What's hot: Fantastic display quality, capacitive touch, great for magazines, plays video, surfs web and more.
What's not: Heavier than competing E-Ink readers, shorter battery life than E-Ink ereaders.
Editor's Note, Nov. 2011: Read our review of the Nook Tablet that replaces the Nook Color.
Reviewed November 29, 2010 by Lisa Gade, Editor
If you frequent our site, you know that I love ebook readers and have been using them since the Sony Reader PRS-500, the first mainstream ereader, hit the US market in 2006. You also know that I've preferred E-Ink to LCD readers because they're easier on the eyes (when used in good lighting) and have long battery life. I've used and/or reviewed most Android tablets and LCD-based ebook readers on the market, and none have swayed me. Sure, the iPad is great for color illustrations and the display quality is quite good, but it's much, much larger and heavier than the paperback books I read, let alone recent lightweight ebook readers. It's not something I'd throw in my purse on the way to the airport. The Cruz readers are sluggish, the Pandigital Novel has a grainy resistive display and the Samsung Galaxy Tab is great product but much more expensive at $599. If you're looking for an ebook reader, why pay for the extensive features of a tablet computer? And if you're technophobic, general-purpose Android tablets tend to be more open-ended and thus potentially more complex.
Not that the Nook Color only does books. It runs a customized version of Android 2.1 (2.2 is coming in 2011), and has Android's solid web browser, Gallery photo viewer and video player, music player and a few extras like Pandora streaming radio and the ever-popular Sudoku. If you're looking for an ereader that offers popular distractions from reading (Facebook, videos, YouTube) in living color and at a reasonable price, the Nook Color is tops. Why? For $249 you get what no other ebook reader or budget tablet offers: a high resolution 7" IPS display that's gorgeous. When it comes to reading, the display is the most important feature, and thankfully, Barnes & Noble knew this. At 169ppi and 1024 x 600 resolution, the "VividView" display is razor sharp and easy on the eyes. It uses the same IPS technology as the iPad, but with significantly higher pixel density for improved sharpness.
B&N uses an anti-glare coating that reduces glare somewhat, though you'll still notice it if reading outdoors or with your back to sunny windows. It does have less glare than the Galaxy Tab and iPad. Brightness can go low if you like, and there are several book page backgrounds that can reduce contrast for those who are accustomed to the dark gray on light gray of E-Ink readers. Reading has never looked so good on a color ebook reader. The Samsung Galaxy Tab is also sharp but somewhat less easy on the eyes becauseits display panel generates cooler, starker whites and uses a notched brightness control rather than one with infinite positions.
The user interface is attractive and easy to use. B&N kept it simple and consistent so we suspect even the less tech savvy will have no trouble using the Nook Color. Other than the multi-screen desktop, you'll see very little of the stock Android interface here (good for those who want an ebook reader, bad for those hoping for a tablet).
The Nook Color runs on an 800MHz CPU (must faster than E-Ink readers since it must also handle multimedia tasks) and it has 8 gigs of internal storage with approximately 5 gigs available. It has an SDHC microSD card slot for storage expansion and you can put content in either location (just use the appropriate folders-- i.e. put ebooks in the books folder). To further organize content, you can create your own collections, or bookshelves, in B&N lingo. The Color has WiFi but no 3G.
Is the Nook Color for You?
If you read indoors, especially in rooms with poor lighting, the Nook Color is a good choice. If you read outdoors at lunch time and on vacations at the beach, get an E-Ink reader. E-Ink displays look their best under bright light and require reading lights or ambient room lighting indoors.
If using the web is important, the Nook Color offers a much better experience than the Kindle 3 or any of the other E-Ink readers. E-Ink page refreshes slow down page scrolling, and the lack of touch screens (except the Sony Reader Daily Edition) makes navigation awkward.
If you're into glossy magazines with lots of illustrations, the Nook Color is for you. E-Ink readers display grayscale images and their digital magazines and newspapers omit most illustrations. Likewise if you read graphic novels, Manga and other comics, the Nook Color is the better choice.
If you want a tablet that does it all and has access to the Android Market, look elsewhere. The Nook Color is an ebook reader that does a few other key things, it's not a full-fledged Android tablet with access to the Market, the full gamut of Android applications and features. Talented techies may root the color Nook to get more full blown tablet features, but it won't do these things out of the box, and may be awkward to use when rooted since key Android hardware buttons (menu and back) are missing (you can effect the back command by swiping across the bottom the screen). B&N intends to provide downloadable applications for the Nook Color in early 2011, but we don't expect to see anything as broad as the Android Market selection.
Design and Build
The Nook Color won't get lost in a sea of plastic tablets and ereaders. B&N employed Yves Behar's fuseproject design firm to make the Nook into a captivating piece of coffee table tech. In fact, it does look like a piece of designer electronics, and though there's plenty of plastic in the casing, you'd never know it from the look. The back is soft touch matte black plastic while the front bezel has a gunmetal finish that looks like metal but is plastic. The angled lower left corner and surround feel like metal. Barnes & Noble tells us that the lower corner (the one that can function as a charm holder) is supposed to invoke a turned page and that the Nook Color is comprised of plastic over a metal chassis. The angled corner is also a design element that conceals the microSD card slot (compatible with cards up to 32 gigs).
Build quality is very good, though the front bezel creaks just a bit at a point 1/3 from the top left side on our unit. The rest of the bezel is firmly attached as is the back panel. The unit is sealed and that means you'll have to send it in should it need a battery replacement. At just shy of 1 lb., the Nook Color is no lightweight compared to the featherweight Kindle 3 and Sony Reader PRS-650. If you've been using the classic E-Ink Nook, a fairly heavy E-Ink reader, you likely won't notice the weight as much. At 15.8 ounces, our arms and hands didn't tire as they did with the larger and half pound heavier iPad, but we found it more comfortable to rest the Nook on something for extended reading sessions.
The Nook Color has mechanical buttons for home (the "n" on the front face), power and volume.
Books, Sure, but Check out the Magazines and Children's Books
The Nook Color is an ePUB and PDF reader, as is the classic Nook. The reading application is full-featured and includes 6 typefaces (3 serif and 3 sans serif) and 6 font sizes, 3 margin settings and 3 line spacing options. There's also a software option that snaps to the publisher's specified formatting settings. You can access settings when reading by tapping the center of the screen. This also provides quick access to the brightness slider, page number slider and table of contents. To turn a page, you can swipe forward and back or tap the left/right edge of the screen. Tap the top right corner to bookmark a page. There are no hardware page turn controls, and the capacitive display is as sensitive and responsive to touch as the iPhone. If you swipe across the bottom of the display in most applications it functions to move you back (e.g.: previous web page in the web browser, or previous screen in system settings). Watch our video review below to see these features and controls in action.
PDF handling is different from the classic Nook. Barnes & Noble includes the basic version of Quickoffice for Android that has viewers for PDFs and MS Office documents including Office 2010 format. If you've used an Android phone, you may already be familiar with this Office suite. PDF handling is beautiful compared to E-Ink readers with support for pinch zooming, fit page to screen, fit page to width and portrait orientation. The bad news is that you can't bookmark a page and it doesn't remember where you left off; incredibly annoying if you're reading a library novel in PDF format. Another caveat: we tested 5 PDFs and internal links didn't work in any of them. As a consolation, there is a "go to page" function. B&N: please tweak Quickoffice to support bookmarking and to remember the last read page!
Should you wish to view MS Office documents, simply transfer them to the reader or a microSD card via USB. There is no Office icon under applications, so you'll open the documents by going to the "My Files" section under Library. We like that our own non-B&N ebooks appear in the Library integrated with B&N books, though you can only put shortcuts to B&N books/magazines/newspapers on the desktop.
The Nook Color supports ePUB and PDF files with and without Adobe DRM (both the B&N version of Adobe DRM and Adept DRM used by libraries and ebookstores such as the Sony Reader bookstore, Borders and Kobobooks.com). It doesn't support the old eReader PRC/PDB format as does the classic Nook, nor does it support Amazon Kindle format (only Amazon products are compatible with Kindle books). B&N has a very healthy selection of books for sale, though it's hard to determine the exact number of commercial titles since they include Google's public domain works in their total figure. That said, they don't have as wide a selection as Amazon, but they've got their bases well covered for best sellers, literary fiction and other popular works. Most folks should be pleased with the range of available titles, and pricing is similar to Amazon's.
The Nook has a rear-firing speaker with modest volume and a 3.55mm stereo jack. These are handy not just for music playback (the reader has the Android music player), but also for video playback (MPEG4 stored locally and streaming YouTube mobile from the web) and children's books that have a "read to me" feature. Children's books are well-illustrated and the "real human" reading voices are pleasing and appropriate to the work. Think of it as Audible meets eBook. So far, reading aloud is the salient feature-- we haven't come across any interactive books yet. You can see children's books in action in our video review.
Magazines are the other biggie. These aren't the dull, text-based, denuded periodicals we've seen on E-Ink readers. The magazine reader reminds us of Press Display (available on the now-defunct IREX DR800SG ereader and as an application for iOS and computers). The magazines are presented exactly as if in print with ads, the same pagination and even print registration marks. Watch our video review to see magazines in action. You can pinch zoom (only a bit though since the page is already near max zoom), and use a handy bottom scroll area to thumb through adjacent pages. You can read in landscape mode, but the formatting works best in portrait mode. The experience is simply awesome-- this is the first time I've felt that I could go with an ereader subscription rather than print. There's no back issue clutter stealing shelf space, and magazines are priced similarly to print (some are a bit more expensive, some are cheaper).
The new magazine format for the Nook Color is quite different from that used on the classic Nook, and that means the set of available subscriptions is different for the two devices. Currently, my New Yorker subscription for the classic Nook isn't available (won't work) on the Nook Color. Magazines for the color reader are typically graphically heavy-- Rolling Stone, Martha Stewart Living, Popular Photography and National Geographic. This makes sense since these magazines are nearly worthless when stripped of their color images. The 7" display is the smallest I'd go when reading in this rich format. Text is sometimes uncomfortably small, and thus B&N has Article View, which pops down a single column of very readable and scrollable text on top of the magazine page.
Above: the home screen. Below, magazine with the scrollable page selection active at the bottom and (bottom) full page magazine view.
Nook Color Video Review
The Nook Color is a new breed of ebook reader and it has a significant array of additional features. Thus we've broken down our video review into two parts. In part 1 we compare the Nook Color with the iPad and Sony Reader Daily Edition with E-Ink touch screen. We take a look at the library application, storefront, magazines and books.
In part 2 we look at children's books, the PDF viewer, Extras (apps), the web browser and Gallery for photo and video viewing.
Video Playback and the Web
Video playback of locally stored content (on internal memory and microSD cards) works very well. You'll need to use MPEG4 format, and the same encoding I use for the iPhone and Android smartphones works well: MPEG4 (H.264 ffmpeg encoder) with AAC stereo. The Nook Color handled fairly challenging videos up to 680 pixels wide at high bitrates well with no loss of lip sync and no discernable frame drops. Performance was similar to the Galaxy Tab and other top-end Android smartphones with high resolution displays. The Nook's 800MHz ARM Corex-A8 CPU is a top performer among mobile CPUs and it has a companion GPU for graphics acceleration. Nice hardware for an ereader!
If you're accustomed to E-Ink readers that can go for a week or two on a charge with wireless off, the Nook Color won't impress with you its battery life. Fast CPUs and large color displays eat much more power than E-Ink and low end CPUs (most of the blame goes to the LCD). Barnes & Noble says the Nook Color is good for up to 8 hours of actual usage time when reading. Video playback shortens runtimes, which is true of any mobile device. In the past 10 days I've found that when reading ebooks, PDFs and magazines and using the web browser for 30 minutes/day I've had to charge the reader every 3 to 4 days. When streaming YouTube, watching locally stored videos and streaming Pandora radio, I've had to charge the reader every day to every other day. The WiFi radio powers down when not in use to conserve battery power and I've found that it doesn't always reconnect on wake after several hours inactivity (I had to turn WiFi off then on again). If you turn WiFi off when not needed, battery life is noticeably better.
The Nook Color comes with a quick charger that has higher output than the E-Ink Nook's. The ereader ships with a custom micro USB->USB cable that has extra pins and wires attached to send more juice to the Nook Color. Thus B&N states that you should use the included charger and USB cable to charge your Nook Color. The ereader will trickle charge over USB when connected to a computer, but only when the Nook Color is off. It takes 2.5 hours to charge a depleted Nook Color using the charger.
The Nook Color is a wonderful surprise. As a long time E-Ink bookworm, I didn't expect much from Barnes & Noble's LCD reader. But B&N has turned out one of the hottest consumer electronics items of 2010 and perhaps 2011. The Nook Color offers an excellent reading experience thanks to its retina-friendly IPS display with high pixel density and wide viewing angles. Reading on an LCD has never been this pleasant and my eyes are feeling good when reading in my usual 1 to 2 hour sessions. That said, the Nook Color excels if you read indoors and particularly if you read in poor lighting conditions. If you read outdoors or in very sunny rooms with large windows, an E-Ink reader is your best bet since it looks wonderful under very bright conditions where LCDs fade and glare.
Book presentation is excellent and the selection of typefaces and formatting options as well as the easily accessible dictionary (just tap on a word to get a definition) make for a strong reading experience. PDFs are very readable and maintain their layout-- I've finally stopped reading product manuals on computer screens.
As an affordable consumer device, the Nook Color has the right combination of key features that make it more than just a reader: color touch screen web browsing, YouTube, video playback, social networking, Pandora radio and photo viewing with slideshows. As a reader, it adds exciting new features like full-presentation magazines and children's books with rich illustrations and the read to me feature. These goodies require an LCD-based reader, and if these features are important to you, the Nook Color is worth a serious look, even if you're an E-Ink fan.
We'd love to see B&N add a few key features; first and foremost PDF bookmarking and last page read recall. We'd also like to see an updated web browser that doesn't present data entry problems with some desktop sites, an email client (though personally I don't want this because I'd check my email instead of reading, though I know many of you want it) and sync with Google calendar rather than just contacts.