When Barnes & Noble Inc. released its $249 Nook Color last year, it took hackers all of about 15 minutes to crack its e-reader facade and convert it into a low-cost tablet computer.
Now Barnes & Noble has followed suit, releasing a major software upgrade that adds functionality and further blurs the line between the two categories. While no replacement for a full-on tablet, it may prove an acceptable substitute for those with lightweight needs and slender wallets.
The Nook Color, which works only over a Wi-Fi connection, features a bright 7-inch screen. At 5 inches wide and just under half an inch thick, it slides into a jacket pocket and weighs a little less than a pound.
As an e-reader, it’s particularly good for viewing material with photographs or color illustrations, such as cookbooks, kid’s books and magazines, all of which look far better here than they do on Amazon.com Inc.’s Kindle.
What makes the Nook irresistible to hackers and hobbyists is that it runs Android, the Google Inc. operating system for mobile devices. This isn’t “Honeycomb,” the special version designed for tablets, which is used on devices such as Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc.’s Xoom and has yet to attract large numbers of developers to write applications for it.
Rather, it’s the software that was originally designed for mobile phones, which has attracted a selection of apps second only to Apple Inc.’s iDevices.
The initial Nook Color came with a few apps pre-installed, including a Web browser, Pandora Internet Radio and a chess game. There was no easy way to add more -- Barnes & Noble barred access to the Android Market store. It still does, but Barnes & Noble has built in a few new apps and introduced its own, curated store for adding still more.
The software upgrade, delivered free over the air to existing users, updates the Nook’s version of Android from 2.1, known as “Eclair,” to 2.2, known as “FroYo.” (Google has this thing about desserts.) It also adds an e-mail client and the ability to view videos and animations created using Adobe Systems Inc.’s Flash, which Steve Jobs has famously banished from Apple’s iPads and iPhones.
I found the e-mail client to be basic but serviceable. You can have up to six accounts on the Nook, with the option of a combined inbox to give to give you a single window for your messages. I was able to retrieve messages from Yahoo, Gmail and Comcast accounts without difficulty, even listening to messages mailed to me by Google Voice.
The software doesn’t work with Microsoft Corp.’s Exchange Server for corporate mail, though you can try downloading NitroDesk’s TouchDown app from the Nook’s app store. You’ll also need to turn to the app store for a calendar; none is included with the update. All told, Barnes & Noble has so far approved about 150 Android apps for its store.
The video capabilities are hit or miss. Despite the Nook’s support for Flash, some YouTube clips wouldn’t play; a spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble says such cases are “isolated instances,” and that it is working on a fix.
You can theoretically watch movies on the Nook, but will have to figure out how to do it yourself. There’s no Netflix app in the Nook store, for instance, and no place akin to Apple’s iTunes Store for easily acquiring content.
The Nook’s hardware limitations provide other potential impediments. The small storage capacity -- 8 gigabytes -- isn’t a problem for books, which don’t take up much space. But you’ll probably want to utilize the Nook’s expansion slot for a microSD memory card if you intend to store a bunch of movies and songs.
I got less than the claimed eight hours of battery life when I kept the Wi-Fi turned on and adjusted the screen to a brighter, and for me more comfortable, level than the default setting.
While “Angry Birds” played smoothly, the device sometimes felt sluggish as its single-core, 800 MHz Texas Instruments Inc. processor labored under the demands of navigating or launching applications.
In upgrading the Nook, Barnes & Noble hasn’t abandoned its e-reader roots. A new “Nook Friends” app makes it easier to lend and borrow books, and a selection of children’s books have been re-imagined as interactive apps. Even as it edges more into tablet territory, the company says it will choose apps for its store based on whether they complement the reading experience.
Anyone who wants or needs a tablet isn’t likely to be satisfied with the Nook Color for too long. The more you use it, the more apparent its functionality and performance issues become. But readers who just want to occasionally check e-mail or surf the Web without pulling out another device -- or shelling out twice as much for the cheapest iPad -- should find the upgraded Nook Color a handy companion.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)