Barnes and Noble NookColor

NookColor review: Barnes & Noble makes its mark with the first colour tablet optimised for reading

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Barnes and Noble NookColor
  • Barnes and Noble NookColor
  • Barnes and Noble NookColor
  • Barnes and Noble NookColor

Pros

  • Intuitive interface that's optimised for reading, display produces good colours and minimal glare

Cons

  • Requires proprietary MicroUSB charger, app store not coming until 2011

Bottom Line

Barnes & Noble's NookColor succeeds in combining much of the readability of the E-Ink based e-readers with the speed, customisation, and graphical advantages of the LCD-based e-reading apps on competing touch screen devices, phone or tablet. And at US$249, NookColor even has limited viability as a reasonably priced, contract-free tablet for those who prize reading and Web surfing above playing games and downloading apps.

Would you buy this?

  • Buy now (Selling at 3 stores)

  • The Art of War (Barnes & Noble Signature Editions) 17.13
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Note: Pricing for this product is in US$.

In the early, heady days of e-readers, the term "e-reader" was synonymous with an electronic paper-based device. The Barnes & Noble NookColor explodes that narrow definition: The first LCD-based e-reader optimised around reading, the NookColor delivers a superbly integrated, largely satisfying, and (for now) unique e-reading experience. Better yet, it has the potential to deliver far more as Barnes & Noble's library of periodicals and children's books grows.

Not Just a Tablet

Following the recent release of the Samsung Galaxy Tab, much attention surrounds the growing tablet market. And it would be easy, at first glance, to mistake the NookColor for a tablet. After all, a 7-inch capacitive touchscreen dominates the front surface; and inside it runs Android 2.1 and a Texas Instruments Omap3 series processor. It also has a MicroSDHC card slot to accommodate up to 32GB of storage, and a generous 8GB of user-accessible onboard storage--enough space to support a mix of material (Barnes & Noble gives the example of 1000 books, 25 full-colour magazines, 10 newspapers, 50 kids' books, 500 songs, and 150 photos).

The device resembles the Galaxy Tab to some extent. It's solidly built, with well-formed buttons, a dark slate-colored bezel, and a black, rubberized back. It is 8.1 inches tall by 5 inches wide by 0.5 inch deep (technically, it measures 0.48 inch deep to Galaxy Tab's 0.47 inch). And it weighs 15.8 ounces𔃊.2 ounces more than the Samsung Galaxy Tab; 4.2 ounces more than its own monochromatic predecessor, the Nook Wi-Fi; 7.3 ounces more than the third-generation monochromatic Amazon Kindle; and 8.2 ounces less than the 9.7-inch screen Apple iPad. But when you turn on the display and compare NookColor to other slate devices, it quickly becomes clear that Barnes & Noble isn't merely paying lip service to the notion of a creating an LCD device optimised for reading.

Display and Interface: The Secret Sauce

After reading content on the NookColor for extended periods, I found that the device takes the concept of an e-reader to another level. The NookColor's display and its intuitive interface form an extraordinary one-two punch. The display employs an in-plane switching (IPS) panel, just as the iPad does, to provide a wider viewing angle and better color reproduction than standard TN LCDs. And like the iPad, it supports 16 million colours. The NookColor's 1024-by-600-pixel display carries a pixel density of 169 pixels per inch (PPI); the pixel density can affect how letters appear on the display. In use, letters looked very readable—similar to those on the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and far better than those on the iPad's 132 PPI, but not quite as distinct and smooth as those on the Apple iPhone 4, which has 326 PPI.

Barnes & Noble took other specific steps to optimise the display for reading. The screen has a special lamination and an optical bonding process that eliminates the air gap between the display and touch surface, a process the company says reduces glare and provides better efficiency in direct sunlight.

That was precisely my experience: The viewing angle was better than on other tablets, an important point given that the company's NookKids encourages the idea of using the device to read picture books to children. As for the display, I performed multiple tests in various lighting conditions-in a car, on a train, on a deck, indoors but by a window, by a lamp, in a restaurant's ambient light-and time and again, NookColor handled the glare impressively.

Under conditions where the Galaxy Tab or iPhone 4 were essentially unreadable mirrors, the NookColor could, at least, be seen. I wouldn't have read the final volume of Harry Potter on it, but I could see well enough to navigate around, and to read for short stints. And in most circumstances, I found the screen dramatically easier to read than other touchscreen devices I had on hand. Again, it's not as good as E-Ink, and Barnes & Noble has by no means eliminated LCD glare; but the screen goes far toward mitigating the effects of glare, and this is a critical accomplishment for a device designed for reading.

The NookColor's interface is the other standout component here. Though it runs Android 2.1 underneath, the software skin looks and behaves nothing like stock Android. From the typefaces to the menu behavior, the NookColor's operating system is well matched to the NookColor's functionality.

From the moment you turn the NookColor on, it's as if you had booted directly into a customised, all-encompassing e-reader app that controls all aspects of the user experience—even when you stray beyond the reading-specific parts of the device.

Pressing the power button at the top left of the device boots up the standard sleep screen, which includes a clock displaying the time and date. Unlock the screen by sliding the arrow to the right (as on most Android devices), and you'll land at the home screen. You can return to the home screen at any time, or wake the device up, by pressing the cut-out 'n' button beneath the screen; this is the only button on the front of the device; the aforementioned power/sleep button and volume buttons run along the upper right edge.

Immediately, the smooth, customisable NookColor interface is in view: The Home screen has three versions that you can horizontally swipe through, and you can drag book and periodical covers from the Daily Shelf ticker (which runs horizontally along the bottom of the Home screen) into the Home screen itself, positioning covers wherever you like (for example, you can even overlap them). The default wallpaper shows a transparent montage of book covers and periodicals, but you can easily change the wallpaper by pressing and holding on the Home screen, and then either choosing from the provided wallpapers or using your own image. The 'clean up panel' option will separate overlapping covers and snap them into a grid.

As its name implies, the Daily Shelf refreshes with subscriptions, most recent purchases and borrowed books, organised with the most recent acquisitions showing at left, and older content available as you scroll to the right. The 50 most recent titles fitting this filter will appear here, though you can delete them and even reorder them if you so choose.

Along the top, the Home screen gives you the option of selecting the content you were most recently reading; or, by tapping More, you can choose from among your three most recently read books, periodicals, and files (be they stored on the device or on the memory card). At the bottom of the screen sits an open book icon, which also returns you to the item you last read, as well as a battery meter and clock at right. Tap the arrow in the centre to reveal the navigation bar, similar to the bar found the original's Nook's narrow colour screen.

The navigation bar gives one-touch access to your library of books, the Nook store, search, extras (for authorised apps), the Web browser, and device settings.

The Library provides easy-access to books, magazines, and newspapers; and, to books you can lend to friends, and borrow from friends. Plus, you can create your own collection, or "shelves," and view your files you've stored on the SDHC card or in memory. For example, I downloaded a PDF from the Web, and it was stored in my downloaded files. NookColor supports a variety of file formats, including PDF, ePub, and text files; JPG, PNG, GIF, and BMP image files; MP4 videos; MP3 and AAC audio files; and Microsoft Office files (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint).

The extras are for now limited, but it's where you can store apps that will eventually be accessible via Nook's app developer program. For now, you get three games—chess, crossword puzzle, and Sudoku—contacts, photo gallery, music player, and Pandora Internet radio.

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