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Editors' note (November 17, 2011): As of mid-November 2011, the price of the Nook Color reviewed here has dropped to $199. The product (which was originally awarded an Editors' Choice) now co-exists with the newly announced $249 Nook Tablet (faster processor, more storage, more memory) and the competing $199 Amazon Kindle Fire. As a result of these newer and better performing competing devices, we've lowered the rating of the Nook Color accordingly. See Kindle vs. Nook vs. iPad: Which e-book reader should you buy? for more information.
Editors' note (May 19, 2011): This review has been updated to reflect major software update for the Nook Color that Barnes & Noble released on April 25, 2011. The new software adds a variety of upgrades, including Flash video support, and a curated app store that includes dozens of new apps, including an e-mail client.
Back at the end of 2009, Barnes & Noble debuted an e-ink reader, the Nook, that differentiated itself from the Amazon Kindle by having a small color LCD at the bottom of the screen for navigation and keyboard entry, among other things. Now the company isn't messing around with a small strip of color and is instead betting the farm on a full-color e-reader that features a 7-inch touch-screen LCD, built-in Wi-Fi (but no 3G wireless), and has people asking: is it an e-reader or a tablet?
The short answer is both--or as Barnes & Noble is spinning it, this is a "reader's tablet." The product's design was handled by Fuseproject, the same firm behind Aliph's Jawbone headsets. The company's done a nice job of making the device look sleek and compact; it's more of a head-turner than the Samsung Galaxy Tab. But when you pick up the device, your first reaction will probably be, "Wow, this feels a little heavier than it looks."
At just a shade less than a pound, it's about twice the weight of the latest-generation Kindle, a bit more than the standard Nook (which weighs 11.2 ounces), but is significantly lighter than an iPad, which tips the scales at around 21 ounces. While you can argue over what's the ideal size for an e-reader, for a lot of folks, the Nook Color, despite a little heft, will seem geometrically appealing: it's small enough to fit in a purse or laptop bag (alongside your laptop)--or even certain jacket pockets--yet has enough screen real estate to show a good amount of text or display the children's books, graphic novels, and e-magazines Barnes & Noble's will be marketing toward owners of this device. (If you compare the Nook Color with the standard Nook, you'll notice that it's roughly the same width and only about an inch taller).
And what about the screen? Well, Barnes & Noble says it's a next-generation LED-backlit display (1,024x600-pixel resolution at 169 ppi, with more than 16 million colors) supplied by LG that is bright yet energy efficient. The product's designers added a special layer of laminate to the glass that covers the display to help cut down on glare and improve off-axis viewing. However, like any screen that has a layer of glass over it, it's not immune to glare and like the iPad's screen, it is a finger-print magnet and will potentially crack if dropped (we strongly suggest purchasing a case). That said, the touch mechanics are quite responsive and the device as a whole is satisfactorily zippy. It may not be quite as zippy as the iPad, but we didn't think the device was held back by any performance issues and we thought both text and images looked very good on the screen. Also, page turns were fast.
A lot of people wondered whether this would be classified as an Android tablet, and the answer at first was "not quite" unless you were willing to "root" the device with custom firmware that could be found on the web (modifying your Nook Color's firmware unlocks the device and turns it into an Android tablet but you lose Barnes & Noble's interface and tight integration with its e-bookstore). However, now that Barnes & Noble has upgraded the Nook Color with Android 2.2 software and added Flash support for Web browsing and the ability to download apps to the device, the Nook Color has become more of a full-fledged tablet. To be clear, this is not a truly open app store along the lines of the Android Market but one curated by Barnes & Noble. At launch, there were over 125 apps offered, including several games, but that list is growing, so you can expect a wider selection in the months to come. As part of the version 1.2 upgrade, Barnes now includes a free integrated e-mail app and something called Nook Friends, which is currently labeled with the "beta" tag. Barnes & Noble is calling Nook Friends 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. (For a more complete rundown of the additions that are a part of the Nook Color firmware 1.2 upgrage, go to this post) As far as the user experience goes, the Nook Color's interface might not quite reach an Apple-level of user friendliness, we were generally impressed with how elegant the UI is and how easy the Nook Color is to operate and navigate. Anyone who didn't like the interaction between the touch-screen color strip and the e-ink screen on the standard Nook will find the full touch-screen interface a breath of fresh air. We also liked that the designers included a physical home button--it's the "N" at the bottom of the device--rather than a virtual one. The hard button makes going back to the home screen easier and it's well placed.
That home screen is different than the ones found on most Android tablets we've seen. You can drag and drop items you want to have quick access to into the middle of the screen, then navigate by touching menus on the bottom and side of the screen. Anybody who's used the iPad knows there are big advantages in moving to a touch-screen interface, especially when it comes to e-reading (you can highlight passages with a finger, look up words in the dictionary by tapping on them, and so forth).
Along with its large selection of e-books (Barnes & Noble says it offers 2 million titles in its "newly expanded" Nookbook Store), the company is making a bigger push into kids' content with its new Nook kids brand that features hundreds of "digital picture books" designed to take advantage of such color devices as the Nook Color and the iPad. At the same time, the company is highlighting how well the Nook Color handles periodical content, particularly magazines (one of the featured partners is National Geographic, but Barnes & Noble is also offering subscriptions for plenty of other titles).
We can't say those magazines will be a bargain price-wise, but they do look pretty good on the device. Yes, the screen is smaller than the iPad's, but you can zoom in and out by pinching and spreading your fingers, and there's a special "article view" that blows up the text and presents it in a more readable vertical column. Also, with a tap of button, you can access a thumbnail view that lets you scroll quickly from page to page and select the page you want. It's also worth noting that the Nook Color does display video, and the company says, "Periodicals, available by subscription and single copy, will continue to become even more interactive next year."
For those who aren't aware, certain e-books are lendable, and Barnes & Noble's LendMe feature, which permits you to lend certain e-books (the publisher must allow this feature to be activated) once for up to 14 days, is now integrated into the Nook Color's reading app. As previously noted, you can set up a network of friends on the device and share content, though the aforementioned restrictions apply.
Some quick impressions
In many CNET reviews we spend a lot of time talking about how a device is designed and what its features are, but sometimes not quite enough about what it's like to actually use the device. So, here are some observations after living with the Nook Color for three days:
When the Nook Color first arrived, we thought it was a polished, capable e-reader that had some nice extras but we lamented the fact that it came with just a handful of apps. With its firmware 1.2 upgrade and the launch of an app store, the Nook Color may not have become a full-fledged Android tablet but it does a better job masquerading as one and it certainly measures up to its billing as a full-featured "Readers tablet." and it remains a comparably good value at $250 (many of those who've "rooted" their Nook Colors consider it a great value).
While it's certainly not as zippy as other, albeit more expensive tablets, for the majority of users who are looking for a device that allows you to read e-books and periodicals, surf the Web (with Flash support), do e-mail and run some games and apps, the Nook Color is a good choice that's priced right--for the moment anyway.
We've called this the poor man's iPad in the past, and though it isn't exactly that (with all its apps the iPad simply offers much more functionality), its reading experience certainly rivals that of the iPad--just on a smaller, more portable scale.
In that sense, you could argue that it splits the difference between the iPad and the Kindle pretty well, offering the color touch-screen--neither "color" nor "touch screen" is available on the Kindle--at a price and size that's half that of the iPad. If you're not sold on e-ink and you don't want something as pricey and as heavy as the iPad, the Nook Color is your best bet.