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As I mentioned in an earlier post, I bought a Nook Color as a birthday gift for Mrs. Gadget Guy. She's a reader, so for that reason alone the Nook Color was a good choice, especially since she didn't want something as large as an iPad. The new 1.5 update for the Nook Color came out recently and it adds tons of functionality to the device, with an email client, better web browser and a limited selection of apps. Most things work very well but we had some problems with a few things. Using Facebook through the web browser would cause freezing of the device after a few minutes of use, and the only way to fix the problem was to reboot. A Facebook app is not yet available for the Nook Color, nor is there one for Words with Friends. Those are two apps Mrs. Gadget Guy really wanted to use, so I set out to find a better solution.

Probably the easiest thing would have been to "root" the Nook, erasing the stock Nook interface and converting it to a full Android tablet. Many people have done this successfully, although some have had problems and have "bricked" their Nooks. Rooting a Nook could void your warranty, and that wasn't a risk I wanted to take with a brand new device. Also, Mrs. Gadget Guy liked the basic Nook interface and wanted to be able to use it when she was just reading books. So I moved on to the next possible solution, dual-booting the Nook using a microSD card.

The advantage of using a dual boot system is that you don't actually change the internals of the Nook. By loading the Android OS on a microSD card and booting from it, you can use the Nook Color as a full Android tablet when you desire and read books too using the Android Nook app. And when you want to use the stock Nook interface you just turn off the Nook, pop out the card and turn it back on. It's the best of both worlds.

Since Android is an open-source platform there are lots of smart people out there doing incredible things with the Android software. After researching for several days I settled on a procedure called the CyanogenMod. The CyanogenMod is a customized firmware solution for many Android smartphones and tablets. Specialized firmware files are available for various devices, making it easy flash your device to enable features that may not be available with your stock firmware.

My intent was to install the CyanogenMod on a bootable microSD card though, so first I had to prepare the card. I bought a Lexar 8GB Class 6 card on for $24. The card came with a nice USB microSD card reader, making it very easy for me to access the card on my Mac. First, I downloaded an image file of a blank, bootable Android microSD card. Then using the instructions on this site, I used the Terminal utility to copy the image file to the microSD card. Windows instructions with a link to a utiity for writing the image file to the card are also included on the same site. With a bootable card created, I was now ready to add the CyanogenMod Android Gingerbread firmware file and Google apps file before trying to boot from the card.

You need to download the latest CyanogenMod firmware file for the Nook Color and to add the Google apps, including the Android Market app, you need to download the gapps (Google apps) file too. These will both be .zip files and you do not unzip them. Just drag the files onto the bootable card created in the earlier steps and you're done. Eject the card from your Mac or PC.

With all the above steps completed, it's time to put the card to the test. Now shut down your Nook Color. THIS IS AN IMPORTANT STEP. Make sure it's off and not just asleep, then insert the microSD card in the slot on the Nook, which is under the gray Nook flap on the back, in the lower, right corner. With the card inserted, power up the Nook and wait. Eventually you will see a Linux penguin in the upper right corner of the screen and then a bunch of terminal code will start scrolling on the screen. This is the OS being built on the card from the firmware file and it may take awhile to complete. When it's done, you will see the CyanogenMod boot screen and then will be prompted to set up your Nook Color using a new or existing GMail address. Sweet!

How well does it work? Unbelievably well! The Nook Color uses internal flash memory anyway, so running the Android OS off a card really doesn't slow things down much, if at all. There is full access to most apps, but the Nook Color does have limitations. It's not a phone, so you can't make calls or send SMS messages. You can, however, set up Google Voice to send text messages using your Google Voice number. The Nook also doesn't have a GPS, so mapping apps like Google Maps will approximate your location based on your WiFi network connection.

So far we've loaded the full array of Google apps including Maps, GMail, Voice and Places. One main goal was to get the Android Facebook and Words with Friends apps loaded (although Mrs. Gadget Guy doesn't like the ads in Words with Friends) and they're both up and running well. Angry Birds? Not a problem. The Nook is completely stable and it actually seems faster than when it was running as a stock Nook Color with the 1.5 update. Battery life is still excellent, YouTube movies play smoothly and with the latest announcement about streaming movies in the Android Market, the Nook Color is now a lot more than just a book reader.

I used to have a 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab and in many ways this modded Nook Color is every bit as good for half the price. The warranty is still intact and it can be switched back to a stock Nook in minutes with no warranty issues. This makes it the best value in an Android tablet so far, and for many who have been on the fence about taking the tablet plunge, it may time to get off.

Posted by Gadget Guy at 12:22:39 pm on May 12, 2011