We have been evaluating tablet PCs/e-readers, with a view to discovering their general and academic uses. In today’s post I will look at the Barnes & Noble Nook Color.
Here are the specs:
- 7 inch VividView capacitive touch screen at 1024×600 resolution (8.1 inches (H) x 5 inches (W) overall)
- 800MHz ARM Cortex A8-based, 45nm OMAP3621 processor
- 8GB internal memory (of which 5GB is used for storage)
- 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, but no 3G connectivity
- microSD expansion card slot for up to 32GB additional storage
- 3.5mm headset jack
- Integrated mono speaker on the lower back of the unit
- Standard microUSB port for charging and file transfer via cable
What do the specs mean?
“VividView” is a B&N marketing term for a non-glare technology employed in manufacturing the screen. Don’t kid yourself, you are not going to be reading this screen at the beach in direct sunlight. There is far too much glare. Under normal lighting conditions, however, the picture is brilliant. The backlit LCD screen looks really good. Black on white text has great definition, and there are alternative font/text styles available for most any choice if you find that brilliant black on white tires your eyes. I have set my own text choice (for book reading, magazine reading does not offer this choice) to black on grey with a largish sans serif font and minimal gutters. It is impressivley adjustable.
The nook feels rugged. It’s screen frame is matte plastic, with a rubberized back. At nearly a pound it feels substantial, but not too heavy. The mono speaker is located in the back, but if you are planning on listening to music, get some quality ear buds and forget the tinny speaker. Ear buds DO NOT come with the device. Furthermore, do not plan on using the nook as an audiobook player–at least if you get your audiobooks from Audible as most of us do (Audible is an Amazon company). There is no Audible app for the nook. You could rip audio books from the library, or download mp3 files from Gutenburg or Librivox, and then transfer them to your nook, but the process would not be what most users would call simple.
Note that connectivity is via WiFi only. Good news: no data plan to pay for (though Amazon’s Kindle comes with free “whispernet” connectivity through Sprint); bad news: must have WiFi to download new content. WiFi can be turned off to conserve battery life.
Speaking of battery life, it is rated for 8 hours, so don’t forget your USB cable if you are taking a trip. The initial charge up took several hours.
While the nook is built on the Android platform, it is a highly specialized platform, not at all like your Android phone. And NO, you cannot load Android apps from the Google or Amazon app stores. Not even sideways. Your only source for apps is the Barnes & Noble app store, where there are a limited number of titles and almost all for pay, though it comes with several like Chess, a Contacts list (you can import your gmail contacts), Crossword, Email (more on this below), Gallery (a picture viewer – you transfer your own pictures via the USB cable), a VERY rudimentary music player with, as far as I can tell, no elegant way to create play lists, the Pandora music service, and the inevitable Sudoku app. Compared with the universe of over 100,000 apps available at the iTunes app store, and the less spectacular but still very substantial offering available for standard Android, the offering is pathetically small. Yet, if you wanted a device that excelled at apps you probably would not buy the nook. It is first and foremost a reader.
The Nook as an e-Reader
The interface is somewhat confusing at first. There is a home screen, always accessible by pressing the hardware n button on the bottom of the device. There is also a “today” shelf at the bottom of the home screen, where the books you have currently read are placed for easy access and where–and this is pretty aggravating–B&N can place new content they want to market to you. Even worse, you can’t permanently delete the B&N suggestions, but only “archive” them, which gets them out of sight but not out of mind.
There is also a library, in which you can create as many personal shelves as you wish–similar to Kindle single-depth folders–which is accessible through a quick navigation bar available via a software button at the bottom of the home page. This software button also gives you quick access to the nook Shop, a Search feature (which not only searches you nook, but also the nook Shop and, optionally, Wikipedia and the web), your apps, the web, and a settings panel. It really only takes a bit of playing around to get used to the interface, but be prepared to stumble a bit until you get the “Oh, I see” moment.
As a book reader the nook does everything you want, and then some. As indicated above, text is highly configurable. You turn pages by tapping right or left, or swiping across the touch screen. Press on the screen to highlight a word (or phrase) and then use the pop-up toolbar to highlight it, add notes (a notepad with Android style keyboard pop up), share a word or phrase (rudimentary sharing on Twitter or Facebook), or look up the word or phrase.
The built-in dictionary is excellent and the definition formatting great, far superior to the dictionary implementation on the Kindle. The nook even offers to extend the search to the web or Wikipedia in a truly useful way.
One complaint I have about notes is that they do not seem to propagate very quickly across the B&N web site. At least, not to all the other platforms on which you might be running the nook reading app. I have installed the nook reading app on my Macbook Pro and on my iPad, and the notes I made a couple days ago are available there, but not the notes I made yesterday or today are available on the iPad, but not on the Macbook. A quicker refresh, with more consistency would be essential for this to be truly useful.
While reading, you always have quick access to a bottom-screen toolbar to access the TOC, configure the text or brightness, or share a highlight.
As an e-reader the nook color is excellent. It supports the ePub format, so you can easily download books from Gutenburg and Google and place them (via your USB cable) in your books folder, which then transfers them to the library. Purchases from B&N, of course, go straight to the library. They are helpful that way.
As mentioned above, you can easily configure the nook to receive your email, but note that you are restricted to POP or IMAP email. Note also that while on campus at Palomar College you will NOT be able to receive IMAP email (that is, gmail) because our IS department blocks the IMAP protocol. (Don’t ask why…). Its a snap to configure your live.com mail or cox.net mail, however and it all works very well.
Palomar college, however, uses Exchange email, and that you cannot get on the nook color without purchasing a $20.00 app called Touchdown. While investigating the Touchdown app, I read many user reviews that used terms like “as waste,” “didn’t work,” “sucks,” and worse. Be advised. It would probably be safer, if you just HAVE to see your Palomar email on your nook (there actually are such people) to forward it to a POP address, and receive that on your nook.
OK. Enough about email.
A very odd thing I observed while using the nook is that in some modes (gallery, documents, web) the screen will rotate to widescreen when the device is turned, in other modes (books, magazines) it will not (though it may depend on the magazine formatting). It is as if the team responsible for the book reader didn’t talk to the team responsible for the web browser. It’s not a big deal, but you should note that if is not hardware dependent, as it is on the iPad, but app dependent.
I had no trouble viewing PDF documents and Word 2007 docs on the nook color. They looked good, but rather than respecting pagination the nook makes you scroll down the document, which is specially odd with PDFs. Also note that with PDFs embedded web links did not work. Word 2010 documents were partly readable, but SmartArt and content specific to 2010 was not visible.
You transfer pictures to the nook, as you do documents or music, via the USB cable. It’s easy and works smoothly with both Mac and PC, though navigating the file structure may give some beginners trouble. I added a group of pictures and then viewed them in the gallery app quite easily. You do not have the option to send a picture attached to an email, however, like you do on the iPad. To transfer them elsewhere you pretty much have to haul out the USB cable.
I loaded several videos on the nook color, mp4, mov and wmv formats to NOT play. In fact, there seems to be almost no codec support for the various video formats. M4V video did play, but that’s pretty limiting. It makes you wonder why they bothered with a Video folder.
The built-in browser works well and has all the controls you might desire. As noted above, it auto adjusts depeneding on how the nook is oriented, shifting to landscape or portrait as necessary. The built-in flash support is a big deal when comparing the nook to the iPad, but then again, flash is starting to disappear from the web, so maybe that’s not that great an advantage. I had no problem playing YouTube videos, both embedded in web pages and full-screen (though oddly enough they seemed to jump to full screen upside down more often than not–another confused gyro episode?). I could not, however, play netflix videos. Netflix uses the silverlight plugin, and there is no such animal for the nook. If you go to the netflix website it will attempt to give you the silverlight plugin for mac, but don’t waste your time. It cannot be installed on the nook.
You might think that the nook would have appeal to college students wanting to use etextbooks, rather than their enormously expensive (and heavy) dead-tree cousins, but even B&N admit that the screen is too small. They give away an app called NOOKstudy, for reading eTextbooks, but (and I find this really odd) it does not run on the nook, only on your PC or Mac. In fact they state that “NOOKstudy eTextbooks cannot be read on the NOOK or mobile devices because textbooks do not display well on small screens.” So OK, that’s that, but why call it NOOKstudy?
So, what about the nook color? The price point, and this is perhaps the most important fact about it, is $249. In view of what you get for that price is it a good deal? Absolutely. What you get is a great e-reader and an OK android tablet with the limitations noted above, with a screen that is vivid and a good built-in web browsing experience. What you don’t get is the speed and elegance of the iPad, whose starting price point is $499. To be honest, I do all my e-reading on the iPad now. The Amazon cloud reader is my preferred platform, except for those older books that require the Kindle app, which also runs well on the iPad. If you consider the universe of apps and the speed and capability of the iPad I think that if you can afford it, the iPad is a better choice than the nook color, even in the areas where there functionality overlaps. This is not to say the nook color is a bad product, however, just not nearly as good as a device that costs twice as much. If price really matters, and you don’t want an e-ink, b&g display, then the nook color is the only game in town, and don’t feel bad about it. If you want the best, you have to pay about twice as much and get an iPad.