I came very close to saying Barnes & Noble's Nook Color was the surprise deal of the season. Very close. But I can't say that. For three reasons.
But first, how did I come close? Because, for $250, the Nook Color is a beautiful product. It has a gorgeous LCD screen, a slim, sturdy body, a few distinctive design flourishes. Its rich book and magazine platform works well, and the handful of "extras" make you forget that though it runs the Android mobile OS, it doesn't have access to the 100,000 or so apps in Google's Market. It even plays video — very well.
When it comes to the books race, Barnes & Noble appears to be catching up with Amazon.com. It's harder and harder to "stump" either of them with a search, unless that search is for my favorite Scottish crime novelist, Christopher ("not found") Brookmyre. To put it simply, if you have an interest in switching to e-books, and you choose either Nook or Kindle, you will find plenty to read.
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Overall, the Nook Color appeared to give the Android-powered Galaxy Tab a run for its money, despite being cheaper and far less featured. As a full-color tablet, it made more sense than the original Nook as a competitor to Amazon's drab but functional e-ink Kindle. And at half the price of an iPad, the Nook Color might have occupied a safe niche, either as a poor man's iPad or as a rich man's second tablet.
But alas, it was not to be.
Reason No. 1: Color content, its claim to fame, feels cramped
Every day I read three children's picture books with my daughter at bed time. Those books are huge. Seriously, our favorite book of the moment is printed on pages that could almost giftwrap an iPad. So when I see Richard Scarry's "Colors," or a beautifully illustrated Rudyard Kipling's "Elephant's Child," cramped into that 7-inch screen, I get a little sad for them. And no, we're not about to pinch to zoom, even though you can. The iPad's screen is twice as large, and if I ever switched from real paper to digital books for my kids' nighttime ritual, we'll need at least that size, if not bigger.
Magazines are the other part of the Nook Color pitch. And I will admit I was impressed at how nice the December 2010 Consumer Reports looked, as I pored over thoughtful reviews of already out-of-date smart phones and tablets. It looked nice, but I had to squint to read the words. There's a very nice "Article View" feature, one that pops up the individual article in a magazine-style column, and lets you read to the end unhindered. Swipe across and you get the next article, and so on. Barnes & Noble built it themselves, and will provide it consistently across all titles, regardless of publisher. It's neat, but it completely does away with the point of a magazine layout, something B&N is so clearly trying to preserve.
Next year, the third big color item, cookbooks, will start appearing in Nook editions with video. It's a wonderful thing, and no doubt a strong selling point, if it weren't for the fact that video cookbooks from major brands are already appearing as reasonably priced iPad apps.
Reason No. 2: Video support isn't there … yet
In a 7-inch tablet, the combination of reading and video is key. A $250 books-'n-movies device would trump the iPad, because it's smaller and cheaper, and I wouldn't have to fight with my kid over who gets to hold it on trips. The Galaxy Tab's finest moments were in pursuit of literature and cinema, but if I'm spending as much or more on an Android tablet than I would for an iPad, I'm also gonna need those awesome iPad apps, and they're not coming.
So here it was, the Nook Color's chance to grab the brass ring. But when I tried to encode any and all video to make it play on the thing, it flat out refused. For all I know, it's just a firmware update away from being a very agreeable video player, but unless you have some kind of advanced degree in comp sci, you probably won't be able to turn your movies into watchable Nook-compatible videos.
Reason No. 3: Have I mentioned the iPad?
See, the beauty of the iPad is that Barnes & Noble and Amazon (and others) have embraced it as a platform for their e-book sales. I own books on both services, and can jump from one to the next with a tap. Because of that, I can happily own an e-ink-based Kindle or Nook, and know that I'll be able to read the stuff I buy on them too. It's even an unspoken understanding that Barnes & Noble will bring its Nook Color content to the iPad app, though when is unknown. Barnes & Noble has been great about supporting the iPad, which is, ironically, why it's so hard to fall for the Nook Color.
The cost of a Nook Color is indeed impressive. The nearest iPad is $500, while the Wi-Fi only Galaxy Tab is rumored to cost that as well. The carrier tablets are $400 plus sign your life away for two years. If you go that route, their real total cost of ownership is actually closer to $1,200. All of this makes the Nook Color sound like a total value play. But $250 ain't beans.
Alex Johnson, a colleague of mine, put it best when he said, "I would assume that anyone with a disposable $250 to spend on the Nook would probably have $500 to spend on an iPad." And if all you had in the world was $250, well, how are you gonna afford all those nice $10-and-up books anyway?
It may grow into something more powerful. Barnes & Noble promises to open a marketplace of vetted Android apps, aka Nook extras, both free and for sale. If a Netflix or Hulu Plus came along, that would be a minor miracle, and it would make it a must-have product. Even something more mundane, like YouTube, would push Nook Color up the ladder a few rungs. The Nook Color's price certainly won't go up — if anything, it would go down — so that added functionality would just amp up the value.
For now, it's a cute gadget with a fairly singular purpose, stuck in a competition between cheaper, more ascetic devices like the Kindle, and richer, showier ones like the iPad. It reminds me of the latest iPod Nano — it's something enjoyable to have in the hand, but it's ultimately a little pointless.
Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman. Especially if you know how to train Handbrake to rip ODSM and/or SDSM MP4 files! (Don't worry, he doesn't understand what that means either.)