Nook Color's New Software Makes It the Netbook of Tablets

I've been trying the 1.2 Nook Color software upgrade that gives Barnes & Noble's e-reader access to third-party apps, as well as adding e-mail, Flash, and other features. (The update must be sideloaded at the moment, but it's a pretty easy install-you download it to a computer, then drag it onto the Nook over USB.)

Some initial impressions:

  • Angry Birds is $2.99, with no ad-supported or lite version, but...it works! Which proves that the Nook Color is a viable game platform, although I suspect that heavy-duty 3D gaming is beyond its capabilities.
  • There's some other good stuff among the Nook Apps, including the Pulse newsreader and My6Sense (although the latter's Facebook integration didn't work for me).
  • When you're in most third-party apps, the Nook displays onscreen buttons that let you pull up a menu and go back, replicating features provided by hardware buttons on Android phones.
  • As I explored the apps, I was left itching for a number of specific apps that weren't there to make their way to the Nook Color-the official Twitter Android app, for instance, Evernote, and Google Maps or a reasonable facsimile thereof. (The Nook doesn't have GPS, but mapping would still be useful.) The Nook doesn't need thousands of programs for Nook Apps to live up to its potential, but it does need a quorum.
  • The e-mail app is basic, but not bad; it supports multiple accounts and does full-text searching, and you get alerts of incoming e-mail when you're elsewhere on the Nook.
  • When you launch the Web browser, it recommends that you set it to use mobile mode. That gets you the same optimized versions of sites such as Gmail and Google Calendar that you'd get on an Android phone or iPhone. But it also gets the phone versions of sites such as the Facebook, NYTimes.com, and TIME.com even though they're really designed for phone screens and the browser is capable of doing a competent (albeit somewhat slow) job with the full desktop versions. (You can switch back and forth as you move from site to site.)
  • The Shop section lets you browse through apps easily enough, but the search feature only seems to search for the start of product names, not subsequent characters or text in the descriptions. (I searched for "calendar" and got no results, even though there's an app called Flik Calendar.) Also, if there's a way to search only apps, not books and magazines as well, I haven't figured it out.
  • Flash Player on the Nook-as with Flash Player on every mobile device I've tried it with-is a mess. YouTube worked some of the the time; other times I got a message that the video couldn't be played. Amazon Watch Instantly and TIME.com video played at ultra-slow frame rates that made them look like slideshows. Bejeweled Blitz was choppy rather than fluid. Even when stuff worked, the visuals were blocky. Bottom line: Why bother?

Overall, the Nook Color's books and magazines remain its main attraction. As for everything else...well, except for Flash, it adds up to a nice package of bonuses that makes the Nook a more attractive deal and differentiates it even more from the Kindle.

Should you buy a Nook Color instead of an iPad? Not if you want to do lots of stuff that goes way beyond reading and your budget will let you spend $500 on a tablet. But the small, affordable, and basic Nook does have a niche to itself among tablets from major companies. If the iPad is the MacBook Air of tablets, think of the Nook as a respectable netbook.

It also proves that the notion of a tablet that's mostly but not completely about reading is intriguing and worthy of further exploration. A "Nook Pro" that sold for a bit more money-say, $329-but had beefier components that could do heavy-duty tasks such as video better might make sense. And if the rumors about an Amazon tablet are true-and they feel like they make sense-it'll be fascinating to see how it compares to the Nook.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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