Hacking The NOOK Color To Run Honeycomb

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A few weeks ago, I posted my thoughts on Barnes & Noble’s NOOK Color. Thanks to the many readers who left comments and suggestions. Continuing my experimentation with the tablet-based e-reader, I decided to bite the bullet and see how far it could go as an Android tablet. News continues to circulate about Barnes & Noble prepping an Android 2.2 update for the NOOK Color, and even if doing so doesn’t give full access to the Android Market, there should be at least be wider app availability once that happens.

Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) running on NOOK ColorAndroid 3.0 (Honeycomb) running on NOOK Color

NOOK Color running Honeycomb (image by Brad Moon)

For those who don’t want to wait for an official upgrade, or wish to leapfrog past 2.2 to Android 3.0 (aka Honeycomb), the NOOK Color’s development community has been hard at work and offers numerous solutions. Most of these solutions involve rooting your e-reader and that’s going a bit further than I care to go. For one, doing so is pretty much guaranteed to void your warranty. There’s also a chance that you might end up bricking the device, and if you’ve voided the warranty in doing so, you’re not going to be in a happy place. I also like the idea of easily being able to go back to the default configuration. So, after considering quite a few options, I opted for a compromise: a bootable Honeycomb disk image on a MicroSD card.

If you want take the easy route, sellers are offering bootable cards on e-Bay ($30 plus shipping seems to be the going rate). If you’re feeling slightly more adventurous, a reasonably fast (Class 4 or better) MicroSD card, a computer and about 20 minutes of time is about all it takes to turn your NOOK Color into an inexpensive 7-inch Honeycomb tablet. You can find detailed instructions on sites like nookDevs, but it boils down to several easy steps:

  • Google a NOOK Color bootable image of Honeycomb, or whatever Android version you prefer.
  • Use your computer’s disk tools to write the disk image to the MicroSD card.
  • Power down your Nook Color, insert the bootable MicroSD card and power the e-reader back up.

Assuming everything went according to plan, your NOOK Color will boot into Honeycomb (or whichever version of Android you chose). If things didn’t go swimmingly, the beauty of this method is that your NOOK itself remains unaltered. Power it down, remove the memory card and you’re back to normal. The same thing goes if you want to use the NOOK Color as a NOOK Color, just power the device down, remove the card and reboot. Keep in mind that when booting from the card, things won’t be as speedy as if it were running from an internal install. The read/write speed of the card will be the biggest variable here and while I found a Class 4 card was fine for playing around, I haven’t tried running any games yet; a faster version might be called for. The same thing goes for storage. I used a 4GB card, but if you plan on downloading a lot of apps or videos, a higher capacity card may be needed.

I’m still experimenting with Honeycomb. At this point, I prefer iOS on my iPad, but it’s relatively early and things could change. I can say that I think Steve was right in one respect: while the 7-inch display is great as an e-reader, I find it feels awfully tiny as a tablet interface. More portable, yes, but I find the iPad’s bigger display much more usable. That’s one of the beauties of trying out a project like this: finding out if the experience suits you, without investing $500 in a tablet.

You can wait for Barnes & Noble to release an official upgrade, but if you’re feeling adventurous, for less than half an hour of your time and a five dollar memory card, you can turn your NOOK Color into one of the cheapest Android tablets going.

Note: The Android disk images (especially Honeycomb variants) floating around on the Interwebs are usually developer builds or preview builds that are not officially supported.

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