Barnes & Noble's NOOKColor: A 7" Widescreen Android Tablet For $250 Or Under
Regular readers with pachyderm-ish memories may recall, in the midst of my mid-December Hot Technologies feature article on displays, an image and brief discussion about Barnes & Noble’s just-introduced NOOKcolor Ebook reader:
My reason for mentioning it is that, as its name implies, it includes a LCD display. As such it’s an intriguing intermediary step between conventional monochrome Ebook readers, which tend to leverage E Ink or equivalent bistable displays, and full-blown tablet computers with (among other things) Ebook application support. At the time, I wondered if Barnes & Noble would be able to sufficiently differentiate the NOOKcolor both from pricing and feature set standpoints to rationalize a sufficient-sized and sufficiently profitable ‘tweener’ product category, both in the near term and on a sustainable basis. And based on what I subsequently learned about the NOOKcolor, the lines between it and a tablet are even blurrier than I’d previously been aware.
As it turns out, the NOOKcolor (commonly also referred to as the Nook Color) essentially is a tablet computer, currently running Google’s Android v2.1 O/S ‘under the hood’ with a planned upgrade to Android v2.2 as part of a pending firmware update. Here’s the big-picture spec sheet:
- An 800 Mhz ARM Cortex-A8-based TI OMAP 3621 SoC with embedded PowerVR SGX 530 GPU (note: essentially a faster version of the 600 MHz SoC in my Motorola Droid handset)
- 512 MBytes of DRAM
- 8 GBytes of internal NAND flash memory storage (5 GBytes user-accessible), expandable up to an incremental 32 GBytes via a microSD slot
- 802.11g Wi-Fi
- A 7″ 1024x 600 pixel (widescreen) IPS LCD, translating to 170 ppi resolution
- Multitouch user interface support
- An accelerometer for orientation detection
- A mono speaker, along with a headphone jack
- 8.1″ (210 mm) high, 5″ (130 mm) wide, 0.48″ (12 mm) deep
- 15.8 oz (450 g)
Keen-eyed readers will immediately discern some omissions:
- No cellular data capabilities
- No Bluetooth (as exposed by software, at least; as it turns out, hardware support exists within the combo Wi-Fi/Bluetooth transceiver IC)
- No GPS (although a workaround exists)
- No compass or gyro
- No ambient light sensor
- No camera(s), and
- No built-in mic (though I’m hopeful that the hacking community will figure out a way to leverage Bluetooth or the USB port instead)
However, did I mention that the NOOKcolor costs $249? And that I got mine for $199 (plus tax) as part of an Ebay promotion? Stack that up against the price of an iOS-based Apple iPad or Android-based Motorola Xoom and I think you’ll concur that Barnes & Noble has crafted a piece of compelling hardware…especially after you learn that the NOOKcolor can be rooted and otherwise hacked to extend it beyond its Ebook reader foundations into a full-blown Android tablet. $200 is reportedly the approximate bill-of-materials cost of the NOOKcolor; Barnes & Noble was presumably employing a razors and blades promotional model of selling the hardware near cost in the hopes of ‘hooking’ consumers on highly profitable subsequent content sales. I don’t think I’ll be falling into that trap…
To date, all I’ve done is to ‘root’ the NOOKcolor’s Android v2.1 ‘Eclair’ build in order to supplement the base software feature set; a more involved hack to upgrade the software stack to Android v3.0 ‘Honeycomb’ is yet to be tackled (among other reasons because I still need to track down a sufficient-speed and sufficient-capacity microSD card). Following the directions in the above-linked Ars Technica tutorial, along with those supplied with Auto-Nooter, I first manually updated the NOOKcolor firmware from the v1.0.1 it shipped with to latest v1.1.0. This ended up being the most frustrating aspect of the entire process; I’d download the update image file (I tried both Macs and Windows PCs), tether the NOOKcolor (which mounts on a computer as a drive) via USB, move the update image file over, disconnect USB…and nothing. Eventually, I figured out a workaround; download the update image file directly to the NOOKcolor via its browser, tether the NOOKcolor to a computer, move the update image file to the correct root directory, then disconnect USB.
Next step, install Auto-Nooter, which achieves Android root access and (per the documentation) also does the following:
- Installs su and Superuser.apk
- Installs Busybox with whoami
- Installs Softkeys 3.0.6
- Installs NookColor Tools
- Installs Calendar and Calculator
- Installs Android Market, Gmail, Youtube
- Installs Gingerbread Keyboard
- Enable ADB [editor note: Android Debug Bridge]
- Enable Multi-touch for Android Apps
- Enables Live Wallpapers
- Enables Android Market and Gmail
- App Auto Install
The Softkeys mention in particular begs for a bit more explanation. As you’ll see from the above graphic, the NOOKcolor doesn’t offer the four navigation buttons common to all Android phones, only a single physical button. Auto-Nooter enables limited support for bottom-of-screen virtual buttons, but they’re not always visible in all apps. Softkeys is a supplemental virtual button utility, activated by a double-press (by default, user-configurable) of the NOOKcolor’s front bezel button.
Following the instructions on the Auto-Nooter download page, I first created the necessary bootable image on a 4 GByte Kingston Class 6 microSD card that I had handy, carefully first confirming that I wasn’t about to overwrite my HDD instead. Next, I powered off the NOOKcolor, inserted the microSD card, and powered the tablet back up. After a few minutes’ worth of blank-screen delay, the NOOKcolor auto-rebooted and, after the initial B&N-supplied splash screen, I saw confirmation that Auto-Nooter had indeed worked as advertised:
A subsequent screen self-identified the NOOKcolor’s CPU as TI-supplied, and the code leveraged by Auto-Nooter’s developers as having come from LogicPD’s Zoom 2 evaluation board:
Stepping through the installation instructions led me to additional screens such as these:
The above shot shows one of the shortcomings of the less-than-comprehensive Android build currently running on the NOOKcolor. From my past experience with other Android-based systems, I know that it’s asking me (via the optional checkbox) if I want to make my homescreen launcher selection the default, but the pop-up window’s text is missing in this case. In general, be careful when you assign Android default actions (browsing, audio playback, etc) to particular applications, because the NOOKcolor also doesn’t provide access to a full Settings suite (NookColor Tools expands on the default set, but not completely), so you sometimes aren’t able to un-default what you previously set up.
And don’t do what I did at this point, selecting ‘Home’ instead of ‘SoftKeys’ because the instructions I was accessing were unclear on this particular step and because I hadn’t yet stumbled across this more comprehensive alternative tutorial. At this point, I lost access to all on-screen virtual controls; touching them had no effect. Fortunately, because I hadn’t made ‘Home’ the launcher default, a power cycle got me back to where I was before, wherein I selected ‘SoftKeys’ and was on my way. An app called Home Switcher, downloadable from the Android Market, augments the limited settings options and enables you to both switch between and set a default homescreen launcher app. Default Browser Selector performs similarly for HTTP calls to browsers, although it doesn’t seem to comprehend HTTPS functions.
After navigating the convoluted Google account sign-in procedure, I found several more applications inhabiting my ‘Extras’ screen than previously existed there:
And following Ars Technica’s recommendation, I subsequently installed the ADW.launcher homescreen launcher program, along with a number of other apps from the Android Market, which led to my current fully-populated homescreen (as you can see, I also installed Androidify):
This writeup is already getting long, so I’ll conclude (for now) with some random bulletized thoughts of varying degrees of profundity:
- Having owned an iPad (10″ diagonal display, 4:3 aspect ratio) for some time now, I’m pleasantly upbeat about the smaller-but-widescreen form factor of the NOOKcolor. It’s certainly more toteable than the iPad, from both size and weight standpoints. And for most any media consumption function I might want to use a tablet for, it’s sufficient in size (especially given that I can two-finger touch-zoom the screen to expand the size of text, etc that might normally be too small for my geriatric eyes). Speaking of screens, the IPS display is gorgeous.
- Don’t be too concerned about hacking-induced warranty violations. Recall that in the above spec list, 3 Gbytes’ worth of the embedded storage was non-user-accessible? That’s because it’s possible to revert the software stack to a fully factory-default configuration, thereby eliminating any traces of your post-purchase philandering.
- Speaking of embedded storage, its voluminous size counteracts one current shortcoming of the hacked NOOKcolor; its Android 2.1 foundation precludes app storage to the microSD card.
- I appreciate the use of a standard Micro USB battery-charging socket, though I wish that the battery was user-accessible and therefore -replaceable (then again, I’m not aware that any other Android-based tablets have user-replaceable batteries, and the iPad and iPad 2 are similarly restricted).
- Responsiveness is sufficiently snappy for anything I’ve thrown at the hardware so far, though it remains to be seen how well the NOOKcolor handles more performance-demanding Android 3.0, which leverages a dual-core Cortex-A9 Nvidia Tegra 2 SoC in the Motorola Xoom and other upcoming ‘Honeycomb’-based tablets (along with Qualcomm and TI equivalents).
- A funny (at least to me) location-based story: even though the NOOKcolor doesn’t embed a GPS transceiver (or even a cellular subsystem, which could alternatively find use for base station triangulation location-approximation purposes) I installed Google Maps on the device. I freaked out when I subsequently launched the program, pressed the My Location icon, and it precisely found me! Upon further pondering, I think I know what’s going on…Google knows my home office address from my account details, and it also knows my AT&T DSL-assigned home office IP address thanks to Google Cloud Print. So when I signed into my Google account on the NOOKcolor, and Google saw that my Maps access was originating at my home office IP address…
- The Gmail app ironically seems to be among the least stable. Sometimes, for example, my attempt to delete an email is not only unsuccessful but results in abrupt Gmail app termination. Also, I’m unable to access my Google Contacts database via it (although a clumsy workaround exists). Many of these issues can be worked around by alternatively accessing Gmail via a web browser, although Cloud Print won’t work in the default Browser app even if I put Browser in ‘mobile’ mode instead of the default ‘desktop’ configuration. And the B&N-authored Contacts app is essentially useless; the only information it displays is a single email address for each Google Contacts database entry, and there’s no way to transport that address to Gmail, etc.
- The Calendar app also doesn’t seem interested in syncing with my Google Calendar server-side data, although third-party utility Business Calendar Beta is an acceptable alternative.
- The Pandora client included with the NOOKcolor is not the same as the conventional one downloadable from the Android Market; there’s no ability to quit the utility, for example (aside from employing a drastic-measure approach such as Advanced Task Killer Free), although if you pause playback and then back out to the homescreen, Pandora will eventually self-quit.
- The accelerometer correctly adjusts the UI (in most apps, at least) for portrait or landscape usage orientation, however it doesn’t seem to be otherwise accessible by third-party programs such as Bubble Level.
- I’m surprised at how much I miss, for example, the ability to install and use Adobe Flash 10.2, which requires an Android v2.2 or newer O/S build.
- As alluded to two bullets above, some apps which are installable act a bit wonky on the NOOkcolor; only providing a portrait-orientation display regardless of how I’m holding the unit, for example, or (in the case of Android Market) only providing a scrolling list when I’m holding the unit in landscape orientation, or whose touch interface icons work better with the NOOKcolor in one orientation versus the other.
- In general, however, I’m pleasantly surprised at how well apps run on this hacked Android 2.1 build, specifically how many of them support the NOOKcolor’s high-resolution and non-standard (at least for Android 2.x) aspect ratio widescreen display.
Followup: More on NOOKcolor hacking, from Brett Arends at the Wall Street Journal. And John Gruber, I think it’s disingenuous and simplistic to call the NOOKcolor a Pinto, just as it would be to call the iPad 2 a Ferrari…though I could…