Nook Color gets Flash support, curated app store

With version 1.2 of its Nook Color software, Barnes & Noble turns the e-reader into a more fully functional Android tablet and marks a subtle but important shift in its marketing strategy.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
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David Carnoy
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With its latest update, Barnes & Noble is now marketing the Nook Color as the 'best value of any tablet on the market.' Barnes & Noble

A month ago we reported that Barnes & Noble was set to roll out a major software update for the Nook Color in April. This morning, Barnes & Noble finally flipped the switch on that update, which is a customized version of Android OS 2.2 (Froyo) and most notably adds a free built-in e-mail client, Flash support for Web browsing, and an app store with a selection of more than 125 free and paid apps.

Those who've already "rooted" the $250 Nook Color with custom firmware that's been circulating on the Web for months will be quick to note that this update is still limiting because it doesn't offer access to the Android Market and allow you to run any app you want. However, for the thousands of less tech-savvy customers who purchased the Nook and haven't hacked the device, the official update--dubbed version 1.2--at last turns the Nook Color into a more fully functional Android tablet.

The update also marks a subtle but important shift in Barnes & Noble's marketing strategy for the device. While it's still calling it the "Reader's Tablet," the company has now inserted the adjective "full-featured" in front of it and says that at $249, the Nook Color "presents the best value of any tablet on the market." That's something a lot of "rooters" have been saying for a while, which one could argue makes the new marketing message slightly ironic.

Not coincidentally, Barnes & Noble is launching a new ad campaign for the Nook Color today as well. However, the initial ads that will run are less about the device's new features and more about reading in general and the idea that although the way we read may be changing, it's still reading--and it's more exciting than ever. Amazon.com has been running ads with similar themes for the Kindle.

Related links
Nook Color Android app store coming in April along with Flash support
HSN 'previewing' Nook Color's app store and Flash capabilities
Nook Color Honeycomb 'beta' hack advances

Here's a look at the highlights of Nook Color version 1.2. You can manually download the update at www.nookcolor.com/update or wait to get it over the air via Wi-Fi. However, it may take several days to get the update automatically delivered to your device, so manually updating is the way to go if you're impatient.

  • Android 2.2: Barnes & Noble says Android OS 2.2/Froyo offers system improvements and enhanced browser performance, including support for Adobe Flash. You can also easily switch between larger desktop or mobile Web versions of sites, with enhanced pinch to zoom. You also get improved global search and shortcuts to settings. (Note: We've had pretty decent luck with many Flash sites and most of the Flash video we tested ran OK as long as we had a rock solid Internet connection. That said, you will encounter some choppiness from time to time and our Nook Color review sample completely locked up once while browsing, so it's far from a perfect experience.)

  • Free e-mail app: Every Android device comes with a basic e-mail app, so it's high time the Nook Color got one. As you might expect, the free Nook Email app works across top Web mail services including Yahoo Mail, Gmail, AOL, and Hotmail and allows you to access multiple Web mail accounts from the app. All updated Nook Color devices will now include the Nook Email and Nook Friends apps preloaded, as well as Pandora Internet Radio, Crossword Puzzle, Sudoku, Chess, Contacts, and Gallery. Nook Friends is an app that allows you to share what you're reading with friends (see below for more details).

  • Nook 'app store.' (click to enlarge).
  • A Nook app store not called Nook App Store: Apple is suing Amazon for calling its app store for Android an app store, which is probably why Barnes & Noble isn't calling its app store an app store. But semantics aside, you can now download apps to the Nook Color. Barnes & Noble is highlighting games like Angry Birds, Uno, and More Brain Exercise, the news app Pulse, Drawing Pad, and various kids' books. It's also got Lonely Planet Phrasebooks apps and the recipe app Epicurious. That's just a small sample and new apps will come onboard in the weeks and months to come. Again, it's not the Android Market, with its thousands of apps, or Amazon's impressive app store for Android, which already has a wide selection of apps. But it's a whole lot better than the handful of apps that initially came with the Nook Color. (Note: We couldn't install the Angry Birds app. This is a bug and we assume Barnes & Noble will fix it soon.)

  • Slide page-turn animation: Users requested a slide page-turn animation, so they get one. (Note: Landscape book reading was originally supposed to be included in v1.2. B&N says it now plans to include this in its next software update, though it declined to give a specific date.)

  • Enhanced Nook Kids digital picture books: We got a demo of the new interactivity in some of the new Nook Kids books, and while it's certainly a welcome addition, we've seen plenty of creative kids' apps and digital picture books on the iPad, so it didn't seem like anything groundbreaking.

  • Nook Books enhanced: At launch, Barnes & Noble said that in the future some books would have embedded video, and now it has added that feature. How much extra you'll have to pay for these types of books is another matter, but 225 multimedia titles are currently available and the list is growing, according to the company. This obviously makes some sense for health and fitness books, tech and travel guides, and cookbooks, and you can expect more digital books to have rich multimedia content as the color tablet market continues to grow.

  • The new e-mail app (click to enlarge).
  • Nook Friends app (beta): We mentioned that the Nook Friends app is going to be preloaded on Nook Color devices going forward, and Barnes & Noble is calling it the "go-to social network for people who love to read." It says that Nook Color users can create a group of Nook Friends to "easily swap books, get a friend's take on a new best seller, discover great new reads, or see if someone's enjoying a book they recommended on the Friend's Activity tab." You can also view your Nook Friends' content ratings and reviews, shared quotes, recommendations, and how they're progressing on their latest books. You could call this Barnes & Noble's take on the digital book club, and it will be interesting to see users' response to it.

While we'll be downloading the version 1.2 update along with the rest of the Nook owners, we did get an early look at it last week and were generally impressed with what we saw. To be clear, if you've rooted your Nook or happen to own an Android tablet such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab, a lot of these "enhancements" will probably make you yawn. But the update certainly makes an excellent device better and more functional--in fact, this is the Nook Color that a lot of people thought Barnes & Noble should have released in the first place.

During our demo of the e-mail app, we couldn't help but ask Jamie Iannone, president of Barnes & Noble Digital Products, why it wasn't there at launch--along with a few other apps.

Iannone paused for a moment before responding, then said, "We were really focused on getting the reading experience right. That was the No. 1 priority. And we just ran out of time to get this other stuff really right for launch."

Five months later that other stuff is here. And while the Nook Color (in its official software form) may still fall short of being a full-fledged Android tablet, it's doing a better job of masquerading as one.

As always, let us know your thoughts on the update after you've downloaded it--and whether you've spotted any bugs. Also, in the comments section feel free to let Barnes & Noble know what apps you'd like to see made available for the Nook Color.