May 6, 2011 | by Andrew Kameka
Want to know how to get a bunch of hate mail? Say something negative about Barnes & Noble Nook Color, the Android ereader that people like to pretend is a tablet when convenient, then hide behind the “oh, it’s an ereader, why are you judging it like a tablet?” argument when convenient. That’s what I did when the device was released last November 2010, and I still receive angry YouTube messages and comments in April 2011.
But Barnes & Noble has finally made an attempt to address the problems I had with the Nook Color as a tablet experience, namely the outdated software, subpar media support, and lack of apps. Sure, people have been able to access some of those things by rooting the Nook and putting on custom software, but you judge a ’92 Corolla by how it performs when you drive off the lot – not its potential to get the Fast & Furious treatment.
Still, that Corolla may be good enough to get you where you want to go, so I decided to take another look at the Nook Color and see if it’s worth further consideration as a tablet. Let’s get the dirty stuff out of the way: the Nook Color is an inferior tablet option to the Samsung Galaxy Tab (original and newer 8.9 or 10.1 models), the Motorola Xoom, and pretty much anything else running Honeycomb. The device doesn’t offer nearly as many options and no amount of software updates will ever make it good enough to survive a head-to-head comparison with those devices. The Nook Color is not for people who are considering getting a full-fledged Android tablet; the Nook Color is for people looking for an excellent way to read ebooks, newspapers, and magazines, and most websites. At only $249, half of the competition, it’s worth considering if you just need a toy to play with on the couch or read the news on the subway.
Let’s see how it stacks up in other areas
APPS, APPS, APPS
Barnes & Noble added two new Apps to the Nook Color: Email and Nook Friends. The email app is surprisingly capable with an interface is to-the-bones simple. Users can add multiple accounts, filter by email address or view a combined inbox, pages load quickly, and there’s support for applying labels, responding or drafting emails, and sending items to the trash. While I’d love to see a little bit more batch action support, I can easily see someone managing their inbox(es) on their Nook Color when in a doctor’s office or on the train.
Nook Friends is a social component to seek out people who have reading tastes that you value. The app forms connections between Nook owners, provides recommendations, and allows friends to send books to one another using LendMe. Someone can log-in and see their contacts who have a B&N account, or send an invite to others. I honestly can’t say much about the service’s performance because only a few people I know have Nooks and they seem even less interested in Nook Friends than I do (though to be fair, it’s been less than a week since the service was launched).
THE NEW STORE: NOOK APPS
The recent Nook Color update also delivers an app store, though its not the Android Market. Instead, users can browse through the 140 or so titles in the Nook Apps library that offer some cool functions. My favorites so far are Pulse, which provides a visual RSS feed reader, and my6sense, which tries to promote the most interesting updates from your Facebook and Twitter friends. There’s also a number puzzle games, cookbooks, QuickOffice Pro to edit and read MS Office documents, note taking apps, a calendar, and even an HD version of Angry Birds.
The store is full of options, most of which will cost you $2.99 – $5.99 with a few free apps sprinkled in here and there. I initially experienced some problems attempting to download apps (so did many others) but I’ve since been able to download without issue. NookApps will never match the bountiful option of the Android Market, but at least Nook owners can rest assured that the apps listed here have been pre-approved and tested to work with this unique form factor.
BROWSER & FLASH
Few of my original complaints about the Nook Color remain. The introduction of Android 2.2 has brought the speed increases customary of most Froyo upgrades, and few places show that as well as the Web application. The Nook was once slower than my HTC EVO in loading mobile websites, but the latest version tends to load even the script and image-heavy ESPN.com in a reasonable amount of time. No, it doesn’t zip along like an iPad or Xoom, but the painful crawling that plagued the device is gone. Aside from loading those images faster, the Nook Color also displays them better. I didn’t see any mention of this in the changelog, and maybe I’m crazy, but I notice that pictures on the web just flat-out look better than they did a week ago.
The Froyo update also brought a welcome guest to the party – Adobe Flash. Barnes & Noble informed us that the Nook Color uses Flash 10.1 rather than 10.2, but says that this version is designed to work well with the Nook Color. I was unable to validate those claims as the Nook failed miserably when I attempted to watch a live episode of Tech News Today. I managed to hear audio but not see video, and attempts to click on a smaller stream only crashed the browser. I then went to another Flash-dependent website and managed to load several videos. The only problem is that said “videos” would be more accurately described as “collection of video stills, stuttering images, and audio running faster than the picture could hope to keep up with.” A couple of videos were successful, but this was a crapshoot that I’d rather completely avoid.
We’ve covered the tablet portion, but is the Nook Color any better as a reader? Yes. B&N added multimedia options to certain books, which greatly enhances the experience. Imagine you’re reading a recipe in a cookbook and need a little extra guidance; publishers have the option to include a video that will demonstrate the steps for preparing that meal.
Readers will also find that the magazine and newspaper section is bulkier these days with bigger names and more issues. The graphics and photos in magazines also seem to be packaged better because I have yet to see the over-compressed images that made me hate reading magazines to begin with. The navigation is still problematic because the Nook Color doesn’t display or zoom as smooth enough as it should, but plain-text reading is phenomenal and most major magazines and newspapers are now available.
So here we are with new features, improvements, and enhancements that have made Barnes & Noble Nook feel strong enough to call the Nook Color “the best tablet value” because of its price. But for the reasons that I just stated, I circle back to my original verdict: the Nook Color is not a great tablet.
Wait, don’t flame me just yet!
I’ve upgraded the Nook Color to a “good enough” tablet. I still say that someone looking for a tablet first should consider the more powerful Honeycomb tablets, or even spend the extra $100 and get a Wi-Fi Galaxy Tab. But at $249, it’s tough to argue against an ereader/tablet that has a respectable browser and finally has some third-party support to extend other features. Even with its abysmal Flash support and performance dwarfed by competitors, the Nook Color is good enough to serve your most basic tablet needs. Not everyone needs a dual-core behemoth with cameras and gaming power. If you just want to read the news and play a little Angry Birds on a larger screen without breaking the bank to do it, the Nook Color is for you.