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Nook Color is almost enough to make you forget Kindle

Barnes   Noble's $249 Nook Color (right) is nearly twice price Amazon's $139 Kindle but despite its few tradeoffs

Barnes & Noble's $249 Nook Color (on the right) is nearly twice the price of Amazon's $139 Kindle but despite its few tradeoffs, it's the best book reader you can buy without spending $499 on an iPad.

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Updated: January 20, 2011 3:35PM



A few weeks ago, I wrote a Holiday Gift Guide about e-book readers. I saw it as a simple choice, despite the wide variety of e-book devices and e-book stores. Amazon’s Kindle reader is the most practical choice. The latest generation is inexpensive and it’s a light, pocket-sized gadget that will run for roughly ten years (give or take nine years and eleven months) on a single charge. The iPad represented the best alternative. Its huge screen, backlit color display, and ability read any content of any kind from any store or source makes it the best reading experience, assuming you won’t trip over its size or price.

I didn’t overlook Barnes & Noble’s Nook. The fact that I’d looked it over so carefully was the reason why I didn’t bother mentioning it. What was the point? Ever since its debut last year, the Nook was essentially a clone of the Kindle, except without the amperage of Amazon.com’s store behind it. It had a standout feature or two but they weren’t the sort of things that earned the Nook a place in a gift guide, where my goal is to say “This. You should get one of these” rather than provide a comprehensive look at the entire marketplace.

Shortly after that piece ran, Barnes & Noble released the Nook Color. And earlier this week, Google got into the commercial e-bookstore business.

The Nook Color is a fantastic device. The Google e-book store doesn’t completely erase the advantage of the Kindle Store, but it almost levels the playing field for the Nook and most competing readers.

The buying decision just got really complicated, and really interesting.

What Ho, Nook

The Nook has always been based on the Android OS, but only deeply behind the scenes. The Nook is expressly and exuberantly an Android device from the moment you switch it on and you’re required to slide a lock button across the screen to wake it up.

Indeed, this fall has seen the release of two 7-inch multitouch-capable Android tablets. The Samsung Galaxy Tab is nice enough, but vastly overpriced at $599. The Nook Color focuses all of its energy on being a book reader, a web browser, and a media consumption device; it never presents itself as anything else and you certainly can’t install any other Android apps on it. Even so, at just $249, it’s the far more successful tablet of the two. It’s way better at doing its single limited function than the Tab is at doing everything else.

Barnes & Noble has done an exceptional job in articulating Android as a book reader. Mostly you’ll never even recognize that Android is involved at all: from the ankles on upward, the Nook is a completely custom experience. As soon as you wake it up, you’re presented with a home screen that Barnes & Noble calls the Nook’s “virtual coffee table.” A single, iPad-like clicky-button under the screen always takes you back Home. A “Keep Reading” menu in the upper corner always holds a list of things you’ve recently read or places you’ve recently visited; a dedicated button in the opposite corner will zap you straight back to whatever page you were reading the last time you switched your Nook Color off.

The “coffee table” is a nice feature. There’s a side-scrolling shelf at the bottom that contains all of your purchased content and any samples you’ve downloaded. You can drag favorite titles straight to the home page, so they’re always front-and-center and a single tap away.

The final central element to the Nook Color experience is the virtual Quick Nav button at the bottom of the touchscreen. All of the key functions of the Nook are in a popup toolbox: access to your Library; the online Nook Store; a device- an internet-wide Search button; Extras (supplemental apps); a hotkey for the Nook’s built-in web browser; and device settings.

The Reading Rainbow

Reading a book on the Nook brings with it many of the advantages that made me prefer the iPad over the Kindle as a reading device. I prefer a backlit, color screen to electronic ink display on the Kindle (and the cheaper model of the Nook). And it’s a lovely screen: a crisp 1024x600 IPS display with sharp colors and wide viewing angles. Just don’t take it out into the sun; the backlighting and the glossy screen can’t compete with a nearby fusion reaction.

(You’re a bookworm. Why are you stepping outside to begin with?)

Basic typography and page layout are well-handled. Book pages look nice, and they’re easy on the eyes. Whether in a chair, on a sofa, or on a subway, it was easy and comfortable to read and hold.

Turn pages by tapping either side of the screen, or simply by swiping your thumb in the correct direction from anywhere on the display. That’s another advantage over a non-touchscreen reader: you’re not forced to keep your fingers on, or clear of, mechanical buttons.

Another thing that the Nook shares with the iPad: weight. It’s surprisingly heavy for such a slim device (about a pound), no doubt due to all of the batteries that B&N had to pack inside the thing to keep it running eight hours.

Score two points for the Kindle. At half a pound, it’s about as light as a device can get without molding the case out of Flubber and it runs so long on a single charge that you’re actually kind of surprised when it finally gives you a Low Battery warning.

An eight-hour battery life is impressive for the Nook Color. But clearly, you’re never going to forget where you left your charger; you’ll be topping the batteries off a few times a week.

As for the Nook’s heft ... well, who cares. Back when all of my books were analog, I never rejected a title because it weighed more than eight ounces. Although if I’d put such a rule in place before reading “Ethan Frome” it could have saved me a lot of frustration.

If the Nook were being sold as a straight-up Android tablet computer, I’d fault it for its sometimes pokey responsiveness. The lag between a tap of the screen and a response from the device is noticeable, particularly when using the popup keyboard to type in a search term or a note. It’d be an annoyance if the Nook were a “getting things done” computer but it’s acceptable in a book reader.

The Nook certainly has enough enhanced reading features to remind you why you made the switch from analog bookreading technology. On my iPad, I’ve become quite addicted to highlighting interesting bits of information or particularly nifty turns of phrase. Highlighting text, and adding notes, is just as easy on the Nook Color. Tap on any word and hold to bring up a tool panel that lets you do all of that, plus look up the selection in a dictionary or the Wikipedia.

And if you’re connected to a WiFi network, a “Share” button in this group lets you post to Twitter, Facebook, and directly to the contacts in your Google address book. Among the various kinds of posts you can make from the Nook is a semi-“nyahh-nyahh” message to the other members of your book club, marking exactly how far you’ve made it through this month’s book.

Which hardly seems sporting. But I suppose the only arena where the need to establish and maintain a rep are more important are a prison exercise yard.

The Kindle shares many of these features. But only a touchscreen device with a real UI behind it — like the Nook, or the iPad — can implement them in a graceful and useful way. When it comes to simply reading and turning pages, all devices are equal; the superiority of these beefier devices comes through when you try to do all of the other little things you do when you’re reading a book.

Getting Books

If you’ve got the Nook Color’s WiFi switched on, you can access the Barnes & Noble Nook e-book store directly from the device. And as you can imagine, a full-color touchscreen device like the Nook Color can provide a truly worthy onboard shopping experience. It’s yet another “just as easy as it is on the iPad” function.

You can buy books directly the Kindle, o’course, but the only way to truly browse and explore available books is to put down the Kindle and open up a note-book web browser.

The basic MO of the Nook Store is familiar. You can download samples of just about anything for free, and any purchases you make on the desktop are automatically downloaded to your Nook Color every time you refresh its contents. You can read any of your Nook books on an iPad or iPhone, any Android device, or a PC or Mac, via free software.

What about the selection? BN.com claims over two million titles. But every store’s figures are a little hazy. I thought it’d be a better test if I just pulled up a list of all of the Kindle books I’ve bought over the past two years and saw what was available and how much things cost at the Nook store. Of the 17 titles (the first 10 on the list, alphabetically…and then I picked seven more) only two were unavailable for the Nook: James Joyce’s “The Dead” and Anneli Rufus’ “Party of One.” Of the titles that were available in both stores, only one was significantly less expensive on the Kindle Store (a Modern Library edition of a Plutarch page-turner).

I have to award Amazon’s Kindle Store the win for “selection and pricing” but I don’t regard it as a defining advantage of the Kindle.

The Nook Color offers two significant twists of its own. If you take a Nook into a bricks-and-mortar Barnes & Noble bookstore, many books in the device’s Store app will be available for in-store reading. You’ll have access to the full text of the book for an hour, at which point the Nook grumbles that this ain’t a library and makes you stop.

Moreover: this Nook actually is a library, in the sense that you can lend a title to another Nook user. But there are lots of caveats to keep in mind. You can’t read the book yourself until the loan period expires in 14 days. Once you’ve loaned a book, you can never lend it ever again. And publishers can tag certain books so that they can never be lent in the first place.

So let’s file the “in-store reading” feature under “legitimately useful, assuming that your local Barnes & Noble hasn’t removed its comfy chairs,” and the “lending” feature under “ ... Seriously? That’s really how it works?”

The real killer advantage of the Nook’s content over the Kindle’s is the fact that the device is fundamentally an e-Pub reader, and all of its copy-protected content relies on Adobe Digital Editions DRM.

Allow me to translate: it uses the single most universal e-book format for all of its content. And it also uses the single most universal DRM system for copy-protecting books sold by commercial publishers.

Allow me to translate the translation: the Nook Color will read damn-near anything out there, no matter what store you buy it from. If you want to buy something from the new Google e-book Store or from an independent publisher, it’ll install just fine. If you’ve downloaded a public-domain book, it’ll install even Just Finer.

And the Adobe Digital Editions DRM scheme also allows local libraries to lend e-books to its patrons. You can install the file on your reader and it simply self-destructs after the loan period is up. And yup, these library editions also work just fine on the Nook Color.

Installing Adobe DRM’d books from libraries and competing bookstores isn’t nearly as simple as just buying them directly from the Nook Store. You need to tether the Nook to your computer via USB and then use the desktop Adobe Digital Editions app to install the title. But once it’s on there, it’s as good as any book you buy from Barnes & Noble.

(With one exception: they all appear on a separate bookshelf. Why no Coffee Table love for non-Nook Store titles?)

Unlocked e-Pub books (like the public domain titles available from Google Books and many other sources) are much easier to install. Use the Nook’s built-in web browser to find a download link for the book. Give it a tap and the Nook will download and install it directly into the library.

The Nook has been an e-Pub-based creature since its debut last year. But the Google e-book Store — open for just a few days now — truly elevates this feature. One of the enduring complaints about commercial e-book stores like Amazon’s and Apple’s has been that your purchases are locked into one specific brand of reader. There’ve been independent e-bookstores that use Adobe DRM and which have maintained an explicit “We don’t care what you do with this file after we process your credit card” policy, but there’s never been one with the scale and the permanence of Google’s operation.

True, Amazon isn’t going anywhere. And they’ve aggressively produced apps that allow you to read their books on pretty much any device that converts electrons to photons.

But only the Google e-book store delivers something close to the ideal: an immense source of affordable commercial titles that can be installed on anything you own today and anything you’ll buy in the future. For once, Amazon is the odd man out: it’s the only reader of any significance that can’t work with ePub or Adobe DRM.

Hence my comment at the very top of this review. Things just got extremely interesting. Google e-books are the great equalizer. When you take all factors into consideration, I honestly don’t believe that the Amazon Kindle Store has any real advantage over the Nook Store or any other. And that’s a hell of a statement.

Nook Color: An Android Tablet In Disguise

Things get even more interesting when you push aside your perceptions of the Nook as a mere e-book reader and start thinking of it as a 7-inch tablet computer.

It’s precisely what frustrated Android and iPad fanciers have been looking for. The first group want something bigger and more ambitious than a phone, but they aren’t so nuts that they’d spend $600 on a Samsung Galaxy Tab. The second group would buy an iPad in a heartbeat, if only it were smaller and less expensive. The Nook Color might be an OK substitute for some of these people.

Before things get out of hand, let me be crystal-clear: the Nook Color isn’t an iPad. It isn’t a Galaxy Tab, or even what most people expect when they hear the phrase “an Android tablet.” But it’s $250 and it has a bunch of features that might make it “close enough” for many potential consumers of an iPad or a Galaxy Tab:

1) It has a perfectly good web browser.

The browser is WebKit based ... just like every browser that comes with every Android, iPhone, and iPad. The only big limitation is its lack of plugins (so: no videos, no Flash). But Google Apps seem to work fine, though (wisely) apps like GMail and Reader open in their mobile incarnations.

2) You can put your own files on it, and the it has built-in players and readers for all of the usual suspects. So you can use the Nook as a portable document viewer and media player.

Just tether it to your desktop via USB and copy files directly into its memory. There’s about five to six gigabytes of free space onboard. Or, you can use its built-in MicroSD slot.

The Nook has QuickOffice document reader tech built in, which can handle Microsoft Office files and PDFs. On the media front, the Nook can also view JPG GIF and PNG photos, and play audio (MP3 or AAC) and MP4 video. Files appear in the “My Files” tab of the Nook’s library.

Bonus: there’s also a “My Downloads” folder for any files you care to download directly via the browser. So, yes, it can pull files directly from your Dropbox or other web-accessible cloud storage directory.

These players work well, for the most part. The music player is fairly slick (listen through either a muffly internal speaker or through headphones). But I clearly sent the Nook into a panic with the video files I tested. I couldn’t even get a short, low-bandwidth file to play. Presumably one can find the correct specs and bitrates for encoding Nook-studly video.

3) The Nook Color has an “Extras” drawer for additional apps.

You’ll find a small collection of games, plus, notably, a Pandora streaming-music client. And shortly after the Nook Color’s release, Barnes & Noble released an SDK and launched a formal developer program. The company tells me that they’ll approve apps “that enhance the reading experience.”

“So if Amazon submitted a Kindle app,” I asked, “Would you approve it?”

(No. No, they would not.)

Nonetheless, implicit in the Nook’s collection of built-in apps is the statement that Barnes & Noble believes that media and games are part of the reading experience. What else might they approve? There’s a lot of potential here; I remind you that under all of Barnes & Noble’s Nook software there beats the body and the brain of an excellent Android tablet computer. Its technical limitations are few. It has a huge color touchscreen, a snappy processor, and a tilt sensor. This could become one hell of a nice gaming system ... and by “games” I mean “3D driving/racing sims,” not “American Presidents Word Search.”

Let’s hope some of that potential is actually realized. There’s good reason to be skeptical: plenty of nontraditional computing devices come with a developer kit and the possibility of third-party apps. Practically none of them have ever attracted a real developer community, however. A tour of the Kindle Active Content available on Amazon turns up a short list of boring word games.

The most interesting part of the Nook Color as a physical piece of hardware is the last item on my list:

4) If you’re willing to be very naughty, tear your hair out for a few hours, and void your warranty besides ... you can turn the Nook Color into a for-real Android tablet computer.

The generic term for cracking an Android device so that the user can make the device run software that the manufacturer doesn’t approve of is “rooting.” Well, the Android developer community successfully rooted the Nook Color within a couple of weeks of its release.

Look on YouTube and you’ll find user videos of the Nook Color running standard Android games and apps. It looks to all the world like any other Android device.

I found the directions without much difficulty and (after all of my conventional testing and research on the Nook was complete) I managed to get this Nook Color rooted in ... OK, something under ten hours, with a good night’s sleep in between sessions. I got hopelessly stuck on two different steps that were no way, no how working in anything like the instructions described. That’s typical for most procedures like this.

Nevertheless, in the end I performed a fairly nifty trick: I installed the Amazon Kindle app on the Nook.

Yes, indeed. See? It’s right here in the Extras tray. Seconds after launching the Kindle App, it downloaded all of my purchased Kindle content. The Kindle reader kind of stinks on the Nook (it was designed for smaller devices, not a big, roomy tablet like this) but it goes to show you what the Nook is capable of: absolutely anything.

I can’t end this bit without stressing that the Nook Color is in no way being sold as an Android tablet, and that a rooted Nook Color is a completely impractical in that role. Also, there’s no promise that your hacked Nook will continue to function at all, or that you won’t completely bork your device if you try this and fail.

So why even talk about it, then? I cite this experience only as an example of just how muscular the Nook Color is. I’m impressed by this device. I had to ask Barnes & Noble point blank: why not just sell this as a full-blown Android tablet with dedicated hard button that switches it to an awesome custom Nook reader mode?

It certainly wasn’t a conventional question. The B&N VP I spoke with could only say that it’s a brand-new device that’s just gone on the market, and that they’re focusing on the reading experience.

Fair enough.

If the Nook Color were an $249 Android tablet, I’d be recommending this to everybody I know. It’d pop up in every future review of an Android 7-inch tablet (“And yet, the Nook does everything the LambadaCorp DiscoPad, for $100 less ... ”).

So where does this leave us?

The Nook Color is one hell of a reader. Even if Barnes & Noble keeps most of the device’s potential under the hood and never stretches it beyond the limitations of “a device for reading things,” it’s clearly the most fully-featured dedicated e-book device on the market. And the price is certainly attractive.

Yes, it’s way, way better than the Kindle. Come on, now.

And yet, choosing a Nook Color over a Kindle isn’t a slam-dunk decision by any means. It comes down to the psychology of the e-reader consumer. The Kindle isn’t nearly as sophisticated as the Nook Color, but it has three hugely attractive features whose importance are unique to this type of device:

1) It runs forever without needing to be recharged.

2) It has no user interface to speak of, and all of its non-book-reading features are well-hidden.

3) It’s cheap.

These are important features for an e-reader because these are three features that people like about traditional books.

Folks can make a very easy transition from analog books to a Kindle. The Nook Color is extremely easy to work with, but the fact that it’s an Android app running on a 7” color tablet computer means that the Nook Color is always going to be just a little bit more complicated than a Kindle.

The Kindle might not be dirt cheap at $139, true. But it’s more affordable than the $249 Nook Color by a considerable leap. $139 is within most people’s “OK, I’ll roll the dice on this” range. For $249, a consumer has to know that he or she is going to love reading books on a Nook Color.

I’d confidently ship a Kindle to any non-techie relative. I’d confidently gift a Nook Color if I knew I was going to be on hand to at least offer an initial walk-through.

It’s not that the Nook Color is tough to use. But it has its rough edges. I often found myself a little lost in the UI and patiently wishing that there was a “Back” button; it’s easy to tap out of somewhere and not find your way back. I’m baffled by the presence of two separate Search functions (one searches the book you’re reading, the other searches the Internet; the former failed to locate common words peppered throughout the Nook’s digital user manual).

And the WiFi was a little bit squirrely, too. On my sample unit, the only way to get it to recognize a new wireless network was to turn the WiFi radio off and then on again.

The iPad continues to hover beatifically over the rest of the scrum. It’s not a book reader: it’s an iPad. You wouldn’t spend $499 on one of those things unless you wanted something muscular and with enough power and flexibility to be the one mobile device you’ll ever need to keep at hand. It’s not just a book reader; it excels at any task where a big color touchscreen would come in handy.

But the Nook Color is a true winner and it fills a necessary gap in the market. Ever since the release of the iPad, we’ve needed a book reader that was better than a black-and-white e-ink reader in almost every way, while still being pocketable and affordable.

It’s the clear choice for anybody who can afford the extra dough, and who isn’t stuck at Step One on the geek ladder. If the Kindle is the best reader for the kind of people who walk into the phone store and beeline for the model with the biggest buttons and the fewest features, the Nook Color clearly the best e-book reader for everybody else.

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