iPad Dream at Realistic Price: the $250 Android tablet

UPDATE: The Kindle Fire, at $199, appears to offer a very similar interface as the tablet described below, and it doesn’t require any hacking. It’s set to be released November 15, 2011.

iPads have already been heralded as the personal computers of the future. (With the rise of cloud computing and web 2.0 software, I have to agree.) I work with several teachers who already have iPads in their classrooms, and the devices really can help students learn. But at $400-$830, most schools can’t afford to get iPads for every teacher, much less for every student. And even current iPad competitors, like the Motorola Xoom, are priced at around $500 – $800.

So when I heard that some brilliant computer programmers had figured out how to turn the $250 Barnes & Noble Nook Color into an Android tablet, I took notice. A couple of hours later, I had my very own Android tablet with functionality nearly identical to a first-generation iPad for only $250. This demo of a rooted Nook shows what it can do:

How It Works

You might be wondering how this can be possible. As a former science teacher, I always like to know the how and why before jumping in, so here’s the deal. (If you don’t really care and just want to know how to do it, skip to the next section, “Root Your Nook.”)

The Nook Color was created as a simple e-reader, as shown in this video:

The basic idea was that you could download hundreds of books on this little tablet and access them wherever you happened to be. Now, in order to download books, the Nook Color had to be able to connect to the internet, so it has wifi capabilities. To create a user-friendly interface, the Nook’s developers built it on an operating system very similar to the one used by Android phones and Android tablets (like the Motorola Xoom). However, they didn’t give the Nook Color the same capabilities as an Android phone or tablet — they just built up the e-reader function.

Once the Nook Color went on the market, though, some ingenious computer programmers figured out that with just a few tweaks, users could add all the features one would find on an Android tablet. All you have to do is “root” your Nook Color. “Root” is the term used for the admin user on a linux operating system, like Android. If you’ve ever tried to install programs on a work computer, you might understand what this means — the “admin” user on most computers is the only person who can make drastic changes to the operating system, like installing new programs. Well, for the Android, the “root” user is the only person with these powers.

Out of the box, the Nook Color doesn’t give its buyer this “root” access. But if you download and install a small piece of software on the Nook, you can “root” it and, thus, get administrative privileges to make all the changes you’d like.

The best part is that you don’t lose your Nook Color. You can still use it as an e-reader. But you can use it for a lot more, too.

Rooted Nook vs. Other Tablets

Just like with any major electronic purchase, you’ll probably want to make sure that a rooted Nook is the best device to meet your needs before you go out and buy one for yourself (or a few hundred for your school). So here’s a quick break-down of the differences between a rooted Nook Color and other tablets:

  • The Nook doesn’t have any built-in cameras, which I see as the largest benefit of having an iPad 2 in the classroom.
  • The Nook is smaller than other tablets, so it can easily fit in an adult-sized hand. This can be great for traveling and for kids with little hands, but it might be a con for some.
  • The Nook has a slot for SD cards, so you can add memory easily — as much as 32GB on top of the default 8GB.
  • The Nook is only available with wifi. As long as you have wireless service in range, you can get internet access. But you can’t get a 3G/4G data plan with Verizon or AT&T for your Nook (although I’m using mine with a Verizon mobile hotspot, which allows up to 5 devices to connect to the internet anywhere a phone could for $35 a month).
  • You can connect the Nook to any computer using an included USB cord, so you can transfer photos, video, and other files fairly easily.
  • The Nook comes with Bluetooth capabilities, so you can connect it to other devices. (According to this post, it also means you can make phone calls on the Nook through Skype.)
  • The Nook doesn’t have a built-in microphone, so you’d have to use a Bluetooth mic for voice recording.

Now, obviously, price is the largest benefit of using a Nook Color as a tablet. I added 16GB of memory to my Nook, using a $20 micro SD card, so I have a total of 24GB of memory. In the end, that means my $270 Nook Color falls somewhere between the $400 and $500 first-generation iPads. That might not seem like too much, but if you’re buying class sets of tablets, the savings can add up pretty quickly:

Device Price Memory Internet
Access
iPad, 1st generation $400 16GB WiFi
iPad, 1st generation $500 32GB WiFi
iPad, 1st generation $600 64GB WiFi
iPad, 1st generation $530 (+ monthly data plan) 16GB 3G
iPad, 1st generation $630 (+ monthly data plan) 32GB 3G
iPad, 1st generation $730 (+ monthly data plan) 64GB 3G
iPad 2 $500 16GB WiFi
iPad 2 $600 32GB WiFi
iPad 2 $700 64GB WiFi
iPad 2 $630 (+ monthly data plan) 16GB 3G
iPad 2 $730 (+ monthly data plan) 32GB 3G
iPad 2 $830 (+ monthly data plan) 64GB 3G
Motorola Xoom $800 ($600 with 2-year data plan) 32GB WiFi,
up to 4G
Samsung Galaxy $500 (+ monthly data plan) 16GB
(up to 32GB,
with micro SD card)
3G
Barnes & Noble Nook $250 (+ $5 to 50 for micro SD card) 8GB (up to 40GB,
with micro SD card)
WiFi

.

Root Your Nook

To download everytRoot-Nook-Colorhing and set it up the way I wanted took about 3 hours on the first run. But if I was programming a fleet of them, I’m sure I could do each one in about 30 minutes, once all the pieces were laid out. (Of course, if you’re programming a fleet and you’ve got the technical prowess, it would probably be a lot easier to create an Android image that you could install on all the devices.)

First, I had to get three pieces of hardware:

  1. a Nook Color ($250 at Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, or online)
  2. a micro SD card (cheaper online, but also available at stores like Radio Shack and Best Buy)
    Your micro SD card is what will increase your Nook’s memory from the built-in 8GB. You can get a 4GB micro SD card for as little as $5 and a 32GB card for about $50. I went with a 16GB card, which is around $20 online.
  3. a micro SD card adapter (some cards come with adapters, but stand-alone ones cost about $5)
    The micro SD card adapter allows you to plug the card into your computer so you can transfer files from your computer onto your Nook (like a flash drive), which you will have to do to root your Nook. If you have a more recent laptop, you’ll probably see an SD card slot in the side, so you’ll want a flat card-like adapter. If you don’t have an SD card slot, you’ll want to get a USB adapter.

Next, I followed all the directions listed on Jim Klein’s blog, with a few minor adjustments:

  • Jim Klein’s directions for clearing the SD card after install were a little different on my Nook. (You have to clear your SD card after the install because you can’t clear it from your computer and, if you don’t clear it, it will re-install Android every time you re-start your Nook, so you’ll lose any changes.) I had to go to settings > Device info > SD card and then click “Unmount SD card” before I could choose “Format SD card.”
  • Jim’s Soft Keys directions were a little off for my new Nook, too. To find the “Run Service” button to uncheck, you need to open Extras > Soft Keys > Tools (button next to magnifying glass) > Softkeys Service. To get from there to the “Physical Home Button” Menu, click the backwards arrow icon at the bottom of the screen (to the right of the open book icon) > Physical Home Button > Home Button.
  • Also, I’d suggest you follow Jim’s directions under “A note about the Nook Color’s built in launcher (Extras),” which explain how to install and set up the Advanced Task Killer. However, after I went through the install process, I changed the security setting back to “high.” Why? This version of Android doesn’t automatically close apps, and there’s no easy way to close most of them unless you turn off your Nook. This is how all Android devices work — the idea is that apps will stay open to easily re-boot unless more memory is needed, and then Android will automatically close them. This is nice if you want to, say, listen to a music app while you’re browsing the Internet. Still, it means you could have all your apps running at once, even when you’re not using them, which annoys some people (including me). The Task Killer allows you close any open apps. You can start up Task Killer (it’s the green android guy in the bottom left corner of your screen) and it will show you all the open apps. If your security settings are on “high,” it’ll only show you the apps, and you can just click “kill all” to close everything at once (the “low” security setting shows you everything that’s running, including operating system stuff).

Now, you should have a high-functioning rooted Nook. Woo hoo!

Make Your Nook Look Like a Tablet

After following those directions, you’ll notice that your Nook still looks and acts primarily like an e-reader. To access the Android apps and other tablet functions, you have to enter the Nook’s “extras” menu. Because I’m using my Nook primarily as an Android tablet and only secondarily as an e-reader, I wanted to change its look and feel. In other words, I wanted my Nook to look like an iPad. It turns out, it wasn’t too difficult.

After some online research, I found the solution. I made sure my Nook was connected to the Internet through my wireless. (To do this, click the center up-arrow button at the bottom of the screen. Choose Settings>Wireless.)

I opened the Market app (in the Extras) and downloaded the “Launcher Pro” and “Home Switcher” apps, which are both FREE. Then I followed the following directions, from tenny.org:

  1. On your Nook Color, go to Extras > Home Switcher
  2. Click on set default next to Launcher Pro
  3. Press the Home Button (the ‘n’) on the Nook Color and your home screen should have changed
  4. Press the menu button (it looks like an = symbol with 3 lines instead of 2) and then click Preferences
  5. Click Homescreen Settings and then change number of columns and number of rows to your liking (I went with 6×6)
  6. After you click ok to the reset Launcher Pro box that appears, click the Home Button and your new layout should appear
  7. To move apps to your new homescreen click the button and then press and hold the app until the app appears on the homescreen; drag to the desired location and then remove your hand

Once you do this, you can click the menu button on your home screen to change the wallpaper. (If you want to use a picture from your computer, you can connect your Nook to your computer with the included USB cord and drag photos into the ‘photos’ folder — these will then appear in your Nook’s gallery.)

After all this, I went to the Market and downloaded a few additional apps to try out, all of which are FREE, of course:

  • Angry Birds
  • Labyrinth Lite
  • 3D Digital Weather Clock (This is a widget, which means to get it to appear on your Android, you have to hold your finger on a blank part of your home screen and wait for a menu to appear. Then choose “Widget” and select the clock from the list.)
  • Google Sky Map
  • Google Earth
  • Dolphin HD Web Browser
  • Pulse
  • NYTimes
  • WordTwist
  • AKNotepad
  • Thinking Space (mindmap creator)
  • Study Droid (flash card creator)
  • Periodic Table

Click here for a list of other Android apps that work well on rooted Nooks.

Not Quite Perfect

With a few apps, you may notice that things don’t look quite right on the Nook — they work fine. They just don’t seem to utilize the screen space of the Nook. The reason is because the Android OS you installed is Android 2.3, which was created to be used on phones. The new Android 3.0 (known as “Honeycomb”) was recently released and is designed specifically for tablets, so the interface looks great on the Nook. You can install it on your Nook, but it takes quite a few extra steps that are fairly tech-heavy. I’m betting that a one-click install of Honeycomb, like the one for Android 2.3, will be available for the Nook in the next 6 months.

But if you’ve got the courage and the patience to try, this post will point you to this thread, which lets you install Honeycomb fairly easily. From there, the tricky part is getting the Market and Google apps to work. For that, you need to follow these programming steps.

Troubleshooting

I’ve been testing my Nook pretty hard in the week since I rooted it, and I haven’t had any problems at all. However, if you’re having issues (or want more info), there are a lot of places to turn for help. There’s a large (and growing) community of rooted Nook users out there, so Googling your problem along with the phrase “rooted Nook” will probably get you to some relevant pages. Also, the website nookDevs offers a wiki and a list of forums filled with information about the rooted Nook.

Cool… But Is It Legal?

I’ve researched the legality of rooting a Nook, and I can’t find anything saying it’s illegal. But I’m guessing if it was illegal, that would be common knowledge by now (Nook rooting became really popular just before Christmas last year). Also, in reading the licensing agreements, it appears that users can do whatever they’d like with the Nook once they purchase it. But they can’t hack into the Barnes & Noble software and mess around with the code. (Rooting a Nook doesn’t do that — it’s similar to adding an additional piece of software to your computer. You’re not changing what’s already there. You’re just adding to it.) However, rooting a Nook does void your warranty. So you probably don’t want to buy the added 2-year warranty option.

Still, if you’re planning to use rooted Nooks school-wide, it would be a good idea to have your district’s legal department okay the move.

Classroom Uses

If you’re a teacher rooting a Nook for yourself, you can still use it in the classroom pretty effectively, even if none of your students have one. Here are some ideas:

  • Use the Nook to track student progress.
    When I taught 6th grade, I made an Excel sheet that listed all of my weekly objectives as the column headings and all my students’ names as row headings. Then, I printed it out (a separate page for each class) and put it on a clipboard. I would walk around during labs taking brief notes about how students were progressing toward the standard. It was great in theory, but it was really difficult to go back to these pages and use them to inform my grading, parent meetings, or future instruction. With a tablet, though, you could create a file like this as a Google docs spreadsheet. Then, you could create a code (1 if a student exhibits the skill during lab, 2 if they show it during class discussion, 3 if they use it during a test) for quick note taking and easy data analysis. The Nook would be easy to carry around and write on briefly and, with everything stored electronically, it would be easier to analyze the data to inform your instruction or grading.
  • Use the Nook in small groups.
    When leading a reading group or speaking with a small group of students, new vocabulary often comes up. Tablets are perfect for quickly finding a photo or video to explain a new concept. With visuals and audio, students are more likely to understand and remember the content.
  • Use the Nook as a center.
    Just as you can use computers as a center that students rotate through, you can use a tablet for the same purpose. Two students can work on a tablet to complete an activity and then pass it to the next pair.
  • Use the Nook to model problem-solving.
    I once knew a science teacher whose motto was, “I don’t know, but let’s find out.” Whenever students asked him a question he couldn’t answer (and sometimes even a question he could answer), he would say, “I don’t know, but let’s find out,” and then lead the student to find the solution. A tablet can definitely help in this process. How many times have you wondered something and pulled out your smart phone to look up the answer? You can do the same with a tablet, but it’s large enough that several students can see what you’re doing at once.

Read on for ways students can use the Nook, either in centers or one-to-one.

Lesson Integration Ideas

Obviously, one of the best applications of a rooted Nook Color is that students can easily access the internet and all gaming, interactive, and web 2.0 sites available there. But Android apps also allow for further learning. And there are a TON out there. Below, I highlight just the few I’ve found in the past week. If you’ve got other suggestions, please leave a comment!

Elementary Classrooms

Grade: PreK-2
Subject: Reading
Objective: The student will be able to read grade-level appropriate text.

When young students are learning to read, it’s very important that they’re read to a lot. The Nook comes with a couple of children’s books already installed, and these stay on the Nook (in the “library” app) even after it’s rooted. Students can open these books and either read to themselves or have a recorded voice on the Nook read to them. In addition, there are tons of similar FREE and low-cost children’s books available for download through the B&N Nook app and the Kindle app.

Grade: 3-5
Subject: Writing
Objective: The student will be able to plan, draft, and write a story based on a prompt.

Have students use the FREE version of the Thinking Space app to create a mind map for a writing assignment. When they’re ready, have students draft their product on Google docs or on their student blog.

Middle School Classrooms

Grade: 5-8
Subject: Math
Objective: The student will be able to eliminate incorrect answers using logic and reasoning skills.

Have students use the FREE Sudoku app that comes with the Nook Color to practice their logic and reasoning skills. The app allows students to pencil in notes and use a “pen” when they’re certain of an answer. If they mark something that can’t possibly be correct based on the numbers already filled in, the number turns red, which can help scaffold understanding. The app also allows users to choose their difficulty level and pause play, so students can come back to the same puzzle day after day. The app times them, so they can see how long it takes them to complete a Sudoku puzzle and track their progress as their speed improves.

High School Classrooms

Grade: 9-12
Subject: Technology
Objective: The student will be able to follow programming directions in order to build an Android app.

Have students reflect on things they’ve learned in the previous year (you can focus on one class, or let them choose from any class). Tell them they will create an app to help teach one objective to students who will take the same class next year. Challenge each student to create an app that will both engage students and help them better understand the content.

Have students build apps using Google’s FREE App Inventor, which allows students to create apps for Android devices.

Even simple apps can go a long way if they’re built creatively. This is a great opportunity for students to create apps that help explain major concepts like evolution or even climate change.

Katy Scott

I spent 5 years teaching in low-income districts in Phoenix, where most of my students were English-language learners. There, I taught 3rd- and 4th-grade self-contained classes, as well as 7th-grade resource. I spent a year teaching 5th- and 6th-grade science in an inner-city KIPP school in New Orleans. I did double-duty as a technology integration specialist for the last four years of my teaching career. I am now the Digital Learning Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, where I work to help PreK-12 teachers and students utilize technology to better understand science. I'm a maker, a snorkeler, and a certified Google Education Trainer.

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2 Responses

  1. Maureen says:

    This is a great way to help teachers get ideas to get started. One way that teachers could have a budget to buy a Nook color for their classroom is to ask for gift cards from the parents. A lot of parents want to contribute to the classroom. Instead of buying things the teacher may not like or use they would probably more than happy to give a gift card from Barnes & Noble in any amount.

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