Book lovers nowadays fall into one of two camps: They either eschew e-readers altogether, preferring the look and feel of print books; or they dive wholeheartedly into e-books, instantly downloading and racing through more titles by the handfuls. If you count yourself in the latter category, you’re in luck.
Starting this week, Barnes & Noble will ship its $249 Nook Color (nookcolor.com), a luxury model in the e-reader world currently dominated by the $139 monochrome Amazon.com Kindle. While the original Nook offered a gray-scale reading screen and a thin, color touch strip for browsing the bookstore, this model is one big color touch screen. It connects to the Web using only Wi-Fi and costs $100 more than last year’s comparable Wi-Fi Nook, but a Barnes & Noble spokeswoman said that preorders online and in stores are far exceeding company expectations, with over twice as many as for last year’s Nook.
I’ve been testing the Nook Color over the past week and I like its book-size build and stylish design. Its user interface is inviting and its digital bookstore is redesigned to make shopping for books enjoyable. Nook Color is aimed at people who are primarily focused on reading but crave the iPad’s color and some of its versatility.
Like the Kindle, the Nook Color has a Web browser and some apps but no dedicated email program or way to access an app store. A spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble says a full email program and app store are expected early next year.
The Nook Color is unapologetically focused on reading. It accesses Barnes & Noble’s library of two million downloadable books and over 100 magazines and newspapers (fewer were available during my pre-release testing). The reader has a feature called ArticleView that displays magazine articles in a clear, readable format. You can highlight passages from books and then share them with friends through Facebook, Twitter or a limited, in-book email system. A LendMe feature gives users an easy way to digitally lend their books to friends for 14 days. And for kids, there’s a feature where popular stories are read aloud by people rather than a computer voice.
The Nook Color is more than just a bright, color screen: It’s built on the Android 2.1 operating system—the same mobile OS used to run many smartphones. This gives the device access to a full Web browser for tasks like reading favorite sites or checking Facebook, which I did easily. Early next year Nook Color will upgrade to Android 2.2, allowing it to play Flash videos.
The Nook Color
Eight apps found in a section called Extras come loaded on the device including apps for Pandora Internet Radio, chess and Sudoku. I logged into my Pandora account, quickly retrieved my saved list of stations and played a QuickMix of music. I was able to work on a crossword puzzle or read a book or magazine on the Nook Color while still listening to Rihanna on the music app. Quickoffice software for Word, Excel and PowerPoint comes built into the Nook Color so users can view—but not edit—documents in these programs if they’re loaded onto the device with a MicroSD card. Until the Nook Color’s app store launches early next year, there’s no way to download free or paid apps.
Navigating around the Nook Color is a cinch. A tiny “n” just below the screen returns you to the home screen, which can be customized with photos loaded via a MicroSD card. The Daily Shelf is a dedicated horizontal section at the bottom of the home screen that updates whenever possible with new versions of newspapers (daily), magazines (weekly or monthly, if you subscribe) or books lent to you by friends. Anything on the Daily Shelf can be dragged out onto the home screen, placed anywhere and resized by pinching two fingers out or together. A Quick Nav button displays the Nook Color’s six sections: Library, Shop, Search, Extras, Web and Settings. A helpful “Keep Reading” prompt at the top of the home screen shows the last thing you were reading; selecting it sends you to right where you left off.
Nook Color weighs just under a pound, or twice as much as the Kindle but still a half-pound lighter than Apple’s larger iPad. It felt a bit heavy in my hands as I read from it for a long period of time, but I solved that by leaning it against a desk or pillow.
While reading Stacy Schiff’s “Cleopatra: A Life,” I found a particularly interesting tidbit about first-century B.C. marriage contracts requiring wives to vow not to add love potions to their husbands’ food or drink. I highlighted this passage by tapping once on the screen and dragging highlighter handles around it, and then sent it to friends via email with a built-in shortcut for sharing through email, Facebook or Twitter. I selected another passage and posted it on my Facebook wall for friends to read. All these posts had links to buy books from Barnes & Noble.
I really enjoyed reading magazines on the Nook Color because these appeared much as they do in print. Brightly colored pages appeared one at a time when I held the device vertically, or two pages at a time in horizontal view. Magazines can be bought per issue or via subscriptions; a single current issue of House Beautiful was $4.50 or $1.99 with a subscription. The Quick Nav button works in magazines, too, so you can flick a finger right or left to skip ahead to specific sections or articles.
If you love reading and want to share your books with friends or reading updates with social networks, the Nook Color has you covered. It will also give you a taste of tablet computing with functions like browsing the Web, using some apps and eventually, full emailing. Just remember that Nook Color is laser-focused on e-reading.
A correction was made to this column on 11/17/2010 to reflect that Quickoffice is not owned by Microsoft.
Edited by Walter S. Mossberg