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Nook Color: Half eReader, Half Tablet, Half the Price

Mon, 04/04/2011 - 8:32am
Andrew Berg

Right about now, the iPad has pretty much cornered the tablet market. Last time Steve Jobs took the keynote stage to introduce the iPad 2, he claimed Apple held in excess of 80 percent of the global tablet market. To be sure, the iPad's $499 Wi-Fi-only entry-level price point has something to do with its popularity. Many argue the iPad is the most complete media tablet for the money.

I've been playing around recently with an Android tablet that comes in at half that price; I call it the poor man's iPad (a.k.a. the rooted Nook Color from Barnes & Noble). While the Nook Color is definitely not an iPad (it was released as a dedicated eReader after all), it does represent a look at how low an OEM could go on price without sacrificing quality.

eReader First...

As a simple eReader, the Nook Color is more than adequate. While many will claim the device's LCD display will cause eye strain, I haven't found that to be the case, but then I was accustomed to reading full-length novels on my iPhone. Granted, you aren't going to use the Nook Color to read War and Peace on Maui's white sandy beaches, but it's the perfect way to read in bed after your spouse has decided to turn off the lights. Display arguments aside (believe me there are serious evangelists on both side of this argument), the Nook manages the dedicated eReader role with flying colors.

Perhaps one of the most attractive parts of the Nook Color is the variety of file types that it supports. Whereas Amazon only handles its own DRM-protected material, the Nook Color allows for pretty much any file format. It makes a great document reader for PDF and Word formatted files. It's also privy to the entirety of Google's catalog of 2 million books, many of which are available for free. While I might have paid for John Muir's My First Summer in the Sierras on a Kindle, I was able to download it absolutely free on the Nook Color via Google's library of scanned classics.

The UI on the Nook Color is friendly and intuitive. Downloading content from Barnes & Noble's online site is easy and the selection is exhaustive. I especially enjoy the full-color versions of magazines and newspapers. A copy of Rolling Stone on the Nook Color looks exactly the way it would coming off the magazine rack at the grocery store.

Check out Rolling Stone on the Nook Color:

The Nook Color costs $250 from Barnes & Noble and functions as a slightly heavier and more expensive eReader than competing e-Ink devices like the Kindle ($139). But the eReader portion of the Nook Color is one small facet of this device, which seems to have capitalized on that much-discussed grey area between the eReader and the media tablet.

...Second a tablet

Let's get one thing straight. The Nook Color doesn't even need to be rooted to be considered an Android tablet. It already is one right out of the box (2.1 Eclaire), although the average consumer would never know it at first glance.

The Nook Color isn't lacking on any of the standard tablet components, aside from the more expensive parts like a camera and 3G module (but hey, Apple left those out in the first iPad). It's powered by an 800 MHz ARM Cortex A8-based Ti OMAP 3621 processor. It's the same processor as Droid 2 and Droid X. It features a brilliant and responsive 7-inch touchscreen, 8GB of internal storage (expandable up to 40GB via SD card), 3.5 mm headphone jack, micro USB port, accelerometer, Wi-Fi and an 8-hour battery.

If I saw these specs , I might say they were for either a smartphone or the first-generation Wi-Fi-only Galaxy Tab, which measured in at 7 inches and was listed for about $300 more than the Nook Color, depending on where you purchased it and whether you were willing to sign a contract for a subsidy.

Even before the Nook Color is rooted, it comes with a full color Web browser (pinch-to-zoom) and email access, as well as a few other tablet-like features (calendar, games, contacts, gallery). Obviously, B&N was aiming to stay true to its mission of producing devices that would lend to the consumption of the content it's peddling, but it had to know that the Nook Color had all the possibility of a full-fledged (let's call it mid-range) Android tablet.

After the Root

After rooting the Nook Color, its truly disruptive nature, or at least disruptive possibility of a low-cost Android tablet of decent quality, becomes clear. My completely informal assessment of the Nook Color's features finds that it can accomplish close to 85 percent of what the first-generation Wi-Fi-only Tab can do.

Angry Birds running on a rooted Nook Color:

While rooting the Nook Color will void the user's warranty, the addition of the Android Market represents an exponential increase in this device's functionality. What's more is that the Nook Color is a solid, quality device for $250. While gadget reviewers have panned as nearly un-usable many of the low-end tablets flooding retail outlets like Walgreens and WalMart, I've found few flaws in the Nook Color, rooted or unrooted.

Perhaps one of the more interesting things about the Nook Color is that it can act as an Amazon Kindle through the downloading of the Kindle App from the Android Market (definitely not in the B&N official playbook). Barnes & Noble last weekend announced plans to add its own application store to the device this month with a firmware update, which might assuage tempted rooters to simply wait for the B&N Nook Color app store, as opposed to rooting their device. However, I doubt B&N will be including the Kindle app in its catalog.

Keyword: Media

Barnes & Noble committed itself to hardware the day it launched the Nook Color, essentially testing the tablet market waters by withholding functionality while billing its device as an eReader. It's important to remember that media tablets are, as the name implies, tablets for the consumption of media. Sure, the iPad 2 has some interesting tweaks to Garage Band and iMovie that might be pushing the boundaries of media creation, but overall these are devices that people use to surf the Web and watch movies from their couches.

That said, I offer the Nook Color as evidence of how low the price might go on tablets if only to facilitate consumer spending on digital media. Of course, the spectrum of price points and available features will be wide, and many will pay in excess of $600 to $800 for more sophisticated, high-end tablets. But the Nook Color, and other tablets in the same spec and price range, will find a place in those consumers' homes who otherwise didn't think they had room for another device.

I personally have been holding off on an iPad because I just didn't see a place for a tablet in my life between my smartphone, laptop and desktop. As such, I couldn't justify spending $500 on such a device. The Nook Color, however, fit my nightly reading regime and at half the cost.

Research firm Gartner says that media tablet sales will help push worldwide IT spending up 5.6 percent to $3.6 trillion this year, an increase from earlier projections that pegged total IT spending growth at 5.1 percent.

"Absent the addition of media tablets, the forecast would have slightly declined in constant-dollar terms; however, with their addition, there's virtually no change in the underlying forecast growth at the level of overall IT," wrote Gartner research vice president Richard Gordon in a report on the subject.

Gartner has added devices like the iPad to its hardware estimates starting this quarter, leading it to increase its computing hardware growth outlook from 7.5 percent to 9.5 percent for 2011. Gartner expects media tablet spending around the world to reach $29.4 billion this year, nearly triple last year's $9.6 billion figure, with global figures projected to rise at around 52 percent per year until 2015.

I'm just wondering how many of those media tablets will do what the Nook Color can do for under $300. I'm guessing quite a few.

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