Review: Barnes & Nobles' Nook Color goes Android Tablet

No, the Barnes & Nobles' Nook Color is no iPad, but with the Android 2.2 update, it's a decent tablet.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

If you must have a great tablet, and you're willing to pay the price for it, Apple's iPad 2 is still the one to get. But, if you'd like a good tablet at half-the-price, the newly firmware renovated Barnes & Noble Nook Color may be all the tablet you need.

Today, April 25th, as has long been expected, the Nook Color got its 1.2 update. This transforms the Nook Color from being an e-reader to being a low-end Android tablet by replacing its operating system with Android 2.2 (Froyo) and adding an App Store.

Since I've been waiting for the Nook Color update for weeks, I immediately downloaded the firmware, which for now you must do to make the jump and put it to work. If you'd rather not jump in where non-computer savvy users fear to tread you can wait for the download and upgrade to be made automatically.

Before jumping into a review of the Nook Color 1.2, let's go over the basics. The Nook Color specs include the following:

" 7 inch VividView capacitive touch screen at 1024×600 resolution " 800MHz ARM Cortex A8-based, 45nm OMAP3621 processor " 8GB internal memory (5GB for storage) " 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi " microSD expansion card slot " 3.5mm headset jack " Integrated mono speaker " Standard microUSB port for charging and book transfer via cable " Dimensions of 8.1 x 5.0 x 0.48 inches and 15.8 ounces

That tells you several things right there. The first is that this is not going to be setting any speed records. If its speed you want, look to iPad 2 or such Android tablets such as the forthcoming Acer Iconia Tab A500, Dell Streak Pro, or Amazon's own Kindle changed into a tablet. Of course, you're also going to pay more for any of these than the 'good enough' Nook Color.

Now, Allen Weiner, a Gartner VP of Research, says "The Nook Color with its new Froyo upgrade is not an iPad-not even close. But [for] those who are looking for a great cross-media reading device with some nice new multimedia bells and whistles, it remains a go-to device." I'd say it's more than that. Here's what I found.

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Installing & Running Froyo on the Color Nook

If you don't want to wait for the automatic Wi-Fi upgrade, installing Android 2.2 is the Nook Color is really quite easy. If anything, it's so easy that I kept thinking I surely must be missing something. No, I wasn't.

Here's how it goes. First you download the zipped upgrade file and put it on your PC. Then, you hook the Nook Color to your computer with a USB cable. The dual USB/power cord that comes with the Color Nook will do just fine.

Then, you move the newly downloaded file to the top directory of the Nook Color. Don't put it in a lower folder or make a new folder for it. You just dump it in the top folder and that's that. Next, you eject or safely remove the Nook Color drive after the file has been transferred to the Nook. After that, you twiddle your thumbs and wait for the Nook to patch itself. In my case it took about 10-minutes. Just bring the Nook out of sleep mode, and press the small green Nook icon on the lower right. It should tell you that you're now running the newest Nook software: 1.2.

That's it. There's nothing to run once you've brought the update file over.

The Nook Color Tablet in Action

The first thing you'll notice is that the Nook Color interface hasn't changed any. You've not rooted the device and turned it into a Nook Color that's running full Android. You're running a Nook Color that now has a fuller version of Android, under the hood, and an application store.

This is good news for Nook Color users who wouldn't know what to do with a native Android interface, but people who expected to see an interface transformation may be disappointed. I expected the Nook Color to keep its look and feel so I was fine with it.

What is new is that it includes Adobe Flash support. Some people are unhappy with the playback quality, but it worked fine for me. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it did at rendering YouTube videos and movie trailers. Would I watch a move on it? Well, the 7" display is small, but sure if I were stuck somewhere without something to read, I could see watching a film on it.

The new Nook Color also comes with several built in new programs. The Nook E-Mail app. works out of the box with AOL, Gmail, and Yahoo. You can also set it up manually with POP and IMAP mail servers. I added my Google account and my own mail server, vna1.com. All too often, I've found that tablet and smartphones are pains in the rump for manually set up e-mail servers, but the Color Nook actually did the best job I'd ever seen at it.

It also comes with some rudimentary social networking tools built in. So, for example, you can use Twitter and Facebook to share some of your books with friends. It also come with its own book-oriented social network, NOOK Friends, where you can loan some books back and forth and talk about books in your own virtual book club.

The Nook Color App store's shelves, with only 139 apps, are still largely bare. Still, there are such "essentials" as Angry Birds and Pulse News. Still, it doesn't, at this time, have any of my favorite Android apps such as Google Voice or Dropbox, but I'm sure they'll come in time.

Despite these new features, it seemed to me that the Nook Color was actually more responsive and a tad faster with the new software. I'd expected it to be a bit slower, but that wasn't the case. So, bottom line is the Nook Color a worthwhile, low-priced $249, low-end tablet. Yes, yes it is. I've said before that the Nook Color might be the first great Android tablet. It may not be "great," but it's certainly more than good enough. I highly recommend it for any would-be tablet user on a budget.

Oh, and Amazon? The ball's in your court now.

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