Nook Color Review

I recently upgraded from a no-name Chinese Android 2.2 tablet to a NOOK Color. The difference was astounding. I really liked the skin Barnes & Noble has applied on Android.  It looks slick and operates really smoothly. The device itself is a bit heavy and after 35 minutes of holding it up while reading your arms will be a bit tired. The heft does convey that feeling of being well built and sturdy, an attribute possessed by many quality Apple products. My first task after playing with it for a day was to root it and install a 3rd party Android rom.  This really changed the device from a cool color e-reader to a tablet.

I opted to install CyanogenMod 7, an Android 2.3 rom (Gingerbread, yum). Installing was a breeze for anyone who’s done any tinkering with Android, and compared to my previous forays into this realm, it was much simpler. Simply format your SD-Card with a bootable image provided on a few sites, then install the rom, and reboot and viola! you’re running the latest stable release of Android on your $250 tablet. The UI in CyanogenMod lacks some polish compared to the heavy customization in the standard NOOK UI, but it’s quite pleasant and intuitive, especially for a seasoned Android user.

The battery life is more than acceptable, especially for the price.  With moderate usage, I can usually read and respond to emails, read books, browse the web (including Flash) for about 6 hours before the battery gets tired. For me, that means half an hour in the morning of reading the news and checking my email, then another two hours of the same when I get home and maybe an hour of reading before bed.  So I usually go two days between full charges, and I haven’t actually let the battery fully discharge yet. I suspect with some tweaks, lower screen brightness and quicker screen timeouts, the battery could easily last you a week.

For my personal use, the most important thing I wanted to try was using the tablet as an offline travel guide. Equipped with the NOOK app and Amazon Kindle I can keep travel books available for immediate, searchable, and bookmarkable reference without taking up any extra space in a daypack or luggage. I recently got back from a trip to Iceland (more on that soon) with my girlfriend where we took this plan for a test run. We both agreed the addition of the NOOK to our usual equipment when traveling abroad was a big win. With plentiful wifi and preloaded with travel books, the NOOK performed fantastically as a travel book. I found a fantastic offline maps application called MapDroyd which can download vector maps of regions and entire countries. It wasn’t perfect, and when I had preloaded directions with Google Maps the map was cached well enough that we didn’t need it. However for the few times we found ourselves at a random intersection in Reykjavik with no idea which way to head next, MapDroyd really came through.

My essential Android apps on my NOOK so far:
* Firefox
* Google Maps
* MapDroyd
* Amazon Kindle

The biggest thing I noticed about how I was treating it was that I noticed I wasn’t babying it the way I do my digital SLR camera or my cell-phone.  I was throwing it into our day pack. When you take it apart and put it back together, the NOOK delivers so much for the price. At $250 the hardware itself has a nice form factor and is very portable, but you don’t feel like you need to protect it or shield it from the horrors of real-world use. It’s durable, yes, but more than that, it’s the first step towards commoditization of tablets. The Samsung Galaxy, Motorola Xoom and even the iPad v1 and v2 all put the price of a tablet device well above $400. The Kindle come close, but with the current generation of E-Ink, it’s not going to compete well with a tablet that has full-color, Adobe Flash and a rich UI for only $100 more.

Wrapping up, the NOOK delivers so much for $250, but only after you’ve replaced the stock software with something else.  This barrier might hold it back, but it also will continue to do exactly what Android does best, attract the enthusiast crowd. People who already flock to Android-based devices for their customizability and configurability love this tablet.  Barnes & Noble has managed to put a slick enough UI on top of Android, and seems to be regularly releasing new features with updates, even your parents could enjoy this device.

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