A Little Nookie by Mark Stone

October 2011. Its been almost a year since I picked up a Nook Color, and from the beginning the temptation has been there: "I'm not just an eReader, I'm a tablet. Root me, ROM me, and I'll show you a good time." This week I finally gave in to temptation, and installed the ever-popular Cyanogen Mod. After two days of flirtation and fun, I'm back on the straight and narrow with my stock Nook Color. But I've learned some interesting lessons along the way.

First, some perspective on the tablet market. While I understand the appeal of tablets as lightweight computing devices oriented towards media consumption, and I understand how they give the lie to the whole netbook concept, I do not understand the price point. I gather that iPads run $500 and up, and Android tablets with reasonable hardware seem to run from $400 - $600. This is just ridiculous; for that price, I can get a very decent laptop (in fact we have two laptops in that price range that are the computing mainstay of our household). So there's clearly a role for tablets to play, but the price point has got to come way down. Attention tablet makers: when you cross the $300 line, you've gone seriously astray.

Second, some perspective on tablet limitations. Clearly companies like Apple and Amazon want to box us in as media consumers, and not content creators. That's the only reason that a device without a keyboard has any appeal at all. And of course we all spend significant time in "media consumer" mode. But I already have a device dedicated to media consumption; its called a TV. If I'm going to spend money comparable to what a TV costs, given that I already have a TV, it had better be versatile in ways beyond media consumption. As someone who spends a fair amount of time in content creation, I want a device that (a) can have a keyboard attached to it, but (b) doesn't have to have a keyboard shackled to it. For those of you who think visually:

This is the kind of vehicle I drive:

Occaisionally attached to this:

But I would never drive this:

Finally, some perspective on open vs. closed platforms. I have spent the bulk of my professional life promoting open source in one fashion or another, and so the "walled gardens" that Apple, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble (among many others) are trying to create just strike me as wrong. First, its a personal affront; on my device, I should be able to install what I want. Second, its a poor business decision; vendor lock-in is so 1990s. Case in point, Epicurious, which is a free app on the Android Market, but a paid app on the Barnes and Noble Market. I don't mind paying for apps; I mind being shaken down after spending money for the privilege. Make no mistake; this is the battle royale that we customers are in the midst of right now: do we own our computing platforms and use them as we please, or do we license our consumption appliances and pay as we go?

By the way, I don't think its PC makers who should be scared of the tablet. Its TV makers who should be scared. Americans own about 2.8 TVs per household (a ridiculous number, if you ask me), but, after years of steady increase, that number has pretty much flatlined the last 5 years. And I predict it will start declining, as tablets running Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime begin to substitute for TV sets. Americans own about .75 PCs per household, and while that number probably won't increase much, I don't expect it to decline. The PC is necessary for whatever content creation households perform above 420 characters per item, and necessary for whatever activities households engage in that involves actual computation (like balancing a check book).

All of which brings me, at last, to the Nook Color. There's a lot to like about the Nook Color. Its a great eReader, and since it uses ePub rather than a proprietary format (see paragraph above about open vs. closed platforms), I can load it up with books from a variety of sources, some free, some paid, besides the B&N online store. The fact that its color also means that its an excellent platform for magazines, and handles kids books very well. The latter is especially important when you have a 5 year old in the house. Further, the Nook Color is an aspiring tablet, not just an eReader. It supports a decent web browser, and a modest B&N app store. I've added several games (including the obligatory "Angry Birds", a nice rendition of "Ms PacMan"), and some kids applications. "Drawing Pad" is a really great kids app. Barnes and Noble recently cut a deal with Showtime, meaning the Nook Color is now the only device in the household that allows me to watch current episodes of "Weeds".

However, the restricted app market has irked me, and there are some hardware capabilities that the stock Nook Color doesn't let you access. I'm specifically interested in turning on USB hosting and attaching a small keyboard to the Nook so that I have the option of doing some real content creation on it when the mood suits me. I'd also like to have several of the basic computing utility apps on I have on my phone also on the Nook: sftp and ssh capability being near the top of the list, as well as a decent file manager. Some of the social networking apps, like the Google+ app, ought to benefit from the increased screen real estate on the Nook as well. So I decided to take the plunge, and turn my Nook into a real tablet.

There are basically two general approaches to taking control of and customizing your Android device:

  • Gaining root access to the device, or
  • Installing a custom ROM on the device (which also gets you root access)

Rooting the Nook Color has the advantage of leaving all the current applications intact, but enabling you to install general Android applications once you track down and install the Android Market app. That didn't really meet my needs, because I wanted access to the hardware capabilities as well. So I opted to go with a custom ROM, specifically a recent nightly build of Cyanogen. This left me with another dilemma. I gained a more current version of the Android OS along with root priveleges, better performance courtesy of Cyanogen, full access to the Nook's hardware, and access to the Android Market. That's all great. But I lost access to all of the B&N apps. Not a big deal where "Angry Birds" and "Drawing Pad" are concerned, since the same or comparable apps exist "in the wild". And the loss of "Showtime" is somewhat compensated for by gaining the "Netflix" app (although performance isn't great). And there is a Nook Reader app for Android.

But: the Nook Reader app does not support all the books/magazines that the Nook Color supports. Specifically, it does not support:

  • Full color magazines
  • Color children's books
  • "Read to me" children's books with a built-in audio track

There is simply no way at present to regain those capabilities under the Cyanogen mod. And for me -- more specifically for my family -- that's a show stopper. I really enjoy being able to subscribe to magazines without back issues creating paper clutter to be dealt with in the house. And whenever we travel I love having an extensive selection of kids books, with all those full color pictures, in as compact a package as the Nook. Having the Nook "read" to our five year old while he's sitting in the back seat is also really nice. In the end those are benefits I'm simply not willing to give up.

So I wiped Cyanogen, reinstalled stock Nook Color from backup, and I've come full circle. At this point I would still love to have a tablet, but my requirements are:

  • It has to have the Android Market app on it
  • It has to support attaching a USB keyboard to it
  • It has to cost less than $300 (and still have reasonably responsive hardware)

I'm curious to see what the arrival of the Kindle Fire does to the price point for Android tablets, particularly when we get to post-Christmas sales. I'm hoping a number of decent but low end Android tablets will dip below $300 at that point. But oddly enough, if that does not happen, my best bet is to buy a second Nook Color specifically for the purpose of putting Cyanogen on it. I may do just that.

A few technical notes on rooting/ROMing the Nook Color:

First of all, finding authoritative information on how to do this proved very difficult. I've read through easily a dozen different articles or blog posts that all describe the process, none of which quite agree with each other. And some sources, which you'd expect to be authoritative (like the Cyanogen Wiki) are badly out of date. So if you plan to go down this route, expect to spend some time doing your homework before you start tampering with your hardware.

Second, make sure you have the right hardware at hand. You'll need:

  • A micro SD card, recommended to be at least 2 gigabytes
  • A micro SD adapter, that fits a micro SD card into a normal sized SD card "housing"
  • An SD card reader on your computer, or a USB SD card adapter

Third, it helps to keep in mind the general architectural principles that enable all of this to work. The key thing is that the Nook Color follows a set boot sequence whereby it looks for a bootable SD card first before attempting to boot off of internal storage. Thus taking control of the device is fairly simple if you create a boot SD card with a bootable environment on it that lets you issue the key commands you need. The environment of choice in the Android world is called "Clockwork Recovery", a very bare bones operating system (Linux folks can think "grub" for comparison) that lets you:

  • Back up your existing ROM and data
  • Manage partitions on your device and SD card
  • Delete data
  • Flash a new ROM to your device
  • Flash an update to the ROM on your device
  • Move a zip file of application updates onto your device for it to install

So the process is basically:

  • With your Nook Color powered off, insert a bootable Clockwork Recovery SD card with the ROM for Cyanogen Mod and the Android Market app on it
  • Turn on the Nook Color and thus boot into Clockwork Recovery
  • Back up your Nook Color ROM, applications, user settings, and data
  • Wipe data from your Nook Color
  • Install the new ROM and the Android Market app
  • Remove the Clockwork Recovery SD card
  • Reboot the Nook Color and boot into your newly installed Cyanogen Mod installation

My Nook Color booted into Clockwork Recovery:

Finally a few of the links that I found useful:

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