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First impressions of a low-tier tablet, plus why I don’t shop at Best Buy

I received my Nook Color this week. I haven’t hacked it yet–I only just got an SDHC card for that, which is a story in itself–but to my pleasant surprise, I’m not certain everyone would need to. Yes, it’s marketed as an e-reader, but what I took out of the box is a viable entry-level tablet. It certainly wants you to read books on it, but aside from the e-reader, it also has a music player and a web browser. Out of the box, it does the basic things people buy tablets for.

I’ll hack mine, because supposedly it’s easy and virtually nothing can go wrong, and I like having maximum control over my devices. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It’s on the sluggish side, as one might expect from an 800 MHz, single-core processor. It’s on the low end of usable, but it’s usable. I’m not sure I’d be happy with it for the list price of $199, but at 40% off, I’m content with it. There are 800 MHz discount-store tablets available for considerably less than that, but I think the Nook Color is worth the price difference. It has better hacker support, and the screen is first-rate.

I really didn’t think I’d like reading off the screen, because I don’t like reading great lengths off even most LCD screens. I don’t know exactly what Barnes & Noble did, but I find reading off the Nook Color’s screen almost as easy as reading off paper. Not quite. But it’s close. It feels like what I expected e-ink to feel like. And, unlike a laptop or desktop LCD, you can reposition it just as easily as a book, if not more so. When reading a book laying down, I find myself sometimes wanting to reposition myself based on whether I’m reading a page on the right or the left. I don’t find that with a tablet.

And one of the reasons I wanted a tablet was to be able to read old Google-digitized books on toymaking. To my pleasant surprise, the Nook Store has tons of those books, including some I’d never stumbled across on Google Books. And they read nicely on the Nook Color, stock, just like any other Nook content. Some of the OCR is garbled, but that’s true when reading them on a PDF viewer on a PC, too.

I’m hoping I can get it hacked sometime this week, because some of the hacked ROMs claim better performance by trimming down the kernel to save memory, along with better battery life by undervolting the CPU. I’m all over that.

Buying an SDHC card at Best Buy

I live close enough to a Best Buy store to throw rocks at it, and I had three gift cards from bringing old CRT monitors in for recycling. I’ve been trying to figure out for more than a year how to spend them. Searching their web site, the best deal I could find on an SDHC card was an 8 GB PNY card for $18. Even more frightening, all the reviews on that card said it was a great deal when it was on sale for less than $20. Where do these people comparison shop? Tiffany’s? I could get a 16 GB card at Micro Center for $17, but that’s a 30-minute drive, and then I’m spending real money. So I talked myself into going over to the local Best Buy.

The store is really a shadow of what it once was, maybe because the monster stores were designed to accommodate unfathomable quantities of CRT televisions and monitors. But still, it seemed like the store had less in it than it had when all the Best Buy stores were half the size. In spite of all that, the place was crowded.

I walked over to the camera section, where I couldn’t find the card. The best I could find was an 8 GB PNY card for $30, and it wasn’t even a Class 10 card. There was no way I was going to do that. I walked around to the other side, and still, all I could find were insanely overpriced 8 and 16 GB cards. So I wandered into the computer section, where I found an odd selection of computer RAM. I don’t know who would want a 512 MB stick of vanilla DDR RAM, let alone be willing to pay $30 for it, but those of you who do (both of you) will find an ample supply of them at my local Best Buy. I wandered over to the tablet/e-reader section, where I found a lot of overpriced cases and screen film and a B&N-branded 2 GB memory card priced at $315.99. I wish I’d snapped a picture. In the phone section, I again found a lot of cases and headphones and even microphones, but no memory.

So I whipped out my smartphone just to see if I was imagining things. I made sure the phone was on 4G, as Best Buy has a reputation for displaying a different web site in the store than outside the store, and I found my $18 card. A couple of blue-shirted employees scurried past me as I tried to find the card on their mobile site and the theme from Chariots of Fire played in the background. Finally, I found my card, and I wasn’t imagining things. I wandered over to the 8 GB PNY card I’d found earlier, convinced I’d have to ask an employee to price-match. But before I did that, I compared the SKU–my experience working at this particular establishment as a wide-eyed teenager finally paid off for something–and found a mismatch.

So I fumbled around Best Buy’s mobile web site–the only thing I’ve found that’s worse to use than Best Buy’s full-size site–and managed to enter my zip code to check inventory. Yes, the store claimed to have it. So I chased down a blue shirt.

“Sir,” I panted. “Can you tell me where to find this card?”

He looked at my phone’ s screen. “I think that’s in the mobile department.”

I’d looked there, but I humored him. Back I went, and, indeed, down at ankle-level in a dark corner, I found a couple of cards. One of them was my coveted 8 GB card.

Checking out turned out to be a quest, too.

I plunked down the card and my three gift cards on the counter. Attempts to read the cards caused random database errors to flash on either the PIN pad or the register’s monitor, but all succumbed to the fourth or fifth attempt to enter them. In the end, I had an overpriced SDHC card in my possession and had relieved my wallet of two gift cards. The third ended up with a balance of $2.50. If they ever have a DVD on sale that my sons want, that might cover the sales tax.

I made eye contact with the security guy at the front door. “Get it all straightened out?” he asked. I nodded, but he didn’t know the half of it.

The clock on the radio indicated I’d been in the store for 38 minutes. Dare I say I can probably root and flash my Nook Color’s ROM in less time than that?

The next time I go back, which might not be until 2014, I think I’ll load the item up on my smartphone ahead of time, then ask the guy at the door where to find it as I walk in. Yes, you can order online and pick it up at customer service, but I heard that takes 45 minutes.

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