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Turn the NOOK Color Into a $270 iPad Alternative

NOOK color
[This is a guest post by Eric Bubar, an Assistant Professor of Physics in the Department of Biology and Natural Sciences at Marymount University in Arlington Virginia. He can be reached through twitter (@ebubar) or on Facebook. He is a fan of technology and wishes he could afford to purchase all the new gizmos and gadgets, but alas must be content with hacking his cheaper devices to make them do what he wants!--@jbj]

Tablets seem to be taking off with the advent of the iPad. Currently, there are a plethora of pinatas tablets available, ranging from Apple’s iPad, to the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the Motorola Xoom. As a newly minted assistant professor at Marymount University, I’m both young and poor. Presumably as I grow older (and wiser?) I can outgrow the former. My choice of an academic career, however, probably precludes a chance of remedying the latter. As such I expect that I will need to become resourceful regarding use of new technologies in my classes and in my life.

The thought of using an iPad to store PowerPoint lectures and gradebooks, and just generally to organize my life, all in a nice compact form factor, is attractive. Coupled with all the unique tablet apps (I’m looking at you Dropbox–thanks ProfHacker), I could easily organize all my materials for ease of access whenever and wherever I wanted. Smartphones are much too small (and outdated-I only get 3G’s!) for such purposes and a laptop is bulky and difficult to use in the tight confines of public transportation. A tablet would be PERFECT, but they’re out of my price range. A reasonably decent system runs about $500. I can’t just eat ramen noodles for a month to save the money. I’m no longer a student and need to stop living like one!

Along comes the NOOK Color from Barnes and Noble. Here’s how I made the $250 NOOK Color perfect for me (and perhaps for my poor academic brethren)!

The key is that the NOOK Color runs on Android. Some folks over at http://www.xda-developers.com/ (a group of smartphone/tablet enthusiasts) took at look at the NOOK Color’s hardware. They found a 7” form-factor with a vibrant screen (comparable to higher end tablets), 8 GB of internal memory with expandable microSD card storage that was running a modified version of Android. Respectable specs!

Most importantly, however, the NOOK Color is apparently designed so that it first boots from the microSD card. This means that you can root/jailbreak the device, and turn it into something even more useful. (Of course, you’ll void your warranty . . . !)

The xda folks have made rooting the NOOK Color fairly painless. You will install a modified version of the Android Operating System (Android 2.3-Gingerbread), something called CyanogenMod 7. This is a popular firmware hack on Android smartphones and some clever people over there figured out how to fiddle with it to put tablet-style softkeys (i.e. Home, Search, Back buttons typically found on Android devices) on the Nook Color version of CM7 (referred to as “Tablet Tweaks”).

With easy to follow instructions (see links below) any reasonably proficient computer user can install this Tablet-tweaked version of Android onto a microSD card, insert it into their NOOK Color and have a fully functioning Android Tablet with access to the Android Market. Imagine the equivalent of a 7” Samsung Galaxy Tab, albeit without the GPS or camera, for a price of $250 – a good deal in my humble opinion.

I have done this to my own NOOK Color and the functionality is remarkable. For around half the price of an iPad, I can do everything I want. Dropbox app? Check. PowerPoint viewer? Check. Spreadsheet application? Check. Calendar widgets? Check. PDF reader? Check. Adobe Flash? Check. Fantastic web browser? Check (Dolphin HD). My digital life comes with me everywhere I go now, all in a handy 7” form factor (I’ve heard the iPad is a bit too big for this kind of portability). I can read students’ digital assignments wherever I am (without getting eye-strain from squinting at a tiny smartphone screen). I can enter grades on the go. I can sync it all into Dropbox when I’m around wifi for ease of file transfer or just connect to my mac or pc through the included USB charger cord and the NOOK pops up the same as any old USB Flash Drive (does anyone remember those?).

Of course, there are a few tradeoffs/caveats. Internet is wifi only, so no G’s on the NOOK Color. Bluetooth accessories will work with some effort and any day now those clever xda’ers will have USB attachments enabled, or so they say. Best of all, I can play some Angry Birds or Plants Versus Zombies when nobody’s looking. And I did it all for around $270 ($250 Nook Color and $20 microSD card) without having to switch my wardrobe to skinny jeans and black turtlenecks!

Here are the instructions:

Here’s a screenshot from my NOOK after the process:

Modified NOOK screenshot

Click for full-size

Note: There are many options for running different operating systems (Android 2.2, Android 3.1). I prefer the CM7 microSD Card option as it maintains your warranty (just eject the microSD card and you’re back to a stock NOOK Color) and appears to be the most versatile.

If interest abounds, you can read more about the other options here or here.

For questions/help comment below or try me on Facebook (Eric Bubar) and twitter (@ebubar). Happy hacking!

Photo by Flickr user sam_churchill / Creative Commons licensed

 
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