Is the Barnes & Noble NOOK Color Right for Your Family?

Geek Culture

E-Books are becoming pretty firmly entrenched around our house. We have iPads, iPods, computers, a Kobo e-reader and several Sony e-readers currently in circulation, but I’d heard good things about Barnes & Noble’s NOOK Color and I wanted to give that option a shot. Unfortunately, Barnes & Noble doesn’t see fit to sell these things to Canadians, so I had to go the eBay route and pay a premium, but it arrived and I’ve had a few weeks to play with it.

The NOOK Color is a large e-reader.The NOOK Color is a large e-reader.

Size comparison: NOOK Color, Sony Reader Touch, iPhone 4 (photo by Brad Moon)

If you’re looking for a detailed review, Tim posted a great in-depth version over at Gadget Lab. I was primarily interested in how the NOOK Color reading experience differed from the other e-readers I use, so that’s what I’ve focused on.

The most obvious distinction between this device and others is that it is a tablet. It’s bigger than most e-readers, sports a backlit LCD display, has color capability and it can run other applications. On the other hand, if you were to compare it to an iPad, it’s smaller, there’s no 3G connectivity option and the custom version of Android means you can’t run just any apps (yet). In other words, the NOOK Color sits somewhere in between traditional standalone e-readers and multi-purpose tablets that offer e-reader capability through apps.

First impression out of the box is that this thing feels heavy. It tips the scales at 15.8 ounces; basically one pound. Apple’s original iPad was roundly criticized for its weight, which was 1.5 pounds for a device that was significantly larger in form factor. The compactness of the NOOK Color makes the device seem more dense.

Speaking of Apple, there are several areas where I think Barnes & Noble’s designers could take a few cues from Cupertino — or Sony and Amazon for that matter (hold off on the Apple fanboy comments). The back of the NOOK Color is a black, rubberized panel. This gives you a slightly better grip, but has two unfortunate side effects. First, the device picks up every bit of dust from any surface you set it on. Second, when holding the NOOK Color, it often emits creaks and the back panel gives ever so slightly. It feels a tad flimsy. Besides the fact that no-one wants a flimsy portable device, that feeling runs completely contrary to the density of the device; when I picked it up, I expected it to be built like a tank.

Another design misfire is a sharp display bezel. The sides of the NOOK Color are nicely rounded, but the plastic display introduces a sharp edge that I found irritating when holding it; it’s not going to cut anyone, but it feels as though the bezel was an afterthought.

Then there’s the Nook emblem button. Putting a raised, stylized “n” button is something that more experienced designers would avoid. Sure, it looks cool when you first unwrap the device. But that raised, curved shape that gets pushed frequently will accumulate dust, oil and dirt, and quickly look rather unsavory. And you need a cotton swab to clean it out effectively.

Finally, given that the device is primarily an e-reader, I would have liked to see buttons to turn pages. I get it that this is a tablet and the touchscreen does work flawlessly, but when holding a device like this, buttons are often easier than having to lift a hand to make a swipe gesture. Buttons also cut down on screen cleanings.

Okay, that’s my list of things to think about for NOOK Color 2, but how was using this e-reader in comparison to others in my collection?

  • I buy EPUB e-books for maximum compatibility among devices. I used Calibre to side-load books onto the NOOK Color and, after registering the device with Adobe Digital Editions, it was able to access any of the e-books in my collection. It’s also capable of borrowing e-books from the library (something Kindle can’t do).
  • Battery life is rated at 8 hours with WiFi turned off; I was averaging close to 10 hours, but I kept the display back lighting at a very low level.
  • Touchscreen is very responsive. Speed in turning pages and navigating is fast, especially when compared to an E-Ink reader.
  • NOOK Color is the perfect size for me to hold in one hand; as far as tablets go, I found this form factor much preferable to the iPad when it comes to reading.
  • The 7-inch display is a natural size for reading novels and was a noticeable upgrade from the 6-inch display on my Sony Reader Touch and Kobo.
  • Having a browser and other capabilities is nice, but I seldom used them. I think of the iPad as a “do everything” device that I can use as an e-book reader; the NOOK Color (in its default state) is an e-reader that can do a few other things if needed.
  • The 8GB of onboard storage (compared to 2GB for most e-readers) lets you carry a whole lot of content.
  • The display (7-inch, 1024 x 600 169 PPI) is well suited to the task and quite crisp. Not quite as crisp as E-Ink, but pretty good. Adding color to the mix makes this a useful platform for kid’s books and comics as well.
  • Glare and daylight remain an issue. I’ve seen worse, but I still wouldn’t be using the NOOK Color to read outdoors unless it was in a pinch.
LCD displays = glare and washed out view in sunlight.LCD displays = glare and washed out view in sunlight.

It's a bit exagerated by camera flash, but this (un-retouched) shot gives you an idea of how the NOOK Color's LCD display compares to an E-Iink display in sunlight or glare. Give me E-Ink any day when reading outdoors. (Photo by Brad Moon)

Does the NOOK Color have a place in my rotation, or is it going to end up back on eBay?

It’s definitely a keeper. I still look to my Sony Reader Touch as my “go to” e-reader: it’s compact, light, solidly built, the display looks great outdoors and it goes for weeks on a battery charge. However, the NOOK Color has become my choice for reading in bed. With the backlit display, there’s no need for a nightlight or a clip-on light, so I don’t bother my wife at all. Its charge is good enough to last about a week of night time reading sessions. I keep the backlighting low, which extends battery life and seems to lessen eyestrain. And if I ever have the urge to look something up online, I can flip on its wireless and use the built-in web browser. The other reason I’m keeping the NOOK Color? I don’t have an Android tablet and I like to see what I’m missing out on. With an app store coming sometime this month, this e-reader/tablet may get even more compelling. Mind you, I’m going to have some fun in the meantime; stay tuned for the results of my experiment in turning my NOOK Color into a dual boot tablet running Honeycomb

NOOK Color: $249, Barnes & Noble

Wired: Backlit LCD display is great for night reading, color makes digital kids’ books and comic books possible where E-Ink devices fall flat, plenty of onboard storage, easily hacked into an inexpensive Android tablet.

Tired: Heavy for its size, some design flaws (sharp bezel, flimsy back, could use physical page turn buttons), not great for reading in sunlight, relatively low battery life.

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