Looking for a good, cheap Android tablet? Lots of folks recommend grabbing a Barnes & Noble Color Nook and then rooting it to make an Android tablet. Is it worth it? Depends on what you expect from a tablet computer.
The Color Nook is a nice little piece of hardware for the price. The screen is crisp and clear, and it’s a great size for carrying around for reading books and light Web browsing. But you can do all that right out of the box — what about when you’ve rooted the Nook?
I decided to go the “Auto Nooter” option to root the Nook so I could install third-party applications, rather than installing a different Android release. The procedure to root the Nook is simple enough. It looks much more complicated on paper (so to speak) than it actually is. So if you’re finding the long list of steps intimidating, don’t worry — it’s a piece of cake. You can root your Nook in about 20 minutes, as long as you have a MicroSD card big enough handy.
After rooting, you can settle in and start installing apps and such. The Auto Nooter gives you a couple of apps that appear in the Extras screen already — plus the Soft Keys app to emulate the hardware buttons that the Nook doesn’t have, like the back arrow and Home key.
So far, I’ve installed Firefox, the Kindle app for Android, Angry Birds Rio, and the Amazon App Store, plus a few other assorted goodies.
The verdict? You get what you pay for, maybe a little more with the Nook. Let’s start with performance.
The Nook has a fairly slow processor for a tablet. It’s fine for reading books on the Kindle or Barnes & Noble app. It’s OK for browsing the Web with the built-in browser if you’re not a heavy Web user. I found it comparable to browsing the Web on my iPhone or Nexus One, but far slower than the first-generation iPad. Naturally, it’s much slower than using a laptop or desktop — even my aging ThinkPad runs circles around it. So I’d give it a B- as a browser.
I haven’t run into any serious bugs when trying to run applications like Angry Birds Rio. If you want a cheap tablet to play Angry Birds and a few other low-end video games for Android and read a few books — run, do not walk, to the nearest Barnes & Noble.
One of the things I love and hate about the Nook is the form factor. It’s a heavy little sucker for a tiny tablet. Let’s say “solid,” though. Don’t let the weight dissuade you from buying one.
The screen size and resolution are good for bursty use. I have found after having the iPad for a year that my enthusiasm for reading books on a multifunction device with a bright screen has waned considerably. In short, if you really plan to spend a lot of time reading books that don’t require high-res color pictures, then do yourself a favor and invest in a black and white Nook or Kindle.
One note about the screen size and a rooted Nook — mobile videos from YouTube and other places look funky and pixelated a lot of the time. What I think is going on here is that the Nook is getting video meant for phones, and would look just fine on smaller screens but not so much here. I also tried a few videos I’d ripped using Handbrake for the iPad, and they look pretty good on the Nook. Playing movies may not require rooting the Nook, by the way, but it’s a nice feature for a tablet this size. I found the sound from the Nook to be better than expected — good enough for watching a movie on the road, if you’re in a spot where headphones aren’t required.
The biggest problem I’ve had with the Nook is that I feel like I need a stylus or something for precise touch input. This is especially and mostly true when browsing the Web. If links on a page are close together it often takes more than one try to hit the right one even. This may be partially a symptom of having larger hands.
Input is my biggest complaint with the Nook Color. Since the NC wasn’t designed to be used as a tablet, you don’t have any options for Bluetooth keyboards or anything like that. The on-screen keyboard is OK, but not great. If you want a tablet for taking notes or doing anything of that sort, then the Nook isn’t worth fussing with.
Note that the Nook is, of course, missing other hardware that you might (or might not) want in a tablet. No GPS, camera, or microphone.
That the Nook Color can run Android apps or a full Cyanogen Mod release is a good thing, but not enough to provide serious competition to the iPad. If you have low standards for a tablet, then the Nook Color is fine. It’s a Hyundai to Apple’s Cadillac, though. For a few light games and Web browsing, it’s great. For a full-fledged tablet, it’s not quite there. But it is a far better alternative right now to the Xoom and other full-priced tablets if you just want a few apps.
The Nook Color also gives me some hope for Android competing with iOS — though I’m still a bit soured on Android with Google taking the Fauxpen Source route with Honeycomb. With Amazon getting into the game with its application market, I doubt an Android-based Kindle tablet can be far behind. I suspect that the Nook Color 2 will also be a much better tablet than the first iteration. Look for much better Android tablets in the near future that fuse media and application stores the way that Apple has done on iOS. Buckle up, it’s going to be an interesting ride. Now I’m going to go back to playing Angry Birds Rio for a bit…
Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier
is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier has written for Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many other publications. You can reach Zonker at
firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter