With the news that the Barnes and Noble NookColor has been hacked to run the latest Android release, you might be looking at the cheap price tag and wondering if the device would make a cheap tablet--once all that e-book nonsense has been wiped off, of course.
What's not to like? For business users at least, there are a number of important caveats.
Limited Screen Size
The NookColor's screen resolution is 200 pixels smaller than that of the iPad, although it matches the Galaxy Tab. Its 7-inch screen size is also about the same as that of the Galaxy Tab, although the iPad is a giant by comparison at just under 10 inches.
Apple's adamant that any tablet smaller than its iPad is unusable, with Steve Jobs quipping last year that 7-inch screens are useless "unless your tablet also includes sandpaper, so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one-quarter of their present size." Apple spends plenty of time considering usability, so it's hard to argue with them.
When used as an e-book reader, the small screen size isn't an issue for the NookColor. But it becomes a major factor when used as a tablet. A smaller screen size might be fine for occasional browsing and viewing movies (that is, for home use), but for business a larger-size screen is going to win out each time. Can you imagine editing a presentation or creating a document on something little larger than a paperback book?
The NookColor has an 800MHz processor, while both the Galaxy Tab and the iPad feature 1GHz chips. That's a 20 percent difference in speed, and tablets really need that extra speed to serve as masters-of-all-trades.
ARM-based processors typically used in tablets scale down their speed to match conditions, but using the NookColor as a tablet and browsing the Web or watching movies is going to keep that processor spinning as fast as it can go. And that leads us to perhaps the most significant issue: battery life.
Bye, Bye Battery
Barnes & Noble says you'll get eight hours out of the built-in battery reading books, which is already pretty short, and that's with wireless turned off. With wireless turned on and frequent Internet access (especially if the base station signal isn't too strong), you'll be looking at a lot less time.
Yes, you can carry around the charger, and covertly leech off the coffee shop's electricity, but that's not what tablet computing is about. You're supposed to be able to go for a day or more without charging. Apple boasts 10 hours of surfing using Wi-Fi on the iPad, and the iPad 2 will almost certainly improve on this.
No Camera or Microphone
Forget about video conferencing, which is one of the nascent areas of tablet computing. There's no camera on either side of the unit, and no microphone, so even Voice over IP (VoIP) is out of the question.
There's no GPS either, unlike the iPad or Tab, meaning you also can't use the NookColor as a navigation system.
At the End of the Day It's a Hack
I've hacked hardware in the past, usually to push a device beyond the limits imposed by manufacturers. It isn't sunshine and lollipops.
I realized that using hacked hardware means being part of a community. You have to keep an eye on forum postings to see what's going on. Something as important as a fix for otherwise non-functional hardware could be buried in a forum posting 2000 messages long.
Often things like performance tweaks that make all the difference get buried this way too.
Anybody who tells you that making the NookColor into a fully-capable Android tablet is just a matter of installing new firmware is either misinformed, or lying. Hacking hardware takes effort. If you buy NookColors for a fleet of employees, that's even more effort.
And that's assuming you can understand all the techie stuff usually required to jailbreak devices. With Android phones and tablets there's usually a lot of Linux command-line work, and those writing the instructions have an annoying habit of assuming everybody understands exactly what they're talking about.
Additionally, Barnes & Noble isn't going to like it if you return a faulty unit with its entire operating system overwritten with a custom version. Sure, you can reflash the unit to the default OS, but it's broken, remember? How are you going to restore the original firmware if it won't even boot up?
Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas.