[Review] Barnes & Noble Nook Color

You don’t need to look very far to see how varied the offerings are in the booming tablet market nowadays. Everything from low-end generic devices (such as the Freescale IMX515-powered device I reviewed a few months ago), to high end offerings such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the Apple iPad. Consumers are continually finding new ways to use the plentiful real estate on these devices, whilst enjoying the benefits of their smartphone pedigree, such as low-power standby, shared application libraries and familiar interfaces. I’m constantly fascinated by the innovation and creative uses people discover with these devices, especially within the Android ecosystem. To that end, I ordered a Barnes & Noble Nook Color ($249 US) about a month ago, took my time in familiarising with it to as accurately write a review as possible. In the interim, I discovered that the Nook was exploding in popularity, stock was constantly running out, being the most popular B&N product to date. But why?

The packaging is clever, minimalistic and efficient.

 

Size / Usage

An area of interest to me has been the e-book reader, or more accurately, tablets which also function as e-book readers, situations where e-ink devices like the Amazon Kindle fall behind. I’ve found the 4″ screen on my Galaxy S, as vibrant as it is, just plain lacks the screen area for some tasks: reading and processing my fix of news articles, books and websites, thus relegating my laptop / desktop in frequent operation. The iPad’s 10″ screen is brilliant and it’s capacitive sensors are class-leading, allowing for enjoyable games and movies, however in usage I found it was limited in how often you could comfortably use it (not to mention it’s sadness-inducing price or ecosystem, but that’s another story).

Allow me to explain. The primary focus of media-consumption tablets such as this are in situations where you would hesitate to bring your laptop: sitting on the couch, in bed, on the road, in the car. Thus, the ergonomics -as crazy as it sounds- of tablet usage are important. If by virtue of the mass of the unit, you are required to rest it on your knees, or on a table in order to allow for extended periods of use, this severely limits the functionality of the tablet. The majority of people I have discussed this with (by no means a scientific test) have expressed similar sentiments, that the weight is slightly above what they would deem ‘comfortable’ holding up in front of them with their hands for an extended time, thus requiring a resting place. The bulk of the unit, though exponentially thinner and lighter than a laptop, dictates how often you carry the unit with you when you are on the road as well.

Enter the 7″ tablet, which surprisingly enough, is around half the physical size of a 10″ iPad. Tablets such as Samsung’s Galaxy Tab employ this form factor to great success, though at first I was skeptical, echoing other’s thoughts on it’s significantly smaller size, but on continued usage and closer thought about it’s purpose and philosophy, I began to discover it’s virtues. The Nook Color is such a device, it’s light weight and aspect ratio all emphasise portability, allowing me to carry it often with me without being a distraction or a hindrance. As the saying goes, the best tablet is the one you have with you. However, make no mistake, this tablet was never aimed at replacing the iPad, it just so happens it does a damn good job of it.

The back of the unit, note the speaker grille. MicroSD slot is accessed through a liftable flap, shown detached here. A small magnet locks it in place.

 

Hardware

Which brings us to the hardware. I must admit, I have been somewhat jaded by the previous tablet I purchased, even as bargain bin as it was (with suitably low expectations from the Shenzhen factory), it creaked, it felt cheap, it was a blatant knockoff and it eventually broke (admittedly due to my own itchy fingers). The Nook Color (referenced from here on as the NC to save said itchy fingers) is manufactured by Foxconn, one of the largest electronics manufacturers in Taiwan, historically responsible for manufacturing for large OEMs such as Apple, HP and more. Incidentally, if you are not familiar with Barnes & Noble, they are the largest book retailer in the US: The pieces of the puzzle should now begin to fall into place.

On first and continued impressions, the unit feels solid and of high quality. The plastic surrounds are matt gray in finish, with a rubberised backing, a lack of sharp edges bar the iconic corner. Importantly, it goes without a hint of mimicry that cheapens some other tablet designs, instead it’s appearance is stoic and purposeful. The matt design results in a unit that feels substantially more expensive than it really is, whilst being resistant to fingerprints (barring the screen, which is a gloss finish), has an unmistakable ‘hook’ design and the box even has a magnetic latch. It’s certainly difficulty to quantify such a measurement, but suffice to say, one would not, on impression, consider this poorly constructed at all. Weight wise, it’s easily wieldable in the palm of one hand for extended periods of time, rendering it this form factor the defacto standard for book reading. Nook Color me impressed. Hit you with the specs? You got it:

Screen: 7″ IPS VividView Color Touchscreen (1024x600px) LG LD070WS1 (SL02) Display (178deg viewing angle) Sensors: Cypress Semiconductor TTSP TMA340 Gen3 Capacitive Touchscreen, Accelerometer CPU: Ti OMAP 3621 @ 800mhz (Cortex A8) GPU: PowerVR SGX530 (Open GLES 1.1/2.0, supports H.264/ON2/VP7) RAM: 512MB Hynix H8MBX00U0MER DDR2 Internal Storage: 8GB Sandisk SDIN4C1-8G External Storage: Up to 32GB MicroSD Card Wireless: Ti WL1271 chip (Bluetooth* / FM Radio* / 802.11B/G/N) Power Management: Texas Instruments TPS65921 Power Management IC Battery: 3.7v 4000mAh 14.8wH Li-ion (stated at 8 hours of battery life) Physical: 205mm x 127mm x 12.2mm (422g) Ports: Headphone Jack / MicroUSB data/charging Buttons: Volume Up/Down, Power, Home

* Not enabled by default, can be reverse engineered later.For more detailed teardowns, refer to here and here.

 

The NC in landscape webpage browsing mode locked in the cover. Pinch and zoom was recently added in an OTA update. Notethat I applied an anti-glare screen protector on at the time the photo was taken. The screen is usually glossy.

 

Processor wise, solid. The OMAP3621 can also be found in the current Motorola Droid X and Droid 2, it’s quite capable, but not as cutting edge as current generation Snapdragon or Hummingbird CPUs. However, the real stunner is the 7″ IPS display. There’s something about In-Plane Switching (IPS) displays that makes them that much more alluring, with their wide viewing angles and accurate color reproduction, which may explain their widespread use in Apple products such as the Cinema Displays and Dell’s Ultrasharp monitors. The screen on this device makes reading from any angle and rotation a real joy. GTablet and Archos owners have reported limited viewing angles to be the bane of their ownership. It’s pixel density of 169PPI also exceeds the iPad’s 132PPI, though one would be hard pressed to notice deficiencies in either display.

 

Landscape game-playing vs a Samsung Galaxy S, roughly 3 times the size for a 4″ vs 7″ screen. The moire effect on the SGS is camera related.

 

The 8GB of internal storage is plentiful (of which 5GB is usable), as is the battery, which I found did match factory claims on average usage. Two things to note here regarding battery usage. Fistly, due to the lack of telephony in this device (as well as the default wireless settings), locking the screen and putting the unit to sleep will result in nearly no battery use (I measured around 0.5% per hour in standby), whilst still allowing for instananeous wake. The second thing to note is the supplied LED-lit charger is rated at 5V 1.9A, nearly four times what the average USB port outputs, to faciliate faster charging of the NC. You CAN still charge the device through a standard micro-USB charger, albeit at a noticeably slower rate of charge. It’s important to note that the unit will not state it is charging, but will in fact refill if charging through a normal USB port. This special charger employs a slightly longer micro-USB connector which has 12 conductors instead of 5. It’s not recommended you charge standard devices with this high-current USB charger.

In addition, I also ordered the Industriell Storm cover ($29 USD), complete with oh-so-fancy embossing, which is an officially sold item alongside the B&N color. It grips onto the device perfectly with sturdy plastic clips, thanks in large part to the curved nature of the edges, has a durable fake leather exterior and a suede-type grippy interior covering. I found that if resting the unit on the knees while lying down, the interior surface gripped, allowing for the tablet to stay in place. Landscape mode is aided by the fold-back easel type design, though if you want to support Portrait mode, they have an Easel case option. Definitely a sound investment to protect the NC. B&N offer a mind-boggling amount of NC accessories.

Overall, a competent hardware package. I can understand why they left out glaring omissions, such as camera, GPS and 3G, because this is intended to be used as an e-book reader, priced accordingly, with maybe the odd foray into web browsing if that. It was built purely for this purpose, with no extra frills and to this end it achieves it’s goals superbly. However, as we will discover, there are huge reserves of untapped potential waiting to be unlocked.

Portrait webpage browsing, compared with a Samsung Galaxy S. DPI on the NC was intentionally increased to demonstrate anomalies in notification bar if LCD Density is set too high. Also note the slightly warmer color temperature of the NC. The SGS has often been criticised for too ‘cold’ a display temperature.

 

Software / Rooting

Conveniently bringing us to the software. B&N preload a painstakingly modified version of Android 2.1 on the system. It’s somewhat restricted in a few ways, allowing limited access to settings, a cut down selection of default applications, re-designed core applications such as the browser, to add software buttons. The aesthetics of the design allow for only the home button, so software buttons (aka iOS style) are required in many programs, whilst adding various B&N applications. The B&N applications, such as the Library / Shop and E-book reader, a multitude of games like Chess / Crosswords, are fairly well designed and easy to navigate. Note that initialisation of the unit requires a free B&N account, which also then allows for two-way syncing of downloads and access to the huge B&N book/magazine and newspaper library. The usual bookmarks, dictionary searches and library searches are all implemented fairly well, as well as USB mass storage mounting, allowing for easy file copying to/from your PC. Book formats include .EPUB, PDF, DOC, DOCX, TXT, as well as the usual range of audio and video formats. Fairly complete then.

The actual Android interface has been overhauled here, in the way of a custom B&N homescreen. There are no longer rows and columns of applications, instead they are relegated to the Extras option, all positioned within a quick access tab. The notification bar has also been relocated to the bottom, presumably to reduce visual interference with reading and the settings menu has been simplified to reduce confusion. Exaggerated screen timeouts, removal of advanced wireless settings, removal of alarms, a simplified keyboard (which aggravatingly lacks a cut and paste option) to name a few. As an e-book reader that you would have no hesitation in giving to your grandmother, it succeeds extremely well. There’s nearly nothing that can be fiddled with and broken and many will happily use its standard loadout for many years to come.

Thickness comparison with a Samsung Galaxy S (thinnest Android device available at the time) and a DVD cover, there’s not much in it.

 

OK, so what now? The good news is, under this polished exterior, lies the same Android 2.1 heart that powers many other devices, which means it’s infinitely customisable. Rooting (and subsequent un-rooting) can be done extremely easily, thanks to the hard work of the early adopters, thus transforming this device into an extremely affordable and capable tablet device. Alternatively, if you’re averse to this course of action, you can boot an alternative OS (ie. a NC build of Froyo) from an SD card, thus keeping all contents of the inbuilt ROM completely intact if you wish. Flexibility abounds.

What would I recommend that you change? Here’s some no-brainers:

* New homescreen – Take your pick of ADW Launcher, Launcher Pro, Zeam or any of the dozens of launchers available. Set it as default instead of the B&N ‘Home’ and you have your app drawer and layouts back. I stuck to the tried and true ADW Launcher imported directly from my SGS. * Sideload apps – A file explorer comes in useful to install APKs if you want, or use the official Market that gets installed once you root the device. It has full market capability (albeit not the latest version). GMail and Talk are also loaded. * Create buttons – There are a variety of options for recreating on-screen buttons to replace the lack of hardware buttons. I took the option of remapping the volume up/down buttons (which are rarely, if ever, used anyway). * Adjust LCD density – The DPI setting of your screen is a personal preference (as in desktop OS’s), LCD Density Changer allows you to permanently set it to your liking. I found that 180-200dpi was suitable for me, any larger and UI objects would begin to behave strangely. The default LCD setting of the NC is curiously low, leading to a very fine appearance in text, but not suitable to my tired eyes. * Alternative Keyboard – The B&N keyboard is capable, but lacking in functions. Use something like Swiftkey or Better Keyboard (or the Gingerbread default keyboard) and your productivity will improve. Swype didn’t install for me, though SlideIT did. * SetCPU – Some slight tweaks here (300mhz min, 800mhz max, ondemand governor, then 300/600 ondemand sleep profile), increases the zippiness somewhat and idle powersaving. It reportedly also fixes the rare issue of resuming from standby. * Content – Since you can install any app you want, Amazon’s Kindle library and Google Books are at your command, to name a few, not to mention streaming media.

Volume rocker buttons have been remapped to menu/back (there are also software options). Unit is easy to hold at length with one hand, whilst maintaining superb visual quality at extreme viewing angles.

 

I tested a variety of applications, such as Angry Birds, Youtube, Google Maps, GMail and Facebook without any issues at all. In short, nearly everything works without any issue, as you would expect. Performance was smooth, scoring a respectable 924 on Quadrant, slightly ahead of a standard Galaxy S and slightly behind the Motorola Droid X. Battery life was impressive, averaging around 8 hours of constant use with wi-fi on and push e-mail (approximately 2-3 days between recharges at my usage). In day-to-day use, I found myself using the tablet often in place of my laptop / phone and carrying it around with me. Hotspot capable phones with 3G are a boon here if you’re on the road, a far more elegant solution in my mind than having multiple SIM accounts.

In addition, the community for the NC is rapidly growing as more and more people purchase these units and realise their potential. There is already a working Android 2.2 port, as well as the Cyanogen team hard at work on their port for the NC. I can only imagine when Android 3.0 is ported to NC, with it’s tablet-centric features, things can only get better than they already are. I would highly recommend checking out XDA’s Nook Color section, as well as the Nook Dev site (both of which have FAQ sections), where rapid development is occurring.

So there you have it, something I can thoroughly recommend for anybody, from the beginner to the seasoned. You basically have a very capable Android tablet, for the fraction of the cost of it’s competitors, presenting nearly unlimited options. For web browsing, reading, playing games, office documents, the odd video or communications, it’s great. I can honestly say I will definitely be using this device for a long time to come.

Update: Multitouch test was successful, it works accurate and quickly. Does not become confused like the Nexus One when crossing axis. Update2: The box can be folded all the way open to create a make-shift stand as part of the design (there is a cutout on the bottom foam), brilliant! Update3: OC Kernel has been applied, running currently at 950mhz. Noticeable improvement.

If this review helped you, or if you have any questions/feedback, please feel free to leave a comment below!

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13 thoughts on “[Review] Barnes & Noble Nook Color

  1. Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Many thanks, However I am experiencing problems with
    your RSS. I don’t understand why I can’t subscribe to it.
    Is there anybody else getting the same RSS issues? Anyone that knows the answer can you kindly respond?

    Thanks!!

  2. Thanks Mugsee.

    There’s not much choice in low-end with 3G modem. Good news is, nowadays it’s just one button press away for phones to act as hotspots, which of course does away with the need for multiple plans and SIMs.

    Not to mention app-specific caching of content (such as RSS/books/articles) which all but eliminates the need for constant 3G access (in addition to saving a ton of battery by not constantly having a radio running).

    1. Good point with the phone/wireless hotspot tool – that would be more relevant to me but the only problem is that I’m thinking about a guy who doesn’t currently have a smartphone who will be using it for share monitoring.

      I’ll start looking into alternatives to the Xoom/SGTab!

  3. Fantastic and detailed write up. Thanks!

    If you were looking at a tablet with 3G built in, are there any towards the budget end you’d be looking at in particular?

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