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Overview: B

The home screen features a desktop with resizable icons for books and periodicals, and a “Daily Shelf” row at the bottom where new content automatically appears.

The Nook Color is Barnes & Noble’s new full-color LCD ereader, retailing now for $250 (more specs below). Basically, it has phenomenal potential, but it’s unfinished, which means we don’t yet know exactly how good it will be. 90% of the problems I have with the device could be solved with firmware fixes—I’m guessing B&N will roll out a major new firmware update in January, with the launch of the Nook Color app store. But I’m also guessing they won’t be able to fix every one of these problems.

Right now, this is still a very appealing ereader—and it is an ereader. If you’re looking for a tablet computer, get an iPad. But if you want a device for reading, and you want to read books, newspapers, and magazines, the Nook Color is well worth the money, and it’s only going to get better.

Let’s get into the details.

Hardware/Screen/Physicality: A

The screen is fantastic. It’s the perfect size (7″) for both reading and watching movies, and the touchscreen is very accurate—you can hit even tiny links on webpages with ease. I’ve read reports of people’s screens freaking out sometimes and registering a series of ghost taps. I believe that’s because the screen is so sensitive, residue left by your fingers can actually be read as a touch. Put it to sleep and clean the screen, and you should be fine.

Now, all that said, the screen is not E-Ink. I like E-Ink ereaders, and if I only read novels, I’d prefer one. But the trade-off for a bit more eye strain is tempting: LCD offers better contrast, much faster page-turns, more interactivity, and color content, such as some really beautiful magazines. I’ll take that trade in a heartbeat, and if you’re on the fence, you should take it, too.

The rest of the Nook Color’s hardware is good; it’ll never be quite as good as the iPad, but it’s plenty fast enough for reading. The hard drive is roomy: 8 Gb onboard, plus a Micro SD card slot for even more space.

And this thing feels great in your hand. Some reviews have claimed it’s too heavy; I don’t think so. It’s a bit heavier than a hardcover, but unless you’re holding it at arm’s length all day, I think you’ll adjust.

The only true hardware downside that I see is that the external speaker is pretty crappy. But there’s a headphone jack, and really you can’t expect much from an ereader’s external speaker.

Battery: B+

The Nook Color “battery problem” got blown way out of proportion when the device was first announced. Sure, it could always be better, but I’m an avid reader and I’ve taken several 5-hour+ trips with this thing—I’ve never had to recharge before I was done for the day. The battery is rated at 8 hours with WiFi off. Unless you’re on a cross-continental flight or you read all the time, it will be enough. It’s definitely a charge-every-night kind of deal, but you should probably do that anyway, since that’s necessary for new periodicals to auto-download.

General interface/navigation: B

Another annoyance: you can’t sort the books in your library by author or title. You have to put each one on a “Shelf” to keep them straight.

The general interface features a three-screen desktop, where you can lay out and resize cover pictures representing your different books and magazines. There’s a device-wide menu (featuring “Library,” “Settings,” etc.) under a triangle in the bottom bar, and a book icon that takes you back to what you were last reading—one of many reminders that this device revolves around reading. There’s also a bar below the desktop (called the “Daily Shelf”) where new content (like newspapers, magazines, and books you’ve downloaded) automatically pops up. This video gives you a good, no-nonsense tour through the interface.

The interface is good, but could be better, even with just the addition of the classic Android back button. This, like a lot of navigation on the Nook Color, is also a bit laggy.

Book reading: A-

Reading books on this device is pretty straightforward. You can tap or swipe to change the page, and you can open a menu to change chapters, type size, and even the font itself with a lot of books. You can also change the entire look to, for instance, white text on black background for night reading.

There’s no page-turn animation if you like that kind of thing. I prefer tapping to change pages, but swiping is more reliable and less likely to accidentally open the menu.

Books are the device’s “weak spot” since black and white text is supposed to be better on an E-Ink screen. But I like reading books on this device every bit as much as an E-Ink ereader. Obviously, E-Ink is preferable, but until it gets this fast, sharp, and cheap, I’m back on the LCD wagon.

Newspaper reading: B

Newspapers are organized by section, with a list of headlines and excerpts under each section heading.

Some reviewers have complained about the newspaper interface, which consists of a section page like a table of contents, followed by a series of articles in that section. After a week, I’ve gotten fully used to it, and I’m not bothered at all (bonus: there are no ads). But I also read the New York Times, which features the most useful table of contents of all the newspapers I tried (every section in the paper gets a section in the digital edition, whereas in papers like the Washington Post, there are only a few sections: Front page and News, for instance, which makes wading through it more difficult).

Still, I’m  a big fan of the physical newspaper—the only reason I’m keen on the digital edition is because the Times is utterly incapable of delivering to my apartment building without leaving papers on the street outside to get stolen. I’m interested to see what B&N’s rumored newspaper revamp looks like, but if it never gets better, I’m fine with this.

Magazine reading: C+

You can rotate the device to view two-page spreads, and pinch-and-zoom to read captions or see details.

It takes a while to get used to magazine reading on the Nook Color. A magazine is basically a series of JPEGs—you can skim through thumbnails of pages or a list of articles, then you can pinch and zoom to see the full layout, or you can use Article View to pluck the text out of a piece and read it on its own. You have to remember to tap the middle of the screen for the menu, and pinching-and-zooming can be laggy and unintuitive.

Article View pulls the text from any article into one column, and makes it easy to flip to the next article by swiping.

Still, these magazines look beautiful—I’ve already subscribed to several photo-centric magazines like National Geographic, and I tore through several first issues in a few days. Article View works quite well, but panning and zooming the pages themselves can be very frustrating. Most frustrating is how you can zoom in on a picture and then pan too far to one side and accidentally change the page; then you have to page back and start over.

It’s also a shame that you can’t highlight or look up words in magazines. It would be nice to, for instance, be reading a piece in Spin, then be able to sample or buy the album you’re reading about. Hopefully it won’t be long before B & N and content producers figure out some nifty ways to use cross-content ability.

This is yet another thing that could be fixed with a firmware update—as it is now, it’s usable, but that’s about it. Despite all that, I love reading magazines on this thing, and that should tell you a lot.

[Except: The New Yorker is inexplicably unavailable on the Nook Color, which is bizarre since it’s available on the regular Nook.]

Kids’ books: A

Kids’ books are beautiful and you can tap any piece of text to hear the narrator read that part aloud.

If I had a kid, the Nook Color’s price might be worth it just for the kids’ books. Each comes with its own audiobook, and kids can either read the book themselves or listen to the embedded audio. It’s a simple, phenomenal system.

Shopping/Periodical Selection: C

The shopping interface on the Nook Color itself is fairly frustrating. For all B&N’s hype about recommendations and “Sessalee’s Picks” and whatnot, it’s all fairly useless, and so is the browsing interface. Unless you know exactly what you’re getting, I avoid trying to shop on the Nook itself.

I much prefer using the B&N website on a computer—the process of getting your books is fairly seamless. However, you can’t delete certain things from the Nook itself, like free samples, for instance. You have to go into your library on the website and browse through a long list of everything you’ve bought or sampled, and then delete each one individually. It can also be a chore to “archive” individual issues of newspapers or magazines.

But, the free sample system, a concept I’ve loved for a long time, works great, and is Nookbook-shopping’s saving grace. My method is this: I browse through the B&N website, downloading a dozen or so free samples. I update the library on the Nook, and all the samples pop up automatically in the new content bar. Then I read the samples and can quickly buy and download the books I like. Still, I’d like a better store.

Search, Highlighting, Dictionary, Lookup: A

The dictionary is lightning fast, highlighting is easy and great, and looking things up on Google or Wikipedia is quite useful.

The search is a bit confusing—you have to remember to search from the book menu, not the Nook menu—but otherwise great.

Note-taking/Account Syncing: F

Which of these are notes and which are just highlights? This is one of my biggest complaints about the Nook Color.

So how is highlighting great but note-taking terrible? Well, they’re lumped in together and treated the same. That means that you have to highlight a section of text to add a note to it, but those notes are listed by the highlighted section, not the note you added. It’s a pain to browse back through highlights and see which ones were notes, and then hunt through those, trying to find what you wanted. This is an easy fix, though. I just hope they actually fix it.

Account syncing is basically non-existent. You can’t pull up notes on the desktop app, and while you can pull up the book you were reading on your phone, the bookmark-across-devices is inexact at best. Again, fixable.

Music and Video Playback: B

The music interface is far from intuitive, but once you figure it out, it works about the same as you’d think. A tip: click “Browse” in the upper right to switch to the browsing screen—if you don’t, there’s no way to sort by albums or artists, and the process of building playlists is fairly infuriating.

Video playback is great. You have to sideload videos (and music, for that matter) into the “My Files” section. To play videos, you have to find the specific video in whatever folder it’s in. And if you stop the video, it won’t remember your place. Still, videos are a pleasure to watch, not least because the screen is an ideal size for a movie on a plane.

Library books: B+

B&N treats library books far different from “NOOKbooks”: you can’t put thumbnails of library books on your homepage, and you can’t download them via WiFi. This is not unexpected, and at least B&N allows you to get library books, which is more than you can say for Apple or Amazon.

Web: B+

I’m not entirely sure why reviewers have come down so hard on the web browser. It’s a standard, plain-jane model. It’s not terribly fast, but it’s not slow by any means. It might be nice if you could adjust settings (like whether you default to mobile or regular webpages), but if you’re buying this for its web browser, you’re making a mistake.

Social/LendMe: A-

You can post passages you like to your Facebook or Twitter account, or email them to your Gmail (or other) contacts. It works pretty much as you’d think. The LendMe thing is a neat idea, but I’d like to see more integration with reading communities like Goodreads.

In Summary

Again, we’ve got a solid device with plenty of rough edges. I’m a believer, to the extent that I think this kind of device is the future of ereading. The Nook Color is no iPad, but I’m firmly in the subset that would use a tablet primarily for reading and watching movies, and the Nook Color more than holds its own on both those fronts.

It remains to be seen just how good the Nook Color will become over the long haul, but right now, for an avid reader, it’s definitely worth the money.

More specs:


Nook Color page at B & N