Almost a decade ago, Microsoft said that tablet PCs were the future. They figured that people would ditch laptops and even desktops if manufacturers would come up with a touch screen portable PC. Instead of that taking off, we got netbooks; aka neutered laptops. These were well received and still enjoy a rather profitable following, even today.
Whether you’re an Apple fan or not (I fall into the latter category) you can’t argue the fact that Apple brought the tablet market back into the eyes of consumers with its iPad product. People are eating up these “pads” or tablets and Apple isn’t the only one making them.
In fact, there are Chinese manufacturers by the hundreds making these things – with reputable manufacturers like HP, Samsung, Acer and dozens of others with a tablet offering either out now – or due out soon. In fact, the Consumer Electronics Show this year was dominated by tablets.
So, they are here – and they are the rage. But what if you fall into one or more of the following categories?
1) You don’t like Apple
2) You are on a tight budget
3) You don’t want to pay a monthly fee to get the product subsidized (like the Samsung Galaxy Tab)
4) You don’t trust cheap knock off Chinese products
5) You are already an Android user (you have an Android smart phone) and are already comfortable with the line and own tons of apps for that platform
6) You don’t even know what the hell you would do with one if you DID have it
Chances are, you have been looking at Android powered, lower cost tablets. As mentioned, there are dozens of them and while there are a couple of them that are front and center (like the super sweet but super expensive Samsung Galaxy Tab) – most of them appear very dubious (for good reason – they are).
In your travels, you may have heard about the nookColor – the Barnes & Noble color e-Book reader – and heard it runs on the Android platform. At
$250 $169, it doesn’t break the bank – and you can actually go to a store and touch one (unlike ordering something from Hong Kong). It’s backed by a large company with a lot riding on it. Sounds about perfect, doesn’t it?
It’s so damn close to the perfect solution, it makes the mouth water. Just how close? That’s what we’re going to cover in this article.
I’ve put my hands on the Apple iPad, the Samsung Galaxy Tab and many other “generic” tablets like the Velocity Cruz, the Archos product line, etc. There are a few physical characteristics that should be important to all potential tablet owners.
First up is physical size. The iPad is just too big for me. The screen is a giant 10″ and it has a decent sized bevel around it. I can honestly say I’d never drag that big monster around with me. It’s like a big beautiful coffee table book – fun to read in the living room, not so much fun to drag around and read on your lunch break. The Samsung pad as well as other devices (including the nookColor) are 7″ screens with moderate bezels. When I put my hands on the Galaxy Tab, I thought – if I needed a tablet, this would be the perfect size. The nookColor is comparable in size – just taller than a paperback – and you can hold it in one hand (if you have bigger hands like me).
The weight of these products is a serious consideration – especially if you plan to read a lot on it. My wife has the Kindle (the big one – the DX) and it is light and comfortable to hold for long periods of time. The iPad is like carrying an anchor around with you – and even the 7″ tablets are heavy. The nookColor is no different. It is 2-3x heavier than a hardback of the same size. Of course, ANY device that uses a beautiful LCD screen is going to be heavy. It’s part of the trade off. I would NEVER recommend an iPad or this nookColor as a dedicated eReader; I would point them to a Kindle (half the weight and half the price with very crisp eInk you can read in sunlight).
The next wildcard in the tablet market is the screen – size, construction and type. Screen size will dictate weight. Anything less than 7″ and you’re talking about almost the size of a smartphone (which you probably already have). The idea is you want a bigger screen than your phone – but the trade off is weight and battery life. In my humble opinion, 7″ is the perfect trade off – and the nookColor fits the bill.
We know that all screens are not created equal. The iPad has a gorgeous screen while say, the Archos products have very mediocre screens. In between, on the high end you have the Galaxy Tab – and in between on the low end you have tablets like the Cruz. The nookColor screen is beautiful – easily on par with the Galaxy Tab. For the price, the nookColor has the best screen going.
The touch screen type is the wildcard people don’t consider. There are two types of touch screens – capacitive and resistive. The former responds well to even the most gentle touch – the latter requires very hard finger presses or the use of a stylus. Monetarily speaking, you’re talking about $100 difference between the two (based on a 7″ screen). That’s why you see “decent” tablets at department stores for $150; the capacitive screen. Unless you’re one of those ladies with 3″ fingernails or just LOVE the feeling of a stylus in your hand – don’t waste your time with a capacitive screen. You’ll just end up pissed off and taking it back (a guy in my office did just that – ended up with a nookColor). The nookColor is resistive of course and is very susceptible to touch. You’ll also quickly find out that it is very susceptible to fingerprints (but then, all touch screens are to some extent).
Button and port locations are important as well. The nookColor has a power button on the top left side, a headphone jack on the top right, volume control rocker buttons on the top right side and a “home” N button in the center under the touch screen. You Android fans might be saying – what about the rest of the keys? We’ll get to that. On the back, at the bottom is a rather under whelming mono speaker – which is suitable for notification sounds and some basic media use (we’ll get back to that later) but audiophiles of any level will find it rather substandard.
Unlike the iPad, the nookColor has a microSD card slot (it’s hidden on the back under one of the corners) which is not populated when you buy it. For under $30, you can throw 16GB more into it.
Finally, at the bottom (just like the Kindle) there is a standard (bless you) microUSB plug for charging and accessing the data on the nookColor.
A Quick Look at the nookColor + Root
This article isn’t going to discuss the “nook” as an eReader. You can access your library, B&N store and various “extras” including a crossword puzzle and sudoku game. The unit will read many formats – including PDF out of the box – and you can access this content within the nookColor’s subsystem that sits on top of the Android OS.
I doubt I’ll ever use any of it. After all, I wanted a tablet – not an eReader. Let’s talk about making this sucker into an Android tablet.
The Rooting Process
The process of cracking open (virtually, not physically) an Android-based device is called ROOTING; that is, giving the user ‘root’ access to the OS so you can install things you normally couldn’t. The rooting process opens up many doors, and the only way you’re going to get the full use of the nookColor as an Android tablet is to root it. The Apple people call it “jailbreaking”. The end result is about the same.
Thanks to very dedicated, smart hackers – the nookColor’s rooting process is very simple with a few caveats. You need a small microSD card, a piece of software to write the rooting tools to the sd card in a specific format, and about 10 minutes of your time. The rooting process itself is brain dead – stick the SD card in, power up, and in a few minutes it’s rooted. That’s it.
The configuration of the Android side is where the devil is in the details.
First off, you must register your nookColor before you root it. Make sure you have an Gmail accountthat is already linked to youTube before you register. USE THIS ADDRESS to register an account on B&N.com BEFORE you register your nookColor. Then, use that information to register your nookColor when prompted by the device. This piece of advice can save you over an hour of blundering around.
The rooting process does ALL the hard work for you – installing several apps like youTube and Gmail. All you have to do is sign into youTube WITH the account mentioned above – and the Android side of the nookColor will now interact with your Google account and you can get your Gmail, access your youTube and (most important) download apps from the Apps Market.
Once you have the Google services set up, the last step into turning this sucker into an Android tablet is to install an Android launcher like LauncherPro, Zeam or one of the many others. I’m sure most people will put on the same one they use on their phone (Zeam for me). There is something COMPLETELY magical the first time you push the nookColor home button and get the Android interface instead of the nook’s.
We now have a hybrid device my wife has dubbed as The NOID (nook+android). Unlike the 80s Domino’s Pizza spokesman of the same name, you should NOT avoid this Noid. 🙂 Later, we’re going to discuss a PURE Android experience.
The nookColor + Root Experience
So how is the Android experience shared with the nookColor’s own interface? The biggest inconvenience you’re going to see is the lack of the MENU and BACK buttons found on most Android phones and devices. Most apps use one or both of them in quantity.
Fortunately, the rooting process installs something call “softkeys” – a replacement tool that puts these keys on the physical screen – flanking the nook’s own on-screen menu button. This seems to work about 80% of the time – the rest of the time you’ll need to use the other part of the softkeys program – a small overlay button that brings up a menu of the missing buttons. You’ll learn what apps you’ll need this for soon enough. It is a minor inconvenience, but I wouldn’t be responsible if I didn’t mention it.
Missing is the standard “settings” options from Android. Instead, you’ll be setting your options using the original nookColor’s settings features as well as the nookColor Tools app that is installed with your root. Between the two, you’ll get most of what you need for tweaking up your system.
If you’re accustomed to an Android phone, you’re going to find a few things missing you might be used to. There is no GPS in the Noid – so you won’t be using it for Maps (although Maps does work – just not as accurate as with GPS). There is no camera – so you won’t be scanning barcodes at Best Buy or taking pictures. There is no microphone either – so if you want to use Skype, you won’t be voice chatting here.
The accelerometer is here – to detect the change in orientation – so games that require it (like Homerun Battle 3D) will play – but I will say that my DroidX phone seems more accurate at detecting movement than the Noid. Passable, but if motion gaming is what you’re hoping for – you may be disappointed.
At first glance, you’ll notice that the Android-defining “Notifications” window shade is missing. I don’t know about you guys, but that is one of the greatest parts of the Android OS to me. Fortunately, it’s just moved – not missing. Notifications show up as an icon in the bottom left corner of the screen. Tapping the icon brings the notification list into view where you can use it normally.
For me, the Android experience is about customization, Google cloud services and unrestricted access to the Google App Market. Aside from a couple of minor items (see below), the Noid achieves these.
Good-bye Nook – Hello Froyo
So, that’s the “foot in the water” Noid experience – stock nookColor, rooted, with Android apps on it. But what if you really don’t need the “nook” part? All you want is a big 7″ Android?
There are three options at the time of writing: Froyo on SD, Froyo on eMMC (internal memory) and Honeycomb on SD.
The two SD solutions are temporary boot up solutions. These involve taking a microSD card, flashing an image onto it, and booting your nookColor with the card in the slot. These “boot” the Froyo or Honeycomb operating system and run off the card. Those of you that have used “Live Bootable CDs” or even booted from a floppy disk into DOS have an idea how this works.
Because these run from the SD card, they are VERY VERY slow. I would consider them “dabbling” tools – not for full time usage. The good part is that they do not affect your nookColor at all. Take the SD card out, and reboot – you’re back where you were.
Fortunately, you can install Froyo permanently into the nookColor – making it run from memory natively. This makes all the difference. This configuration is what we’re going to be discussing from here on out in this article.
Nobody Makes The First Jump
I’m not going to lie and say there is a super easy turn key solution for installing Froyo on your nookColor. After the last handful of builds, it’s gotten easier – but there is still a level of pain involved with the installation. Most of this is due to the fact that those that build these super cool tools for us are not allowed to distribute the Google apps (market, email, maps) with the builds they put out. You must MANUALLY inject these applications onto the nookColor – now a full blown Android tablet.
In order to inject files (or “sideload” them) into your Noid, you’ll need the Google SDK (free) and a good amount of free time to figure out how to use it properly. You’ll need nookColor DRIVERS for your computer so it will recognize the device. There is a neat tool called EasyADB (check out the links at the end) that will drastically help you out – but if typing things on a command line scares you, this might not be the best solution. A nookColor rooted with Google apps on it might do you just fine.
If you’re an old hand at ADB from your Android phone experiences, there is nothing really new here. You probably have the full SDK installed and you’re ready to party. Getting a driver installed and making ADB see your Noid will be no big deal.
There are a few bumps to get through after you have Google apps installed – including sideloading a special signed version of youTube and manually installing Adobe Flash.
At this point – you have a full blown Android Froyo tablet.
Ghost of the Past
I would be remiss in my journalistic responsibility if I didn’t discuss some of the caveats to this Froyo Noid. The Froyo build used to create this monster originated from a cell phone. Little “ghosts” of the cell phone remain within the operating system. References to “phone” – “Your phone will now shut down”, etc. You’ll also see the cell bars (eerily dead but still present) next to the clock and references to “No Service” for phone related screens.
There are also a couple of occurrences where you will see remnants of the old phone screen size – namely in the Notification window shade, and in the Google Reader “details” screen – which both appear to want to be displayed on a much smaller screen.
The special “soft keys” mentioned above are gone (they were injected into the nookColor’s interface – which is gone too).
Dealing with the missing Android keys is one of the real bummers of this “conversion” of nookColor to Noid. There are two options … floating soft keys that you can position on the screen and use, or you can use a script to map the BACK and MENU buttons to the volume control rocker buttons. I use the former solution. It’s a bit cumbersome, but you WILL get used to it in time. What I mean to say is – it isn’t a deal breaker.
Connecting the Noid to the Cloud
As you know, the nookColor is a wi-fi only device. There is no 3G available – so you must be within range of wi-fi with proper credentials to make this guy attach to the internet, get to the cloud, and get your data. Once connected, all the services you’ve grown to love on your phone are there – email/calendar sync, Picasaweb pictures, Google Chat – the whole bit.
Because it is wi-fi only, it is not an “always on” device that will sit quietly and notify you when you have new mail, etc. Once the screen goes off, the wi-fi soon follows – and at that point, you are no longer “ubiquitously” connected to the cloud. For a lot of people, this is just fine. Once you wake the Noid back up, it will reconnect and everything will resume.
Where this becomes problematic is using “free” wi-fi outlets that require some form of authentication frequently – especially if you disconnect for any length of time. Usually these amount to clicking some “Yes, I agree to the terms” button to re-authenticate, but if you’re doing that several times an hour it could become a real drag.
There are scripts out there to INCREASE the wi-fi disconnect time – but you’ll pay of that uptime in battery use.
If digging around for free hotspots isn’t your thing, you can always tether your Noid up to your phone (provided you have the capability on your phone). I use Wireless Tethering on my Droid X and it works a real treat. Rooted phones can use free tethering (hey, it’s your ass if you get caught) or the pay-as-you-go 3G Hot Spot app.
Not having full-time connectivity takes a LOT of getting used to coming from an Android phone. It would take a lot LESS time to get used to coming from a disconnected device like a wi-fi only iTouch or Kindle.
The Noid Froyo Experience
Now you’re all done. You have a great looking, $250 sweet Noid to play on. How well does it perform its tablet duties? The big areas of concern for anyone looking for a tablet are: app compatibility, gaming performance and multimedia playback.
So you have a gorgeous 7″ screen – you’re going to want to playback some media on it. How does the Noid stand up?
I couldn’t be more pleased with the performance of the Noid’s ability to playback video. There are several apps out there like RockPlayer and xyplayer that will take your existing TV shows, movies, etc. in standard definition XVID+MP3 files and play them back smoothly and completely watchable. Check out the Noid videos I shot to get an idea just how good it looks.
There are video streaming solutions like SubSonic and an app called TV Shows Stream that can fill this need too.
I did not try the “heavy” HD files like MKVs, etc. The Noid is capable of serious overclocking – up to 1.1ghz – and it might be necessary to do just that to playback these higher bitrate files. For general purpose video playback, the gorgeous, warm screen will please almost everyone. The speaker leaves something to be desired, but while it isn’t super high fidelity, it’s fairly loud and gets the audio across, if not a bit ungracefully.
The Android has numerous excellent MP3 players and great cloud tapping utilities like Subsonic. While the internal speaker isn’t going to drive your next party, headphones are always an option – and the great multitasking ability of the Android OS will keep you busy while listening to your favorite tunes.
The build comes with the great Cooliris Gallery 3D – which has the very slick UI for viewing images on your card – and connects up to your Google Picassaweb account and gives you full access to all your images.
Android is rich in applications. While Apple still has a comfortable lead in app count, the Android has a surprisingly robust set of applications for just about any need you have. We’re going to discuss games in the next section, so we’ll stick to productivity style apps here.
Obviously you have the huge suite of Google first party apps at your disposal. Gmail works great on the Noid, as does Maps (remember, no GPS, but wi-fi location works) and the Market works great. The latest market has some graphical glitches (usable but very obviously NOT tablet aware), so I’m using the previous version without issue. Your contacts sync up just fine and the Calendar works fantastic. Google’s Jabber implementation, Google Talk works perfectly as well. Google Reader’s article detail page is goobered a little (see the video) but still quite usable. YouTube is just how you would want it.
Venerable third party apps work great. I use Tapatalk, Dropbox, LogMeIn (which works fantastic on a nice 7″ screen), Astro, Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, drocap2, Titanium Backup, Rom Manager (yes, it is aware of the nookColor), Root Explorer, Tweetcaster, WebSharing, Widgetoid and many more. Some of these may have minor blemishes based on the odd screen size they are running in – but almost all of them play VERY nice. Chances are good your favorite app will play a LOT nicer on this tablet than a Honeycomb one at this point.
With this big-ass screen, you’re going to want to game with it. I get it. So I took a handful of the best games out there and tried them out – including Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Kongregate Arcade (man, this works so good, you won’t believe it) and Tank Hero. All performed incredible. Fruit Ninja is a whole new game at 7″ – dare I say more addictive than at 4.3″. You will see me play most of these games during the course of the videos I shot.
There were many educational games and smaller indie style games that offered issues with the tablet. Some of the big name companies like EA and even Popcap have screen rendering issues with their games on the Noid. Some games didn’t work at all. Some offered only slight issues – but were playable. Finally, some worked fine – but only took up about 1/5 of the screen.
It seems the biggest games are squared away and as tablets gain more of a foothold, I believe the games will fall in line.
What Works, What Doesn’t Work
The missing hardware elements are what will bother people the most. You’re using what appears to be a giant Android phone, but you can’t call out, there is no GPS, no SMS, no bluetooth and no camera … It’s funny what you learn to take for granted. However, once you get into the groove of using the tablet, you’ll miss these things less and less. I can’t even imagine shooting pictures with a tablet. Forget shooting video. I wouldn’t want to use it to make phone calls, so that’s ok too. I wouldn’t mind having Bluetooth for my Motorola stereo headphones for listening to music and I gotta admit – it could be fun using Google Navigation on that big screen with a GPS signal.
There is rumor mill going on is that there is some sort of Bluetooth hardware in the nookColor that might be enabled in the future at some point. Recently, someone came up with a means of tethering your phone’s GPS to the nookColor – much like tethering your wi-fi. That opens up the doors for 7″ screen Maps and Navigation.
I get a lot of people asking me about reading on the Noid – particularly reading magazines, comics (er, graphic novels) and other color, rich content. Using quality third party tools like ezPDF Reader, you can get a very nice experience from the Noid. With good quality source material, the 7″ screen is very clean and readable. Sure, a little zoom goes a long way – and you might have to zoom more than you would, say, on a 10″ tablet. It’s really about the quality of the source material and the type of content. For browsing magazines, it’s crazy good stuff. For other content, YMMV – but I believe most people will be very content with 7″.
In the interest of good journalism, I must discuss some of the lesser parts of the hardware since it isn’t ALL wine and roses (or beer and pizza for that matter).
First off, let’s not let the microUSB port fool you. It’s still nook proprietary. If you look closely at the tip, you’ll find that Barnes and Noble are protecting their aftermarket $15 chargers by making the tip slightly longer and different. While you might be able to get data transfer across a standard microUSB cable, charging doesn’t work quite right. USB based charging is VERY slow (aka ‘trickle charge’). Heck, let’s be honest – this isn’t a Kindle. It can take many hours to charge this tablet up. Battery life is very good, but recharge time isn’t quite as good.
The microUSB port can be tricky sometimes – actually plugging it in. Once you get the knack of it, it isn’t bad – but a USB port shouldn’t be “tricky” at all – not on any device. Certainly not a show-stopper, but you need to know this stuff.
As I mentioned before, the speaker is small and tinny, but is remarkably loud for a device like this. The placement appears to be pretty good and doesn’t get in the way most of the time.
The unit doesn’t come with a microSD card – you’ll be adding one yourself. Take my advice – get one big enough that you don’t have to change it out very often. The slot is cleverly positioned on the device, but I’m telling you it is a huge pain to get in and out. The less you have to do it, the less irritated you will end up feeling.
Finally, as a hacked up device with a phone-ported OS on it, the Market will tend to be more selective in what it will offer you to download. You may need to do some spoofing to get down a few odd apps here and there. You can always sideload them, but it’s not the perfect seamless experience that you might get on a phone. There are tutorials out there that will get your Noid showing up as a more generic device in the Market which solves a lot of this issue – but be prepared to do a little hacking now and then. Don’t let this deter you from the device – it isn’t a lot of work and it doesn’t happen often – but I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t at least mention it.
The nookColor out of the box is a decent media reader/player with a beautiful screen easily outside it’s price point. Rooted with a bunch of great Android apps on it – it is a very useful piece of hardware. As a full blown Froyo Noid, it closes in quickly on tablets that cost twice as much. You aren’t far from a Galaxy Tab – and it’s considerably cheaper. The trade off, of course, is some blood, sweat and tears getting it hacked up and configured the way you want it – but everything has a price.
If you are looking for something plug and play, you can get a lot of mileage out of the “nookColor + Root”. If you’re an Android tinkerer, you can take it far beyond that.
The end result is a very usable piece of hardware that won’t break the bank or your back lugging it around. The more you’re willing to dink with it, the more features and productivity you’re going to get out of it.
It is worth noting that the vernerable Android custom rom CyanogenMod has beta builds available for the nookColor and while it does fix some of the issues mentioned (they are the ones promising a Bluetooth solution), it doesn’t have video codecs yet, so a lot of video playback and gaming could be hampered. I’ve seen it action from a general use standpoint and it looks promising. For now, I’m sticking with Froyo.
The final word? No matter how far you take it, the nookColor, nookColor + Root or the full blown Noid – it’s a good value in hardware if not only for the insane quality of the screen (both in display and touch sensativity). Barnes & Noble are talking about an official Froyo update in the future as well – so you may not even have to go through all these motions by the time you read this.
As I was putting the final touches on this article, I was exposed to the Viewsonic Viewpad 7 as a potential alternative. This pad fills in the missing pieces on the nookColor – such as GPS, bluetooth and cameras – but it will come at a price tag of about $400 – which is at least $150 more than the nookColor (recently, you were able to pick up a nookColor for $200 during a B&N promotion). From the reviews I’ve seen, the screen is actually better looking on the nookColor than the Viewsonic (which is bizarre). I haven’t gotten to touch one personally, but when I do, I’ll make sure I let everyone know the results.