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Posted at 02:58 PM ET, 03/28/2011

Barnes & Noble software update to convert NookColor to full-function Android tablet

Barnes & Noble’s NookColor will become more than just an e-book reader in a few weeks. The bookseller will follow in the footsteps of hackers who quickly tweaked its $249 tablet to run the full version of Google’s Android operating system by releasing its own, free update in mid-April that does the same.

If the New York firm can pull this off without yielding a slow, compromised tablet that can’t keep up with the Angry Birds game, it will go a long way toward giving Apple’s iPad some tougher competition. Its initial incarnation suggested such a possibility but was cut off from the existing universe of Android apps — leaving it more of an e-reader that had been taught to browse the Web and play Web radio.
Barnes and Noble’s Nook Color in its initial form.

B&N chose to break this news in an unusual medium: a segment on the HSN channel, teased Thursday night. Local tech blogger Dave Zatz recorded the pitch that aired on the cable shopping channel Saturday morning and posted a clip to his blog. In it, HSN’s giddy hosts rave about the upcoming software update — though the details, such as its inclusion of last year’s Android 2.2 release, may not warrant such enthusiasm.

Barnes & Noble vaguely confirmed the news in a release Friday that said: “A major update to the device’s firmware will offer customers access to explore exciting new applications, email and many other requested features.”

To the larger universe of potential tablet buyers, the NookColor’s Android version number may matter less than its current $249 price. (The HSN ad mentions a $504 “retail value” that doesn’t correspond to any reality-based price I know, then notes that the channel was selling it for “just” $299.90. I don’t know where that’s coming from, either, unless HSN has put a much higher value on a bundled microSD Card than I would.)

Meanwhile, Motorola’s Xoom tablet runs a better, tablet-optimized version of Android but is overpriced compared with the iPad, even in its just-shipped, $599 WiFi-only version. T-Mobile’s upcoming LG G-Slate, $529.99 with a two-year contract, repeats Motorola’s first pricing mistakes. And this 4G-enabled tablet, which I had a chance to inspect this morning, verges on self-parody by including not one but two back cameras — so you can record 3-D videos. (I await the arrival of a tablet with two front cameras for 3-D videoconferencing.)

The iPad, by contrast, just tries to be a computer accessible to anyone. For a testimonial to that, please read Technologizer blogger David Worthington’s interview with his mother about her experience using an iPad as her first computer. The only major usability failure seems to have been having to force-quit stuck applications, a less-than-intuitive process on Apple’s mobile devices. As his mom observes: “The e-mail is fine. I haven’t had a problem with that, but it’s the Facebook one that freezes all the time.”

A NookColor transformed into a regulation Android tablet might not top that ease of use. But it will easily beat Apple on price, making it a Toyota to Apple’s Mercedes (as ZDNet’s Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols observed Sunday). And since it runs the cloud-based Android instead of Apple’s computer-tethered iOS, it could also serve as somebody’s sole Internet-access device. Would you put such a thing on your shopping list?

By  |  02:58 PM ET, 03/28/2011

Categories:  Tablets

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