Barnes and Noble NookColor

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

Barnes and Noble NookColor
  • Barnes and Noble NookColor
  • Barnes and Noble NookColor
  • Barnes and Noble NookColor
  • Expert Rating

    4.00 / 5

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?

Art of Reading

Barnes & Noble's attention to detail became apparent as I moved amongst NookColor's elegant menus and options. The interface makes sense for reading, with emphasis on how the visual organisation complements the navigation and content.

For one thing, the company has eliminated the standard back and settings buttons found on typical Android devices; and it has no physical navigation buttons beyond the "n" for Home screen. As such, NookColor relies heavily on tapping in specific spots for navigation controls.

For example, tap to open a book; then, to turn pages, tap on the right or left edge of the screen, or swipe from side-to-side. Books can only be viewed in portrait view (though, children's picture books are shown landscape, and Web pages, PDFs, and other files can be shown in either orientation). NookColor lacks the curling page-turning graphics found in Apple's iBooks, but no matter—page turning is fast and efficient. Sometimes, though, I found it too fast, since I occasionally managed to scoot a page ahead of where I intended to be.

Tapping at the bottom of the book screen activated the convenient, in-book quick-nav bar. From here, you can access the contents, search for a passage of text, share content, change the text display options, and adjust the brightness. It also brings up a progress bar that shows where you are in the book.

The contents section actually stores the table-of-contents as well as any notes and highlights you've added. And adding notes and highlights is a pleasant, simple experience-a first among the e-readers I've tested to date. Tap and hold in the vicinity you want to do something with; and up will pop four icons, one each for highlighting, add notes, sharing (with contacts, or via Facebook or Twitter), or look up the word in the built-in dictionary (with links below the definition to lead to the related Google search page or Wikipedia entries in the Web browser; the back button on the browser will then take you back to your book). You can even change the colour of the highlighter (green, blue, or yellow), and add a note to go along with the highlight. The text options are many, with six choices each for text size, fonts, spacing, and background colour (choose among normal, a dark grey, light grey, butter, mocha, and sepia). The brightness control is standard, but sadly lacks any tie to the various background colours or optimisation for your environment.

Wherever you are in reading, NookColor saves your position, and syncs with cloud, so that you can return to this content on any Barnes & Noble Reader, regardless of the platform. The device also syncs bookmarks, notes, and highlights as well.

Magazines That Retain the Feel of Print

One of the reading innovations in NookColor is how it handles periodicals. Here, the emphasis is on consistent presentation and navigation. Over 100 will be available, for single, 14-day trial, or subscription orders.

The magazines start with a PDF, reproducing the visual and graphical layouts that make magazines what they are. The company then does an extra layer of production on top of the PDF, to allow you to zoom in to PDF to read a page, or select an article view option for viewing articles in a column that pops up in the centre of the screen. You can then scroll down to read that full article, or swipe horizontally to move among articles. As with books, there's a table of contents as well.

While this approach is intuitive and a clever way to recreate the feel of a magazine on a 7-inch screen, I found that the navigation was very sensitive and required a precise touch. I often ended up switching articles when I simply intended to scroll down; or, scrolling when I intended to switch.

NookKids

With over 130 picture books, and double that number planned by the end of 2010, Barnes & Noble launches NookColor with an engaging, albeit proprietary, approach to storytelling for children.

Picture books automatically launch in landscape mode. Swipe left to right or tap on the edge of the screen to change pages. And to enlarge the text so it's more readable, just tap a paragraph to call up an enlarged popover text box.

Some books have a "read to me" option. No computerised voices here; rather, it's much like an audio book, just one that's reading the content aloud as you move through each page. Titles that have the read to me option also let you pick a passage of text and play just that passage to hear the words.

In addition to the picture books, the company also has some 12,000 children's chapter books. So far, there's no Little House on the Prairie, but there's plenty of other kid-friendly titles on-hand.

Close, but a Few Gotchas

Even with so much worthy of accolades, NookColor has room for improvement, too. My biggest gripe lies with the unit's MicroUSB port. The port has a second set of pins that provide a 2000mAh (or 2-ampere) rapid charge for the 4000mAH battery. (That's four times the mAh of most typical consumer electronics.)

Unfortunately, the benefit of the rapid charge—and it's fast, I was surprised by how quickly NookColor juiced up—is offset by the need to use only the included charger and cable in order to power the device. Sure, the charger has pleasing, subtle touches like an outlet plug that collapses into the compact brick, and a glowing Nook "n" that shows its charging status; but it's the only source of power. If you use a cable other than the one supplied, you can only transfer data. At the least, Barnes & Noble should have allowed for a trickle charge, just as you get on the Apple iPad. Want an additional charger? That'll be an extra US$25. As for the battery, the company says it should last 8 hours.

Also on my hardware wish list: I'd like to see a higher pixel depth, so the text quality is closer to that of Apple's iPhone 4. The book text is better than the browser text, and the bottom line is that both views could improve with additional pixel depth.

A few of my gripes could conceivably be fixed in future firmware updates. Already, Barnes & Noble says it plans an update to NookColor to an Android version that supports Adobe Flash via the Web browser "sometime next year." For now, YouTube videos will play via the browser, but they look choppy and full of artifacts. I also wish that you could just tap on the battery icon and pull up the current battery life. PDF handling could be improved, as well; you can't just tap at right or left to page through books, but rather have to page by swiping up or down.

The revamped Nook store is light-years better than before, and it bests its competition with a graphical approach and easy searching. But I wish the search results, navigating while inside the shop, and moving among selections, proceeded more smoothly.

Bottom Line

By launching with 100-plus strong collections for its periodicals and children's books, NookColor makes a strong case for the colour e-reader, and it does so in a far more compelling way than any other device has so far. Still, for all of its screen enhancements, I wouldn't suggest an LCD e-reader like NookColor if you will primarily use it outside in direct sunlight. But for anyone else, NookColor is a worthy contender—especially for those who want to consume books, periodicals, kids' fare, and PDFs.

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 $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.

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