Nook Color Review – is NookColor better than Kindle or iPad?

1. Introduction

NookColor is Barnes and Noble’s first color reading device and it comes at exactly one year after the release of the original and highly successful Nook eReader, just in time for the holidays. If you do not count the myriads of cheap Android tablets priced around $100-$150 with resistive touchscreen and no UI customization, Nook Color is the first color eReader on the market priced at a reasonable price ($250), less then half the price of iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab and in a form factor better suited for travel.

Positioned as a reader for content beyond regular eBooks, Barnes and Noble is actively advertising it as the device of choice for children books and magazines, where color is important. As eInk color eReaders are not yet on the shelves (real or virtual), LCD devices are the way to go and, beside hugely successful iPad running iOS, the OS of choice for eReaders and small tablets is Android.

2. Nook Color Hardware specifications

Nook Color is built around a TI OMAP 3621 CPU with a native clock of 800MHZ. In order to save power, the CPU will be clocked lower for most of the tasks while tapping to its full power for video and gaming. The device also has 512MB RAM, 8GB embedded storage memory and an additional microSD slot where you can add memory up to 32GB in size. Combined with the recent price drop for flash memory, you can have a really neat media tablet for cheap.

Where Nok Color really shines is in the display. In a stark contrast with the cheap Android tables, Barnes and Noble used a 1024 x 600 VividView display, with extra large 178 degree viewing angle and an extra layer of coating to minimize the glare in back-lit areas.

  • CPU TI OMAP 3621 ARM Cortex A8-based at 800Mhz
  • 802.11n/g/n WiFi adapter
  • 512 MB RAM
  • 8 GB internal storage memory
  • 1024 x 600 capacitive touchscreen VividView LCD
  • Height: 8.1 inches
  • Width: 5.0 inches
  • Depth: 0.48 inches
  • Weight: 15.8 ounces (422g)
  • 8 hours rated battery with the WiFi turned off
  • mono speaker
  • 3.5 mm stereo headphone jack

In our experience, the screen is very bright, the colors are saturated, the images and text are crisp, however there is a certain amount of glare that can be annoying, especially in very bright areas. I had the Nook Color with me in the train yesterday evening and I was finding myself trying to adjust the angle to limit the reflections.

Beside the screen, Nook Color benefits from a capacitive screen, a feature in my opinion that separates a good device from a crappy device. If you read our Pandigital Novel 7 eReader review, beside instability the most annoying part was to operate it via its resistive touchscreen.

3. Nook Color Software, OS and UI customizations

At its heart, Nook Color is built around Android OS version 2.1 Why Barnes and Noble choose an older version is beyond me, although it might be due to development reasons. Froyo (Android 2.2) is already among us for a while and, with Android OS 2.3 announced we can only hope we’ll get provided with a sure path for upgrade. It is important to know though that, this is a commend from a pure technical perspective. I  fully expect most of the potential buyers to be more interested in features like battery life, content, responsiveness so we’ll get to our test results right away.

Since, per Google’s own admission Android is not really suited to be used on tablets, being designed for the small screens available on the smartphones, Barnes and Noble built their own user interface

Here are some main usability observations:

  • each screen offers a context menu with the standard options: settings, web, search, shop, library, etc (similar with Kindle menu button)
  • Nook library is organized by categories – books, newspapers, magazines and my shelves, the latest enabling side loading content

3.1 eBook format compatibility

Nook Color builds over the old Nook (Black and White) adding formats to support the old and new Microsoft Office formats. I know for many users, using PDFs is important and Nook Color does not disappoint. All the PDFs I tried (and some were as big as 15 MB) loaded and displayed without any problem. The LCD size helps (7 inches is noticeable larger than 6 inches) and if reading PDF documents is vital for you, this is the device of choice. Nook Color also offers six different font sizes for readers of all ages.

  • EPUB (including Non or Adobe DRM)
  • PDF
  • Graphics: JPG, GIF, PNG, BMP
  • Audio: MP3, AAC
  • Video: MP4

3.2 Browser

The browser for the previous Nook wasn’t really bad, the Kindle 3 added a Webkit compatible one which was actually quite good, but nothing compares with the touch scrolling experience that Nook Color provides. While iPad is still unbeatable, for the price, Nook Color offers the best experience around. Still somewhat slow in my opinion, hopefully it will be fixed in the next firmware releases. Also important to be noted is that, if you want to zoom you’ll need to perform a tap…pinch and zoom is not implemented (royalties or just laziness?)

3.3 Media

While Nook Color does actually play media, including music and some videos, the whole experience seemed like this feature was more an afterthought. You need to restart the device after you changed the content as it only scans your music collection once (to save the battery maybe? Annoying nevertheless). Playlists are not supported either and with only MP4 video capability, you’ll have to convert the videos if you have them in different formats. If you want to play high definition movies you are out of luck (some will play but most won’t), although the gorgeous display would be ideally suited for that. Maybe in the next software release.

Video CODEC format compatibility: (hardware 854×480 scaled to 1024×600)

  • MPEG-4 Simple Profile up to 854×480
  • H.264 Baseline profile up to 854×480
  • H.263 up to 352×288
  • 3GP
  • 3G2
  • M4V
  • MP4
  • ON2 VP7

Audio CODEC format compatibility:

  • ACC, ACC+, AMR, MP3,

There are also several additions in terms of media features. A nice touch is the Pandora app which was actually available to the old Nook if you had it rooted (maybe Nook Color developers just got the source code and ported it 😉 ) and the same games like chess, sudoku and crossword, but ported for the color display. Sometime early next year we’ll get to see an app store (no, Nook Color doesn’t support Android Marketplace due to its obvious customized interface) and at that point, if Nook Color was popular enough we might see applications and games trickling out on the market.

3.4 Barnes and Noble Store and reading content

As you can imagine, having a full color touchscreen will do wonders for shopping and book presentation and it is nice to see that Barnes and Noble took advantage by this. Children books are pushed also and add some innovative features which are only working on a color devices, a “read to me” option which is not the synthetic voice from Kindle but performed by real persons (actors). I expect B&N will push as much as they can on the color capabilities to differentiate themselves from everybody else, especially Kindle.

If you are an avid magazine reader, Nook Color offers a universal way to subscribe and read magazines and also pan and zoom. By default, on a full page a magazine will be completely unreadable but there are several ways to actually see the articles. Pan and zoom that we already mentioned and a new Article View mode that selects one particular article and scales it to fit the screen, which works rather well.

Navigating through a book is fast, faster than eInk based devices and you can adjust the LCD brightness while you are reading as well.

Newspapers are also part of the experience although I would prefer dedicated applications a la iPad…

3.5 Social Features

Like Kindle 3, Nook Color adds a social dimension to your reading and lets you share comments, quotes, book passages and sometime even full books with your friends via Twitter and Facebook. After an initial step to connect the accounts, you are good to go. If you want to share a full book, this is performed via Nook lending process and you can do it for up to 2 weeks. Be warned that, once you lent a book you won’t be able to use it. The lending process only works if your friend / family also has a Nook.

4. Nook Color Battery life

As for all the devices in this category, the battery life is severely impacted of your usage and, as a result is hard to compare. If you are a light reader you can probably use ti for up to three days. If you are a heavy reader you’ll certainly need to recharge it every day. If you are commuting and read / use the wireless network, a mid day charge will be necessary, so it really depends. I only used the eReader for a day (yesterday) and it actually lasted trough two hours by train (heavy usage, testing, WiFi enabled) and one hour on the bus. In the evening, it still had enough juice for some light reading, but the battery was almost dead. However, I would say better than a laptop and reasonable for a device in this category. Not to be compared with the amazing life that  Kindle 3 has (see here our full review) but again, reasonable.

5. Conclusion

There are better devices that can be used as color eReaders currently on the market. In terms of pure software  / hardware, both Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab are better. However, both are more than twice as expensive as Nook Color and iPad is not really that portable. As the current price ($249) Nook Color is a good choice for a color eReader and when Barnes and Noble app store will launch next year it will be even better. As for the lack of 3G, you have your smartphone for tethering and you wouldn’t really imagine that you could get full and unlimited 3G Internet access for free, right?

In my opinion, if you only read books, you are probably better in using a Kindle 3. If you want to use your device for anything else (browsing, media player, light games) for this price range there is nothing better currently on the market. While not perfect (slow UI, etc) it does everything reasonable well, and your children will love you. Highly recommended!

5.1 Pros

  • size
  • beautiful screen with very crisp text and images. The screen is VERY bright on max settings.
  • capacitive touchscreen
  • social features
  • 8GB memory installed and microSD adapter

5.2 Cons

  • so-so battery life
  • no replaceable battery
  • no Android Marketplace
  • limited apps (for now)
  • no Ad-Hoc WiFi support (tried with my iPhone 4 + MyWi 4.0 and no luck)

5.3 Bugs

  • some driver issues between Vista x64 and Nook Color USB driver
  • If you don’t have wireless Internet connection available during the initial set-up you cannot go past device registration and actually use the device

5.4 How to take screenshots and other tips and tricks

Check our screenshots, tips and tricks article dedicated to Nook Color.

6. Wishes

Per Barnes & Noble own declarations, the company doesn’t want to position Nook Color as a multi-purpose device, but instead to “extend the reading experience.”. However, one can wish and think how cool it would be if you could watch Netflix on it…or a weather application, a RSS reader, a slideshow app, an well made YouTube client, full FaceBook and Twitter functionality…once can dream, right? This little device has the potential to be my best (gadget) friend if properly marketed and supported.

7. Jailbreaking / Rooting

Update: NookColor has just been rooted (Nov 28th 2010) and Angry Birds loaded onto it. I foresee a very bright feature for this little Android tablet 🙂

Update 2: I successfully rooted my Nook Color and posted a detailed How To guide. A lot of applications can be side-loaded now and work fine including Google Earth, Launcher Pro, Google Maps, YouTube, Angry Birds, etc.

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  • cooler

    Nook Color has been picked as the editors choice by PC Magazine.,2817,2371554,00.asp
    Pro reviewers on other sites (CNET, Engadget, AllThingsDigital, etc.) mentioned that it tested to be pretty fast for apps and PDF’s, has a beautiful screen, and is a great value for the holiday season.
    Nook Color screen is supposed to be better (less reflective) for reading than iPad thanks to new LG screen with anti-reflection coating.
    Barnes & Noble special Nook SDK runs on top of the standard Android one and gives developers access to exclusive extensions and APIs for the Nook and its interface. So porting Android apps is not difficult. B&N says it is more like optimising them for Nook than porting them.

  • Ned Nedson

    I’ve had the original Nook for over a year and use it all the time. I bought the Nook Color for the eBooks I’ve collected that have color and I’m very happy with it. I like the way I can access my entire eBook collection on my Nooks or on my PC. I still plan to read novels on the Nook original because it is lighter but the Nook Color is great for Web browsing such as checking the weather and news in the morning without getting out of bed. Battery life for the Nook Color has been very satisfactory. I’m a developer so I like the idea that there is an SDK and I could write an app for it.