Review: Barnes & Noble NOOKcolor

Barnes & Noble’s NOOKcolor is a $249, full color touchscreen follow-up to their original dual-screen reader, Nook. The first time around, we saw the half full-color, half e-ink reader released with a free lifetime subscription to AT&T’s 3G data, followed by a Wi-Fi only flavored Nook. In the case of the NOOKcolor, the retail media giant has skipped the mobile data package and gone right for the hotspot downloads. Now when I say “hotspot,” that means one you find at home, your friends’ places, or a Barnes & Noble retail location, because free access at AT&T hotspots isn’t part of the deal this time around, either.

“Why no AT&T service with the NOOKcolor,” you say? First of all, the flood of full-color magazines, animated children’s books with audio, and more feature-rich web browsing mean more bandwidth usage, and while I haven’t heard any evidence of an impending 3 or 4G version of NOOKcolor, my local NOOK expert mentioned that if it did happen, there would be a monthly fee. Secondly, this Wi-Fi-only situation may not be such a bad deal anyway though because the last thing NOOKcolor needs tacked onto it is another power-hungry feature. The full color backlit display already puts this gadget’s battery life more in line with a tablet computer than an e-reader, and is one solid argument for testing out the NC’s predecessor before committing.

Don’t let the image fool you: NOOKcolor is a pricey and feature-laden e-reader; not a cheap and chincy tablet. Though a dedicated market with NOOKcolor optimized applications will be unveiled next year–that could provide excellent additional functions to NC–I personally don’t see the value of NOOKcolor standing in for a tablet like the Galaxy Tab. Then again, I have a superphone and laptop computer; tablets, to me, are a fun luxury for those with disposable income and time. An e-reader with some social features and a couple of apps, on the other hand, makes practical sense in my book, but usability all comes down to the display and how my eyes react to it.

I’ve heard a lot of questions about NOOKcolor’s readability in the sunlight and here’s the bottom line: it doesn’t work. Not without a lot of hassle and shading, that is. I have yet to test the anti-glare screen protector bit, so perhaps I will revise my categorical statement with a qualifier, but don’t expect the performance of an e-ink display. B&N’s VividView technology may go a long way in delivering a wide visibility and in diffusing glare created from the backlit display, but that doesn’t mean a thing when your eyes are focused on a reflection of the clouds. In a sunlit room, NOOKcolor performs well at the highest brightness setting, though reflections can be a bit distracting.

Highest brightness setting:

Lowest brightness setting:

The original Nook wins hands down in a direct light reading contest. In the dark, however, the Nook’s clip-on accessory lights and LED-equipped cases are a hassle and leave a lot to be desired. NOOKcolor is best for reading in a black bedroom, though I find the lowest brightness setting is too strong at 3a.m., even with the darkest theme applied. The anti-glare material on the inside of the NOOKcolor’s glass does nothing to reduce the glare that bespectacled readers will likely find tiring. The themes, which can be further modified by font, text size, and margins, go a long way in making the page more pleasing for reading in the dark, but I would love to see a few more notches at the left end of that brightness setting slider with the first software update. Burning, itchy eyes mean it’s time to kill the gadgets and go to sleep, and I’m not always in the mood.

Another area in which NOOKcolor absolutely outperforms the original nook is in navigation. The software, which has been criticized for sluggishness in comparison with tablets, is brilliantly organized and plenty quick for an e-reader. I experienced one homescreen freeze in the last four days of use, and the issue resolved itself in five or ten seconds.

Original, slowwwww Nook navigation:

The three homescreens (that swipe left and right, as you would expect from Android) offer the user plenty of room for organizing and resizing book icons, set apart from the daily shelf at the bottom of the screen where periodicals populate and where unorganized library titles reside. A simple NOOK logo button at the bottom of the screen takes you back to these homescreens, and an ever-present ^ icon brings up the standard NOOK options of Library, Shop Search, Extras (including games), Web, and Settings. The status bar features a clock and Wi-Fi status icon that, when tapped, bring up a “Quick Settings” window that allow for Wi-Fi, mute, and auto-orientation toggling as well as a brightness slider. A light sensor can be seen to the left of the NOOK button, and above is it a book icon, which always takes you back to the text you are in the middle of devouring.

The ^ icon menu:

Another method of returning to your text, and easily jumping between several books, is the More menu, found at the top of the display:

While viewing text, a long-press contextual menu gives options for higlights, notes, sharing, and an internal dictionary look up that can then be extended to Wikipedia or the Web at large:

Tapping the upper-right hand corner of a page allows you to add and remove bookmarks:

Pages are navigated with left and right swiping motions or taps (there is no animation, as seen in the NOOK Android app). Tapping near the bottom of the page reveals another menu:

From within this blue panel, it’s easy to navigate book contents, your own notes, bookmarks, and highlights, to search text, share with friends, and adjust text display settings.

NOOKcolor’s web browsing capabilities are more than sufficient for looking up information related to a text. Flash is supported, and the “Loading Video” text and play controls indicate that YouTube support is pending. While the browser won’t touch that of your buddy’s Galaxy Tab, it’s the best I’ve seen on a dedicated e-reader. And once again, that’s what NOOKcolor is: a very powerful e-reader. If you’re shopping for a tablet, my opinion is that you should look elsewhere or be prepared to into some serious hacking and make do.

The primary questions here are display and battery life. Turning off Wi-Fi will keep the NOOKcolor alive for a good week if you read for an hour or two each night (at a low brightness setting), but no amount of conservation techniques will allow the NC to touch the original Nook’s battery life. This is not a serious issue if you regularly have access to an outlet or a laptop with a free USB port, but is worth consideration. More importantly, do you spend more time reading in the dark or the light? It’s cheap and easy to modify an original Nook for reading in the dark: just grab any old clip-on reading light. The results are not ideal, but functional. Using the NOOKcolor in daylight is more challenging, and might require you carrying a blanket and a stick for constructing a makeshift tent on the bus stop bench. NOOKcolor is undeniably more pleasurable to use in the dark, though I personally find that starring at a back-lit LCD for too long–especially at the end of a long day, in the dark–can irritate my eyes and cause headaches.

So, what am I recommending you do here? I’m not making a recommendation. My choice so far has been to keep both Nook and NOOKcolor and to alternate depending on my setting and mood. Of course that isn’t a satisfactory solution for most, but I hope I’ve contributed to your checklist of things to consider when shopping for your next e-reader. Are you shopping for a $149 e-ink reader, a $249 full color e-reader, or for a $600 tablet? If you’re not sure, you’ve got some testing of your own to do. Or perhaps you just need to log into your banking website and let the price tag guide your decision.