Barnes and Noble Customer Disservice

Even though I’ve got an ebook reader I’m still on the look-out for a new one since the technology is moving so fast and new features seem to hit the market regularly. There’s no way I’m buying a Kindle because they don’t support the ePub format and that’s what the local library is using. I ran into a friend at the bar the other day and she started showing off her Nook. She couldn’t say enough good things about it so I thought I’d go down to the local Barnes & Noble to see if the sales person could convince me to shell out $150 for one.


The criteria I’m using in my eBook reader search are pretty simple:

  1. Lots of ebook format support. Specifically PDF, ePub and plain text (txt) are necessities.
  2. Display that isn’t back-lit. ePaper gets extra points but isn’t a requirement.
  3. MUST render some obscure PDF formats well. Specifically articles from scientific journals / conferences (like ACM and IEEE) are a must.

That’s a pretty short list. I don’t care if it’s got a 3G connection (frankly I’d rather it not). WiFi and a web browser would be nice but since these devices aren’t very powerful yet I’d rather it not have a browser than have a crappy one. The requirement that’s really hard to meet is that last item on the list. For the interested reader a good example of such a document would a paper by Bryan Parno, Jonathan M. McCune, and Adrian Perrig titled “Bootstrapping Trust in Commodity Computers.” This was published by IEEE and is supplied in their required format.

I read tons of papers like this so having a reader that renders them well is essential. So I took a trip down to the Barnes & Noble on Erie blvd in Syracuse to see if I could get the sales person to let me try a Nook out and load up a paper in this format. Everyone reading this probably knows how badly was destined to turn out and so did I. But hell, I’m not going to shell out that kind of money without knowing whether or not it can render the documents I read daily.

The Shopping Experience

So I walk into B&N and walk up to the Nook display. There’s a bunch of floor models, both the black and white model and the color one. Since the color model is back-lit I took to the black and white one. The interface was very easy to figure out and in a minute or two I was searching the web for an IEEE formatted publication to download.

First big strike against the Nook was a web browser that can surf web pages but can’t download PDFs. WTF?!? Why would you put WiFi on a device if it can’t download content from the web? If it can download books from the B&N online store why can’t the browser download a PDF (other than for the reason of cutting into B&N’s bottom line)?

Ok I wasted 10 minutes playing with the browser to no end but at least I found this glaring shortcoming in the Nook. Not a deal breaker though so I got in line to talk to the one guy servicing customers at the Nook display. He was pretty frazzled because there were no less than 8 people waiting for him to help them. As we were standing around I learned that only myself and one other person were there to buy a Nook. A number of them had updated the firmware on the device and now couldn’t open books they’d previously purchased or had devices that were bricked outright.

After kicking around for a half hour the sales guy got some backup and there were 3 people working the line. Eventually I got to the guy behind the counter and described what I had tried on the display model. Obviously he knew that I wouldn’t be able to download the PDF directly and he instructed me to “side load” the document onto my Nook instead. It took me a few minutes to explain that I didn’t own a Nook YET but that I wanted to buy one after seeing how it rendered this specific PDF. “The books we sell on-line are PDFs so it renders them fine” he tells me but I’m insistent that I want to see it render an ACM or IEEE formated publication because they’re a two column format with graphics integrated. He got a very skeptical look on his face like I was trying to trick him or something. This is a bad sign.

After a few moments of contemplation he proclaimed “I can’t help you”. I’m pretty sure the look on my face at this point was one of shock. He was standing next to a computer but he couldn’t load up a PDF for me to see it on the device. “Wait a minute” I say, “the ability to load PDFs on to the Nook is an advertised feature but you can’t show it doing this?”. I may have been pushing it but this seems like a reasonable request to me especially since I’m considering buying one of these things. His response seemed to me like a car salesmen showing someone a car, starting it up but refusing to let the prospective buyer drive it.

I’m not quite giving up at this point but I can see where this is going. In a last ditch effort I point out the close proximity of the computer and the Nook (which he was holding at this point). All of the necessary parts are there if only he’d hook them up! He wasn’t budging though. Finally I ask if he really can’t help me or if he just won’t help me … and that marked the end of our conversation. Yeah I got testy with that last line but seriously, I’m not asking for anything too far out of the box am I?


Needless to say I didn’t buy a Nook even though I really wanted to. The Nook may actually render these documents perfectly but I wouldn’t know. As someone who’s pretty tech-savvy I’m having to face the reality that the questions I ask seem completely unreasonable to most sales people. Well thanks to Barnes & Noble and their unhelpful sales staff I’m getting the hint: buy your stuff on line after doing the research yourself.

I guess in the case of B&N this isn’t surprising since their staff generally is accustomed to shelving books and helping people find the books that they just put on the shelf. They’re pretty much librarians … next time I’ll ask the kid working at the Starbucks they have in the B&N for help.

I floated the same question to the Barnes & Noble Nook forum. The users there are much better than the B&N sales staff and in about 20 minutes I had a responder that was willing to download the USENIX sample paper and report back on how his Nook rendered it.

Sadly enough the paper crashed his Nook. Luckily he didn’t report any permanent damage. My Aluratek Libre gets confused by the two column format but only when there are graphics on the page that are full page width mixed in with the two column text. It doesn’t crash though it just scales the full page to fit the screen. The text is so small that it’s pretty much illegible though. Oh well, I guess I’m waiting for the next generation of ebook readers.

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