December 3, 2010 | by Andrew Kameka
There are times when mingling two independently intriguing elements can produce amazing results. One man’s chocolate getting into another’s peanut butter (or vice versa) birthed Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, and man and woman led to procreation. But there are also times when two great things, like caffeine and alcohol, can combine to produce something horrible, like Four Loko.
So as the Barnes and Noble Nook Color attempts to be part color ereader and part tablet, one has to wonder which side of the mix this Android device lands. Barnes and Noble pegs the Nook Color as a primary reader device, and they are absolutely right. This is not the media-centric tablet that Android users have waited for; it is a device for reading ebooks, magazines, and browsing the web that happens to support limited tablet-like features.
But because B&N bothered to include those features at all, this “ereader with extras” deserves scrutiny for all aspects. Let’s see if either lives up to the hype.
The Nook Color is surprisingly heavy the first time it is held, but only because someone would expect a device of this size to be light and flimsy. At 8.1 inches long and 5 inches wide, the Nook is 15.8 ounces of sturdy material. The near-pounder is lighter than an iPad and small enough to support one-handed reading, so you will feel comfortable with this on your lap or holding it up in bed. The 7-inch capacitive LCD screen has VividView Color that packs millions of colors into a 1024 x 600 resolution. Images look very crisp and text displays well with adjustable brightness, which typically makes for a great reading experience.
There’s plenty of space for storing books (8GB) and support for loading additional content in a microSD slot (up to 32GB). A 3.5mm headphone jack makes it possible to listen to audiobooks or music, but you can also play through speakers that are decent but not very loud. An 800 MHz TI OMAP3621 processor delivers enough juice to power a mostly-stable reading experience, but there are moments of noticeable lag, including extended pauses when launching books or scrolling on the web. All of this will happen with a 4010 mAh battery that gets up to 8 hours of reading. You’ll be able to read a book or newspaper on the morning and afternoon commute with enough life to do some web browsing at home or play Sudoku during your lunch break.
Barnes & Noble uses Android 2.1 for the Nook Color, but it’s no version of Eclair that you’ve ever seen. In fact, the heavily-customized build looks almost nothing like Android save for trace elements of the browser, music player, and lock screen. There’s no Android Market, but there is a presence for apps designed specifically for the Color set to debut next year (read why in our interview with the lead of the Nook Dev program).
Android die-hards may wish there were Menu, Back, and Home buttons to help with some quick navigation tricks, but the bottom bar is a suitable replacement on this device. Tapping the bar brings up shortcuts for loading features, and swiping from right to left will return to the previous screen. The bottom bar is actually very convenient for reading notifications, music information, and quickly returning to the last magazine, book, or newspaper that you read. Tapping on the main area of the screen will bring up options for browsing content, searching withing a document, sharing with others, or adjusting text and brightness for better settings. The navigation is a departure from Android’s current structure, but it is actually a better method of moving from screen to screen for the purpose of reading.
Reader-centric, preloaded apps enhance the Nook Color, including the always-reliable Pandora. Users can access all of their stations in the app and continue playback in the background if they wish to listen while browsing the web or reading. The music app looks great but failed to play any MP3 files in my library. The Nook also sports a gallery app for browsing photos and some videos, a single-player Chess game, Sudoku, a Crossword Puzzle, and a Contacts manager. With the exception of the Contacts app, each adds a useful element to owning a Nook Color.
BROWSING THE WEB
It’s great to have a reader like the Nook Color that can support bookmarks and multi-window browser, but the implementation is not very good. If you just need to check a newspaper’s website or go on a few websites, you may be able to squeak by.
Despite its limited virtues as a part-time tablet, the Nook Color surpasses the threshold required to be a great full-time reader. The most obvious benefit is that the Nook has its ebook and digital periodicals supplied from one of the largest distributors in the world. Once you have those works, they are organized in an excellent library; users can create custom shelves, so they can group cooking books on one shelf and romance novels on another.
The presence of a color screen does wonders for many books and presents some benefits not afforded in the original Nook, namely books with charts and color photographs. There is also support for books for children that can read to a child and provide audio sounds to go along with written words (short demo in the video below). The Nook Color further enhances the screen with adjustable settings for text, formatting, and brightness that makes it easier to read at night or in low light. Of course, that comes at the cost of having a screen that suffers from direct sunlight almost as much of the stars of that Twilight saga you attempt to read. Sunlight has the unfortunate effect of requiring that readers set the screen brightness to its maximum, which naturally causes the battery to drain faster and could cause your image to reflect off the screen depending on how the Nook is held. Odds are that you’ll have a much better shot at outdoor reading when sitting with some shade near a park bench; attempting to read poolside on a sunny day is a fight you’re unlikely to win.
Traditional reading elements – highlighting and note-taking – are available to place emphasis on certain passages or put notes in the margins to hold comments or questions. Readers can also highlight to look-up words in a dictionary, Google, or Wikipedia. And if you find something interesting worth sharing, send an announcement to friends through Gmail, Facebook, or Twitter. By the way, there’s plenty worth sharing. Thousands of books, magazines, and newspapers are available, and the you can read the screen for extended periods of time without feeling the eye fatigue people sometimes express when forced to stare at a laptop or phone all day.
There are two ways to view the way periodicals are handled: 1) thankfully straight-forward or (2) disappointingly unimaginative. Though VividView typically looks great with its 16 million colors, there are some magazines poorly formatted that display gradients with rough transitions, and some graphics have noise. The latest edition of Rolling Stone looks like a low-res PDF was uploaded to the Nook store without regard for design or navigation tailored for this particular device. Reading Fast Company was difficult when multiple stories appear on one page, and reading with Article View – focuses on one column at a time – is rather boring and time-consuming on long-form articles.
This is all a matter of perspective, however. The wonders of design and new media are not fully realized in the Nook Color, but the ease of access to content and basic form of presenting it, at least when it comes to newspapers, is without a doubt a success. The New York Times and other newspapers have a decent text-focused format for its articles, so people who just want the news will be pleased as its much easier to read a few stories in the paper than it is to read a magazine. Every periodical comes with a FREE 14-day trial. Add it to your library and it will be delivered every day automatically at no cost. You must cancel the subscription on day 14 to prevent your credit card from being billed.
The “slash” name can indicate something meets the mark on multiple fronts, but consumers interested in the Nook Color should focus on the device as a reader first and foremost. Barnes & Noble has created a device that is excellent in one regard (reading) and a letdown in another (tablet). Customers who buy the Nook because they want to increase their readership of novels, history, or cookbooks will discover that this can be an incredible device. That type of buyer will be even more enthused when he or she discovers that this color-screen reader can also handle some light web browsing or listening to Pandora.
But the people who approach the Nook Color as tablet-slash-reader are setting themselves up for disappointment. This is not the device for someone who expects to have a speedy, media-rich experience. That could change in time with better apps support and a massive amount of rooting and hacking, but customers would be better served displaying some patience and picking up a device that aims to be a tablet rather than one trying to deliver a few features that it hopes will remove the need for a tablet. If you approach the Nook Color as a reader, you will be happy with your purchase. As we’ve mentioned in a previous hands-on: the Nook Color is a great reader and a so-so tablet.