NOOKcolor Shines With Magazines, Disappoints With Books
We don't really have a precedent for the NOOKcolor because it's a creation that stands alone, more or less, in the current market. Is there room for a device in the space between E-Ink readers and tablets? Barnes and Noble is certainly certainly hoping so.
HardwareBefore we talk about the reading experience, let's talk about the hardware. This is, of course, purely subjective, but the NOOKcolor is the most attractive e-reader we've ever seen. The latest graphite Kindle is gorgeous, and the original NOOK is no slouch either, but neither look quite as classy and refined as the NOOKcolor. The front and sides of the device are an understated dark-gray plastic, the back is coated in a black rubber that feels great in the hand, and the face is largely unadorned. Outside of the dark bezel and screen, there is only an "n" shaped home button and a tiny loop on the bottom left-hand corner (which adds some character and hides the microSD card slot).
The display, which dominates the front of the device, is undeniably gorgeous. It's bright, its pixels are densely packed, and the contrast is top-notch. Barnes and Noble is also touting its VividView screen treatment, which allegedly reduces glare, and does actually seem to have some benefit. The advantage over LCDs on devices like the iPad and Galaxy Tab, however, is minimal. You won't be able to read the NOOKcolor in direct sunlight, or in dark rooms. While the screen does get dimmer than that found on the Galaxy Tab (which was downright painful to look at in the dark) it's still uncomfortable to read with the lights down or off. This is made worse by the fact that the NOOKcolor has a fairly limited set of color themes from which to choose, and the night theme puts white text on a gray background instead of black. The screen excelled, though, at showing off magazines and children's books, which Barnes and Noble has been pushing pretty hard with the launch of two such sections of its e-book store.
SoftwareOn the software side, things are a little less rosy for the NOOKcolor. Underneath the custom-designed user interface (UI), the NOOKcolor is really just a mid-range Android tablet. (And, sadly, it's running a crippled and outdated version of Android.) You'll find a few apps installed, including Pandora, but there is no access to the Android Market. Barnes and Noble is promising to launch its own NOOKcolor app shop, but at the moment there's no guessing how robust those offerings might be. One of the areas where the clearly outdated Android underpinnings are most exposed is the Web browser, which is slow and doesn't support Flash or multi-touch (despite its being available in magazines, photos and books).
Now, we did say that the NOOKcolor is not a tablet and to judge it as one is unfair. But the much slower version of Android underneath Barnes and Noble's highly customized UI also bogs down the general operation of the device. The home screens stutter and stall, changing pages in a magazine is noticeably slower than it is with an e-book, and, in the case of a PDF edition of Make magazine, page turns were downright painful. That issue of Make also opened in a document viewer separate from the magazine or book app, which didn't keep our place when we navigated away from it, didn't offer the sharing or marking-up tools available to the book reader and, perhaps most oddly, required you to flick up and down, instead of left and right to turn the page.
The NOOKcolor also offers tons of ways to organize your titles. A scrollable bar at the bottom of the screen shows off all your latest purchases, and you can drag any of those titles to the main home screen area for quicker access. You can even resize the cover art on the home screen to emphasize particular content. Tapping the arrow at the bottom of the screen brings up a menu that gives you access to the Web, "extras" (including a few games, Pandora and the NOOK's multimedia apps), the book shop and your library. Your library is automatically divided between books, magazines and newspapers, but you can also add any titles to custom-defined "shelves" for further categorization. That way, you can put George Bush's memoirs, the New York Times and Foreign Affairs all on a single, politically oriented shelf, should you prefer.
And you'll have plenty of content to choose from to stock your shelves. Barnes and Noble offers an impressive catalog of over 2 million titles to load on your NOOKcolor. This includes the standard e-books already available for the regular NOOK and a small but growing library magazines, newspapers and children's books to choose from. You'll find most major periodicals represented, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. There are currently only 89 magazines available, but those include plenty of popular titles like National Geographic, Men's Health, Newsweek, and Rolling Stone. The children's book library is quite sizable, with over 5,000 titles. Of course, the NOOKcolor syncs with the rest of the NOOK ecosystem, syncing your books, place, bookmarks and notes across all of your devices.
One of the other strengths of the NOOKcolor is its battery life. Our review unit survived over a week of light reading before requiring a recharge. Granted, your mileage may vary based on how much time you spend reading on the device, how bright you set the screen, and how much you use the Web browser. Regardless, it certainly put both the iPad and Galaxy Tab to shame. (In our experience, they're both lucky to survive three days in standby mode.) This is in part due to Barnes and Noble opting to skip on the 3G radio, and going with Wi-Fi connectivity instead.
VerdictIn the end, the NOOKcolor isn't a bad device, but it's one that that has enough quirks and shortcomings to make it hard to endorse wholeheartedly. The newspapers, magazines and kids' books make a very welcome addition to the NOOK library of content. But the often slow and buggy experience of reading magazines leave a lot to be desired. Even the much lauded ArticleView left us feeling a little let down, because we couldn't adjust text size, and it left much of the screen underutilized -- cramming all off the text into a narrow strip down the center of the display.
If you already own a tablet such as the iPad, there isn't any compelling reason to pick up a NOOKcolor. And, if you're mostly reading novels and other text-heavy documents, there is little reason to exchange your Kindle for one, either. But, if you're a magazine addict or have (or want to cultivate) bookworm-ish kids, the NOOKcolor is not a bad choice. The screen is gorgeous, and it's the cheapest game in town, with the deepest library of content. The iPad may have special editions of some magazines (such as Wired), but it can't match the volume of options available on the NOOKcolor. We're still partial to E-Ink screens for reading text, but it's easy to see the NOOKcolor as king of the digital-magazine hill at the moment. If some of the kinks and speed issues are worked out, and the upcoming app store offers enough valuable content, it might be hard to beat the $250 NOOKcolor. For the moment, though, it seems like a product that was rushed out the door before being fully baked.