A little over a week ago, I wondered whether the world needed tablets that were significantly less costly and significantly less fancy than the iPad and its most prominent rivals. A couple of commenters said that such a beast already existed: Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color e-reader. They had a point. At $249, B&N’s Android-based tablet is half the price of the cheapest iPad. Its 7″ color screen and industrial design are quite nice, but it doesn’t have a 1-GHz dual-core processor or cameras or gobs of storage (it has a merely adequate 8GB) or 3G or other features which are becoming de facto accouterments on higher-end models.
Of course, Barnes & Noble has never pitched the Nook Color as an iPad killer. It calls it a “reader’s tablet,” and it gave the device a modified version of Android that doesn’t have the standard Android interface or access to the Android Marketplace. It’s Amazon.com’s cheaper, E-Ink-sporting Kindle that’s been in B&N’s crosshairs.
But when the company released the Nook Color last year, it did say it was working on an app marketplace of its own–a move that would make the Nook Color a little less of a dedicated e-reader and a little more of a general-purpose device. (Already, some geeky buyers had rooted their Nooks to turn them into standard Android tablets.) Today, B&N is launching that marketplace–which is a new section in the shopping area where it already sells books and magazines–as part of the Nook Color’s version 1.2 upgrade. And while it’s sticking with the “reader’s tablet” idea and saying it’ll focus on reading materials and complementary items, it’s also saying that it’s listened to consumers who think that a $249 Nook Color has a place as an alternative to pricier, more powerful tablets.
Barnes & Noble gave me a demo of the new software last week. It’s making it available starting today at www.nookcolor.com/update; you can download it to a Windows PC or Mac and then transfer it to the Nook Color. The company plans to push it out as an over-the-air update directly to Nook Colors themselves over Wi-Fi starting next week.
The new “Nook Apps” feature is launching with 125 programs, including–first things first–Angry Birds, as well as the Pulse newsreader, MyCast Weather, a painting program called Drawing Pad, and Uno. There’s a decided emphasis on reading: other apps are based on Dr. Seuss books, Epicurious, and Lonely Planet Phrasebooks. Some programs are free, and B&N says around half are $2.99 or less.
The company plans to add more apps at a steady pace, though it won’t approve everything and says it wants to preserve the emphasis on word-oriented activities; the Nook Color’s version of Android is now based on version 2.2 Froyo, and B&N says that developers should be able to make most programs that work with Froyo work on the Nook Color without much trouble. (Normally, at this point I’d complain about this device being stuck with the aging Froyo rather than Android 3.0 Honeycomb, but that seems beside the point: the Nook Color sports its own reading-centric user interface and wouldn’t look like a Honeycomb tablet even if Honeycomb was in there.)
Beyond Nook Apps, there’s quite a bit more in the 1.2 upgrade that both rounds out the tablet’s capabilities and improves the reading experience, including:
An e-mail client. It supports multiple POP3 and Webmail clients, but not Exchange (B&N says that’s in the works).
Rich-media books. Some titles now incorporate video (similar to a feature Amazon rolled into its iPhone and iPad Kindle apps last year). Children’s books already had a read-to-me feature in some cases; now some titles include interactivity, such as animations that are triggered when you tap on the illustrations.
Nook Friends. This expansion of the Lend Me feature turns it into a social network that allows Nook users to share books, reviews, and notes.
Improved browsing. Barnes & Noble says that the Web browser–a weak spot in the original Nook Color software–is now faster, with better gesture support and the ability to switch between mobile and full versions of sites. It also supports Flash Player 10.1, which didn’t crash during the demo I saw. (Yes, I know that’s the most lukewarm endorsement possible, but I’m not going to judge Flash until I’ve tried it–and if it works well it’ll be a very pleasant surprise.)
B&N says that over two million books and 150 magazines and newspapers are available on the Nook Color. Magazines are in a full-color form that provides the print layouts along with a Readability-like text view.
I’ve only seen the new Nookcolor software in demos by a Barnes & Noble employee, not given it a hands-on test myself. (I hope to do that today.) I hope it’s more polished than the tablet’s original, rough-around-the-edges software. And it’s not clear just how big and how good the supply of Nook Apps will get. (Will it have a thousand apps people will care about someday? Ten thousand?)
But with its low price and bookish focus, the Nookcolor is already something that the Motorola Xoom and BlackBerry PlayBook aren’t: an iPad alternative with a coherent, fully-baked answer to the question “Why would I buy this instead of an iPad?” It’s also less like its leading e-reader competitor, Amazon’s Kindle, than ever–I suspect that most folks who compare the minimalist, monochrome, battery-sipping $139 Kindle to the more complex, versatile, power-hungry, and colorful $249 Nook will immediately gravitate towards one over the other.