOK off when you stop using it.”  (I would soon start to read through the User Guide on the Nook, but decided it would be easier to read on the desktop computer, so I downloaded a copy.)

As I would soon see, the Eink technology requires refreshing of the screen whenever the view changes.  Refreshing results in a flashing effect.  I thought I would probably get used to it.  When I started researching apps (below), I encountered a reference to a no-flash app, but I was not sure how the device would deal with ghosting if it could not wipe off the residue from whatever was displaying previously.

The instructions said there were four buttons on front.  That was correct.  You just couldn’t see them.  Actually, they were the two slight ridges on each side.  In the Settings, I could decide whether the top two would turn the page forward or backward (for either right- or left-handed one-hand reading).

I turned it on.  It took me through a couple of introductory steps:  accept their Terms of Service, select my time zone, connect to a WiFi network, and then register the Nook to a Barnes & Noble (B&N) account.

To connect to my WiFi network, I had to type in its security code.  For this purpose, the Nook gave me a touchscreen typewriter at the bottom of the screen.  I wanted to use a stylus rather than touch the screen, partly to keep it clean and partly because I had used a stylus years before, with a Palm Personal Digital Assistant (PDA).  I wondered whether people used styli with Nooks.  A search suggested that these were not the little three-for-$2 styli that I had used with that PDA.  We were talking $10, even $20 for a stylus.  I tried using a pencil eraser instead.  It worked fine.  The touchscreen keys were a little stiff — sometimes I had to push rather hard to get them to respond — and unfortunately there didn’t seem to be a way to adjust that.  There were options to link to Facebook, Twitter, and Google, and to import Google contacts; I decided not to do that at the moment.

The Memory Card Option

In Settings, I saw that I had 240MB available out of a maximum of 240MB.  In other words, I had not loaded anything, and also there was not much storage (though admittedly 240MB is a lot of text).  I wasn’t much concerned about the 240MB limit because, as the User Guide (p. 89) pointed out, the device would accommodate a Micro SD (and also SDHC) cards.  I had one of those.  I had to slide it into a larger (non-Micro) SD adapter (confusingly labeled, in the picture here, as a “Micro” SD Adapter) to make it work in my laptop, but the Nook itself just wanted the little guy.  (I could just as easily have been using a desktop computer for this, but only my laptop had a Micro SD reader.)  I had to slide the Micro SD card into the Nook upside down (label facing the back side of the Nook), and push until it stayed all the way in.  When I did that, the Nook recognized it and said I still had 240MB of RAM but also had a separate 3.68GB free (i.e., the usable portion) on the 4GB Micro SD card.


I doubted that the Nook would demand high-speed memory, or that it would make much use of huge capacity, though apparently it would support cards up to 32GB.  (The Nook was capable of formatting the card itself; if I did it on the laptop, I would have to remember to use FAT32 formatting.)  So as I looked ahead to the possibility of buying additional Micro SD cards (to have a spare on hand, or perhaps to keep materials from different sources physically separated), it seemed that I could probably get away with any inexpensive mainstream generic card; the only difference would be that it would take longer to load files onto a Class 2 or Class 4 card than onto a Class 6 card.  A quick Newegg search offered a 4GB Kingston card with adapter and shipping for $7; a Google Shopping search produced a 4GB SanDisk for $4.

The User Guide said I could power the device by using its included USB cable to connect either to the desktop computer or to the wall adapter.  I guessed that the wall adapter might be faster, so that’s what I had used for the initial charge.  They said I could do a soft reset, if the Nook became unresponsive, by holding the power button for 20 seconds, letting go, and then pressing it again for two seconds.  To preserve battery life, they recommended (a) don’t fully discharge it, (b) avoid high temperatures, and (c) charge the battery halfway before storing it for periods of a week or more.  Recommended operating temperatures were between 32F and 104F.  Storage temperatures were between -13F and 140F.

Adding, Moving, and Deleting Files

The User Guide (p. 27) showed me how to adjust Reading Tools by tapping the center of the screen or the small arrow at the bottom of the screen, when reading.  I chose a sans serif typeface, a smaller font, closer line spacing, and narrower margins.  There was also an option to default to the settings (if any) that had been recommended by the book’s publisher.  The Guide explained how to bookmark and write notes about parts of text, look up words, and share.  In response to another thing I had wondered about, the User’s Guide said that Digital Rights Management (DRM) would lock a book only if it was downloaded from B&N.  So presumably it wouldn’t impair me from reading materials I had copied over from the desktop.  (There were also apparently ways to remove DRM.)

I had been wondering where the Windows Explorer equivalent was — the tool that would let me see the books and files that I had loaded onto the Nook.  The User Guide (p. 51) said this was in Library > My Files.  There, I saw options to view Nook files (presumably the contents of the 240MB onboard RAM) or Memory Card files.  I didn’t have anything there yet, but I saw that, in both cases, they set up empty folders for Books, Documents, Magazines, and Newspapers.

At some point, playing around with these various controls, I had chosen the option of formatting the Micro SD card inside the Nook.  Now it occurred to me that formatting may have included the creation of Nook-specific folders on the card.  To check this, I went to Settings, unmounted the SD card, put it into its little adapter, and stuck that into the laptop.  In Windows, I saw, indeed, a folder on the SD card called My Files, and within it the four subfolders just listed (Books, etc.).

I had previously downloaded a few Amazon Kindle books.  These were not big files — under 1MB.  I wondered how the Nook would fare with large PDFs.  So on the laptop, I loaded several different items into the My Files > Documents folder on the Micro SD card.  I knew I could get them to the Nook by just moving the card, but first I wanted to try bringing them over by USB.  Note:  the User’s Guide (p. 57) indicated that I could not directly transfer files, inside the Nook, from the SD card to the Nook’s internal memory.  Instead, they said I had to put the SD card into the laptop and then cable the files from the SD card to the Nook’s memory.  (Actually, their instructions inserted an additional step of copying from the SD to the laptop to the Nook.  I tested to verify that the SD-to-laptop step was unnecessary.)

To copy files from laptop to Nook via USB, I ran the cable from the Nook to the laptop, as the User Guide (p. 58) advised.  The laptop said, “Installing device driver software.”  After a minute or so, it said, “Your device is ready to use.”  Windows Explorer showed NOOK as drive F, and several folders within it, including the familiar My Files folder.  Right-click > Properties showed 239MB of free space in NOOK.  This was all transparent:  the Nook was functioning like an ordinary USB drive that I might have shoved into the laptop.

Now, what to bring over from the laptop to the Nook?  As I say, I already had a set of files to tinker with:  several PDFs, TXTs, JPGs, and DOCs, as well as a BMP.  But I wanted more.  I wanted to see about reading an ePub and a Kindle book on the Nook.  A search for ePub texts in the Internet Archive yielded about 1.7 million hits.  I narrowed it down to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which I had not read but had heard of.  They had it in ePub, Kindle (i.e., MOBI), and PDF formats, among others.  I downloaded all three.  In case there might be some quirks in that text, I also downloaded Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, in those same three formats.

Now it was time for the test.  First, with the Nook still cabled to the laptop, I wondered if I could see laptop contents from within the Nook.  The answer there was No.  As soon as I connected the cable, the Nook gave me a message — “USB Mode.  You may now safely move files from your PC to the Nook” — and that’s as far as it would go.  So, OK, working at the laptop keyboard, I cabled files over from the Micro SD card through the laptop to the Nook.  I brought over a total of 212MB worth of stuff.  It went quickly — just took a minute or two.  In Windows Explorer, I right-clicked on NOOK and chose Eject > Continue.  The laptop almost immediately said, “Safe to Remove Hardware.”  Now I could disconnect the cable.  I also ejected the Micro SD card and plugged that into the Nook.  Now we were ready to do some test viewing.

Viewing Files

On the Nook, I went to Library > Nook Files > My Files > Documents.  I looked at the list of files that I had imported.  Under each DOC file (in list view), Nook said, “Unrecognized file.”  I tried opening them, but it said, “This NOOK cannot read this file.  It may be an unsupported format.”  So, OK, how could I remove it from the list?  The answer appeared to be, I couldn’t.  I didn’t find anything relevant on deleting in the User Guide. The FAQs said I couldn’t delete books; I could only archive them.  It didn’t say anything at all about deleting my own documents.

Well, could I at least move unwanted files to an archive folder or some other shelf, where they would be out of the way in my Documents folder?  The User Guide (p. 56) said I could put items on a shelf by going into Library > Shelves > Add Shelf.  There, I created a folder — I mean, a shelf — called Junk.  The Nook then gave me a list of files and allowed me to select those that I wanted to move to this shelf.  Unfortunately, the unrecognized documents were not on that list.  It would only let me shelve recognized files.  So, OK, how about doing it the other way around?  I created a shelf called Good, and moved all of the listed files there.  I went back to Library > My Files.  Nothing had changed there.  So basically the My Files folder contained the actual files, and the Shelves contained shortcuts pointing to those files:  according to the User Guide (p. 56), removing a shelf would only delete the shelf (and the shortcuts on it); it would have no effect on the actual files.  They would remain unchanged in My Files.

That gave me a shelf of Good files, that the Nook could recognize.  Instead of the shelf approach, I would have been able to archive the files, if they had been downloaded from B&N.  The Archiving option evidently deleted B&N purchases from the Nook, but kept them in the cloud (i.e., in the user’s B&N account) for un-archiving (i.e., re-download).  Archiving was available through the Reading Tools (User Guide p. 39), which only came up after the document was opened, and opening the document was not possible with these unrecognized files.  So if I didn’t want to use the shelf approach, it seemed the only alternative was to re-cable the Nook to the laptop (or plug the Micro SD card into the laptop), go into Windows Explorer, and delete unwanted files on the Nook (or on the Micro SD card) from there.

The Documents folder in the Nook showed file types; the shelves did not.  So at this point I went back to Library > My Files and looked at which file types were unrecognized.  DOC, TXT, MOBI, JPG, and BMP were unrecognized.  In other words, the Nook recognized ePubs and PDFs.  That didn’t sound right.  I ran a search and saw indications that the Simple Touch was supposed to be able to view ePub and PDF as text, and JPG, GIF, PNG, and BMP as graphics.  The FAQs confirmed this.

So why wasn’t it recognizing my JPG and BMP files?  A search led to a source that said the Nook would only support JPG and other image files in the sense of being able to use them as screensavers.  In other words, it was not intended to have the ability to view JPGs directly.

Since the non-ePub, non-PDF documents were unrecognized and could not be deleted from within the Nook, the conclusion had to be that I should load onto the Nook only those files that it would definitely read — unless I wanted a cluttered list of files that I would have to page through and organize onto a shelf.  A quick check of Library > Memory Card confirmed that the situation was the same on the card as in the Nook’s internal memory.  So I re-cabled the Nook, went into Windows Explorer on the laptop, and deleted everything except the ePubs and the PDFs, from both the internal memory and the Micro SD card.  As expected, the Good and Junk shelves were not visible in Windows Explorer.

That left me with nine PDFs and two ePubs.  I wondered whether the Nook could see subfolders, so I created a subfolder called My Files > Documents > TestSub, in each of the two memory spaces (i.e., internal RAM and Micro SD card), and put a small PDF in there.  Then I de-cabled the Nook and took another look.  First, I deleted the Good and Junk shelves.  In Library > Nook Files > My Files, everything was either an ePub or a PDF.  There was no subfolder.  Same thing in the memory card.  Same results when I went into Library > All.  So subfolders were not an option either.  But, ah, on closer inspection, the Nook was indeed showing the PDF that I had put into the subfolder.  It couldn’t handle subfolders per se, but apparently it could read the files within subfolders, at least one level down.  I tested:  that subfolder file did open.

PDFs in Particular

The next question was, what would these recognized files look like?  I started with the smaller of the two ePubs:  The Importance of Being Earnest.  The Nook handled it without difficulty:  the text looked good, and I could move quickly from one page to the next.  Same thing with the larger Tolstoy ePub.  OK, how about PDFs?  I had a selection to choose from.  I started with the largest one, about 100MB:  the U.S. Statistical Abstract for 2011.  The Nook showed me its front cover immediately.  Nice!  I pressed the button to go to the next page.  Nothing happened.  I tried again.  It flashed the list of files in my library and then gave me an error message:

Activity Reader (in application Reader) is not responding.

It gave me options to Wait or Force Close.  I let it sit there without choosing either, for a few minutes, and then chose Wait.  This put me back at the Library > My Files list.  I tried the Statistical Abstract again.  I think I had tried to open it from the memory card previously; this time, I tried from Library > Nook files.  Same results.  I tried the Force Close option.  That put me back at the Library list.

So apparently the 100MB PDF was a bit rich for the Nook’s blood.  I had another PDF.  This one was 50MB:  the PDF version of Anna Karenina, a document of 1,084 pages.  The Nook had no problem with this.  Some of the early pages were images, and those displayed quickly and clearly enough.  The rest appeared to be text, and those loaded pretty quickly.  Rough attempts with my stopwatch suggested that it took perhaps 1.5 seconds to flip a page.  These observations applied as well to the 5MB PDF of the Oscar Wilde novel.  It did not seem to make any difference whether I read them from the Nook’s internal RAM or from the Micro SD card.

PDF Line Breaks and Unrecognized Text

I tried a few other PDFs, and observed some complications.  In the best case, a PDF would be produced from something like Microsoft Word, and as such would incorporate the complete original text, in a form that would flow into the confines of the eReader screen.  Here is an example, with a less-than-perfect image taken by camera, showing the original text on the left and the Nook screen on the right.  (Click to enlarge.  Weird colors are, again, an artifact of my camera and the lighting; the actual display was a nice black-on-white.)


In that example, the original text is perfectly represented on the right.  Now consider the second-best case, where a printed document (i.e., not a Word doc) has been run through a scanner and then examined with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software.  In this case, the letters are mostly recognized; but in the Nook image shown at right, the line breaks are preserved from the original printout.  For this kind of document, the Nook would allow the reader to adjust only the size; there were no options to change font, margins, or line spacing.  (Again, the general quality of the image on the right is poor, due to the conditions in which I took the photo; the focus here is specifically on the line breaks in the text.)


This kind of PDF would make for unpleasant reading.  Reducing text size would reduce the number of undesirable line breaks, at the risk of making the text too small to read comfortably.  It would be better to use Acrobat or some other PDF tool to export the text from such a document, in a TXT file, and print that to a PDF or, better yet, convert it to an ePub (below).

Finally, we have the situation where a printed document has been scanned and OCRed, but some of the text is not recognized and the OCR process has interpreted the text in multiple fonts.  In this sort of train wreck, it appears that a person determined to view the document on a Nook had best try again with a different OCR program.


Now, all of these examples depended upon using the Nook as a text reader.  But I had the impression that it was also supposed to display images — not only the JPGs and the BMP that I had tried earlier, but also the PDF as an image.  Because as I found when attempting to view one PDF that had not been OCRed, the absence of text in the PDF file would leave the Nook displaying a blank screen.

I knew there had to be a way to view a PDF as an image file.  After all, I had just viewed the image comprising the first page of the Statistical Abstract, and I could also see image-type pages in the ePub renditions of Tolstoy and Wilde.  Why weren’t all of the PDF pages showing up as images?  In other words, in the three pictures shown above, why couldn’t the Nook show an image of exactly the original page, as depicted on the left side of each of those three pictures?

Trying a PDF Converted to ePub

A search led to an indication that one option was to conduct a potentially tedious recreation of the PDF, or to convert it to ePub with the aid of a program like Calibre.  I downloaded, installed (the portable version), and ran Calibre.  It looked like a nicely designed, high-quality tool.  It defaulted to a conversion of PDF to ePub, which was just what I wanted.  I tried it with the PDF that had produced the last (worst) results shown above.  In a minute or so, it produced an ePub.  The location of the resulting ePub file was not clear; I had to use Everything to find it.  Before putting it onto the Nook, I wanted to see how it looked.  Calibre seemed to be displaying it, but I wanted to be sure, so I installed the EPUBReader add-on in Firefox, and then (still in FF) went to File > Open and opened that newly created ePub file.  It looked good.  I put it onto the Micro SD card and tried to view it in the Nook.  No joy.  Here, again, the graphic title page looked good, but the Nook reported that the document was only three pages long, and when I clicked the next page button it gave me the “not responding” error message (above).  I tested again to be sure.  Definitely no go.  There may have been a way to tweak Calibre’s settings to make that file work, but I wasn’t going to learn my way around ePub conversions at this moment.

That ePub was 8MB, resulting from a 20MB PDF.  I tried again, using Calibre on a smaller PDF.  The one I chose was the second of the three images shown above.  It came from a 10-page, 1MB PDF.  For some reason, Calibre converted that into a 3MB PDF.  But the result was the same:  the whole document looked good in Firefox; the first page looked good in the Nook; but the Nook reported that the whole document was only two pages long.

Of course, even if the Nook had been able to reproduce what I was seeing in Calibre and Firefox, in terms of the quality of those PDF-to-ePub conversions, there would still be the problem of viewing graphics in a little screen.  In the ideal case, the image would look good; I would become skilled at drilling down into the portion of the page that I wanted to see in more detail; and my way of seeing and thinking about images would adapt to the way in which the device handled and displayed images.

I explored further.  A search led to remarks conveying mixed reactions to PDFs on the Nook and recommending a 10-inch tablet as the better solution for viewing PDFs.  I had considered that option; there were some drawbacks there too.  Admittedly, this process of exploring the Nook had raised a new concern, not discussed in the previous post:  the screen was surely too small for fast reading in some materials (e.g., plays) where the text formatting would leave lots of white space on each screenful.  It seemed likely that I would be doing a lot of flipping and waiting as pages refreshed.  There was the option of reducing text size, but that would seem to undermine the eyestrain advantage of Eink over LCD displays that warranted consideration of the Nook in the first place.

It seemed that some people were having better luck with PDFs than I was.  As far as I could figure out, they were talking about PDFs like those in the first of the three pictures shown above.  It just did not appear that the Nook was an image viewer:  it could display one-page image PDFs, and it could display images in ePubs, but that appeared to be about it.

Rooting & PDF Apps

I wondered whether the Nook could accommodate application programs (“apps”) that might expand its capabilities, including but not only those that might assist in viewing PDFs and other kinds of documents.  A search led to a Barnes & Noble page that led to Nook reading apps for other devices (e.g., PC, Android).  I tried the PC version.  I went into its My Library > My Stuff > Add New Item option, and added the last (and worst) of the three PDFs shown above.  It showed the document as having 64 pages, and it was able to display those pages as images.  So it seemed that the Nook software was intended to be able to do that.  Why it was behaving so differently on my Nook Simple Touch, I could not tell.

But other than that, there did not seem to be apps for the Nook.  A search of the FAQs page yielded no questions on point.  This led to the option of “rooting” the handheld unit — which, as someone pointed out, would open a new can of worms:  hacking and tweaking often adds functionality and also introduces bugs.

As an NPR page explained, rooting meant unlocking a device in such a way as to expand its capabilities.  A search led to a Lifehacker page that praised the superior Eink reading technology and illustrated the rooting possibilities, with a list of apps that would apparently run on a rooted Nook:

A search of Google Play provided a long list of PDF viewers.  I was not sure which, if any, would work on Android 2.1, which was apparently the version of the Android operating system used in the Nook.  Another search led to several videos and other pages yielding additional insights.

There seemed to be quite a few PDF viewing apps that would run on the Nook.  The names I encountered included ezPDF, APV, eBooka, PDF Viewer, Mantano, and Beamreader.  A video provided a fragmentary introduction to several of these, and concurred in the end with others who seemed to find ezPDF the best of the lot.  It did appear that PDF viewing could be significantly improved with one of these readers.

I was not able to test these Android PDF readers without rooting the device.  It appeared that the rooting process itself would be simple enough.  I encountered how-to guides from, Que Publishing, and The Verge.  There was just a question of making the device nonreturnable and voiding its warranty.


I was interested in the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight.  I found it to be a solid device with a good interface for reading pure text, especially when that text was in ePub format.

My needs included the ability to view other formats, especially PDF.  I knew the screen was small, but it seemed that a responsive device would enable me to zoom in and out easily, so as to find the part of the document that I wanted to read and then home in on it.  I assumed, from product information, that the device was able to view graphics in various formats, including not only typical formats like JPG but also the graphical form that PDFs often take.

My investigation suggested that I might be able to obtain minimal functionality in that regard, but only if I rooted the Nook and explored PDF reader apps in more detail.  Rooting would also apparently add file management and other capabilities that have come to seem essential in computer use.  Some of these apps were free; others would apparently cost a few dollars each.  Rooting would void my warrant and would also be likely to introduce some bugs.

A primary selling point, for me, was that the Nook would enjoy extended battery life while I was out camping in remote locations.  It now seemed, however, that I would still be relying on the laptop for PDF viewing.  At that rate, instead of keeping the Nook, I could invest the money in a backup laptop battery.  Alternately, a 10″ tablet would enjoy better battery life than the laptop and better PDF capabilities than the Nook.  It would have the drawback of being less portable and heavier to hold.

In short, the Nook did not seem to be the solution to my needs.  There were surely applications — notably but not only book-reading — for which it was ideal.  A used Nook might be an appropriate addition to my toolchest.  But for purposes of getting things done, I was still searching for the right answer.

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