How To Turn Your NOOK Color Into An Android Tablet

NOOK Color

 Barnes & Noble

Many people don't realize this, but beneath the hood, the NOOK Color is actually an Android tablet. That's right, a variation of the Android Operating System that powers millions of smartphones and tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Barnes & Noble developed a custom version of Android 2.1 to power its popular e-reader and when you think about it, at $249, it's a real deal when it comes to Android tablets. It may not have the same high-performance processor as the Galaxy Tab, but it has a high-quality display and the hardware is quite capable, especially considering it's half the price of full-fledged tablets. But in its default state, the NOOK Color is hobbled; great e-reader, but very limited apps.

While Barnes & Noble is talking up an upcoming Android 2.2 upgrade for the NOOK Color, including an App Store, some of us are growing impatient. It's possible to upgrade your NOOK Color to run the Honeycomb version of Android, one that's been optimized for tablets instead of smartphones. The good news is that the heavy lifting has already been done and upgrading a NOOK Color to run Honeycomb or other Android versions is relatively simple to do. Better yet, using the technique outlined below, turning your NOOK Color into a fully functional Android tablet is not only relatively straightforward, but it can be done without voiding your warranty.

External Dual Boot: No Need to Root

Rooting an Android device like a NOOK Color means that you are giving yourself root level access to the operating system; in other words, you gain administrative levels of accessibility (the highest level of permissions) including the ability to change elements that have been locked down and to access low-level system files and directories. You may have heard the term 'jailbreaking' used with an iPhone and rooting your NOOK Color is essentially the same idea. Once you have rooted an Android device, you have complete control of the device.

Needless to say, having root level access has its risks. If you don't know what you are doing, it's all too easy to delete an important file or change a setting that disables your device. Manufacturers warn against rooting their devices because it changes the intended functionality, can cause support nightmares and may end in bigger problems. The outcome can be a 'bricked' device that no longer functions. Rooting your NOOK Color can void its warranty and we wouldn't recommend you do that.

But there is another option that doesn't require touching your default configuration; in fact, you don't install anything on your NOOk Color. You need to be moderately comfortable in using your computer's disk tools, but by no means do you need to be a hacker. So long as you can run a disk imaging utility (and enter a few lines into the OSX Terminal if you're a Mac user), you'll be fine.

The NOOK Color has a MicroSD card slot and installing a bootable, virtual image of Honeycomb (or another Android flavor, if preferred) on a MicroSD card is now a possibility. Going this route gives you the option of booting your NOOK Color into Honeycomb without touching the default Operating System installed on the device and without voiding your warranty. You'll need a Mac or Windows PC in order to create the Honeycomb boot image and a MicroSD card you're willing to erase (the memory card requires 4GB or more of storage must be at least a Class 4 card in terms of read/write speed). The steps to creating the Honeycomb bootable MicroSD card are as follows:

  1. Mount the memory card on your computer.

  2. Download a copy of a virtual image of your Android flavor of choice. You'll have to Google this one (since many of these images are based on Developers' preview versions of Android builds, locations change frequently).

  3. Unzip the disk image.

  4. Write the Android disk image to the SD card.

  5. Unmount the memory card from your computer.

  6. Power down your NOOK Color.

  7. Insert the MicroSD Card into your NOOK Color.

  8. Power on the NOOK Color.

If everything worked properly, your NOOK Color will boot into the Android version you chose, making it a fully functional Android tablet. Not bad for twenty minutes worth of work. All of your setting changes, downloads, and modification from this point will take place on that memory card, keeping the NOOK Color's onboard storage pristine. This is where the MicroSD card selection will have an impact on your experience. Because everything is running off of that memory card (instead of internal memory), the read/write speed and capacity of the card will have an impact on performance: Class 4 is about as slow as you can get away with and Class 6 or 10 should make the experience speedier. Likewise, 4GB doesn't give you a whole ton of room for the OS itself and apps, so if you intend to make extensive use of your NOOK Color's newfound capabilities, you might want to consider a higher capacity memory card.

The best part of the dual boot method is that when you're ready to go back to your stock NOOK Color, all you have to do is power the device down, remove the MicroSD card and power back up again. Voila, back to NOOK Color.