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Nook Color review – an exercise in Honeycomb

The Nook Color caught my eye a while back with its attractive price, amazing display and great build quality. I was reluctant about its gimped Android capabilities but great developers over at xda-developers took care of that quickly enough. If you want a hassle-free out of the box tablet, keep looking, but if you’re willing to put a little work into it, read on as I walk you through what you get for the $250 price tag.


 Looking at the spec sheet below makes for a pretty impressive device:

• CPU: Ti OMAP 3621 @ 800 MHz with PowerVR SGX530 GPU (same as Droid 2 and Droid X) and 512 MB of RAM
• 16:9 7” display at 1024x600 (IPS) with 169 pixel density and 178° viewing angle
• 4000mAh Battery good for ~8 hours
• Size: 8.1" (205mm) L x 5" (127mm) W x 0.48" (12.2mm) D Weight: ~15.8oz (~422g)

The weight and size make for a very portable device that fits inside a jacket pocket (seriously) and is easy to hold for an extended period of time, much more so than the iPad. It took some time getting used to the 7” screen, but it’s a compromise worth taking, I think. Most of what I do on the tablet is some browsing, YouTube watching and a lot of reading inside Pulse that reformats articles to a very readable font size (that you can adjust to your liking anyway).

Out of the box you get a very well build device with metallic edges, a soft touch plastic bezel and rubberized back to reduce sliding and scratching. It feels really well in the hand and the screen is bright and B&N weren’t kidding on the specs for the it’s viewing angles – you can seriously tilt it almost all the way down and still get almost no color changes. The resolution also makes for a crisp surface to display pictures and websites on. There is a slight problem with the glossiness that makes it hard to read in bright conditions at certain angles, but it’s manageable for the most part.

On the downside, the only ports are a micro-USB charging port, 3.5 mm headphone jack and a micro-SD slot strategically hidden under a flap on the backside of the little hook on the left. It also has a volume rocker and power button, though the latter is on the left side towards the top and makes for an awkward transition coming from any Android phone with the button either on top or on the right side. The biggest drawback, perhaps, is the single button on the front. It’s very clicky and well designed, but there’s just not much navigation going on natively.

When you install your Android ROM of choosing or just root the device to get the market and GApps you get soft-touch buttons on the bottom bar that the Nook uses instead of the notification area at the top. There’s a permanent clock and wifi indicator and notifications are accessed by pressing on the left, not dragging. It’s all fine and dandy except that a bunch of apps scale to the full screen and if you need to access a menu via menu button, you’re out of luck. You can always use the Nook home button to go back, but it’s kind of a drag.

There is also a SoftKeys that installs with most ROMs that creates a little bubble that you can click and it expands to show the classic Android buttons on top of any running applications, but it would change positions when changing orientations and always end up in the middle of the screen, being quite frustrating. I only ran the rooted 2.1 Nook designed version for a day or two, but it’s a little annoying. Flashing various Froyo images to it has better results, but you’re still dealing with some minor drawbacks.

However, if you’ve followed the chatter, interviews and videos around Honeycomb, you should be aware that it does not require any physical buttons. Of course, not too many apps are optimized for it just yet, but Honeycomb interacts differently with it. It forces most apps to respect the bottom buttons that are part of the OS and gives you home, back and menu keys (the latter only when needed) – even Angry Birds runs with the bottom bar always visible and the soft keys permanently accessible.

There is a great developer community around the Nook Color and once the full SDK for Honeycomb is released I have no doubt that a port will be available and run quite nicely, given that it’s already quite speedy and responsive for a test version. Until anyone comes out with an affordable Honeycomb tablet, this will be my main tablet for news reading and browsing in bed or on the couch and I can recommend it to anyone looking for a smaller screen and weight than most of what’s out there.

Image: Danverxxcore on Flickr

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