Nook Color Hands-on: E-reader, Tablet, or Both?

Yesterday, Barnes & Noble (s bks) released a software update for the Nook Color, bringing an app store, Google Android 2.2 and other tablet-like features. Since I never actually reviewed the Nook Color when it launched — and because I was curious to see if the device can replace a traditional tablet — I ran out to buy one. I’ve used the device for roughly 24 hours now, both before and after the new software upgrade. At $249, the device impresses overall, but for most people, this is going to be an e-reader first and pseudo-tablet second, based on my limited, hands-on impressions. My very first impression: Barnes & Noble has hidden Android better than any other device maker I’ve seen yet, and I mean that in a good way.

A Solid E-book Reader

As someone who owned the second Amazon Kindle (the first model didn’t appeal) and has been reading e-books since 2003, I like the Nook Color as an e-reader. And that’s certainly the device’s primary function, although it’s slowly gaining more features. I may yet return the device, since it overlaps with my Samsung Galaxy Tab, but I did purchase a book in the Nook store; of course, I can read that content on iOS or Android devices too, due to Nook software.

The color display with excellent viewing angles works well for text or images and the brightness variance setting is wide. There are several font and spacing options as well. I don’t read outdoors, so I can’t comment on the display in direct sunlight. The latest software update adds a little page animation to the Nook Color, but it’s not a three-dimensional page turn such as Apple’s iBooks offers, for example.

Part-time Browsing Is Fine

The included browser works quite nicely and is even faster after the Android 2.2 update, which I expected. One of the key features of Android 2.2 is a speed boost to most apps. I tested the browser before and after the update, using the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark, just to get a general feel of the improvement. On the old software, the Nook Color browser scored a sluggish 11612 ms, which is among the slowest scores I’ve seen in the past year. After the upgrade, however, the device’s browser earned a 7919 ms score, which is a noticeable improvement for a test where lower numbers are better.

By comparison, my Galaxy Tab scores 5820 ms in the native browser and roughly half that using a third-party application. While the Nook Color is a capable browser, complete with bookmarks and support for multiple tabs, I could only use it for part of my day, as I desire faster web surfing. For occasional use, however, most folks will be just fine, especially after the software update.

Nook Apps

Instead of offering access to Google’s Android Market, Barnes and Noble instead added its own Nook Apps store, which launched with 125 titles. Today there are 140 apps, and unless I scanned too quickly, none were free. I can’t see paying $2.99 for Angry Birds yet again, and few other apps jumped out at me. Plus, I haven’t decided if I’m keeping the Nook Color beyond the 14-day return period, so I haven’t bought any apps yet.

The lack of software titles is something I’d normally be more pessimistic about, but the more I use the device, the more I believe the tablet-like features are secondary supplements. As a result, any apps at all (and there are sure to be more in the future) are a bonus for this e-reader. Plus, the device already has a few apps such as Pandora, Sudoku, Chess, a Crossword puzzle app and more. I’ve enjoyed listening to Pandora in the background while reading for hours already.


The new software update adds an email client that’s fairly useful. I have both my Gmail accounts in the email client, and although basic, the software works fine for general email use. Don’t expect push email however; the options for synchronizing email start at every five minutes and work up from there. Incoming messages cause a unobtrusive notification in the bottom left of the display.

The Nook Color email client certainly supports web-based POP email accounts, but there are IMAP settings as well, so it should work for nearly any mail platform. I also saw mention of mail setup through Exchange, which directed me to a Nook Color support site. According to the site, Exchange isn’t supported directly, but TouchDown, a third-party connector app for Exchange, is available in the Nook Apps store.

So Is It a Tablet, E-reader or Both?

The answer to this question depends on what you’re looking for. Due to a solid reading experience, large library and the ability to read Nook books on other devices, the Nook Color is certainly a good, color e-reader. As a tablet, it may only suffice for occasional browsing, email and software use in its current state. That may change over time if Barnes & Noble continues to mature the device with software updates.

But all the software updates in the world won’t change the hardware. The screen is fine, and the wireless connectivity and battery life are good too. The device will always be hampered by the relatively slow Cortex-A8 processor, however, which was evident when trying to watch an Adobe Flash (s adbe) video. It’s good enough for lighter tablet tasks, which makes the $249 a nice entry point for a potential tablet owner. Someone who wants to use a tablet for many hours daily and for a multitude of tasks however may find the device lacking.

Of course, the Nook Color can be a true Android tablet through rooting the device or installing a custom ROM. I’ve specifically ignored that aspect for now because I wanted to evaluate the device as it comes out of the box, which is how most buyers will use it. If I can root it and later un-root before the 14 day return period, I’ll do that and see if the hardware is more attractive with a base Android build and access to the Android Market.