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BY NICO VREELAND

I’m a book reader. I read some news on the web, the odd magazine, but mostly I’m a book reader. As such, the Kindle’s Whispernet has never really kicked me in the envy glands. I don’t need daily content updates, so I only connect my Sony Reader to my computer about once a month to stock up on ebooks.

For me, the Sony’s ability to borrow library ebooks far outweighs the Kindle’s wireless connectivity. (Almost every other non-Amazon ereader can borrow library ebooks, too. Check out our ereader comparison for more quick details on ereaders.)

But there’s one Kindle feature that I have envied: first chapter previews. There are many ebooks I would never have bought or borrowed if I could’ve read the first chapter beforehand, but until now there have only been a few feeble attempts from non-Amazon ebookstores to duplicate this feature.

The Barnes & Noble eReader, though, didn’t copy it—they just stole it, and that might have been the best decision their eReader team made.


The crappy other options: Kindle Desktop, Stanza Desktop

Kindle Desktop has a big problem: it doesn’t exist. I’ve got the app on my iPod, but I just can’t read a book on that tiny screen. Plus, I want something I can use at my computer, while I’m shopping for new books.

When I heard that Stanza Desktop had come out, I hoped that they would include chapter previews. They do not. Not only that, but the whole app seems a little beside the point.

Stanza Desktop doesn’t support any DRM, which means it’s for .txts and .docs. I already have programs that can open those files. Thanks anyway.

Stanza Desktop also has something called “Horizontal Scrolling” (pictured at left). It presents a book as one long line of text, which you jerkily advance eight words at a time with the arrow keys. On the website, Lexcycle (the maker of Stanza) describes this as Rapid Serial Visual Presentation and says:

Long used as a research tool in perceptual and cognitive psychology, RSVP can dramatically increase the speed at which text is processed and understood by some readers.

Maybe this would be true if you could scroll at a constant, medium speed. Advancing in jumps dramatically increased only the speed at which I felt nauseous and cross-eyed.

The one huge benefit of Stanza Desktop is that it will let you convert PDFs and docs to native Kindle format, making a mockery of the Kindle’s inability to do this itself.

However, I need a Kindle substitute, not a Kindle complement.


The almost good enough other option: Diesel eBooks

Diesel eBooks, surprisingly, does ebook previews better than any other site. You just click a small “Read excerpt” link and the excerpt opens in a new window. Brilliant. (I believe this is the recent implementation of Google Books Preview.) The major problem is that they only have excerpts for about half their books.

Additionally, it seems that about 99% of Diesel’s stock consists of romances; not exactly my cup of tea.

And though they boast about their “over 600 sub-categories,” most are worthless. At right are the sub-categories for Literary & Poetry books. Two are empty, and another six list less than 10 books. This is a great idea, but unfortunately it’s unusable in practice.

So Diesel is OK, great if they have an excerpt of the book you’re looking for, but not tops on reliability.

Enter Barnes & Noble.


Tell me this is a work in progress: Barnes & Noble

The Barnes & Noble website is not exactly user-friendly. After you buy an ebook, or get a sample, you have to download it from your online ebook library (a link to which is buried in your account page). It would make sense to have the link pop up whenever you buy an ebook, but B&N doesn’t roll like that.

Additionally, there are some vestigial eddies in the site map—like this error screen I somehow got, which advises users on how to activate cookies in Netscape Navigator.

(Interesting note: B&N has a much different idea of RSVP—pictured at left—which involves highlighting words on the page and automatically advancing the highlight, instead of zooming them past you at font point 30. For the record, I think they’re both obnoxious.)

What the B&N eReader does have is previews of every book on the website, downloadable to your desktop. That’s all I want, and that’s all I use it for.

The B&N eReader also has an iPhone/iPod sister app, so if you don’t have a Kindle, there’s no reason to use the Kindle app. You can check out Sean’s review of that app here.

I’d like to see a two key improvements: I want to be able to buy the book inside the eReader app, and I want ePub support, like Barnes & Noble has promised. They already have Amazon matched on price―if they do ePub, they stand a chance to be the premier ebookstore for non-Kindle users.

And if this software can mesh wirelessly with the rumored Sony Reader models, so much the better.

Next stop: a big fight over DRM; everybody wins.

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