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Quick Thoughts On the New Nook Color Firmware Update

About two weeks ago, Barnes & Noble released the first major Nook Color firmware update to minor fanfare, which included an app store and various other improvements.

The update was four months late, first scheduled for January, and those four months, frankly, didn’t help much. I’ve spent the past couple weeks tooling around with the new Nook Color, and while there are definite improvements, nothing has really changed. If you want to root it, you’ll still want to (and here’s how). If you’re not interested in the Nook Color, you still won’t be. And if you were mildly frustrated by its wasted potential (like me), you’ll still be frustrated.

It’s a great device and a great deal—especially compared to the oversized iPad and the overpriced every-Android-tablet-out-there. It’s still great fun to use, it still does movies, it still does books and magazines and Pandora. But, it could be so much more.

When the Nook Color came out, I wrote a post about what I’d like to see in it, or what I thought it had the potential to be. This firmware update addresses some of those issues, but not nearly enough of them; I’ll break it all down in bullet points, after the break.

  • Angry birds? Yes, and they are glorious. Seriously, the game plays smoothly and the screen size is ideal. The problem is that Angry Birds is one of only about a half dozen games in the Nook Color app store. This is a common theme: while B&N has thrown open the doors to its private app store, the crowd hasn’t yet arrived. Getting the full Android app store is the main benefit of rooting.
  • So what about other apps? There are a few there, emphasis on “few.” Still no Instapaper, Evernote, etc. But there is a note-taking app. Time will tell, but at the pace B&N is going, the Nook Color will be easy to outpace in this department.
  • Smoothed edges? The rough spots in the Nook’s interface have been improved, but not eliminated. Syncing between Nook Color and various Nook apps is improved, as is the onscreen keyboard, and the newspapers and magazines have improved navigation.
  • “Interactive” books and magazines? B&N’s firmware-update press release mentioned both of these things. They don’t exist, as far as I can tell. A particular annoyance is that you can’t shop by features—for instance, you can’t browse interactive cookbooks. For the record, Barnes & Noble, this is what we talk about when we talk about “interactive” books. Being able to zoom in on magazine pictures doesn’t count as “interactivity.”
  • Email? Sure, it’s there and it’s not bad. Wi-Fi only, of course, but that’s what you paid for.
  • Comic books? Yes! Well, kind of. There are some out there, about a dozen titles, collected in sets of four to six issues. They’re released as apps by Graphic.ly and iVerse, which means it’s fairly obnoxious to find them and impossible to browse through the entire offering. Still, the available titles are intriguing: they include Irredeemable, one of Aaron’s comic book picks, and Mouse Guard 1152, which Sean didn’t hate. There should be more of these.
  • Content interacting? (E.g. reading an article about a band and being able to buy and listen to the band’s music right on the device.) Not a sign of this, not that I was really expecting it. Whoever shucks this oyster will get rich.
  • A way to share articles? Nope.
  • Tons of content? No, and this is the one that really kills me. There aren’t enough apps and aren’t enough comic books. Possibly this will be improved in the coming weeks and months, like it was somewhat improved in the magazine and newspaper departments after the Nook Color’s initial release. The hardware is plenty good, and the firmware is fine—the primary thing it needs is more content.
  • Flash-enabled internet? It’s pretty cool, and it’s great for surfing. I would love a Hulu and/or Netflix app, though.

So, B&N have made strides in certain departments, but show no signs of awareness in several areas that would make this thing awesome. Again, it is what it was when it came out: a great handheld device for readers, with some pretty cool perks. It is not the be-all, end-all of ereaders, and probably never will be.

I would’ve called this update promising if it had happened on schedule, four months ago. That time is telling: it means the total number of device manufacturers fully committed to digital reading is… zero. Apple’s moving backwards, the Kindle just got page numbers (?!), and Kobo picked the wrong horse to cart behind. Barnes & Noble doesn’t seem to care as much as they should, they’re certainly not delivering on their promises, or the promise of their device.

So this is anybody’s race to win. As of now, the Nook Color still has a comfortable lead.

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