B&N Nook Color Review

The old forms of media have seen better days.  Newspapers are losing subscribers daily to internet blogs and internet media that provide up to the minute information impossible to be delivered in the classic format.  No longer do people need to wait for the paper to be delivered in the wee hours of the night to their doorstep.  Barnes and Noble (as well as others) has noticed this trend and is focussed on bringing content to users the way they have become accustomed to.  Over a year ago they launched the first Nook, an e-ink reading device to deliver books, newspapers and magazines to their customers in an instant.  The device sold well and launched B&N into the emedia segment. But, using the e-ink display had its drawbacks.  Page load times are noticeably slow, magazines and newspapers looked disappointing at best, and there was still a vast amount of information and content to be consumed that an e-ink display simply cannot bring to the table  Fast forward to today and they decided to give users another choice in the market, the Nook Color ($250).  How does the new ereader fair in this increasingly intense market?  Is the lcd screen trade-offs worth it while reading books?  Read on to find out..

update: Barnes & Noble just launched version 1.1 which adds pinch to zoom in the web browser among many other things.  In real life use, the pinch to zoom does not equal the smoothness of the iPad or other Android phones.  Hopefully it will get ironed out when they update with Android OS 2.2 which brought many performance enhancements to the Android platform.  The overall feel since the update has greatly improved.  The UI is more fluid and natural, while the web browsing has been improved when scrolling and general responsiveness.

Design, Specs, and Build Quality

When you look at the new Nook, it is obvious that Barnes & Noble wanted to put out an impressive device.  For a tablet (errr, ereader) that is mainly made up of a touchscreen, they have done a great job differentiating it from the market.  Unlike Sony’s models which tend to follow the same design patterns, the Nook gives users a device which they want to show off.  They added a little “hook” in the lower left corner which users can add charms and other “cute” little objects to customize their ereader.   B&N says that this was a design feature to help give the Nook a different look.  I like it.  The rest of the device is dressed in a very nice feeling matte finish.  The back has a more rubberized feel which gives the device a comfortable feeling when holding it as well as bringing a little extra grip.   The front is obviously dominated by the 7-inch, 1024 x 600 IPS display using 169ppi (pixels per inch).  There is a light up “n” near the bottom of the display which acts as a home screen button.

The entire device feels and looks premium, but what good is that if it won’t hold up in future use?  Fortunately, I think the Nook will hold up just fine in every day use.  While it is hard to call a device with a dominant 7″ screen durable, this would definitely fit the bill.  The solid build of the Nook along with the decent amount of heft, weighing in at 15.8 ounces, give off the perception that this can be fairly rugged.

Even though this is a reading device, it has to be mentioned that the Nook is using a TI OMAP 3621 CPU clocked at 800MHz.  The processor is plenty fast and developers have even played Angry Birds on the Nook color without a hiccup. It has 0,5GB of RAM, 8GB of onboard flash storage as well as a microSD card slot for expansion of cards up to 32GB.  It uses 802.11b/g/n WiFi, but foregos the 3G option the previous Nook was capable of.  There is a power button on the upper left hand side, a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top, speaker on the back, and volume up and down buttons on the right hand side.  The screen sports a 1026×600 display which B&N added that they use a ‘Vivid View” display (to reduce glare) with 16 million colors.  The display is absolutely gorgeous with a very wide viewing angle.  In real life use, there isn’t an angle where you cannot have a good view of the screen.

Basically what you get with the Nook Color is a premium device that brings a little design element into the boring world of tablets which have predominant touch screens.  It isn’t a drastic effect, but leaves you with a subtle, proud feeling of ownership.

Software

Unless you pay  attention to electronics news, you wouldn’t know that the Nook Color uses Android as its OS base.  The Nook Color is running Android 2.1, which is a shame considering 2.3 was just announced with Honeycomb(3.0) around the corner.  Barnes & Noble did just announce that the Nook will receive 2.2 in January as well as the promised Nook marketplace.  This will open the reader up to more potential from developers and give it one more push into the tablet arena….even though it is a reading device.

When you unlock the screen, users are greeted with a home screen that houses the books and other reading material in lower bookshelf on the screen.  These are scrollable and can be moved from one position to another, and can even be dragged to the main part of the home screen.  When a book is placed on the home screen, it can be moved anywhere, and using pinch to zoom will be able to have an endless array of sizes to choose from.  There are 3 home screens that are put to use, but when you move from one to another, you start to notice that the custom software isn’t up to the polished level it should be.  There is rarely a time when you can just flick to move to the next screen.  Instead, it’s much more of an actual dragging motion which takes a little patience to get used to.

The top bar of the home screen houses a quick access “keep reading” section which with a tap of the finger gives you access to the latest book/magazine/newspaper you read.  It is a nice little handy feature which keeps you current book at the tips of your fingers.  Next to the “keep reading” section, you see a tab that says “more.”  This takes the previous feature a little further by splitting up your most recent media into books, periodicals, or your latest files in use.  Very simple addition that works well.  The bottom notification bar houses your notifications on the left side when touched, but this is not labeled.  Also a quick settings section when you tap the battery icon which gives access to wi-fi, sound, orientation and brightness settings.  The most important part on the bottomsection is the “arrow” tab.  This will bring up your Nook LIbrary, Nook store, search button, extras (games), web browser and the more detailed settings section.

The Nook library section houses all of the media on the Nook.  There is a section for books purchased at the Nook store which can be categorized onto “shelves” in your library.   Using the Nook store is a straightforward experience.  You are able to search for books, authors, top 100, and so on.  Unfortunately, the “my library” section does not house the books that you have picked up at other locations.  Instead, these books get thrown into the ‘my files” section .  With the ability to read ePub books from other sites as well as protected ePub books from the library and Google’s new eBookstore (EPUB format), it would be nice to see my actual entire library.  With real books, I can buy one from Target, B&N, and Borders, and still come home and put them all onto my bookshelf.   The library is also categorized into sections for books, magazines, newspapers, etc.  If you add music, videos, pdf’s or other books, you will find all of your content loaded into the “my files” section.  Once there, everything is arranged in typical fashion using folders.  SImple and straightforward.

The Nook also has the ability to read books from other sources as oppose to just B&N bookstore.  I think that this is a huge advantage which catapults the Nook for ahead of the Amazon Kindle.  If your local library deals in electronic media, you are able to “borrow” your library books and load them up to read on the Nook (either Nook version).  After 30 days, the book is due and just disappears from your device.  Along with library books, another extremely nice feature is LendMe.  B&N members can loan books to one another for 14 days.

APPS

Don’t get too excited yet.  The Nook does not have an access to the Android Marketplace (Nook marketplace coming in January).  However, it does come preloaded with a couple of games (chess, sudoku, crossword, etc) as well as the Pandora music streaming app.  Everything works as advertised.  These aren’t media intensive apps, so you won’t find lag or issues with any of them.  The Pandora streams music just like on your phone.  The interface is nice and clean with pretty decent sized album art.  Sound quality is on par with what you get from the service.  Not really the best sounding music, but it gets some tunes flowing for you.

The built in music player looks better than your typical Android player.  The color scheme is very appealing using shades of dark blue and shadows with red sprinkled in.  Large album art is on display as well as a simple, clean, easy to use interface.  But there is no EQ option, nor the ability to do much media management once in the device itself.  Pretty bare bones.  The sound quality of the Nook is also about what you would expect from an ereader.  The bass is almost non existent with the rest of the spectrum providing average sound.   When using my Panasonic hje900’s, I found there to be little life in the music.  Even bass heavy tracks were muted on the low end.  This leads to a very boring music experience.  It would be great to have excellent SQ from the Nook, but in practical use there are simply better options.  A device as big as this (compared to DAPs) is just cumbersome to use as a player.

The video player worked decently.  MP4 is the only supported codec.  It would be great to see the codec support expand to include all of the newer more efficient formats considering the size and quality of the screen.  The  gallery app is put to good use though supporting JPG, GIF, PNG, BMP.  Pictures look detailed with no hint of over-saturation.  When viewing pictures, users are able to pinch to zoom throughout.  This worked very well and just as smooth as on an Android phone or an iPad.

A lot of ereaders come with a built in web browser.  With the e-ink screens this becomes a non enjoyable addition.  Obviously the Nook being a color screen should be able to spruce things up a bit.   Add to the fact that it uses Androids Webkit based browser.  The browsing experience comes across as pretty impressive.  Running on Android 2.1, things are not nearly as quick as on the newer versions of Android.  The pages load fairly quickly, but not as quick as on my G2.  Scrolling is fairly smooth with no real complaints.  One minor annoyance with the browser though is the fact there is no hardware buttons that Android typically likes.  You have the one Nook button which is helpful, but in the browser the only way to pull up the address bar and browser option is to scroll to the top of the page.  So if you read a site like anythingbutipod.com, you will have to scroll back up to the top of the page to go check out anythingbutiphone.com.  It gets a little old after awhile.  But overall the browsing experience is pleasurable with normal desktop sites being loaded.  I haven’t seen any difference browsing between this and the iPad.

Reader

Barnes and Noble obviously has this being marketed as a reading centric device.  In any of their commercials, the focus is on reading books, magazines and newspaper whenever you want.  From my standpoint, they hit the nail on the head.

While the iPad has a little more eye candy when flipping through pages, the B&N reader takes a simpler approach.  The page simply filters in and out.  You have 6 different text sizes to choose from as well as 3 paragraph formats, 3 page formats, 6 background colors and 6 different fonts.  No matter how big or small the text gets, it appears crystal clear.  This is another tribute to the quality of the screen.   You have the ability to search for keywords in the book, and navigate through chapters and book content.  With this being a color screen, it also becomes easier to add notes, highlights and bookmarks.

A lot of people have been concerned with having a typical lcd screen to read books and content on.  I was one of those people.  I thought the e-ink was excellent and would be the only way to interact with an electronic book.  After reading on the Nook Color all this time, I have to say it isn’t as big of a deal as people make it out to be.  I can’t say I have read a book on here for 4 hours straight, but even after an hour or so of reading I had no issues.  The pros and cons are pretty cut and dry.  Having used an e-ink screen, you obviously can’t use it at night without another light source.  The Nook Color is a pleasure to use at night.  Nothing else to worry about.  Obviously during outdoor daylight use, the e-ink shines.  But the Nook Color was readable and still usable in all but the most glaring conditions.  The screen seems a little easier to see than on my G2 phone.

A big draw to the color tablet is the ability to read magazines and newspapers.  Barnes and Noble has gone above and beyond Apple’s store by letting consumers subscribe to magazine and newspaper subscriptions.  And, the prices are just as competitive when compared to discount sites like magazines.com.  Newspapers get delivered to the device daily in the morning and newspapers get updated depending on the magazine subscription style.  The newspaper experience is very mediocre.  I tried a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, and did not really enjoy the experience.  It gives you all of the information needed, but was just simple and straightforward.  The magazines however are a different story.  You basically have a straight copy from the newsstand.  You can pinch to zoom and flick through pages.  They have an article view which pulls the words from the article for easier reading.  This is how it should be done.

Being a reading device, a lot of focus went into document formats.  The Nook supports PDF, EPUB, XLS, DOC, PPT, PPS, TXT, DOCM, XLSM, PPTM, PPSX, PPSM, DOCX, XLX, and PPTX files.  I was able to upload some Word docs as well as PDF’s and the Nook performed well.  The method for flipping to the next page changes (compared to magazines, books and newspapers) in that you swype from the bottom up to go to the next page in the document.  This worked quickly, but I find it better to have uniformity across the entire UI.  Pinch to Zoom is also in use here, but when using it the document becomes blank and you lose track of how far in you want to zoom in or out.  Definitely not something you want to deal with as it is such a minor issue.

Wrap Up

So is this an ereader? A tablet?

It’s an ereader with several bonuses thrown in.  In the very near future, we will find out how much B&N wants to open this device up.  But even if they leave it somewhat locked down, it is still a fantastic device.  It looks and feels excellent.  Having the ability to read different formats and everything from books to magazines turns out to be a bigger deal than originally thought.  You can surf the web and navigate through the bookstore easier than on any reading device out.  All of this for $250!  So what most people can draw from this is that you won’t find another reader/tablet for this price, with this quality, and this ease of use.  It’s a tremendous value that might get a few of us to start opening up a good book a little more.

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Allen Schmidt

Allen is a former contributing editor at Nothing But Tablets, which was merged with Pocketables in 2012.