Android lovers: Don't overlook Nook

Among the multitude of Android tablets that have been released, or are about to be this year, the Nook Color has managed to achieve impressive sales and spark a cult following. (Since its release in November 2010, it has reportedly sold 3 million units.)

The Nook Color is marketed by the bricks-'n'-mortar Barnes & Noble bookstore chain as an e-reader. This is despite the fact that it features several tablet attributes, including Web browsing. It runs on a customized version of Android 2.2 ("Froyo").

Several companies are vying for a piece of the Android tablet market this year. Yet, as audacious as this sounds, here are six reasons why the Nook Color is already the best Android tablet you can buy now... and 3 things that B&N should add to the next version. (Watch a slideshow version of this story.)

Video: Closer look at the color Nook from Barnes & Noble]

1. It's easy on the eyes.

For reading text, we prefer the black-on-white E Ink display technology (which is used on the Kindle and other e-readers). When it comes to color displays, (E Ink is presently unavailable in color) the Nook Color's 7-inch screen with a resolution of 1024-by-600 is bright and easy on the eyes. This is probably because the device was designed to function foremost as an e-reader. It's also sufficiently viewable outdoors in indirect sunlight.

2. It's Flash-y.

Yes, this is still a big issue. Despite the success of the iPad, Flash remains the top feature that people want in their mobile Internet gadgets, and the Nook Color delivers. The recent Froyo update to the Nook Color switched on Flash video capability, so now you can surf right over to YouTube for your fill of the latest viral videos. We found Flash performs generally well enough to watch videos in 360p or 480p resolution settings.

3. It's fashionably thin.

The Nook Color is less than half an inch thick. Most of the other Android tablets from the well-known electronics manufacturers are 0.5 inches or slightly thicker. The Nook Color weighs a little under a pound, and its dimensions are 5 inches by 8.1 inches. This falls somewhere between the standard sizes of a paperback book and comic book. So holding the Nook Color in your hands has a familiar shape and weight to that of dead tree-based media.

In the case of tablets, a large screen is not necessarily always better. Sometimes, we find that holding an iPad or one of the Android tablets with 10.1-inch screens more akin to cradling a notebook screen that's been chopped off from the rest of the computer. Which is to say it can feel awkward.

4. It lasts a long time.

On a full charge, the Nook Color runs for 8 hours. To compare with other Android tablets with 7-inch screens, the Dell Streak 7 lasts about 3.5 hours, the Samsung Galaxy Tab goes for over 6 hours, and the HTC Flyer can crank along for at least 8 hours.

5. It can be hacked.

A developer figured out how to hack the Nook Color in order to install Honeycomb on it. Step-by-step instructions and downloads of the Honeycomb OS customized for the Nook Color are readily available for Nook Color owners to unofficially update their e-readers to use them as tablets. The result is that Honeycomb runs surprisingly well and fast enough to do most tablet tasks on the Nook Color.

6. It's a cheap date.

So far, most Android tablets have failed to match the iPad in price. (The basic WiFi-only iPad sells for $499.) When Motorola launched the Xoom, the very first tablet running the Honeycomb version of Android, they sold it for $599 and, unsurprisingly, sales figures were disappointing. Things have become recently more competitive in the price of Android tablets with Asus releasing the entry-level version of their tablet, the Eee Pad Transformer TF101, for $399.

But the Nook Color can be had for just $250. (And you can get it for $25 less if you buy a refurbished one.) Although its 7-inch screen is smaller compared to the aforementioned Android tablets (both of which are 10.1 inches) and it doesn't run Honeycomb (the latest, more tablet-friendly version of Android), even a decent Android tablet with a 7-inch screen, like Dell's Streak 7 or Samsung's Galaxy Tab, starts at $400.

3 things that could make the Nook Color an even better Android tablet

Although there is little to no reason for Barnes & Noble to add features that are typically found in a tablet (such as GPS or a camera), since the Nook Color is primarily meant to be an e-reader, there are a few things we'd like to see in the next version of their almost-tablet.

1. 3G hookup.

This will increase the price and tie a version of the Nook Color to a particular carrier or carriers, but it's become increasingly necessary for mobile computing devices to have 3G for use at least as a back-up to access the Internet when there is no available WiFi.

2. Faster processor.

The current version of the Nook Color uses an ARM Cortex-A8 running at 800 MHz. It's safe to assume that the next Nook Color will use a faster chip. We're hoping for one that is dual-core, which would make it closer to the specs of the newest Android tablets and more capable of playing larger resolution video and at a higher frame rate.

3. Streaming video and music.

It would be convenient to be able to listen to streaming music or watch streaming movies and TV shows, with access to these integrated into the overall Nook Color UI like the way e-book and app buying/downloading are. This probably depends on whether Barnes & Noble deems it worthwhile and profitable enough for them to license the rights to sell or rent these media through the Nook store.

Read more about anti-malware in Network World's Anti-malware section.

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