Barnes & Noble NOOKcolor Review

December 17, 2010 by Jen Edwards Reads (25,078)

PERFORMANCE

The reading experience on the NOOKcolor so far is simply delightful. That should come as no surprise, since I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking Barnes & Noble when someone says the word “books.”

NOOKcolorPress the “n” button at the bottom of the screen to access the home screen of the NOOKcolor. Browse through your library by swiping left and right on the bottom of the screen to see all of your book covers. The home screen is customizable; you can choose your own wallpaper and also drag and drop book covers from the cover flow-style list at the bottom of the display up to the middle of the home screen, for access to your current reads. This feature is unfortunately not available for sideloaded content, only books, magazines, and newspapers purchased directly from B&N. There is a small More icon at the top right corner of the screen that lists your most recently read books, periodicals, and files for quick access. Tapping any entry on the menu or any of the book covers at the bottom of the screen causes that item to open immediately.

At the bottom of the display, you will find a small menu bar that is always available. The small book icon on the left side takes you immediately to the last item you were reading, whether it was a book or periodical from B&N or one of your own files. The menu on the right is for Quick Settings and allows you to control Wi-Fi, mute sounds, control screen orientation, and adjust the brightness of the screen. In the middle is a small arrow in a half circle that accesses the main features of the device: from left to right, the icons take you to the library, shop, search, extras, web, and settings. These will be explored more fully later in this review.

The Reading Experience

When you tap on a book it opens immediately. Page forward and back by swiping the screen left and right, or by tapping on the left or right edge of the display to go forward and back. Page turns are almost instantaneous–no more waiting for an eInk screen to refresh, and no annoying flash either. Tap and hold on a word to bring up a contextual menu that allows you to highlight it, write a note, share it (via Facebook or Twitter if you’ve set up your accounts on the Social menu), or look it up in the integrated dictionary. Again, the experience is made much more pleasant by the touchscreen display; no need to press the Kindle’s five-way navigator or press the navigation touchscreen on the original nook repeatedly to navigate to the word you’re interested in defining.

Bring up the reading controls by tapping on the middle of the screen, there you’ll see buttons for content (table of contents, notes & highlights, and bookmarks), search, share, the text menu (to control font, font size, line spacing, and margins), and screen brightness. Just below that reading control menu is a progress bar that shows you exactly how far along you are in the book. If you quickly want to move to a specific point, place your finger on the bar and slide it in the direction you want to move. As you slide, the screen will show you the chapter and page number you will be at when you remove your finger.

The title of the book and the page number appear at the top of the screen. Bookmark a page by tapping in the top right corner of the screen. Those bookmarks (along with your notes and highlights) will be synchronized across all of the platforms on which you read nookbooks, so if you’re also using the iPad or iPhone app, you’ll always be able to pick up right where you left off, and all of your annotations will be available no matter where or how you’re reading your book.

The NOOKcolor comes with two free children’s NOOKbooks, and when you open one of those you have the choice of reading the book by yourself or using the “Read to Me” feature, which is great. I would definitely have loved this as a kid! Each book is fully narrated, and the color screen certainly brings the illustrations to life. In some books, tapping the screen focuses on that area of the screen, making the illustrations larger.

There is no true touch interactivity in the children’s nookbooks at this time, as there is in the many iPad apps that are cropping up, but the experience is still a delightful one. And you never know when you might run across a surprise–one of the free children’s NOOKbooks B&N recently offered is the Twelve Hidden Days of Christmas, by Macky Pamintuan. Choose the Read to Me feature with that one and you’ll find that the narration is sung, not spoken, with full musical accompaniment.

Magazines and Newspapers

Periodicals are available by issue or by subscription, and a full two-week trial is available for every periodical sold in the B&N storefront. I picked two titles for this review, Newsweek and my local newspaper, the Dallas Morning News. Once you sign up, each issue is automatically downloaded in the early morning, so you don’t have to do anything more than tap on the cover to start reading.

NOOKcolorThe magazine experience is truly fabulous, thanks to the the NOOKcolor’s large color screen. The display can display a large-enough image to mainly replicate the feel of browsing through stories as pages are “flipped” by swiping your finger. When you find an article you want to read in full, tap on it to bring up the ArticleView, a text-only view of the story with much larger print that is far easier to read than the standard magazine layout. You can change the font and font size in ArticleView just as you can within an eBook, so you can personalize the reading experience to your needs and preferences.

If you want to read the article in the regular layout, double-tapping on the screen zooms in on the selected area, you can use your finger to pan around on the screen or pinch to more directly manipulate the zoom percentage. Turn the device sideways, and you’ll see a full two-page layout in landscape mode. Tapping the bottom of the screen brings up a cover flow view of every page in the issue, so you can swipe left and right to move quickly through the magazine.

The newspaper experience is less enthralling, because it is much harder to navigate. Today’s edition of the Dallas Morning News has more than 1500 pages on the NOOKcolor, and it is divided into only five sections. That means that browsing the entire front page of the section will take more than 400 “pages” to read everything. You can scroll through pages that include four headlines plus the first line or so of each story, but that’s a somewhat slow, unsatisfying process. There is a search feature, so if you’re looking for a top story you know will be in that day’s paper, you can search for a key word, a person’s name, or a place to jump to that story more quickly.

When you find an article you want to read, the layout is nice, with a single photo (if the story is illustrated in the print edition) and control over the font, font size, line spacing and margins. There are also links to jump to the next article or back to the section to browse more stories, but that’s it–rather bare bones compared to the excellent magazine experience (which I thoroughly enjoyed). Strangely enough, newspapers are viewable on the iPad nook app, but not magazines or children’s books.

Supported Formats

The NOOKcolor supports ePub books in addition to books purchased directly from Barnes & Noble online, and on the original nook, those sideloaded books had always been kept separate from B&N books. That was always a source of frustration for me, but I’m thrilled to report that is no longer the case on the NOOKcolor–all of your books appear in the books section of the library, no matter where they came from.

That’s a great decision on B&N’s part, but my happiness is tempered by the fact that the NOOKcolor does NOT support the secure eReader format that was supported by the original nook, which means that I cannot read any of the hundreds of eBooks I purchased from eReader.com and Fictionwise over the last decade of electronic reading on my Palm and Windows Mobile devices. This has caused an outcry on the B&N book club discussion forums, and I am hopeful that this will be addressed in the future, perhaps by allowing users to install the eReader app that is already available for Android devices on the NOOKcolor, which is based on the Android operating system.

If your local public library offers eBooks based on the Adobe Digital Editions/Overdrive system, those books are compatible with the NOOKcolor. That’s great news for electronic readers who are faced with higher prices in the wake of the switch to agency pricing earlier this year. All you have to do, once you get a library card and check out the book from your library’s web site, is install the Adobe Digital Editions software on your computer. When you connect your NOOKcolor, you can then transfer the library eBook to your portable device. If you have any problems with the transfer, try connecting the device to your computer first, before you launch Adobe Digital Editions. The system works perfectly for me, and makes the NOOKcolor (and the original nook, for that matter) much more attractive to bargain-conscious readers whose local public libraries offer electronic books.

You can view (though not edit) Microsoft Office compatible files such as Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, in addition to Adobe PDF files. I torture tested the NOOKcolor with an 11MB PDF that has caused many PDF apps on the iPad to crash. I had no problem at all working with the file, though the NOOKcolor was a little slow to open it. It took me a while to figure out that you have to swipe up to advance the page instead of swiping left and right, as you do with books, magazines and newspapers on the device. Excel spreadsheets also look great, as do Microsoft Word files, though the latter suffer from a lack of pagination that is truly strange.

The NOOKcolor isn’t intended to be a productivity tool, but it certainly makes sense as a respository and viewer for important work files that you always want to have with you. Considering that the NOOKcolor has a full touchscreen and a virtual keyboard built-in, it could be used to edit documents with the right software, which could potentially be provided in a firmware update or via access to Android Market apps in the future.

Library

The library portion of the device is broken up into six sections: books, magazines, newspapers, my shelves, my files, and LendMe. You can choose to view a grid with book covers, titles only, or titles with short descriptions. You can sort by author, title, or most recent, or use the search box at the bottom to quickly find the book you’re looking for. Being able to quickly scroll through my entire library with a full touchscreen is fantastic, and the experience is much better than it was on the original nook, where it took forever (or so it seemed) to get to a book in the middle of my several hundred title library.NOOKcolor

The My Shelves feature deserves special mention, because this is what brings the sanity and organization back to large electronic libraries. Much like the collections feature on the Amazon Kindle, My Shelves allows you to organize your eBooks in the way that makes the most sense to you. Do you want to keep all of the books by a favorite author together, or do you want to separate them by series, in case your favorite author writes several different series? Do you want to group your eBooks by subject or genre? You can do it now on the NOOKcolor, and it works great. Even better, you can combine your B&N eBooks with your sideloaded eBooks, which is great if you happen to aqcuire your books from several different sources. Creating a shelf is as simple as tapping the Create New Shelf icon at the top left of the display, choosing the books to add, and then tapping save. You can reconfigure or remove each shelf entirely at any time.

My Files is where you will find all of your sideloaded books, such as those managed with Calibre. Everything is organized into file folders, which means that you can organize your files as you choose instead of having everything dumped in together as they were on the original nook. It may take a couple of extra taps to find your content, but the choice is an excellent one and I applaud B&N for allowing users to take charge of their eBook collections, PDF documents, etc. by organizing them into folders instead of completely disregarding them, as B&N did with the original nook.

LendMe is where you’ll see a list of all of the books in your library that are available to lend out to your friends and family. The LendMe feature lets you share any book with someone else for two weeks, during which time you won’t be able to read it yourself. Each book can be lent only once, but this is still a great feature–and at least you’ll be sure to get your book back, because it is automatically returned to your electronic library at the end of the lending period. At the top of the screen you’ll also see a large red menu item that says “Borrow books from Friends with the LendMe App.” If you have entered your contacts into the Contacts section, and they have B&N books that are eligible for lending, you can see what they have and even request a specific title for them to lend to you from their library.

Shop

Shop is self-explanatory, it’s how you acquire books, magazines, and newspapers for your device. You can browse lists of New York Times bestsellers, B&N eBook bestsellers, new releases, and recommended books by genre and category. The shopping experience is much better than it was on the original nook, again mainly due to the color touchscreen. Navigation is so much faster due to the touch interface, and color makes those beautiful covers come alive.

You can tap on any book to learn more about the title, download a sample or to purchase it immediately. You don’t have to worry about accidental purchases, tapping the price to make the purchase must be followed by another tap to confirm, and you can also choose to require your B&N account password in order to make purchases (handy if you often hand the NOOKcolor to your kids so they can enjoy Read to Me nookbooks on their own).

Books that are purchased directly from your device are downloaded immediately (perhaps because it’s understood that you want to start reading now), while books purchased from B&N.com on your computer appear in your library as a book cover with the word Download underneath. Don’t forget to download your new books to your device before a trip if you’re not going to have access to Wi-Fi at your destination!

Search

The search feature on the main menu is somewhat misleading; you’re not searching for terms within your library of books; I tried that and didn’t find any matches for terms that I knew were within my books. Instead, you are searching for words in titles, or for author names, or you can type in a term that you want to look up on the web or in Wikipedia, as you will see links for those two options at the bottom of your search results. The settings menu does allow you to choose what is searchable, but for some reason, I am not able to turn on searching within the library or in the shopping application, as both of those choices are grayed out.

I am hopeful that the search functionality will be improved in a future firmware update; being able to search within the books in my library is one of the few features that I miss from my Kindle days. Since I’m a nerd at heart and read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, my tastes run to large multi-volume series. Sometimes it can be hard to remember a particular character that impacted the story four books ago, and being able to search within my library would allow me to find what I’m looking for in context, in the book, instead of having to resort to Wikipedia or Google to jog my memory.

Extras

The extras menu is where you will find all of the non-reading applications on the NOOKcolor. Games include Chess, Crossword, and Sudoku, all appropriately bookish entertainments that most readers should enjoy. Games are also available on the original nook, but the experience here is far better than what the original nook was able to offer. The crossword puzzle app is fun and works delightfully well, with the clues at the top of the screen, the grid in the middle, and the virtual keyboard below. If you’re good enough to go from clue to clue, in order, you’ll find previous and next word keys under the keyboard, and if you’re not that good, there’s a hint button too.NOOKcolor

Contacts is where you’ll enter your friends for access to the NOOKcolor’s social features, such as sharing favorite passages and lending books to others with the LendMe feature. It isn’t a full-featured contacts app, all you will be able to store is first and last name plus an email address. You can link your Google account if you would like to import your contacts, or you can use the built-in web browser to access your contacts online if they’re already stored in an online service like Google or another site. I would like to see some improvement to this feature in a future firmware update, either by adding more specific fields such as phone number and address or even a simple notes field where you can enter the information you may need when you’re on the go.

The Photo Gallery is what you’ll use to look at all of the images on your device, from JPG/BMP/GIF/PNG files imported from your computer to book covers and the wallpapers that B&N includes with the device, plus the NOOKcolor tutorial video. You can play MP4 videos from within the gallery or within the My Files section of the Library. I’m not sure why all of the book covers show up in the gallery; I suspect that this is a mistake instead of an intentional choice, because they really clutter up the space and make it hard to find my personal photos–especially if you want to use the slideshow feature. Tap on a photo to enter detail view, where you can crop or rotate each photo, or delete it from your gallery. You can also set a photo as your wallpaper if you’d like to add a personal touch to your device.

LendMe shows up in the extras section in a slightly different way than in the Library section of the device. Here you get a list of friends who have LendMe books available, or you can choose to see a list of books instead. Tap the settings icon in the top right corner of the display to allow your friends to see your list of lendable books; it’s off by default so you have to opt in if you want to share. You are then presented with a list of all the lendable books in your library; you can choose to show or hide each one individually, which is great for keeping those guilty little pleasures secret. Your friends don’t have to know every single thing you read, and I appreciate the care B&N has taken to protect privacy and let each reader decide what they want to share with the world, instead of offering an all-or-nothing approach.

If you see a book you want to read on the list of lendable books from your friends, tap it to send a request to borrow it. Your friend then has seven days to respond to the request, and if granted, you’ll have 14 days to read the book before it goes back to your friend’s library.

The music player and Pandora are great options for those who want to listen to music while they read, or who appreciate having this extra feature on the NOOKcolor because they don’t have an iPod or smartphone that plays music. MP3 and AAC audio are supported in the music player, and you can sort by song, artist, or album. If the files are formatted properly, you’ll get to see full color album artwork, which is a nice touch. You can’t create actual playlists on the device, but you can manually sort and reorder your music so that it will play in the order you want, unless you want to play by album.

NOOKcolorPandora internet radio works great; as soon as I looked in, it picked the first station on my list and started playing. It works just like the web version, with thumbs up and down and the bookmark feature, plus pause and skip. I can browse my existing stations and add more. The full color album art is large and looks great on screen. The only frustration I have with Pandora is that once you log out, you have to enter your email address and password to access the app again, it doesn’t remember your login information. That seems a little strange since the NOOKcolor is designed to be a single user device, and there isn’t any real need for the extra security when you want to listen to Internet radio.

Whether using the built-in music player or Pandora, I can listen to music in the background while I’m reading a book. If it’s Pandora, a single tap on the notification icon at the bottom left corner of the screen will tell me the artist and the song of the title that is currently playing. That feature doesn’t work if you’re using the standard music player, but then again you probably know since you loaded the music onto the device.

The sound quality on the external speaker is quite good, and plenty loud. The speaker won’t win any awards or blow you away, but considering that this is an extra feature on an eBook reader, I’m quite pleased. For private listening you can use headphones, which does provide a higher quality listening experience as well.

Web

This menu option obviously launches the built-in Internet browser, which is surprisingly good. Keep in mind that the NOOKcolor has Wi-fi but not 3G wireless, so you’ll need access to a hotspot in order to use the web features of the device. I suspect this is to keep the price of the device as low as possible while also minimizing the effect on battery life. Since Wi-Fi is also faster, it has the benefit of ensuring a good browsing experience.

I had no problem at all connecting to my home Wi-Fi network or to the corporate network at work, and had fun surfing the web using my eBook reader. The experience was definitely better than that offered by the Amazon Kindle, which is understandable–of course an LCD screen is going to be faster and more responsive than eInk. The NOOKcolor wouldn’t be my device of choice if I had a laptop or iPad at hand, but I was still pleasantly surprised. Even complicated pages with lots of graphics and ads load quickly, in just a few seconds.

The experience is similar to what you might have on a smartphone, but of course the larger screen does make for more enjoyable browsing. This is especially true of landscape mode, which happens automatically when you rotate the device. Though there is no pinch and zoom feature, there is a small plus/minus control at the bottom of the screen you can use to make the text larger or smaller. There is also a bookmark feature, with several already defined for you, such as the B&N book review and book clubs discussion groups. You can have several windows open at once and switch between them if you like, which is great if you want to keep GMail open in the background while you’re surfing other sites.

Settings

There’s a lot of information and choice here, but it is neatly organized for you. Device info includes the battery charge level and amount of free space available, as well as microSD card capacity. If you want to erase your device and deregister it, you can do that here. The wireless menu is where you turn Wi-Fi on and off, and you can also see a list of available networks plus stored networks, such as your home or office.

The Screen menu is where you’ll find the orientation lock, screen brightness control, and timeout options. Sounds is where you can mute the device if you like, and adjust the media and notication volumes. Ime allows you to choose the 24-hour time format and your time zone. You can set an unlock passcode on the security menu, and choose whether you want to require it to wake up the device. The keyboard menu is where you’ll turn on or off key sounds when you type, auto-capitalization, and word correction.

The App Settings menu on the lower part of the screen is where you’ll go to set wallpaper, choose whether or not to require your B&N account password to purchase books and how you want to configure the search utility. The Social menu is the place to link your Facebook, Twitter, and Google accounts in order to enable the social features of the NOOKcolor, from sharing favorite passages with friends to importing your Google contacts in order to make use of the LendMe feature.

Everything here is self-explanatory, with the most-used settings available from the quick menu at the bottom right corner of the screen at all times.

Battery Life

When I first heard about the NOOKcolor, the first thing I was concerned about is battery life. The great strength of eInk screens is that they can last for two or three weeks without a charge, so I was worried that the NOOKcolor, with the rather paltry estimated battery life of eight hours, would be a severe disappointment. I’m very happy to report that my fears were unfounded. Even with Wi-Fi left on all the time, I can go several days before having to recharge the device. The battery meter at the bottom of the screen hardly seems to drop, even though I use the NOOKcolor quite heavily every single day.

Part of that may be the fact that I prefer to turn the screen brightness down to the lesser end of the spectrum, which certainly helps to conserve battery life. But even at higher brightness levels, the battery doesn’t drain very fast at all. I certainly woudn’t try to travel without the AC adapter, but I believe it’s safe to say that you can easily go for two or three day weekend excursions and not have to worry about running out of power. The results will be even better if you choose to turn off wireless networking.

The microUSB cable included with the NOOKcolor has a small logo on the charger plug that lights up when it is plugged in. If it is orange, the device is still charging; green and you’re good to go. The included AC adapter is a little large, but it does have folding prongs so it’s easy to pack.


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