Jason previewed Barnes & Noble's NOOK Color here a few months ago, but we haven't done a formal hands on review. Until now. Although it's not officially available in the Great White North, thanks to e-Bay I was able to buy one of these color LCD touchscreen e-reader/tablets and have it shipped to Canada to add to my collection. Read on to find out how the NOOK Color measured up.
When I un-boxed and picked up the NOOK Color for the first time, my immediate impression was: "Wow, this thing's heavy." My primary personal e-reader is a Sony Reader Touch. It has a 6-inch display and weighs in at 7.58 ounces. The NOOK Color has a modestly larger 7-inch display, but the device weighs 15.8 ounces -just under one pound. That's still lighter than an iPad, but the NOOK Color is significantly smaller. So let's call it dense. The second thing that grabbed me was some questionable design choices. Sony and Apple are well-known for designing and building gadgets that are solid, well thought out and pleasing to the eye. They sweat the details. The NOOK Color looks attractive enough (and the loop is a nice touch), but the details are not up to snuff. A rubberized back is a dust and dirt magnet and feels cheap. A Device that weighs almost a pound shouldn't have a back panel that flexes, but the NOOK Color's does. The display bezel is sharp and overhangs the rounded side, an effect that I found annoying (the edge digs into your fingers when holding the e-reader). There are no buttons for turning pages; arguably a touchscreen tablet doesn't need them, but an e-reader feels incomplete without this option. Then there's the home button. The Nook logo (a lowercase "n") is raised. You can easily find the button by feel, but that raised shape guarantees the button will collect oil, dirt, dust and other crud and its compact size means you can't easily clean it out. So the first impression isn't necessarily awesome, but once I powered it up, things got better.
As an e-reader, NOOK Color is solid. Compared to an E Ink display device like the Sony Reader, Amazon Kindle (or original NOOK), there are some disadvantages to going the tablet route. The backlit LCD display and muscular processor mean battery life takes a hit (measured in hours rather than weeks) and reading outdoors is a quick route to squinting and eye fatigue. But indoors, the LCD display pops. In dark conditions, it's no contest; without a night light, E Ink displays suffer the same issue as dead tree books, while the NOOK Color excels. Text is crisp (the display is 169 pixels per inch), although not quite up to the standard of sharpness set by E Ink Pearl displays. There is support for six font sizes, multiple font styles and the ability to easily change elements of the display from publisher defaults (line spacing and margin size, for example). And page turning is lightning fast compared to E Ink. Your e-book collection may be displayed visually in a "bookshelf" mode, or a list for easier scrolling. Books can be be purchased through Barnes & Noble using the NOOK Color's WiFi connection (no 3G), or you can side load books from your computer using e-book management software such as Adobe Digital Editions or Calibre. The NOOK Color is compatible with a wide range of e-book formats, including EPUB, so there are many options for e-book sources, including public libraries. Color capability and the larger display mean illustrated kid's books, digital magazines and comic books look great. Outside of the limitations of the LCD display, it holds up well as an e-reader.
Barnes & Noble took the route of making the Nook Color an Android-based tablet instead of a dedicated e-reader. It's really an inexpensive tablet computer masquerading as an e-reader. This has the advantage of offering NOOK Color owners extended functionality that dedicated e-readers can't pull off. At least not very well. For example, there are rudimentary games such as Chess and Sudoku, a contact manager and a usable web browser. Like many other e-readers, there's a built-in MP3 player. The functionality is basic, but does include niceties like an album cover view of your music (support includes non-protected iTunes files). Unlike most e-readers, the NOOK Color has a speaker, so you can play your tunes without headphones; unfortunately, it's a pretty crappy speaker (think drive through without amplification), making doing so a bit of a last resort. The display is 7-inches, which is on the small side for a tablet, but generous for an e-reader. RIM is introducing the PlayBook at 7-inches and Samsung's Galaxy Tab is 7-inches, but I find that size restrictive for tablet computing and nine to ten inches seems to be the sweet spot for the most successful tablets like the iPad. While the 7-inch form factor works well for one handed reading (much better than an iPad, for example), it's still too big to be pocketable. To sum up, the tablet decision involves a series of compromises: The NOOK Color is neither a full featured tablet computer, nor a portable e-reader. Included apps (aka NOOK extras) are better than nothing, but would be weak offerings on an actual tablet.
NOOK Color's WiFi connection is put to good use for those who like to share their reading experience. Tapping the display brings up a Sharing menu that lets you access Facebook and Twitter. The idea here is that you let people know about the book you are reading, or even pass on a particularly compelling bit of text. The LendMe app lets you set up friends (you can import Google contacts, or add people manually) and use this to manage your e-book Lending. Buy an eligible e-book through Barnes & Noble, select a friend from your list and you can lend the e-book to them. It shows up automatically on their NOOK the next time they are online; you can even view friend's e-books and request that they lend a title to you. Everything revolves around establishing relationships with people who are also using a NOOK and buying titles from Barnes & Noble, and is subject to restrictions (loaned books are not accessible to you, not all publishers allow all titles to be loaned, titles can only be loaned once, loan period is 14 days), but it's a useful feature.