07/01/2012 (press release: N2A) // Scottsdale, AZ, USA // Dave Vinzant
The Barnes & Noble Nook Color and Nook Tablet is already so much more than an ebook reader. As it has a Web browser, email client, and lots of other games and apps, B&N is right to call it a “reader’s tablet.” But reading isn’t all the Nook Color can do. Plunk in an N2A card and the Nook Color becomes a full-fledged Android 2.3 “Gingerbread” device, capable of running more than 200,000 apps. The N2A card is incredibly easy to use, comes with some useful apps installed, and removing Android is as simple as rebooting your Nook Color. If you own a Nook Color, or are thinking about buying a tablet, the Nook Color/N2A combination is a hard one to beat.
There are three different cards available from N2A: 8GB ($34.99), 16GB ($49.99), and 32GB ($79.99). I’d recommend going with one of the two higher storage capacities; because this card takes over your Nook Color’s microSD slot, it’s the only extra storage you’ll be able to use. Yes, you can install Android on a Nook Color yourself and not face this limitation, but what you’re paying for here is the painless, plug-and-play experience: Just insert the card and then turn on your Nook Color.
Each time you start your Nook Color you’ll be greeted by a setup screen that lets you decide whether you want to boot into the standard OS (which is based on Android, but looks nothing like it), or into full Android. Just choose from the oddly named options (“eemc” means the Nook OS, and “sd” means Android), and you’re on your way.
The Android you’ll see running when the Nook Color boots—it takes several minutes the first time, but is much faster after that—is a heavily modified version of Gingerbread known as CyanogenMod. It is among the most popular custom Android builds; it’s available for a huge number of phones and tablets as well.
CyanogenMod adds a bunch of interface tweaks to Android 2.3, to make it better suited for both a seven-inch screen (because Gingerbread is a phone OS, it has some oddities at such a large scale) and for the Nook Color specifically—the Nook Color has only one hardware button, so more have to be built into the software. CyanogenMod adds to the bottom of every screen an Android 3.0 “Honeycomb”–like bar with Home, Menu, and Back buttons, along with a quick shortcut to the Android notifications window. All notifications and information live at the bottom of the screen instead of the top, where they normally reside on Android 2.3.
There are a number of apps already installed when you first boot the Nook Color into Android; most are welcome additions, others not so much, but unlike on most devices you can remove any and all of them. The reader’s biggest advantage becomes immediately clear when you see that your Nook Color now has not only a Nook app, but also a Kindle app, as well as a couple of additional bookstore and reading apps. There are also plenty of other apps installed, including Pandora, TuneIn Radio, Words with Friends, Dropbox, Angry Birds, Facebook, ESPN ScoreCenter, and the Dolphin browser. All the Google apps—Gmail, YouTube, and others—are present, as is the Android Market, which gives you access to all of the 200,000-plus Android apps. There’s also a shortcut to Hulu, which the modified Nook Color lets you play via the browser as long as you don’t update the Flash player.
Not everything is perfect, however. The biggest problem I encountered was with the Android Market: For some reason, when I first tried to download or update apps, the Nook Color would start downloads but never finish or install them. Fortunately, N2A has easy tutorials on its website for fixing that issue and most other common ones (including every one I ran into). In five minutes, I was back to downloading all the Android apps I could find. That’s not an excuse for not being able to download Android apps out of the box, but it’s at least a problem with an easy-to-find solution.
As far as pure tablet-y performance, the Nook Color seemed, anecdotally, to perform significantly better running Android than running the Nook OS. Apps launched responsively, pages turned quickly and easily while reading in the Nook and Kindle apps, and Web browsing was as responsive as it is on most Android tablets. But our benchmarks told a slightly different story: The Nook Color/N2A combination was slower than Honeycomb tablets, as it lacks both their faster processors and Honeycomb’s browser speed improvements. The Nook Color’s hardware, graphics, and browser performance were all inferior to what we’ve seen on other Android tablets we’ve tested, more in line with phones like the HTC EVO Shift 4G (4 stars) than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 ($499.99, 3.5 stars). The seven-inch Acer Iconia Tab A100 ($329.99, 4 stars) also scored much better in nearly every test, which isn’t surprising given its superior dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor (there’s an 800MHz Texas Instruments Cortex-A8 processor inside the Nook Color). This is no powerhouse, but it worked well during my testing.
If you already own a Nook Color or a Nook Tablet, I can’t recommend the N2A cards highly enough. They add a universe of apps and functionality to the device, but don’t tack on a huge price tag or make any permanent changes. You can have your “reader’s” tablet and a tablet’s tablet, all in one place. Ready to supercharge your Nook Color or Nook Tablet?
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