April 27, 2011

Nook Color 1.2 Review: Near-Perfect, but a Gap Remains


Barnes & Noble released an update to its Nook Color earlier this week that brings full-fledged apps, email, and Web browsing to its mid-sized Android-based tablet. At $249 the Nook Color is almost an impulse buy — but is it a good choice? Depends on what you're looking for.

Linux is taking the world by storm — even though many people don't really know that they're running Linux. The Nook Color is a good example. Barnes & Noble's Nook Color is running a modified Android release, which is (of course) Linux — but most users are totally unaware that the Nook Color is actually a Linux-based device. But Linux.com readers know what they're looking at with the Nook Color — a really inexpensive Linux-based tablet. This is even more true now that B&N has released the 1.2 update that brings apps, Flash and an updated Web browser, and so on.

Nook ColorI picked up a Nook Color a few weeks ago to root the device (or "Noot," as some would have it) so I'd have an Android tablet on hand to toy around with. The word on the street was that B&N was going to be releasing an update that would provide apps, but I wasn't going to sit on my thumbs &dmash; so I rooted it to see what it could do. My experiments with Nook Color as a rooted tablet were mixed — the performance was OK, but it was a bit flaky and not having the hardware buttons for the menu, back, etc. was a bit of a pain. When I heard that the 1.2 release of the Nook software was out, I went ahead and restored my Nook to factory condition and went about upgrading the Nook.

Upgrading the Nook Color

I'm not sure how long it'll be until the company is shipping Nooks with the 1.2 update installed. According to what I've read, users should be receiving the update over the air eventually, or you can upgrade the Nook right away by downloading a zip file and putting it in the root directory of the device. "Eventually" it will recognize the file and perform the update.

This worked well enough, but I have to say I'm not crazy about an install process that depends on "eventually" letting the device see an update. They get a minor ding for not just having a "update device" option somewhere.

To be fair, the update is much simpler than any of the processes for rooting the device or installing a whole new Android distribution, like the Cyanogen Mod options.

All in all, the update will take you about 20 to 30 minutes from download to use.

Using the Nook Color

After the update, I went ahead and started playing with the Nook. The first destination? The Shop, to check out the selection of apps, of course.

As of a few days after the release, the Nook Shop has 140 apps. You read that right — 140. Clearly, the Nook is not going to be competing with the Android market or even Amazon's App Store for Android.

It should come as no surprise that you'll find Angry Birds on the Nook. It's priced at just under $4. Though you can find Angry Birds for free on other platforms, they're usually ad-supported. Given the insane popularity of Angry Birds, that might be enough for some users. Aside from that, the Nook app selection at present is underwhelming, and the vast majority of Nook apps are paid apps. Note that Barnes & Noble have talked about "optimized" apps for the Nook, so it means that developers may have to tweak apps before they're Nook-ready.

Right now, I wouldn't recommend the Nook Color for users who are most interested in third-party apps. The apps, for now, are a plus — but not the main attraction.

As a book reader, the color is great. I like the Nook reader, though it has the same problems as the iPad, and other color Android devices — the color screen has glare problems and it's not as easy on the eyes as E-Ink displays like the regular Nook and Amazon's Kindle readers. The book selection seems comparable to Amazon's. I searched for some of my favorite authors (Charles Bukowski, Christopher Moore, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, John Irving, and others) and with only one exception (Slaughter-House Five) the selection seemed identical and the pricing seemed uniform across the Nook and Kindle stores. The Nook edition of Slaughter-House Five was discounted by a few bucks. Everything else I spotted was priced identically.

Amazon does have a slight edge, though, in selection of newspapers and magazines — and the new "Kindle Singles" offerings. Barnes & Noble's reader has a slight edge in that it will read EPub and the Kindle uses a less-popular standard (Mobipocket). Both stores use DRM for new book purchases, so that's a wash — though I've seen methods of cracking Amazon's DRM, so if you have an Amazon Kindle you should be able to de-DRM the titles and convert them to EPub with Calibre.

The Web browser on the Nook is pretty good. For light browsing, it's excellent. If you're in a coffee shop or airport and just need to look up a few things, it's perfect. Sitting on the couch and want to hit IMDB real quick? It's great. I wouldn't want to use it as my primary browser, but it works well on normal sites and it's great with all of the mobile sites I've tried. Also works well with College Humor's YouTube videos... not that I've spent extensive time testing those or anything.

The email client that comes with the 1.2 update is nothing to write home about. I set it up to work with my Gmail account and had trouble refreshing my inbox on a couple of occasions when other clients had no trouble with it. Aside from that, the client is OK — fine for dashing off a quick email or skimming your inbox from the couch. I wouldn't want to use it for any serious mail processing, of course.

The 7" form-factor is sort of a mixed blessing. It's really great for reading, and it's easy to carry around. For typing, it's better than an iPhone or Android phone with a virtual keyboard — but it's not as nice as typing on the iPad or full-sized Android tablet.

The Nook Color is also a bit underpowered as a tablet, but not horribly so. It probably won't be able to run any hardware-intensive games, but things like Angry Birds work great. It's powerful enough for streaming video, and it has a music app as well — though it's best suited for minimal use. If you really want an MP3 player, get a dedicated player or a phone with a decent media player — the Nook form-factor doesn't work great for music. But it's fine if you want to listen to MP3s while reading.

Speaking of MP3s while reading — the Nook does support multi-tasking, so if you're playing music and switch to the reader, it keeps playing in the background. This is how it should be, of course, but I wanted to make sure that prospective Nookers knew that works well.

The Nook Color plays video, though this isn't really emphasized in any of the materials I've seen. In fact, when you look at the stock apps, the Nook Color doesn't even show a video player. (It has a "Music" app, but nothing that indicates the Nook does video.) But I tried a few videos that I'd ripped to play on the iPhone or iPad, and they look good and play without skipping on the Nook. So if you want a dirt-cheap video player for trips, the Nook might be a good choice.

Who Should (or Shouldn't) Buy a Nook Color?

The Nook Color is simultaneously disappointing and pleasing. Why? At $249, the Nook Color does a lot of things pretty well. Well enough, in fact, that you think "the Nook Color would be perfect if only..." — if only it had Bluetooth and supported an external keyboard, or if only it supported a wider range of apps, or if only Barnes & Noble were willing to let customers install any app, like the Amazon Kindle app.

But for the price, the Nook does quite a bit. I would recommend it without hesitation to anyone that wants a eBook reader with a little bit extra. If you're on a limited budget, the Nook Color is also a really good choice. For heavy readers who also want a tablet and a decent app selection, the Nook is not a good choice. Stick with an E-Ink based reader and buy a separate tablet.

The Nook Color is almost perfect, but the distance between almost and perfect may be too big a gap for many users.

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