Before you discount what I’m about to say, hear me out: Barnes & Noble’s nook Color just might be the best value on the market for somebody who wants a tablet computer but doesn’t really know why. I know, I know, nook Color is an e-reader, not a tablet. It doesn’t even have any apps yet. It doesn’t even run a proper mobile/tablet operating system. It’s sold by a bookstore, for crying out loud. No matter: If you look at the average person and their average-sized needs,usage patterns, budget, and yes, hands, nook Color just might be the tablet to beat right now. Maybe not, but hear me out before you decide.

nook Color Pros:

  • 7-inch display yields perfect size for one-handed operation
  • LCD display performs well during reading and Web browsing
  • Very easy to use, great integration with B&N store for books and periodicals
  • Integrated Web browser, games and audio player; Email and other apps on the way
  • Excellent Price
  • Android OS offers some hope of upgrade paths
  • Easily hacked to run Android 2.2 and 3.0 (Note: Rooting will void warranty)

nook Color Cons:

  • Glitchy Wi-Fi connectivity on my review unit
  • LCD display is arguably harder on eyes than e-ink during long-term reading
  • Limited use as a “true” tablet computer
  • Web browser lacks Flash support and performance of cutting-edge mobile browsers
  • No 3G data option

Best For:

Anyone looking for an LCD-based e-reader with the bonus of built-in Web browsing. Barnes & Noble loyalists wanting an e-reader that can handle magazines as well as books. Android fans wanting a cheap tablet to tinker with.

Web Site: nook Color

Suggested Retail Price: $249

nook Color Design

"The Reader's Tablet?"

Nook Color is sexy so far as e-readers go. Where Amazon went with a very unobtrusive, utilitarian design for their Kindle line, B&N spiced nook Color up with some subtle high-tech design language. I like the rounded corners, smoothed over edges and soft-grip back of the device, as well as the two-tone grey on black color scheme. The open corner – that strange cutout on the lower left of the device, all but asking for a carabiner or giant paper clip to attach nook to a backpack – I could do without, though it’s relatively unoffensive and does make it pretty easy to access the microSD card slot. Said card slot is good for carrying photos and audio files to consume with nook Color’s integrated media player, or for loading up an Android 2.2 or 3.0 custom ROM to boot from (more on that here). Note that rooting a nook Color will officially void your device’s warranty.

Built around a 7-inch color LCD display, nook Color is small, thin, and light enough for comfortable one-handed use. I’ve found myself gripping the device with thumb and fingers along one side of the bezel and also palming the entire thing with one hand stretched across the back of the unit. Significantly smaller than tablets with 10-inch displays, and lighter than devices with metal bodies like the iPad, nook Color’s physical design readily lends itself to casual browsing and longer-term reading sessions alike. The combination of shiny but not slippery bezel plastic and a more grippy, rubber-like material on the backside made for a largely slip-free experience.

Controls on nook Color are minimal and logical. A single button, shaped like a lower-case “n”, graces the front of the device and takes you to the device’s main menu. Two buttons on the left spine control volume level, a single button on the right spine powers nook on and off and locks the screen, and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack is found along the top edge. Beyond that, everything is controlled via the multitouch capacitive touchscreen, which automatically shifts between portrait and landscape modes by way of an accelerometer built into the belly of the e-reader.

nook Color Software

The best thing about nook Color is how easy it is to use. Tablet junkies and Android purists will cry foul at the custom user interface Barnes & Noble built atop the base Android 2.1 software, but the rest of the would-be users will find nook Color’s software intuitive, well-laid out, and cheerful to look at.

nook Color is an e-reader first, “Reader’s Tablet” second. Thus it’s built for ease of use and not uber-fuctionality or ultimate customization like higher-end Android tablets. That said, I’d lay money on the fact that a group of ten people picked at random off the street and given no directions or training could pick up a nook Color and do more with it than they could with a Motorola Xoom. Where stock Android begs you to poke and prod, try and err, and generally figure out what’s going on for yourself, nook Color’s customized version of Android lays its options out for you in no uncertain terms: Read, Shop for Reading Material, Play a Game, Browse the Web, and so on. There’s no app store (yet), no widgets, and no multiple blank home screens for you to customize.

What there is is a very simple, familiar, and nice to look at library/bookshelf motif backed by a store full of books, magazines and newspapers to purchase, download, read and – in some cases – lend to your nook-toting friends on a two week basis (a feature crippled by publishers’ insistence that loans cannot be renewed after a single fourteen day period). The Web browser is decent but will feel outdated to Android enthusiasts; it supports pinch-and-zoom and generally renders HTML faithfully, but its better suited to casual browsing than hardcore duty as your daily Internet machine. I’ve had some issues with my review unit dropping Internet connectivity and requiring me to turn Wi-Fi on and off again to regain my connection; Barnes and Noble says they’re aware of “some Wi-Fi issues and plan address them in the next update.” Said update, announced for next month, will also bring email and other apps to nook Color, ostensibly bringing the device’s tablet functionality more inline with its appeal as an e-reader.

For my money, Angry Birds (confirmed to be coming in April) is fun but that email app is the big thing missing from the device right now; webmail can be accessed via nook Color’s browser, but a dedicated email client would really make this thing marketable as an iPad alternative for people who love to read but also need to stay connected.

Speaking of reading, I’ve really learned to grow fond of doing it on an LCD screen in my time with nook Color.

At first I was hesitant, given both the legions of e-ink supporters who insist that novel-length reading on LCDs causes undue eye strain, and the fact that I already spend an inordinate amount of time in front of LCDs each day at my job. These days I do most of my reading in bed at night before going to sleep, and for the first few days I did so on nook Color, I found myself not getting sleepy in front of the page the way I do with traditionally printed books and magazines. Frankly I blamed it on the backlit display messing with my brainwaves, and emailed my Barnes & Noble PR rep for some sort of official statement on the e-Ink/LCD debate. At this point the company officially endorses both display technologies for reading, calling it a matter of personal choice. So I pressed on, and after a few more reading sessions – and ditching a pretty lame book for a much, much better one – I’m now totally used to reading on the LCD screen. As a bonus, color LCD = color e-Magazines, which is only becoming more awesome as digital magazine subscription prices continue to drop.

Nook Color’s adjustable backlighting means I can dim the display so’s not to bother anyone sitting – or soundly sleeping – next to me, and it also means I don’t need a separate light for reading in the dark. The flip side is LCDs don’t perform as well as e-Ink in direct sunlight, so nook Color won’t be quite as good as a standard nook – or a good ol’ fashioned paperback – for your summer beach reading. You can get by with the device in bright sunlight, but it’s going to require some creative sun-shading techniques on your part. nook Color’s software allows for font, size and formatting adjustments to better suit the page to your eyes, and offers easily-hidden access to a dictionary, highlighter, and settings controls while you’re reading.

Conclusion

I have a friend who’s a voracious reader and also travels a ton for his job. When he flies, he brings a laptop for work, an iPad for watching video, and a Kindle for reading. I take his word for it that Kindle is better than iPad for long term reading, since I neither travel nor read as much as he does, but now I wonder if Kindle’s superiority is due to its e-ink screen technology so much as its smaller, lighter form factor. After a few weeks with nook Color, I no longer mind reading books on an LCD. What I do mind is trying to read books on my iPad, which is too big, too heavy, and too oddly shaped for comfortable one-handed reading.

Nook Color can’t compete with full-blown Android tablets and iPads when it comes to raw horsepower and sheer number of available applications. But it can compete with any device out there when it comes to packing value and functionality into a portable bookstore with a Web browser, audio player, and a few games thrown in. Some people know they want a tablet that can handle high-powered gaming, productivity apps, and all sorts of trendy social-media utilities. But lots of others just want to read, listen to music, and browse the Web. Nook Color can handle that, even if the Web browser needs an upgrade.

Once B&N throws an email client into the mix next month, a very good device will get even better. Nook Color is definitely worth a look if you’re in the market for an e-reader or a tablet that’s lighter in the hand and on your wallet than iPad. Recommended, without question.