Saturday, May 7, 2011

Nook Color update enhances device, to a point

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Barnes & Noble has tried straddling a fine line with its Nook Color since launching it as a "reader tablet" in November. The bookseller positioned Nook Color as a kind of hybrid between a conventional e-reader such as's Kindle and a more versatile full-featured tablet PC such as the Apple iPad.

  • The Nook Color.

    Barnes and Noble

    The Nook Color.

Barnes and Noble

The Nook Color.

Next week, Barnes & Noble begins pushing out a free major update that it is counting on to broaden Nook Color's appeal and inch it closer to its Android tablet brethren, which are built on Google's mobile software platform, and the iPad.

The update will automatically arrive on Nook Color devices via Wi-Fi over the next couple of weeks. Users also can get it manually at The upgrade brings new apps, e-mail, Adobe Flash Web video and an under-the-hood Android update that takes it to version 2.2 Froyo. Barnes & Noble is also launching a Nook Friends social-networking app, still in beta, that lets you swap books and recommendations with pals.

While the Nook Color makeover generally enhances a device I reviewed favorably (with reservations) last fall, make no mistake: This remains a reader-first device that is no substitute for anyone with designs on a serious multimedia tablet. It can use another coat of polish. Web browsing, even with such additions as "pinch-to-zoom" and Flash, is substandard. I encountered a few freezes and general sluggishness. For all its promise, Barnes & Noble has a long way to go on the apps front, too.

Still, at $249, Nook Color certainly carries a fetching price compared with full-featured tablets such as the iPad, which at minimum cost twice as much. I'm not aware of a less expensive Android tablet.

Of course, Nook Color is pricier than its most natural rival, the Kindle, which now starts at $114 with ads.

A quick recap

With its 7-inch display, Nook Color was the first mainstream dedicated reader to offer a full-color touch-screen, something Amazon still hasn't introduced on the Kindle. Nook Color also came with such novel features as the ability to highlight text in a book you're reading and share the passage on Twitter or Facebook. You can lend certain books, too, albeit relatively few and with tight restrictions.

Nook's attractive color display was always the chief reason for choosing it over the Kindle. Amazon retains important advantages, though, most notably in battery life, where it can go up to a month, compared with about eight hours for Nook Color. And Nook Color doesn't have a 3G wireless option, as on the Kindle, for purchasing from more than 2 million digital titles on the fly when Wi-Fi isn't available.

Nook Color was originally preloaded with a handful of apps, including Pandora Internet radio, a music player, photo gallery and games such as Sudoku, Crossword and Chess.

As part of the update, Barnes & Noble adds to the collection but only modestly, with about 140 in total, a mere blip next to the 65,000 apps native to the iPad. Given Nook Color's Android roots, it's too bad you can't tap into the Android Market to purchase apps or grab those that are free.

Barnes & Noble concedes it's not going to have the largest app offering but expects hundreds more in the coming weeks and months. It says it has made it easy for Android developers to submit apps for Nook Color, and it says the initial batch is what users have been requesting.

The current collection includes free calendar, notes and tasks apps. Most apps for sale cost $5.99 or less, through a shop that is accessible on the device. From there, you can read or write reviews, view screen shots and recommend an app to your contacts, Facebook friends or Twitter followers.

Nook Color's small selection does include some favorites, notably Angry Birds and the Epicurious Recipes & Shopping List. But the latter costs $4.99 for the Nook Color. It's free on the iPad, albeit with ads.

Snags: I couldn't find a calendar app to download by typing the word "calendar" in the shop's search box. I found it by typing the actual name of the app: Fliq Calendar. Barnes & Noble says it is working on a fix.

I also had trouble installing Angry Birds until I removed the tiny memory card that comes with the device. Barnes & Noble has since fixed that bug. Meanwhile, when I first launched Gameloft's $4.99 Uno HD, a curious message said, "The game requires additional data (783 MB) to run on your phone." Last I checked, Nook Color is no phone.

The original Nook was a hit with my kids because of color and its read-aloud feature for certain books. There are 15 new "Read and Play" titles with animations and activities for kids. Overall, Barnes & Noble includes more than 350 Nook Kids digital picture books and more than 12,000 children's chapter books.

I ended my initial review of Nook Color by suggesting that it remained to be seen "how well Barnes & Noble does at expanding Nook Color's capabilities as a tablet." Barnes & Noble is moving in the right direction, but there are still a few holes in Nook's cranny.

The bottom line

Nook Color (after version 1.2 update)

$249; 3 stars (out of four)

Pro: Update brings apps, Adobe Flash video, e-mail and more to color touch-screen e-reader.

Con: Browsing remains so-so. Buggy and sluggish at times. Search and other features need to be fine-tuned. Relatively few apps.

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